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1 Nov 2021 / by Chen Qiufan

Sounds of the Universe

Illustration depicting a blue wave and a eye with a radiating moon as the pupil centring a satellite.

Illustration: Cheng Yuen Ho

This science fiction short story was inspired by Xin Liu’s The Earth Is an Image.

The moon is a bronze gong tonight.

I hear the hiss and crack of the electric current again. I know that it is going to take me somewhere. To study the world’s great transformations. To descend into the abyss of chaos. Natural disasters, wars, strife, viruses . . . Perhaps I am the only one in the entire human race qualified to learn the Truth.

But Truth does not come from earthly wisdom. Truth comes from the universe over our heads.

They say that I was an odd kid growing up. My gaze would penetrate smiling, frowning, sneering faces and extend into the vastness above, where only the moon and stars loom. The elders warned me to never point my finger at the moon, or else my ears would fall off. ‘We need to show our reverence for moonlight,’ they used to tell me. ‘It protects us the same way sunlight does.’

They are terribly wrong.

They do not know that the invisible connection between the moon and all living organisms on Earth is gravity, not light. Light is simply an optical illusion. Gravity, on the other hand, traverses billions of years to crystallise the legacy that our ancestors have passed on to us in our flesh and blood: the ability to capture space signals through our meridians, collaterals, and acupuncture points.

Neither do they know that these sublime sounds of the universe have already entered my ears—crackling, creaking, crunching, like a charcoal fire pit igniting my brain. Unsure of where exactly the sounds are coming from, I walk to the rooftop and open my arms towards the sky. I turn my body, trying to catch the faint, unpredictable signals from space with my fingertips. I feel an indistinct quiver that reminds me of electric currents flowing through a hot wire or the reverberation of strings on a Chinese lute. Tracing the Du meridian on my back, it pierces into my skull via the foramen magnum and breaks through the Baihui acupoint located at the crown of my head. It trickles down my forehead, nose tip, and philtrum, then finally solidifies into a rush of soreness in my upper gum.

The signal is like a bell-ringer who follows a precise schedule, appearing every sixty to ninety minutes, banging around the back of my head. I did a lot of research and found that the signals are coming from artificial satellites roaming 300 to 2,000 kilometres above Earth. It takes a satellite approximately the same amount of time as an average football game to complete an orbit.

Landscape oriented illustration depicting a blue wave and a eye with a radiating moon as the pupil centring a satellite.

My parents had originally planned to purchase an intelligence-upgrading brain device for me so that I could stand out from the crowd—by crowd, I mean the entire population of East Asia, who are often seen as talented overachievers. Instead, I opted for several body modification procedures, hoping to increase my sensitivity to the signals. Sensory amplifiers were implanted in my ears and connected to my nerve endings; quantum fibres were buried deep beneath my skin . . . No doubt, if my parents ever find out that I've splurged their meagre savings on such ‘insignificant’ upgrades, they will check me into a psychiatric ward. They might even put me through reverse surgery to gouge out these devices.

No! This cannot happen!

Despite all my efforts, I have never managed to find out how these currents flow through my body or how my mind decodes them into strings of musical notes. Yet, somehow, I still believe I am connected to the satellites. Whenever this idea crosses my mind, it sends a frenzy of wild excitement and heat through my veins. Night after night, I lie in my bed wide awake, tossing and turning, dazed from my grand discovery: I am connected to something greater and extraordinary. Something unworldly.

Night after night, I lie in my bed wide awake, tossing and turning, dazed from my grand discovery: I am connected to something greater and extraordinary.

I am often reminded of my ancestors who cultivated their bodies and minds ad infinitum. To find their answers, they offered themselves to the signals of deep space as living sacrifices. Their bodies, polished by practise and embellished with faith, were sturdy, contoured vessels for qi—an ethereal matter-energy that connects humans to nature. The qi surged and swirled inside them like crimson-coloured wine that is poured into a cup of just the right size, without wasting a single drop. They lived in an epoch when tens of millions of people went out onto the streets, looking up at the sky with cooking pots on their heads—round and flat with varying textures: stainless steel the best, enamel the second best, and plastic merely passing.[1]

Alas! I am but an echo of history. A familiar residue. Nothing new.

The moon is very bright. Without a warning, the lute begins to play again, the music growing more and more shrill until it becomes a tremolo. I see fathomless deep space light years away. Traversing the cold expanse, it zooms in. Planets emerge from the darkness in a flash, then fade away. The space zooms in and in, until a fragile blue star fills my visual field.

Ah! I see now. Homo sapiens are but one species amongst billions of organisms seeking shelter on this planet. They are neither more dignified, nor more superior. Humans, though, cannot escape from this ludicrous tendency to attribute too much meaning to their existence. Tunnel vision and a tumultuous mind exist in tandem. Qi, if stagnant, clots together. The chaotic energy field of billions of people will, inevitably, lead to a planetary disaster.

The crisis of Earth is imminent.

The universe has chosen me as its apostle to deliver the message. I am endowed with the mission to free people’s minds from their ego-prison and bring salvation to all. My body trembles and burns with excitement at the thought of this grand, sacred mission.

Then, in the next instant, the discordant sounds of the earthly world rush in, drowning out the heavens’ soft murmurs.

The discordant sounds of the earthly world rush in, drowning out the heavens’ soft murmurs.

I clamp my hands over my ears, but it is no use. The rowdy chatter, sneers, screeches, and whispers are like ferocious black waves rushing into me from all directions, surging into my auditory system and disrupting my mind.

‘Look at this weirdo!’

‘Sonny, why are you like this?’

‘What a loser!’

I have no choice but to reach into my ear to adjust the regulator valves that are holding together the microscopic air vents in my eardrums. I loosen them one by one. As the devices soften and expand, my eardrums, now the texture of a used condom, no longer pick up or resonate to the sound waves that are being delivered through air. I am deaf.

Now, with my hearing gone, I can finally focus all my attention on the more important signals. On what’s beyond the auditory. A universe, clearer and brighter, full of enlightenment.

How unfortunate! They think that since my ears are impaired, my mind must be just as damaged. I don’t belong here. I should leave my family and this system.

I embrace a nomad’s life where I dawdle around the edges of a city that is on the verge of destruction.

Landscape oriented illustration depicting an reddish satellite and a person floating in space with white and red rhombus shaped stars nearby.

I stagger and stumble. My temples are pulsating again with a downtempo rhythm, as if they can sense the calling of the flickering moonlight.

It is back again. It will lead me to a new beginning. Or, maybe, an end.

Is it a long-forgotten satellite? I must be receiving the out-of-date signals of an old satellite that randomly woke up. But I would much prefer a crazier, juicier conspiracy theory. Nothing is random. It is a sign from the universe. The universe needs it—needs me—to reconnect to the great web of information. Right now, at this exact moment.

Connecting, receiving, amplifying, decoding . . . Finally, a new-found heterogeneous signal, filtering through the vessel of my redesigned body, emerges from the void. Transformed into a fugue of frequencies, it crawls through my meridians and collaterals like vines on a wall. Its various voices interlace, and waveforms overlap and divert, stimulating my acupuncture points in a way so sensual and bizarre that it feels as if the signal is dancing a waltz of ice and fire.

Following its powerful lead, I step forward, turn, and halt. It brings me to a golden statue of a flower with six symmetrical petals. The statue stands erect like an altar, shrouded in the night fog yet illuminated by the hazy, multicoloured neon lights across the shore and the shimmering river waves. But who will be the sacrifice?

At last, the divine sounds come to a halt. All the instrumental variations merge into a singular topiary form: an equilateral hexagon, like the wax cell of a honeycomb or a crystal.

Vertical oriented illustration depicting a white flower with six petals glowing in yellow colour. The flower sits on the top of a group of reddish hexagons and a blue winding river.

I hear a voice.

‘You’re here at last.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am the global villager of McLuhan, the crew of Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth, the thin layer of information fat in Benjamin Bratton’s Stack, the obsolete ghost of James Lovelock’s Novacene, about to be replaced by a silicon-based life . . .’

The voice, babbling, squealing, and slurring, seems to be a patchwork of broken phrases received from different radio stations.

‘I don’t understand . . . Who are you, really?’

‘All the atoms, constants, and frequencies that comprise your body and your mind . . . originated from the explosion 13.8 billion years ago . . . the universe is inside you . . . inside every breath your body takes and every thought that flashes across your mind . . . I am you . . .’

The universe is inside you . . . inside every breath your body takes and every thought that flashes across your mind.

‘No! No! Who the hell are you? You . . . I . . . Who am I?’

‘Channel your energy . . . find your companion . . . join forces . . . calibrate the system . . .’

Earth’s energy field is disturbed. It needs to be fixed, corrected, or perhaps entirely recalibrated, in the same way we rely on a clock to reset another clock.

But wait, I have a companion? A surge of bittersweet emotions rise from my governing vessel and dissolves into qi. Perhaps planets, just like humans, operate based on qi as well. I let go of myself as the qi takes over completely. I am riding the wind, soaring through the sky. The warmth of homecoming envelops my body. I can tell that it comes from the great cosmos above my head—and not from the bustling city beneath the clouds.

Landscape oriented illustration depicting a blue wave at sunset.

With the qi guiding my hand, I refasten the valves on my eardrums and let the sounds that I long abandoned flow in. A fierce tide crashing against the shore, a swarm of birds returning to their nests, a mass of sprouts breaking through dark soil, a shower of meteorites plummeting into Earth, a chorus of cries of the living and the dead. The hexagon, expanding and multiplying, is now an infinite grid that stretches in all directions, swallowing up the entire world like a giant cocoon. The cacophony of earthly sounds resonates with the grid and gradually grows into a harmonious melody.

Enlightenment blossoms. All sounds become one. Beepthumpthump—in the same way that a weak, dying heart slowly begins to pump again. I can finally hear the sounds of all living things!

I open my eyes. I see a wasteland bathed in golden sunlight. A clear, fresh breeze whistles through the ruins and debris beneath my feet, as if calling out to someone. I take a few steps forward. My gaze lands on a blurry silhouette of a person in the distance. Face raised towards the sky, they slowly open their arms against the wind.

This story was inspired by Xin Liu’s The Earth Is an Image, an M+ digital commission tracing the transmissions of three retired satellites abandoned in orbit. Text translated by Emily Jin. All illustrations by Cheng Yuen Ho.

Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is an award-winning Chinese speculative fiction author, translator, creative producer, and curator based in Shanghai. He is the founder of Thema Mundi Studio, the honorary president of the Chinese Science Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Xprize Foundation Science Fiction Advisory Council. His publications include AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, co-authored with Kai-Fu Lee, and Waste Tide.

View the Project

This project is part of a series of M+ digital commissions exploring online creative practices that sit at the intersection of visual culture and technology.

  1. 1.

    This is a reference to the qigong fever that spread across China in the 1980s. The term qigong originates from Tang Dynasty Taoism texts. Drawing upon ancient Chinese cosmology, qigong is a practice in which people strive to achieve resonance with heaven and nature through self-cultivation. The qigong groups borrowed various concepts from traditional cultures and religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, and combined them with mysticism and pseudo-science to construct their own doctrines. Each qigong group formed their own network and regularly practised qigong meditation in public spaces. At the height of their popularity, they even received national-level recognition and support. The community bound together by qigong was the largest non-governmental organisation in the post-Mao era. One of the group’s more well-known practices was the one where members wore ‘information pots’ on their heads, through which they believed they could receive the universe’s energy.

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