Ecosystems in Sci-Fi: Three more novels

This is my second blog entry, and it will cover the novels Blood Music, by Greg Bear, Prey, by Michael Crichton, and A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. The first two are both focused on biotechnology, while the third is unrelated in subject matter.
Blood Music tells of a scientist who, by tinkering with DNA introns, manages to create self-aware, intelligent white blood cells which he calls noocytes. He injects them into his body and they proceed to convert the rest of him into noocytes and soon turn his body into something unnatural, while saving his memories and identity. They then convert the entire population of North America and create a civilization before leaving to go into a “thought universe”. The argument for their leaving is that while they were present, too many intelligent observers were looking at the world and it was becoming too defined on the quantum level. Not having any real knowledge of physics, I have no idea if that’s actually plausible.
The plot of Prey is that nanotechnologists have created swarms of molecules with some artificial intelligence and learning capabilities. These molecules have computer programs built in allowing them to act as a group, and they are created by “assembler” molecules which are themselves manufactured by bacteria. The swarms carry their bacteria around within the swarm, and can therefore reproduce themselves. Some swarms escape into the desert and begin killing people and animals and have to be eliminated.
A Fire Upon the Deep is the story of a few humans stranded on a world (Tines) inhabited by intelligent dog-like animals which, though they live in packs, are a single organism/intelligence with several members whose minds are linked. They cannot operate well without at least four members, and can add or lose members without lasting damage to the whole. The refugee ship that landed on Tines had a weapon against a malevolent power loosed upon the galaxy, so another ship piloted by humans and Skroderiders (intelligent plant-like creatures that live in the surf and have a mobile mechanical “skrode” attached to their base that focuses their intelligence) is searching for it.
The two biotechnology novels take very different stances on the way tiny, intelligent life-forms could be created, but both agree that were they to exist, current ecosystems would be drastically changed. The end-product in Blood Music is actually not really biotechnology, although the method is, and the way an intelligence could be generated by it seems less likely than in Prey, since tiny microchips in small machines already exist. However, the assumption that any computer program could create an actual intelligence seems wrong to me unless the program was able to randomly change itself so that it might chance into becoming intelligent, and I don’t think such a capability was mentioned in Prey.
Both the swarms and the noocytes are quite different from normal life. The noocytes are clearly alive and act like most cells, except that they are intelligent. How a cell can think without a brain is never really explained (like in A Fire Upon the Deep, described below, Blood Music depicts thought and memories as separate from the physical realm), but each noocyte communicates with others via chemical signals like neurons do. The swarms do not reproduce or adapt in the usual way (needing non-living assemblers to reproduce and using only computer programs to “think”, and changing these computer programs to adapt), and appear to be able to acquire characteristics and pass them on as well, a hallmark of Lamarckian evolution rather than Darwinian (although neither really applies, since the swarms have no genetic material). Additionally, the swarms are not made up of cells and are really a symbiosis with the bacteria (which feast on the animals killed by the swarm). Thus, the swarms are not alive by most definitions. However, they act as if they were alive, and this, combined with the fact that they are an unnatural organism, may mean that for biotechnology, the definition of life should be amended to include creatures that can reproduce, acquire energy, and run a program which can work and change without human interference.
Blood Music does not really depict ecosystems, because the noocytes destroy all animal and plant life and become the only creature in their environment (which they can change when working together). Nor does it consider any way an ecosystem might combat the noocytes, such as microbes or larger predators eating them, the immune systems of animals destroying them before assimilation of the targeted animal can occur, toxins created by plants killing them, or harsh weather eradicating them before they have gained a large foothold. After all, though they can use other cells, they prefer to convert human cells and would thus be vulnerable to anything that could harm a human cell. The ecosystem in Prey, a desert one, is also unable to combat the swarms, at least on such short notice. They function like an apex predator, going after mainly medium to large animals to provide hosts for their bacteria, and nothing preys upon them. They hunt much like large terrestrial predators, as that was in their program. The implication is that a mechanical-organic mix would probably disrupt any ecosystem and would not be preyed upon.
The galactic environment of A Fire Upon the Deep is one in which intelligent life is able to manipulate other species (such as the Skroderiders), while itself subject to physical laws preventing great intelligence in certain parts of the galaxy (the reason for these laws is never properly explained). The ecosystems depicted are quite like Earth’s in most ways- the same kinds of molecules are used, the same senses exist, evolution seems to work in the same way (although the manipulation of the Skroderiders has apparently rendered them incapable of evolutionary change, this is a result of artificial tinkering rather than any kind of difference in the original organism). One notable view of the book is the separation of intelligence/consciousness from the physical realm. Besides sentient computer programs and machines, the novel includes super-intelligences that have apparently shed all physical trappings such as brains, neurons, and molecular signals (although to communicate with lower intelligences they must use a physical body). The implication is that there is a natural progression of the mind separate from the physical world, and that thought can exist outside of the body. Additionally, unlike evolution, which does not have a goal in mind, this progression is always aimed at transcendance of the physical.
As for the ecosystems of Tines, there are only a few other species mentioned outside the “dogs”- most of the smaller animals are very similar to Earthly creatures, implying that such designs work well (either that or the author just got lazy and didn’t want to make up his own animals) and could probably appear on many worlds (the specific body designs mentioned include mantises, sea slugs, and corals). However, one species, the “wolf”, is a small gerbil-size animal which lives in a nest ruled by a queen and possesses a hive mind. It seems to hunt much like army ants on Earth, and is only stoppable when the queen is killed. It can work alone far from the nest, and when with others, it can set up sonic traps to incapacitate nearby “dogs” for the kill. Because both it and the “dogs” communicate via sound, almost every prey species in the forests where they live defends itself by emitting high-pitched, confusing bursts of sound that interfere with pack thought, a defense fairly rare on Earth (and used for different things, like moths messing with bats’ echolocation). Plants on Tines seem to work similarly to Earthly ones, except that the primary pollinators are tiny mammals, so that the flowers of most species are located by the roots. Because only two distinct ecosystems are described in any detail out of the dozens mentioned offhandedly, I don’t know whether the interactions and animals listed here are typical of elsewhere on the planet, but these seem to play by the same rules as on Earth.


  1. twmilbourne says:

    Out of curiosity: is your research solely on sci-fi ecosystems in novels, or will you be analyzing other media as well? There’s a ton of crazy stuff in the various iterations of Star Trek that might prove interesting. (In particular, the Borg a hive mind similar to that of the dogs in A Fire Upon The Deep.)

    Also: this is really interesting. I look forward to more of these!

  2. William Adams says:

    How does Lamarckian evolution differ from Darwinian? I have a pretty good grasp of Darwinian evolution, but what characterizes Lamarckian evolution?

  3. Sorry for not seeing this until now, Will. Lamarckian evolution says that an organism can acquire characteristics during its lifetime, and then pass them on to its offspring. For example, if you work out every day, your kids can be buff like you, even if your parents were weaklings. In Darwinian, that can’t happen. The closest thing in our world is horizontal gene transfer in bacteria (bacteria can receive genes from other bacteria and then pass them on to offspring). For Lamarckian evolution to occur, the way genes work would have to be substantially different, but I think it could be possible in an alien world.

  4. Just in novels and short stories- doing other things would get a little out of hand, I think. I’m glad you like it. I also find it really interesting, but I’m worried that might not be coming across in my posts- they might bore most people.