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.

Ecosystems in Sci-fi: The first three novels

This, my first blog entry (which is unintentionally long), will discuss the novels Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, Grass, by Sheri Tepper, and Dune, by Frank Herbert (of which the first two were originally read in class, but were revisited for this project). First, I will give a brief introduction to the ecologically important strands of each novel.
Speaker for the Dead centers around a human colony on an alien planet, Lusitania, whose environment contains a deadly disease, the Descolada, which unwinds DNA and allows easy recombination with that of other species. The current creatures on Lusitania are thus the combinations of those original species that were able to manufacture resistance to the disease. One of the new species is an intelligent life-form the humans call “piggies”, whose interactions with the humans drive the novel.
Grass is also set on an alien world which contains a substance (found in dead “bats”) that causes a plague elsewhere. However, this world is covered with various types of grass, and populated by an assortment of creatures, one of which progresses from “peeper” (a small, rounded white thing like a large grub that hatches from an egg) to “hound” (a large animal that looks like a dog) to “hippae” (a huge horse-like creature with some telepathic powers that is essentially an adolescent form of the species) to “foxen” (the fully mature form, which is quite telepathic, and feeds on peepers). The hippae are both manipulating the human colony on Grass and spreading the plague elsewhere, and are at the same time trying to remove the need to progress into foxen.
Dune is located on a desert world which is slowly being terraformed by the human inhabitants, who export “spice” from the desert. The spice is created by one of the precursors of sandworms, the only large native animal on the planet, and the one which created the majority of the sand on Arrakis (the planet also called Dune). A variety of Earthly desert animals and plants have adapted to live on Arrakis as well.
One of the most notable elements of the ecosystems depicted in these books is the poverty of native species. On Lusitania, the Descolada has left only one bird, one “watersnake”, one worm, one fly, one grazing animal, and one forest animal, plus a type of plant which pairs with each of these, having been in such immediate proximity in the previous ecosystem that its DNA was able to join with that of the animal. All the current species are able to create the Colada proteins, which combat the Descolador. This lack of other species has forced the current creatures to modify their habits drastically, changing their diets and reproductive strategies, while still retaining evolutionary features from before (incidentally, evolution is portrayed as working similarly to that of Earth, following something like punctuated equilibrium). Grass is the planet with the largest array of species, but even it is lacking in life compared to Earth- it has, besides the hippae, only a few other described species, such as a burrower and a behemoth grazer, and while there are large numbers of grass species occupying many plant niches, there are few trees and apparently no other plants. Dune is the most impoverished of all- it has one native animal species, the sandworm and one rare tuber only mentioned in the appendix. There are several dozen Earthly plants and animals to fill various desert niches. On Dune, however, the ecosystem became this way not through any disease, but rather through the effects of climatic changes favoring one species, whose action (to make more sand) caused further climatic change to further favor that species, the sandworm. The humans, and the book itself, follow the view of ecosystems as carefully balanced systems, and thus attempt to return Dune to its previous, wetter state by turning three percent of the surface into a self-sustaining wetter habitat, which will tip the rest of the system over as well.
Consciousness (and its relation to the ecosystem) is also presented in two of the books. On Lusitania, the piggies are conscious in both plant and animal form, and the “animals” are able to speak with the “plant” form (thus excluding the possibility of simply using the trees like any other part of the ecosystem). This is an intriguing idea, since there’s no particularly good reason evolutionarily why the plants should become conscious even after joining with the piggies, since the plant has no brain. Thus, the book suggests consciousness is separate from the brain’s activities and instead is linked with the fundamental essence of a being. It’s possible the author just needed conscious plants for his purposes, and this was the best way he thought of. On Grass, both the hippae and the foxen are conscious and telepathic, and can even affect the minds of other animals on the planet and aliens (humans). Thus, although they have no way to manipulate their environment by hand (although they can use paws/hoofs to do some tasks), they can affect other species enough to bend them to their will and control their ecosystem, removing dangers. This consciousness, combined with the reproductive viability of hippae that do not become foxen, also allows the hippae to affect (“improve”) their own species by killing foxen to become the final form of the species. In turn, this affects the rest of the ecosystem in that, with peepers (the prey of foxen) safe from predation, the population of hippae can expand. It is not mentioned exactly what the diets of hounds or hippae are, or whether, if they are meat-eaters (they do have teeth like those of a carnivore), they are able to use their telepathy to more easily hunt. That seems doubtful, though, because such a thing would destroy prey populations and ultimately destroy the hippae themselves.
A third element of the ecosystems in these novels is metamorphosis. Apparently, the authors see this as one of the defining characteristics of Earthly life, since each novel features creatures that metamorphose in ways more involved than even most Earthly life. Besides the hippae, which I already described (and who protect their young as they metamorphose), the piggies begin as little grub-like things feeding on the meat of their mothers before scrambling around in a “mothertree”. Then, the little piggies become large, furred animals (in the case of males) which eat the worms living on trees (and which used to compete with the tiny grub-piggies) and carry the scarcely-matured females (except the sterile ones, which grow large like males) to the plant form of the species, where the females are fertilized by dust in the bark and carried back to the mothertree. The males, when ritually killed, sprout into the trees. Besides the huge sexual dimorphism (only males achieve the third stage of metamorphosis), the most interesting thing here is that the metamorphosis will not complete on its own, but needs help from the piggies themselves, in the way they are killed. I have no idea why this should be the case. In the case of the sandworms, the metamorphosis progresses from microscopic “sand plankton” to “little makers” (or “sandtrout”) that create the spice on which the sand plankton feed. The little makers then become fully mature sandworms, which start small but eventually grow extremely large, and wander the desert eating sand plankton. Evidently, at no time does the sandworm need oxygen or any other gas to breathe, and water is poisonous to it. However, besides this, and the obvious exception of the Descolada, there are no apparent differences in physiology between any of the three planets and most Earthly life.

Depictions of Ecosystems and Life-forms in Science Fiction (Abstract)

Science fiction often features strange alien environments teeming with creatures that cross the boundaries of Earthly life. Even those stories taking place on Earth can include unknown life-forms, such as mixtures of organic and mechanical parts. However, these unusual ecosystems and species tend to be used merely as plot devices, and are rarely examined for their own sake. This project, inspired by my Science Fiction and the Human Condition seminar, will study how various authors have portrayed ecosystems and life-forms, and compare their creations to each other and to Earthly life.

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