Hello! This is my last blog entry, and in it I will summarize the trends and ideas I found in the books I read.
One widespread trend I noticed was that both young and adult forms of many alien species have important roles in the ecosystems, and the roles are often quite different. This is very true on Earth, and its presence in the books shows that many authors are well-versed in ecology. Dune, Grass, Speaker for the Dead, and Cycle of Fire all show this trend to some extent.
Another tendency I noticed (also present in Earthly ecosystems and again showing the environmental knowledge of modern authors) was for most, if not all, of the species mentioned to be involved in some way with each other. The interactions included in the books ran the gamut from parasitic and predatory to mutualistic, and many were described in loving detail which showed them to be as complex as Earthly interactions. Additionally, in the best cases these interactions did not remain static, but were shown as changing as conditions changed, which describes Earthly ones as well. However, in all cases, the interactions seemed to stay within the Earthly realm of possibility, which disappointed me. Perhaps I have not read enough material, but I was hoping for at least one truly weird interspecific interaction. As an added note, the earliest novels and short stories had noticeably simpler interactions, with many species almost living in a vacuum- therefore I think it’s likely that the growth of ecology as a distinct science is responsible for the change, since the early works were written before its emergence.
As for the species themselves, the books seemed to agree on one thing- carbon-based life-forms, except in the most extreme conditions, will be fairly similar in structure and mind. The only major exceptions were the weird spine-eyes of the Tenebrans in Close to Critical, which didn’t seem to match any eye design on Earth, the multi-individual minds of the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep, and the sentient trees in both Speaker for the Dead and A Fire Upon the Deep. Even the developmental patterns described did not stray far from Earthly models (for example, many of the novels included up to five developmental stages, some of which ate each other- this occurs on Earth, although I’m not sure if any animals with five stages exist). One point of difference was the presence, in two books (Cycle of Fire and Speaker for the Dead) of species which contain the DNA or spores of another species. In the latter book, the two species have merged their DNA and merely have separate developmental stages now, while in the former, spores of the other species embedded in the flesh begin to grow whenever environmental conditions change. Nothing like that is present on Earth. Another point of difference is the long “hibernation” or stasis of organisms in Helliconia Spring, in which an organism survives for a couple thousand years without nourishment. Unfortunately, the author of that novel failed to give any ideas for how such a hibernation could occur. There are also a number of novels and short stories featuring organisms with characteristics of both plants and animals- perhaps the lack of such things on Earth made it an interesting topic for the authors.
While the appearance, life history, and interactions of species are well-described in most of the books I read, there are far fewer descriptions of possible evolutionary pathways for these organisms. Some of the most fascinating species (the sentient plants, the pack-minded dogs, the necrogenes on Helliconia Spring) have no explanation or even hint as to how the author thought they might have arisen. Even the other novels mostly avoid the topic of evolution, and reading between the lines only gives the impression that the authors think evolution on other planets would work like Earthly evolution does. There isn’t even any mention of a genetic material besides DNA.
Another widespread trend in the books is to portray an ecosystem as wholly shaped by environmental conditions, and at the mercy of natural forces. Only a few of the novels show environments unlike the more pleasant Earthly climes, and all of these stress the fragility of the ecosystems. The two Hal Clement novels, as well as Helliconia Spring, show whole ecosystems being destroyed or at least affected by harsh conditions. Dune also shows this, but depicts the ecosystem as being able to recover and change the physical forces of the environment as well.
A final trend is the ability of nanotechnologically created/altered organisms to outcompete “normal” organisms and control their environment. This is evident in both Prey and Blood Music (although Blood Music is about genetic engineering rather than nanotech, the resultant cells are altered technologically by man and do outcompete the rest of the world), as well as in The Diamond Age (a novel I read but didn’t write a blog entry about due to it not being particularly useful for my project- while the nanotech creations described in it are clearly able to diffuse into the natural environment and affect it, this is a tiny thread in a 400-some page book which hardly describes ecosystems or natural implications of nanotech at all, and is set on Earth to boot). Both the latter novel as well as Prey also portray nanotech “creatures” as able to reproduce and evolve in the wild. In Prey, the devices take on the niche of an apex predator, while in The Diamond Age they merely war among themselves.
I hope you enjoyed reading this!
Hello! This is my last blog entry, and in it I will summarize the trends and ideas I found in the books I read.
This is my fifth blog entry. It will focus on two novels by Hal Clement- Close to Critical and Cycle of Fire. Both feature planets with extreme climatic conditions. The former novel takes place on a planet with several times Earthly gravity and atmospheric pressure, and 370-degree heat (close to the critical point of water, hence the title). An Earth-made robot is on the surface learning about the environment and the intelligent natives. The latter novel occurs on a planet which orbits a binary star, and because of this has cycles of hot and cool periods occuring every quarter-century or so. The life forms of the hot period grow out of the dead bodies of the cool period creatures, and vice versa. Additionally, all life can regenerate lost body parts and so is rarely fully killed until the climate changes.
Close to Critical features several harsh conditions besides the temperature and pressure. Very little light enters the atmosphere, so even midday appears as dark as Earthly midnight. To deal with this, the native fauna have eye structures that look like spines rather than Earthly eyes (which would be near-worthless in such conditions) and presumably use light in a different way. Additionally, the atmosphere and most of the surface fluids are partly sulfuric acid, so the plants and animals need to be able to withstand that. Finally, each night, the temperature difference is enough to turn water vapor in the atmosphere liquid. The resulting raindrops are gigantic (yards across) and drift any which way in the air (which itself is so near the liquid state that the drops hardly fall at all. Any creature enveloped in a drop is knocked out, so all the organisms can tolerate asphyxiation during the night by eliminating most bodily processes requiring air. As for the variety of species and their relationships, there are various plants and herbivores, as well as carnivores of various sizes. One predator is called a “floater” and drifts through the air like a jellyfish in water, killing prey with poisonous tentacles. Although the ecosystem, and especially the relationships within it, is not fully fleshed out (hardly any small animals are listed), most creatures seem to have some adaptation to the immense pressure on them- for example, most of the plants are brittle, while others just lie on the ground, but are still hard enough to avoid caving in.
In Cycle of Fire, the environmental difficulties are different. The heat changes are accompanied by an acidification of the atmosphere and liquid water in the hot phase. There are no creatures able to live in both periods, but the spores of some organisms can withstand the changes. In time, these spores were taken into the bodies of other species active in the other period, and the two species developed a symbiosis. As the changes begin, the old organisms die off and those of another species emerge from their flesh. However, these new ones already possess the spores of the “parent” species. The ecosystems present in each period conform to the general rules governing Earthly ones, and have a large number of species. However, most of these species are recently evolved from a few forms which survived the catastrophe in which the binary system was formed- the surviving forms differentiated very rapidly, while the numerous types whose spores could not cope went extinct. Thus, this novel, like the former one, present the idea that the defining characteristic of life-forms and ecosystems is the way they cope with environmental conditions.
This is my fourth blog entry. It will focus on two novels- Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein, and Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss. The first novel describes the trials of a group of students accidentally left on an alien planet during a survival test. The second is the first novel in the Helliconia trilogy and chronicles the dawn of a new age on Helliconia, which has an extremely long and unusual orbit around a binary star system. This causes it to go through periodic “winters” and “summers” every few thousand years, during which all life and civilization is overthrown and then rebuilt.
Tunnel in the Sky takes place on a very Earth-like planet. All the life-forms appear similar to Earthly ones and occupy almost identical niches. This could merely mean the author did not want to think up a whole new ecosystem, or it could mean that he wants to put forth the idea that on any Earth-like planet, evolution will take a similar course and the same structures, behaviors, and relationships will prevail. The specific ecosystems described are all various tropical forests and grasslands, with their attendant animals. One animal is notable- a small carnivore called a “dopy joe” changes once a year from an ambush hunter of small mammals (it seems like the large animals are mammalian) to an aggressive creature that forms mobs and drives other animals before it in a mad bloodlust. Unfortunately, there is no good explanation given for why they do this. The other animals counteract this by running away, which works well.
Helliconia Spring centers around the idea that all the ecosystems of a planet are dependent on its astronomical conditions, and that these define life on the planet. Additionally, rather than have an impoverished environment at each new spring or fall, organisms will find some way to outlast poor conditions, and this evasion of death also characterizes the environment. The set of species living in the “winter” (in ice age conditions) primarily consists of mosses, lichens, deer-like animals of various kinds, small animals, dog-like predators, fish, white birds, humans, and phagors. These last are intelligent white-furred bipedal carnivores with man-like hands, and goat-like legs, muzzles, and horns. Their civilization dominates the planet during the “winter”, but is overthrown and replaced by a human culture in the spring and summer. Most of the large animals of the “winter” are necrogenes- they reproduce by mating, then dying at specific times and places and allowing the maggot-like young produced by mating to eat their carcass as they grow up. Large migrations to favorable death-places take up much of the life-cycle of the necrogenes. Presumably, having such a large source of food for the young is a boon in the hard winter conditions.
In spring, the larval forms of various animals emerge from the ground, and the hard, lifeless boles of certain trees explode, hurling their seeds out into the world. The other plants emerge from tough seeds that have laid in the ground for thousands of years, and become fodder for animals like the antelope-like hoxney. The new set of large animals seems mammalian, and they live among temperate forests and grasslands. There are several creatures that live throughout the year and do not have to resort to crystalline cocoons to survive winter. One is a dragon whose wingless larva lives in tunnels deep in the earth, and the other is a stungebag, a huge worm-like animal with a hard wood-like covering and a large mouth buried under a concealed pit in the ground. Animals fall in and are eaten.
This is my third blog entry. I’ve finished my reading for the project and am now posting blog entries on all the remaining novels and short stories at once. In August, I will post a final summary entry comparing all the books I’ve read and bringing together my conclusions. This entry will focus on two very early works of sci-fi (one, in fact, is from 1912, before sci-fi as a genre had even properly emerged, and could probably be better described as an adventure thriller- however, it does take place on Mars and features alien life forms, and so is useful for this project). That novel is A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. With it, I will discuss several short stories by Stanley Weinbaum, published in the mid-1930’s, which are set on Mars and Venus.
A Princess of Mars features an Earthling who ends up on Mars (in a quite unrealistic way- a hallmark of a thriller rather than good science fiction) and comes into contact with several alien tribes and empires. While living amongst them, he discovers various multi-legged oviparous alien fauna, which subsist on the yellowish moss carpeting much of the Martian surface. There are two large herd-forming herbivores and several carnivores of various sizes. While their many legs, eyes, and facial structures are reminiscent of insects, the animals are clearly similar to Earthly analogues in behavior. Despite the detailed descriptions and the plausibility of the shapes of the animals, as a portrayal of an ecosystem the novel mostly fails. There is an extremely limited number of animal species (and no catastrophe or particularly harsh conditions to explain that) mostly feeding on only one plant species. Besides this, almost all the animals are very large- this is implausible. Finally, carnivores are apparently very common and running rampant over the countryside (from the number of times the people encounter them), despite there not being enough herbivores to sustain them. As an afterthought, although the Martians have had large canals throughout the planet for thousands of years, the ecosystem around them is identical to the surrounding countryside. This is also implausible. Making a realistic environment of Mars is clearly subordinated to other considerations in this novel (which is understandable given its age-ecological science had not yet developed by its publication).
The Weinbaum short stories have slightly more imaginative depictions of alien planets, possibly because their author had a scientific background. In the two Martian ones, “A Martian Odyssey” and “Valley of Dreams”, Mars is portrayed as a world where plant and animal never fully differentiated. Thus, all life forms are mobile, but have various plant-like features such as a root-appendage that can be placed in the ground to obtain nutrients during the night. They also reproduce by budding off from the parent like some plants (e.g., aspens) although they then detach from the parent as well. Some have nervous systems; others apparently lack them. Several species live in symbiotic relationships, and there is one known predator (an ambush hunter that lures prey by conjuring up visions for them-how it does this is unclear, and whether it can only attack certain intelligent species is even less clear). Additionally, there is a silicon-based creature which lives separately from the carbon-based life and builds little homes for itself out of its silica waste. It reproduces by releasing a gas enclosed in silica bubbles, which escapes and acts on nearby silicon in the soil to create a new silicon creature. Besides the use of silicon in all its chemical reactions instead of carbon, it seems to be similar in most fundamental respects to Earthly life and could be considered “alive”. Several other Weinbaum stories focus on Venus- “Parasite Planet”, for instance, depicts Venus as exploding with life because of the high heat and humidity (this was long before Venus’s true conditions were known) and having all of its life constantly feeding on other life-forms, even to the point of molds growing instantly on unprotected foliage or skin. In fact, living matter is so abundant “doughpots” (masses of undifferentiated cells rolling along the ground absorbing as food any life in their path) can thrive in the forests, and all the plant species catch and eat animals to supplement their diet. Both planets are shown as following the same general biological principles as Earth, with the difference being that by chance or adaptation, plants and animals are not fully separate. The ecosystems shown all contain large numbers of small prey species and plants, and are fairly realistic because of that. Weinbaum clearly considered carefully-thought-out alien life-forms one of his top priorities.