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.