Dangling Conversations by Edward M. Lerner

“If I may?” It was Khaldun ibn-Saud, ambassador and crown prince of Saudi Arabia (and, Matthews suspected, another Klein ally). “All of our universities have listened to ET. When he responds, all will do so again. We shall all get the new technology.”

Another outburst from the street interrupted the discussion. Li Zhou Huang, the Chinese ambassador, narrowed his eyes. Despite its extreme understatement, the facial expression left no doubt how Li felt about the disorder. Of course, Dean remembered, his government still rationalized the Tienanmen Square massacre. Talk about cultural differences.

The physicist’s mental alarm triggered again. Putting his trust in his subconscious, he gave less than his full attention to the debate. The ambassadors were talking to each other now, rather than questioning him, anyway. Cultural differences. Cultural sensitivities.

As controversy raged, the message decoding remained unchallenged. The potential benefit of the proposed swap was uncontested. The subliminal text of Matthews’ briefing, that ET would get technology inferior to what the less prosperous countries had already mastered, seemed to have converted a few ambassadors. That was one cultural sensitivity addressed…

What was his subconscious poking at?

A steady stream of objections, orchestrated by Ambassador Smythe, pressed what seemed to be the last counterargument to a reply. Who is this ET? Why is he so secretive? What are his motives? Stripped of all pretense, the obstructionist case was simple xenophobia.

French-accented English in Dean’s earpiece presented the objections of Chad. Some combination of the female translator’s accent and the booming bass voice of Chad’s ambassador recalled the leader of the Media & Education committee. “Our role is to package and control the Lalande information,” Paul Ricard had said at the kickoff, “while respecting various cultural sensitivities.”

Dean had focused that day on the impracticality of controlling ET’s information. What about the packaging of that information? He’d sat through dispute after droning committee dispute about the optimal multicultural spinning of prospective announcements. What had he learned?

Swelling chants of, “Hey, Hey. Ho, Ho. COP-U-OS has got to go!” began again to drown out the debate. Sirens erupted. Li Zhou Huang’s eyes narrowed once more, his hostility towards the crowd’s coercion evident. Earth First had been wise to omit China from its planned disturbances.

What did ET know about Earth’s cultures? Almost certainly, nothing. Ditto for any sensitivities that knowledge of ET’s culture might arouse on Earth.

“ET hang up! ET hang up!”

Few things are as satisfying as the realization of a previously unrecognized assumption. When the outside chaos momentarily ebbed, Dean seized the floor. “The concerns now being expressed may rest on a misapprehension.”

“And what is that?” asked Ambassador Smythe icily.

“That ET is being secretive.” He spread his arms wide. “Many cultural perspectives are evident in this room. Despite that, our talk of ‘ET’ suggests we may have fallen into the error of positing a single alien culture.

“Imagine an ET conference preceding their transmission. Perhaps they too have many cultures, developed over millennia. Their national representatives argue over how to introduce themselves to their newfound neighbors: us.

“Will they present all of their cultures, or the supposed important ones, or only their cross-cultural commonalities? Will each society describe itself, or must all groups agree to every description? Will their entire history be an open book, or should embarrassing episodes be withheld? What is sent when two nations, one perhaps an ex-colony of the other, or former military adversaries, disagree about events? Will explanations be made about contradictory religions or systems of economics? How might our society, or societies, react to theirs?

“ET took more than thirty years to contact Earth after detecting humanity’s presence. We have all wondered why.” Dean slowly and deliberately made eye contact with each ambassador. “Perhaps the ETs needed that long to agree upon the one mutually acceptable description of their cultures…


When Li Zhou Huang and Alex Klein simultaneously smiled, Dean knew that he, the task force, and humanity had won.


The auditorium was packed in flagrant disregard for the fire code. More people filled the hallway. Matthews recognized task force members, COPUOS ambassadors, talking heads from the networks. People kept glancing at their watches. Twenty-one minutes to start of transmission, and counting.

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Categories: Edward Lerner