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In this short story, two astronauts are exploring an art museum on an abandoned planet. The only living things present are the flies/gnats which swarm outside the museum. They are confused by the art filling the museum, all except one painting at the bottom of the stairway, near the entrance. They puzzle and think about what turn out to be profound truths they find in the work.

As they revel in their discovery, they notice the next painting up the stairs. It suddenly appears more meaningful, in the light of having figured the first painting out. They begin to pore over the next work. Soon we see that they have grown and become more sophisticated by learning from the progression of museum pieces. They have even miniaturized their space packs and can fly about as they continue to study, learn and grow.

The story ends after the astronauts turn into flies or gnats, having progressed through all the museum and evolved completely. They no longer resemble humans, but are flies who join the swarms flying about the planet.

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    Hi, welcome to the site. In roughly which year did you read this, and when do you think it might've been published? Also, did you read it in an anthology, a magazine, or online? Jul 13 at 6:30
  • I always thought it was one of the Card stories I read in the 90s, but I’ve been through all of them again. It isn’t one.
    – Markus
    Jul 14 at 20:22

1 Answer 1

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Let me quote my (unaccepted) answer to an old question, which I think was asking about the same story:

You may be thinking of "Environment", a 1944 short story by Chester S. Geier, first published in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1944, available at the Internet Archive. Does any of these covers look familiar?

Geier's "Environment" was also the (unaccepted) answer to the questions Short story about a city that teaches humans to transcend and Men go to another planet, turn into crystal beings.

Excerpts:

The ship came with the dawn, riding down out of the sky on wings of flame, proclaiming its arrival in a voice of muted thunder. It came out of the west, dropping lower and lower, to cruise finally in great, slow circles. It moved over the city like a vast, silver-gray hunting hawk, searching for prey. There was something of eagerness in the leashed thunder of its voice.

[. . . .]

It rested now on the sward, a great, silver-gray ovoid that had a certain harsh, utilitarian beauty. There was a pause of motionlessness, then a circular lock door opened in its side. Jon Gaynor appeared in the lock and jumped to the ground. He gazed across the park to where the nearest towers of the city leaped and soared, and his gray eyes were narrowed in a frown of mystification.

"Deserted!" he whispered. "Deserted — But why?"

Jon Gaynor turned as Wade Harlan emerged from the lock. The two glanced at each other, then, in mutual perplexity, their eyes turned to the dreaming city.

[. . . .]

Instruction followed application, and in a very few days, Gaynor and Harlan moved on. Thus they went, from unit to unit, and always the wall paintings pointed out the way.

The sun rose and the sun set, and the city dreamed on. And always high in the sky, the crystal creatures circled and soared, tinkling and chiming. The days passed gently, mere wraiths of sunlight.

The machines grew larger, more intricate, ever more difficult of solution. Each was a new test upon the growing knowledge of Gaynor and Harlan. And each test was harder than the last, for the wall paintings no longer pointed out the way, but merely hinted now.

[. . . .]

The beings who once had been Gaynor and Harlan narleened the paintings on the wall of the Temple, gazed upon them with this new, all-embracing sense which went far beyond the limited realms of mere vision—so that almost the paintings spoke to them and they answered back. They narleened the paintings.

Their every question was answered—for all eternity.

And thus it came about, after a time, that two great, faceted crystals emerged from the doorway of the Temple, and lifted, pulsing with a vibrant new life, flashing in rainbow splendor, into the sky. Higher, they lifted, and higher, chiming and tinkling, soaring to join the others of their kind.

The sun shone brightly in the sky. High and far away in the blue, glittering clouds of crystal creatures darted and danced, sending wave after exquisite wave of crystalline melody upon the gentle shores of air. Among them now were two who had still to learn the intricacies of flight.

And the city dreamed on.

A perfect environment, the city. Ideal for the inquisitive humanoid.

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    By George, I think you’ve got it!
    – Markus
    Jul 14 at 20:18
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    Thanks for this! I don’t know why I thought they were flies. I must have read this as a sixth or seventh-grader, while I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club! That must be why I’m so fuzzy about it!
    – Markus
    Jul 14 at 20:26
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    I’ve wanted to be reunited with story for so long, I’m tearing-up right now. I’m a teacher, and This story has been hovering in my mind as an excellent expression of a perfect teaching model. Students are presented with stirring clues instead of answers, which intrigue them to the point of obsession and, of course, growing change.
    – Markus
    Jul 14 at 20:31
  • You're welcome!~ Glad I could help.
    – user14111
    Jul 14 at 20:45
  • Hey LD, I’ve read the whole story now, and I’m certain that you’ve found the story from my youth. I must have read it around 1980! What do I do now, to show that my question is answered, to close the case, so to speak?
    – Markus
    Jul 15 at 21:35

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