It takes a while to figure out exactly what Isaac Asimov’s ‘Does a Bee Care?’ is about—short though the story is, and simply told, you might need a couple of readings to grasp its full scope. The narrative begins with a man, or a creature that has the appearance of a man, hanging around while a spaceship is being constructed. No one pays ‘Kane’ much heed, but his presence has an effect on some people; it stimulates their minds, creating ideas that can have far-reaching consequences.
Eventually we learn that this alien entity had been deposited on earth as a sort of ovum, and that its natural process of maturing required driving a whole planet towards civilisation, so that it could find the way back to its own corner of the galaxy. Driven by instinct over thousands of years, not fully understanding why these things had to be done, Kane lit sparks in the minds of individuals like Newton and Einstein, all with the sole purpose of facilitating space exploration. “Does a bee care what has happened to a flower when the bee has done and gone its way?” is the last line of the story. The flower in this analogy is earth, which has thus been “fertilised”, and the knockout punch is that the things we are so proud of—our capacity for scientific thought, our accumulation of knowledge through centuries—are incidental by-products of the actions of this extraterrestrial ‘bee’.
If you have watched Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you may see a very fleeting resemblance in the story of the apes in the ‘Dawn of Man’ segment—where a new strain of consciousness is awakened in them by the appearance of a mysterious black monolith. That film was based loosely on an Arthur C Clarke story titled ‘The Sentinel’ (Clarke later developed it into a novel as the film was being made), and anyone who knows science fiction writing of the 1940s or ’50s will know that masters like Asimov, Clarke and Robert Heinlein often took on human hubris and punctured it. They also took special pleasure in pulling the carpet out from under ideas such as patriotism. Most of them did it gently, though, and with humour.
I was thinking about this again with all the talk there has been in India about nation-love, and about showy ways of demonstrating it. Of course, we don’t have a premium on this sort of thing. Consider this quote about NASA’s Pluto mission last year, which came from a White House representative: “I’m delighted at this latest accomplishment, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space.” It’s particularly amusing to see patriotism take a front seat in such a context. Here we are talking about a journey through millions of miles, a vastness that makes any distance between two countries on Earth look insignificant by comparison. Yet we can be parochial even about such achievements!
In Clarke’s story ‘Refugee’, a character reflects how odd it is that shrill nationalism had managed to survive into the space age—a time when the astronaut’s-eye view should have made the artificial geographical divides on our tiny planet appear ridiculous and irrelevant. Others have expressed this thought in different ways. As Carl Sagan put it, Earth when viewed from a long way off is just a pale blue dot, incredibly fragile-looking; the sight should humble us, make us feel protective of the little rock we inhabit, and forget about the many divides we have created over the centuries.