“The Infinites” is a story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Planet Stories in May 1953. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 131–148.
A survey team on board the cruiser X-43y, arrives at an asteroid, piquing the worries of the commanders. Major Crispin Eller and his second, Harrison Blake, notice that the asteroid has ideal conditions for life but no signs of life. These surveys are an important part of the competition n between Terra and the Jupiter Triumvirate and the more successful the crew is in mapping asteroids and planet, the larger their prize when they return to Terra. Under the prevailing theory, life should arise on any location with ideal conditions because of the universality of drifting bacteria particles. Blake wants to complete the mission and Eller, concerned about safety, would like to ignore it. They decide to send out hamsters.
Silvia Simmons, a scientist, prepares the hamsters. Blake lectures Eller claiming that he has ten years more experience in space than his superior. Silvia announces that the hamsters have apparently died, just before a blast of light renders the crew unconscious.
After two days, the crew wakes up and conclude that some sort of radiation burst from the asteroid was accountable. Black agrees that landing was a bad idea and the crew makes plans to return home in hopes that treatment for whatever happened to them is possible. They also decide the asteroid has no life due to the radioactive blasts. In any case, the crew is eager to return home.
The crew begins to experience physiological consequences of the blast, losing finger nails and hair, becoming diminutive, and atrophying facial features. While their brains seem intact, the crew worries that they will not be able to return to Terra as anything but monsters. While the changes continue, Blake is the first to notice that some of the changes are improvements. Later studies show that their brains have enlarged, suggesting that the radiation is not killing them but accelerating their evolution. This is only possible if evolution is teleological.
Silvia and Eller come to terms with the changes but realize a problem. If they return to Terra millions of years more evolved than the others, the temptation to dominate the planet and guide human’s development will be unstoppable. Troubling as well is that Blake was struck earlier by the radiation, meaning he is himself more advanced than his crewmates. Blake will have the power to dominate the ship and its crew. He expresses his desire to return to Terra and lead Terrans to galactic domination. A struggle between the three is aborted by the arrival of five energy beings. They disintegrate Blake. These were originally the hamsters from the lab, who were originally struck with the radiation wave. They are themselves millions of years more advanced than the crew members. The entities reverse the evolution in the crew and allow them to return to Earth.
The idea of teleological evolution is the core idea of this story and is interesting only as a literary device, a shout out to anti-Darwinian theories of evolution, or a foreshadowing of “intelligent design” arguments. There is no reason to believe post-humans will be more advanced or intelligent than humans. Dick is often quite reckless with science and technology, applying those ideas that are most useful to him. However, this unfortunate blight should not distract us from what is actually an interesting story about the danger of extraterrestrial exploration, alien encounters, and hierarchy in general.
Early in the story, Black scolds Eller for impertinence. “Listen, Eller. I’m ten years older than you. I was serving when you were just a kid. You’re still a pasty-faced squirt as far as I’m concerned.” (132) This is the attitude Blake takes at the climax of the story. For a wonderful moment he becomes the perfect model of a super villain. “We can do a lot for them. Their science will change in our hands. They will change, altered by us. We’ll remake Terra, make her strong. The Triumvirate will be helpless before the new Terra, the Terra that we will build. The three of us will transform the race, make it rise, burst across the entire galaxy.” (144) In turn, Blake’s pretensions are cut short by a superior elder, the lab hamsters. Perhaps this is an interesting reflection on the Biblical sentiment that the first shall be last, but in fact they internalize the same values. They are older and “more advanced” and therefore the fiat dictators. The same domination a parent imposes on their children is expressed by these creatures.
Of course, if this sentiment is universal (I am not sure it is), it makes interplanetary exploration dangerous for two reasons. One, humans may assume that aliens are more advanced and should be followed. (Babylon 5 played with this idea quite a lot.) Two, aliens may indeed see themselves as guides to our future and justify benevolent dictatorship. (Well, come to think of it the critique of this is the main point of Babylon 5.) Perhaps it is the so-called “more evolved” beings that are the impertinent and pretentious ones. Anyone who has observed the creativity of children should agree.
A few points on the geopolitical situation. Dick often places his stories in the middle of a war or conflict between Earth and some external power. This is sometimes Proxima Centuari, sometimes the Moon (Time Out of Joint), and sometimes the outer planets. Setting aside the war with true aliens from Proxima, it seems Dick believes that frontier humans, settling the moon or outer planets, will develop a distinct culture and social structure, inevitably leading to conflicts with Earth. This suggests something about Dick’s ideas about the frontier. I develop this idea more in my forthcoming book.
New Age silliness on humans as energy beings. (Note: I looked for scientists commenting on the possibility but could not find anything. It seems to be only a science-fiction device and a New Age fantasy. If anyone knows of scientific speculation on energy beings let me know. It would seem to break the Second Law of Thermodynamics.)