Now we are really sailing off into terra incognito. "Here be dragons" and all that. But if you have starships, you almost have to have aliens (Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy being the most notable exception). The "science" is called Astrobiology, the famous "science in search of a subject". Unfortunately it only offers vague generalities. You can keep up on the latest news, but for now if you want aliens, you are going to have to create them yourself.

Suggested reading includes The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction's entry on "Aliens", Steve Colgan's Worlds of Possibility blog, Life Everywhere by David Darling, The Science of Aliens by Clifford Pickover and Aliens and Alien Societies by Stanley Schmidt.


[first use unknown]

Sometimes contrasted with `sentient' because even low animals can feel. `sapient' is usually an adjective, `sophont' usually a noun.


[first use unknown, but goes back at least to 1940s]

General SF term for an extraterrestrial or alien possessing human-level intelligence (see sophont).

Etymologically, and in mainstream English the word means "feeling" but is rare and now archaic.


[From Poul Anderson's `Polesotechnic League' stories, going back at least to 1963]

An evolved biological intelligence. Implies human-level cognitive and linguistic ability but not necessarily tool use. More specific and etymologically correct than sentient. Still less common than that term, but has been used by multiple writers.

From AN SF GLOSSARY by Eric S. Raymond (2006)

sapient, adjective \ˈsā-pē-ənt, ˈsa-\

Possessing or expressing great sagacity

sentient, adjective \ˈsen(t)-sh(ē-)ənt, ˈsen-tē-ənt\

Able to feel, see, hear, smell, or taste. Responsive to or conscious of sense impressions. Aware

ALIENS. Intelligent races who are not EARTH HUMANS. The term as such is never used for non-intelligent species, however unearthly, though in TECHJARGON these may be called Alien Life Forms. Nor is it used for Earth Humans who must register with the immigration service. In general, Aliens fall into two distinct groups, REALLY ALIENS and ALIENS WITH FOREHEAD RIDGES.

HIVE ENTITIES, Giant Insectoids (who may also be Hive Entities), and Blobs of Protoplasm. The occasional intelligent bear or radish may also appear, or practically anything else. Except for the Energy Beings, most seem to be hydrocarbon life forms, but methane breathers who thrive at -200 C will sometimes turn up.

What they all have in common is that they are Really Alien. Exosemanticists have their work cut out understanding them, and exopsychologists in figuring out what they're all about. Relations between humans and Really Aliens are necessarily limited, since we have so little in common with them. Only rarely will anybody get to know one on a personal level. TRADE with them is sporadic, and even WARFARE seems less frequent than it used to be in the GOLDEN AGE. This is partly because it is not clear what we would fight them over, and partly because they may have an alarmingly high TECHLEVEL, making war with them a dangerously one-sided proposition. Dangerous at least for us. See COSMIC BACKGROUND HISTORY.

HOLLYWOOD SCIFI - than Really Aliens, these are species that look almost exactly like Earth Humans, except for some distinguishing visible feature such as, well, forehead ridges, or odd-shaped ears, or whatever. Sometimes they look rather less like humans, in which case (if friendly) they often resemble large teddy bears.

Not only do Aliens with Forehead Ridges mostly look like Earth Humans, they tend to act like Earth Humans as well, or at least one particular (real or speculative) Earth Human culture. A particular race of Aliens with Forehead Ridges may all have a culture like that of medieval Japan, or one based entirely on music, but you will very rarely find more than one culture per species. (The Vulcans and Romulans of Trek fame are a rare exception.)

Because of the similarity (or at least comprehensibility) of cultures, Earth Humans can have far more complex and intimate relations with Aliens with Forehead Ridges than with Really Aliens. We can not only communicate, Trade, and fight, but form joint business ventures, cheat each other at cards, and even fall in love.

Indeed, Aliens with Forehead Ridges raise a profound question in evolutionary biology. Convergent evolution might well produce a generally humanoid body plan, just as sharks and dolphins have a similar overall configuration. But Aliens with Forehead Ridges have much more than a general similarity to Earth Humans. They have the same secondary sex traits - as species-specific as you can get. Only their males have much facial hair, and their females often have bodacious figures. Often, indeed, they are INTERBREEDABLE species. This leads to some speculation that they may be of Earth Human descent. (Or else Earth Humans are descended from them, though this raises troublesome questions about chimpanzees.)

Perhaps because of these awkward issues, Aliens with Forehead Ridges have become much less common in written SF (save for media tie-ins) than they were some decades ago. In written SF, the KNOWN GALAXY seems increasingly to be inhabited only by Earth Humans. However, Aliens with Forehead Ridges continue to thrive in Hollywood Scifi. This is for an obvious reason: the audience wants aliens of some sort, and Aliens with Forehead Ridges are the only kind that can be played by members of the Screen Actors' Guild.

Solar System Ecology

Hi, I'm Winchell Chung (nyrath) from SFConSim-l
Dr. Fulton, I know you are very busy. But if you ever have the time or the inclination, somebody asked me a question I am not qualified to answer.

--- question starts ---
Do you know of any word that represents all life forms that originate from a single solar system?
"Sol-system life" is all I've come up with to describe terrestrial lifeforms alongside whatever alien bacteria we might discover on nearby planets.
--- question ends ---

"Stellar Ecology" is the best I could come up with.
Thank you.
Winchell Chung

G'day Nyrath,

I don't think there is a term as yet.

Stellar ecology is about star formation so that one is out unfortunately. Thinking on semi-relevant terms (all of which you probably already know): Xenobiology gets used on the looking outwards side so xenoecology could be used in the same sense. Astrobiology is all life everywhere, astroecology can be similar or can be just the focused consideration of the interaction of microorganisms and space (e.g. for asteroid transport). The biosphere deals with living matter on one planet and systems ecology deals with the how that life is structured and functions.

So thinking about how these words grow from the greek roots you'd want to combine the habitat (eco) root with something that gets across the solar system (or more generically planetary system) idea. Now system would be the most obvious stem, but sphere (as in biosphere, anthroposphere etc) actually sits better so to speak.

So a few options are:


Dr. Beth Fulton

From email correspondence between Dr. Fulton and I (2013)

Alien Biology

What Is Life?


One of the first ways in which we learn to classify objects is into two groups: 1. living and 2. nonliving.

In casual encounters with the material universe, we rarely feel any difficulty here, since we usually deal with things that are clearly alive, such as a dog or a rattlesnake; or with things that are clearly nonalive, such as a brick or a typewriter.

Nevertheless, the task of defining "life" is both difficult and subtle; something that at once becomes evident if we stop to think.

Consider a caterpillar crawling over a rock. The caterpillar is alive, but the rock is not; as you guess at once, since the caterpillar is moving and the rock is not. Yet what if the caterpillar were crawling over the trunk of a tree? The trunk isn't moving, yet it is as alive as the caterpillar. Or what if a drop of water were trickling down the trunk of the tree? The water in motion would not be alive, but the motionless tree trunk would be.

It would be expecting much of anyone to guess that an oyster were alive if he came across one (for the first time) with a closed shell. Could a glance at a clump of trees in midwinter, when all are standing leafless, easily distinguish those which are alive and will bear leaves in the spring from those which are dead and will not? Is it easy to tell a live seed from a dead seed, or either from a grain of sand?

For that matter, is it always easy to tell whether a man is merely unconscious or quite dead? Modern medical advances are making it a matter of importance to decide the moment of actual death, and that is not always easy.

Nevertheless, what we call "life" is sufficiently important to warrant an attempt at a definition. We can begin by listing some of the things that living things can do, and nonliving things cannot do, and see if we end up with a satisfactory distinction for this particular twofold division of the Universe.

1. A living thing shows the capacity for independent motion against a force. A drop of water trickles downward, but only because gravity is pulling at it; it isn't moving "of its own accord." A caterpillar, however, can crawl upward against the pull of gravity.

Living things that seem to be motionless overall, nevertheless move in part. An oyster may lie attached to its rock all its adult life, but it can open and close its shell. Furthermore, it sucks water into its organs and strains out food, so that there are parts of itself that move constantly. Plants, too, can move, turning their leaves to the sun, for instance; and there are continuous movements in the substance making it up.

2. A living thing can sense and it can respond adaptively. That is, it can become aware, somehow, of some alteration in its environment, and will then produce an alteration in itself that will allow it to continue to live as comfortably as possible. To give a simple example, you may see a rock coming toward you and will quickly duck to avoid a collision of the rock with your head. Analogously, plants can sense the presence of light and water and can respond by extending roots toward the water and stems toward the light. Even very primitive life forms, too small to see with the unaided eye, can sense the presence of food or of danger; and can respond in such a way as to increase their chances of meeting the first and of avoiding the second. (The response may not be a successful one; you may not duck quickly enough to avoid the rock—but it is the attempt that counts.)

3. A living thing metabolizes. By this we mean that it can eventually convert material from its environment into its own substance. The material may not be fit for use to begin with, so it must be broken apart, moistened, or otherwise treated. It may have to be subjected to chemical change so that large and complex chemical units (molecules) are converted into smaller, simpler ones. The simple molecules are then absorbed into the living structure; some are broken down in a process that liberates energy; the rest are built up into the complex com­ ponents of the structure. Anything which is left over, or not usable, is then eliminated. The different phases of this process are sometimes given separate names: ingestion, digestion, absorption, assimilation, and excretion.

4. A living thing grows. As a result of the metabolic process, it can convert more and more of its environment into itself, becoming larger as a result.

5. A living thing reproduces. It can, by a variety of methods, produce new living things like itself.

Any object which possesses all these abilities would seem to be clearly alive; and any object which possesses none of them is clearly nonalive. Yet the situation is not at all clear-cut.

An adult human being no longer grows and many individuals never have children, but we still consider them alive even though they no longer grow and do not reproduce. Well, growth takes place at some time in life and the capacity for reproduction is potentially there.

A moth senses a flame and responds, but not adaptively; it flies into the flame and dies. Ah, but the response is ordinarily adaptive, for it is toward the light. The open flame is an exceptional condition.

A seed does not move, or seem to sense and respond—yet give it the proper conditions and it will suddenly begin to grow. The germ of life is there, even though dormant.

On the other hand, crystals in solution grow, and new crystals form. A thermostat in a house senses temperature and responds adaptively by preventing that temperature from rising too high or falling too low.

Then there is fire, which may be considered as eating its fuel, breaking it down to simpler substances, converting it into its own flaming structure, and eliminating the ash which it can't use. The flame moves constantly and, as we know, it can easily grow and reproduce itself, sometimes with catastrophic results.

Yet none of these things are alive.

We must therefore look at the properties of life more deeply, and the key lies in something stated earlier: that a drop of water can only trickle downward in response to gravity, while a caterpillar can move upward against gravity.

There are two types of changes: one which involves an increase in a property called entropy by physicists, and one which involves a decrease in that property. Changes that increase entropy take place spontaneously; that is, they will "just happen by themselves." Examples are the downhill movement of a rock, the explosion of a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to form water, the uncoiling of a spring, the rusting of iron.

Changes that decrease entropy do not take place spontaneously. They will occur only through the influx of energy from some source. Thus, a rock can be pushed uphill; water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen again by an electric current; a spring can be tightened by muscular action, and iron rust can be smelted back to iron, given sufficient heat. (The entropy decrease is more than balanced by the entropy increase in the energy source, but that is beside the point here.)

In general, we are usually safe in supposing that any change which is produced against a resisting force, or any change that alters something relatively simple to something relatively complex, or that alters something relatively disorderly to something relatively orderly, decreases entropy, and that none of these changes will take place spontaneously.

Yet the actions most characteristic of living things tend to involve a decrease in entropy. Living motion is very often against the pull of gravity and of other resisting forces. Metabolism, on the whole, tends to build complex molecules out of simple ones.

This is all done at the expense of energy drawn from the food or, ultimately, from sunlight, and the total entropy change in the system including food or the sun is an increase. Nevertheless, the local change, involving the living creature directly, is an entropy decrease.

Crystal growth, on the other hand, is a purely spontaneous effect, involving entropy increase. It is no more a sign of life than is the motion of water trickling down a tree trunk. Similarly, all the chemical and physical changes in a fire involve entropy increase.

We become safer, then, if we define life as the property displayed by those objects which can—either actually or potentially, either in whole or in part—move, sense, and respond, metabolize, grow, and reproduce in such a way as to decrease its entropy store.

Since one sign of decreasing entropy is increasing organization (that is, an increasing number of component parts interrelated in increasingly complex fashion), it is not surprising that living objects generally are more highly organized than their nonliving surroundings. The substance making up even the most primitive life form is far more variegated and complexly interrelated than the substance making up even the most complicated mineral.

What about life forms radically different from ours, based on altogether different kinds of chemistry, living in completely hostile (to us) environments? Could there conceivably be a silicon-based life, in place of our own carbon-based one, on a hot planet like Mercury? Could there be an ammonia-based life, in place of our own water-based one, on a cold planet like Jupiter?

We can only speculate. There is absolutely no way to tell at present.

We can wonder, though, whether human astronauts, ex­ploring a completely alien planet, would be sure of recog­nizing life if they found it. What if the structure were so dif­ferent, the properties so bizarre, that they would fail to realize they were facing something sufficiently complex and organized to be called living?

For that matter, we may be facing such a necessary broadening of the definition right here on Earth in the near future. For some time now, men have been building machines that can more and more closely imitate the action of living things. These include not merely objects that can imitate physical manipulations (as when electric eyes see us coming and open a door for us) but also objects that can imitate men's mental activities. We have computers that do more than merely compute; they translate Russian, play chess, and compose music.

Will there come a point when machines will be complex enough and flexible enough to reproduce the properties of life so extensively that it will become necessary to wonder if they are alive?

If so, we will have to bow to the facts. We will have to ignore cells and DNA and ask only: What can this thing do? And if it can play the role of life, we will have to call it living.

From LIFE AND TIME by Isaac Asimov (1979)

The Creation Of Imaginary Beings has been moved here.

Building Blocks

Wikipedia has a nice article on Hypothetical types of biochemistry

In a science essay "Not As We Know It", Isaac Asimov notes that life on Terra is based on proteins dissolved in water solvent. He points out some other possibilities. Note that the "temperature" column has the information needed to set the borders of a solar system's circumstellar habitable zone for that particular biochemistry. Temperatures assume the planet has about 1 atmosphere worth of pressure.

Macromolecule in
at 1 Atm
Fluorosilicones in Fluorosilicones 400°? to
500°? C
Silanes (chains of silicon atoms) are too unstable. Silicones (chains alternating silicon and oxygen atoms) are more suitable for making "silicon life" protein analogues.

James Cambias notes that such life will consume carbon dioxide (and other carbon compounds) out of the air, combining it with silicon to create complex silicone compounds. Oxygen will be released but that will immediately combine with silicon to make silicon dioxide sand. The atmosphere will become depeleted in carbon dioxide. This might cool the planet off enough that fluorocarbon-sulfur life will take over the planet.
Fluorocarbons in Molten Sulfur113° to
445° C
Earth proteins are too unstable at liquid sulfur temperatures. They can be stabilized by substituting fluorine atoms for hydrogen atoms, resulting in complex fluorocarbons.

James Cambias notes that such life forms will probably evolve in an atmosphere poor in oxygen but rich in fluorine. However, such life will create atmospheres with oxygen as they release oxygen from carbon dioxide+sulfur dioxide as their metabolism creates complex fluorocarbon molecules. There actually might be enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breath (but the temperature would kill them).
Proteins in Water0° to
100° C
Because water is hydrogenated oxygen, the proteins will have to have more oxygen than nitrogen in their make up. This is "life as we know it." Pretty much all life on Terra falls under this catagory.

James Cambias notes that such life will consume carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and release oxygen, thus converting the planet's primordial atmosphere into a biologic oxygen containing atmosphere.
Proteins in Liquid Ammonia-77.7° C to
-33.4° C
Because ammonia is hydrogenated nitrogen, the proteins will have more nitrogen than oxygen in their make up. Earth proteins are too stable at liquid ammonia temperatures, ammonia life proteins will have to be more unstable than their Earth analogues.

James Cambias notes that such life forms will probably require a planet with a methane-ammonia atmosphere. As with protein-water life, it will consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. However, the oxygen will react with methane to produce carbon dioxide and water. The water will immediately freeze out of the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide will be consumed. Thus the atmosphere will gradually lose all its methane and become much lower in pressure.
Lipids in Liquid Methane-183.6° C to
-161.6° C
Polar liquids will not dissolve non-polar substances and vice versa (oil and water don't mix). Proteins are polar, so they won't dissolve in liquid methane. Complex protein-like polylipids will have to be used instead.

James Cambias notes that such life forms will probably require a planet with a methane-hydrogen atmosphere. As with protein-water life, it will consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. However, the oxygen will react with methane to produce carbon dioxide and water while the oxygen will react with hydrogen to produce more water. The water will immediately freeze out of the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide will be consumed. Thus the atmosphere will gradually lose all its methane and hydrogen thus becoming much lower in pressure.
Lipids in Liquid Hydrogen-253° C to
-240° C
Liquid hydrogen is also non-polar, so polylipids will be needed.

James Cambias notes that the temperature will be much higher in the immense pressures of a gas giant world.

Life on Terra is based on Carbon, since carbon can join with not one, not two, not even three, but a whopping four other atoms. This allows the construction of complex molecules like proteins and DNA, a requirement for living creatures. The only other element that can do this is Silicon.

Other chemical elements that are not impossible as the basis for alien life forms include ammonia, boron, nitrogen, and phosphorus. There are even more extreme possibilities.

There are several possibilities for the composition of alien blood.

An example of electronic life is the superconducting mentality in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's "Crusade".

One of the odder aliens is the Qax from Stephen Baxter's Timelike Infinity. Their "bodies" are organized clusters of millions of tiny whirlpools in still ponds. Another odd one was the Monolith Monsters. They were not invading aliens so much as an extraterrestrial chemical reaction. Instant monster: just add water.


      So we must strike beyond physiology and reach into chemistry, saying that all life is made up of a directing set of nucleic acid molecules which controls chemical reactions through the agency of proteins working in a watery medium.
      There is more, almost infinitely more, to the details of life, but I am trying to strip it to a basic minimum. For life-as-we-know-it, water is the indispensable background against which the drama is played out, and nucleic acids and proteins are the featured players.
      Hence any scientist, in evaluating the life possibilities on any particular world, instantly dismisses said world if it lacks water; or if it possesses water outside the liquid range, in the form of ice only or of steam only.
      (You might wonder, by the way, why I don't include oxygen as a basic essential. I don't because it isn't. To be sure, it is the substance most characteristically involved in the mechanics by which most life forms evolve energy, but it is not invariably involved. There are tissues in our body that can live temporarily in the absence of molecular oxygen, and there are microorganisms that can live indefinitely in the absence of oxygen. Life on earth almost certainly developed in an oxygen-free atmosphere, and even today there are microorganisms that can live only in the absence of oxygen. No known life form on earth, however, can live in the complete absence of water, or fails to contain both protein and nucleic acid.)
      In order to discuss life-not-as-we-know-it, let's change either the background or the feature players. Background first!

      Water is an amazing substance with a whole set of unusual properties which are ideal for life-as-we-know-it. So well fitted for life is it, in fact, that some people have seen in the nature of water a sure sign of Divine providence. This, however, is a false argument, since life has evolved to fit the watery medium in which it developed. Life fits water, rather than the reverse.
      Can we imagine life evolving to fit some other liquid, then, one perhaps not too different from water? The obvious candidate is ammonia.
      Ammonia is very like water in almost all ways. Whereas the water molecule is made up of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms (H2O) for an atomic weight of 18, the ammonia molecule is made up of a nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms (NH3) for an atomic weight of 17. Liquid ammonia has almost as high a heat of evaporation, almost as high a versatility as a solvent, almost as high a tendency to liberate a hydrogen ion.
      In fact, chemists have studied reactions proceeding in liquid ammonia and have found them to be quite analogous to those proceeding in water, so that an "Ammonia chemistry" has been worked out in considerable detail.
      Ammonia as a background to life is therefore quite conceivable — but not on earth. The temperatures on earth are such that ammonia exists as a gas. Its boiling point at atmospheric pressure is -33.4° C. (-28° F.) and its freezing point is -77.7° C. (-108° F.).
      But other planets?
      In 1931, the spectroscope revealed that the atmosphere of Jupiter, and, to a lesser extent, of Saturn, was loaded with ammonia. The notion arose at once of Jupiter being covered by huge ammonia oceans.
      To be sure, Jupiter may have a temperature not higher than -100° C. (-148° F.), so that you might suppose the mass of ammonia upon it to exist as a solid, with atmospheric vapor in equilibrium. Too bad. If Jupiter were closer to the sun ...
      But wait! The boiling point I have given for ammonia is at atmospheric pressure — earth's atmosphere. At higher pressures, the boiling point would rise, and if Jupiter's atmosphere is dense enough and deep enough, ammonia oceans might be possible after all.
      An objection that might, however, be raised against the whole concept of an ammonia background for life, rests on the fact that living organisms are made up of unstable compounds that react quickly, subtly and variously. The proteins that are so characteristic of life-as-we-know-it must consequently be on the edge of instability. A slight rise in temperature and they break down.
      A drop in temperature, on the other hand, might make protein molecules too stable. At temperatures near the freezing point of water, many forms of non-warm-blooded life become sluggish indeed. In an ammonia environment with temperatures that are a hundred or so Centigrade degrees lower than the freezing point of water, would not chemical reactions become too slow to support life?
      The answer is twofold. In the first place, why is "slow" to be considered "too slow?" Why might there not be forms of life that live at slow motion compared to ourselves? Plants do.
      A second and less trivial answer is that the protein structure of developing life adapted itself to the temperature by which it was surrounded. Had it adapted itself over the space of a billion years to liquid ammonia temperatures, protein structures might have been evolved that would be far too unstable to exist for more than a few minutes at liquid water temperatures, but are just stable enough to exist conveniently at liquid ammonia temperatures. These new forms would be just stable enough and unstable enough at low temperatures to support fast-moving forms of life.
      Nor need we be concerned over the fact that we can't imagine what those structures might be. Suppose we were creatures who lived constantly at a temperature of a dull red heat (naturally with a chemistry fundamentally different from that we now have). Could we under those circumstances know anything about earth-type proteins? Could we refrigerate vessels to a mere 25° C., form proteins and study them? Would we ever dream of doing so, unless we first discovered life forms utilizing them?

      Anything else besides ammonia now?
      Well, the truly common elements of the universe are hydrogen, helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and neon. We eliminate helium and neon because they are completely inert and take part in no reactions. In the presence of a vast preponderance of hydrogen throughout the universe, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen would exist as hydrogenated compounds. In the case of oxygen, that would be water (H2O), and in the case of nitrogen, that would be ammonia (NH3). Both of these have been considered. That leaves carbon, which, when hydrogenated, forms methane (CH4).There is methane in the atmosphere of Jupiter and Saturn, along with ammonia; and, in the still more distant planets of Uranus and Neptune, methane is predominant, as ammonia is frozen out. This is because methane is liquid over a temperature range still lower than that of ammonia. It boils at -161.6° C. (-259° F.) and freezes at -182.6° C. (-297° F.) at atmospheric pressure.
      Could we then consider methane as a possible background to life with the feature players being still more unstable forms of protein? Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
      Ammonia and water are both polar compounds; that is, the electric charges in their molecules are unsymmetrically distributed. The electric charges in the methane molecule are symmetrically distributed, on the other hand, so it is a non-polar compound.
      Now, it so happens that a polar liquid will tend to dissolve polar substances but not nonpolar substances, while a nonpolar liquid will tend to dissolve nonpolar substances but not polar ones.
      Thus water, which is polar, will dissolve salt and sugar, which are also polar, but will not dissolve fats or oils (lumped together as "lipids" by chemists), which are nonpolar. Hence the proverbial expression, "Oil and water do not mix."
      On the other hand, methane, a nonpolar compound, will dissolve lipids but will not dissolve salt or sugar. Proteins and nucleic acids are polar compounds and will not dissolve in methane. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of any structure that would jibe with our notions of what a protein or nucleic acid ought to be that would dissolve in methane.
      If we are to consider methane, then, as a background for life, we must change the feature players.

      To do so, let's take a look at protein and nucleic acid and ask ourselves what it is about them that makes them essential for life.
      Well, for one thing, they are giant molecules, capable of almost infinite variety in structure and therefore potentially possessed of the versatility required as the basis of an almost infinitely varying life.
      Is there no other form of molecule that can be as large and complex as proteins and nucleic acids and that can be nonpolar, hence soluble in methane, as well? The most common nonpolar compounds associated with life are the lipids, so we might ask if it is possible for there to exist lipids of giant molecular size.
      Such giant lipid molecules are not only possible; they actually exist. Brain tissue, in particular, contains giant lipid molecules of complex structure (and of unknown function). There are large "lipoproteins" and "proteolipids" here and there which are made up of both lipid portions and protein portions combined in a single large molecule. Man is but scratching the surface of lipid chemistry; the potentialities of the nonpolar molecule are greater than we have, until recent decades, realized.
      Remember, too, that the biochemical evolution of earth's life has centered about the polar medium of water. Had life developed in a nonpolar medium, such as that of methane, the same evolutionary forces might have endlessly proliferated lipid molecules into complex and delicately unstable forms that might then perform the functions we ordinarily associate with proteins and nucleic acids.
      Working still further down on the temperature scale, we encounter the only common substances with a liquid range at temperatures below that of liquid methane. These are hydrogen, helium, and neon. Again, eliminating helium and neon, we are left with hydrogen, the most common substance of all. (Some astronomers think that Jupiter may be four-fifths hydrogen, with the rest mostly helium — in which case good-by ammonia oceans after all.)
      Hydrogen is liquid between temperatures of -253° C. (-423° F.) and -259° C. (-434° F.), and no amount of pressure will raise its boiling point higher than -240° C. (-400° F.). This range is only twenty to thirty Centigrade degrees over absolute zero, so that hydrogen forms a conceivable background for the coldest level of life. Hydrogen is nonpolar, and again it would be some sort of lipid that would represent the featured player.

      So far the entire discussion has turned on planets colder than the earth. What about planets warmer?
      To begin with, we must recognize that there is a sharp chemical division among planets. Three types exist in the solar system and presumably in the universe as a whole.
      On cold planets, molecular movements are slow, and even hydrogen and helium (the lightest and therefore the nimblest of all substances) are slow-moving enough to be retained by a planet in the process of formation. Since hydrogen and helium together make up almost all of matter; this means that a large planet would be formed. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are the examples familiar to us.
      On warmer planets, hydrogen and helium move quickly enough to escape. The more complex atoms, mere impurities in the overriding ocean of hydrogen and helium, are sufficient to form only small planets. The chief hydrogenated compound left behind is water, which is the highest-boiling compound of the methane-ammonia-water trio and which, besides, is most apt to form tight complexes with the silicates making up the solid crust of the planet.
      Worlds like Mars, earth, and Venus result. Here, ammonia and methane forms of life are impossible. Firstly, the temperatures are high enough to keep those compounds gaseous. Secondly, even if such planets went through a super-ice-age, long aeons after formation, in which temperatures dropped low enough to liquefy ammonia or methane, that would not help. There would be no ammonia or methane in quantities sufficient to support a world-girdling life form.
      Imagine, next a world still warmer than our medium trio: a world hot enough to lose even water. The familiar example is Mercury. It is a solid body of rock with little, if anything, in the way of hydrogen or hydrogen-containing compounds.
      Does this eliminate any conceivable form of life that we can pin down to existing chemical mechanisms?
      Not necessarily.
      There are nonhydrogenous liquids, with ranges of temperature higher than that of water. The most common of these, on a cosmic scale, has a liquid range from 113° C. (235° F.) to 445° C. (833° F.); this would fit nicely into the temperature of Mercury's sunside.

      But what kind of featured players could be expected against such a background?
      So far all the complex molecular structures we have considered have been ordinary organic molecules; giant molecules, that is, made up chiefly of carbon and hydrogen, with oxygen and nitrogen as major "impurities" and sulfur and phosphorus as minor ones. The carbon and hydrogen alone would make up a nonpolar molecule; the oxygen and nitrogen add the polar qualities.
      In a watery background (oxygen-hydrogen) one would expect the oxygen atoms of tissue components to outnumber the nitrogen atoms, and on earth this is actually so. Against an ammonia background, I imagine nitrogen atoms would heavily outnumber oxygen atoms. The two subspecies of proteins and nucleic acids that result might be differentiated by an O or an N in parentheses, indicating which species of atom was the more numerous.
      The lipids, featured against the methane and hydrogen backgrounds, are poor in both oxygen and nitrogen and are almost entirely carbon and hydrogen, which is why they are nonpolar.
      But in a hot world like Mercury, none of these types of compounds could exist. No organic compound of the types most familiar to us, except for the very simplest, could long survive liquid sulfur temperatures. In fact, earthly proteins could not survive a temperature of 60° C. for more than a few minutes.
      How then to stabilize organic compounds? The first thought might be to substitute some other element for hydrogen, since hydrogen would, in any case, be in extremely short supply on hot worlds.

      So let's consider hydrogen. The hydrogen atom is the smallest of all atoms and it can be squeezed into a molecular structure in places where other atoms will not fit. Any carbon chain, however intricate, can be plastered round and about with small hydrogen atoms to form "hydrocarbons." Any other atom, but one, would be too large.
      And which is the "but one?" Well, an atom with chemical properties resembling those of hydrogen (at least as far as the capacity for taking part in particular molecular combinations is concerned) and one which is almost as small as the hydrogen atom, is that of fluorine. Unfortunately, fluorine is so active that chemists have always found it hard to deal with and have naturally turned to the investigation of tamer atomic species.
      This changed during World War II. It was then necessary to work with uranium hexafluoride, for that was the only method of getting uranium into a compound that could be made gaseous without trouble. Uranium research had to continue (you know why), so fluorine had to be worked with, willy-nilly.
      As a result, a whole group of "fluorocarbons," complex molecules made up of carbon and fluorine rather than carbon and hydrogen, were developed, and the basis laid for a kind of fluoro-organic chemistry.
      To be sure, fluorocarbons are far more inert than the corresponding hydrocarbons (in fact, their peculiar value to industry lies in their inertness) and they do not seem to be in the least adaptable to the flexibility and versatility required by life forms.
      However, the fluorocarbons so far developed are analogous to polyethylene or polystyrene among the hydro-organics. If we were to judge the potentialities of hydro-organics only from polyethylene, I doubt that we would easily conceive of proteins.
      No one has yet, as far as I know, dealt with the problem of fluoroproteins or has even thought of dealing with it — but why not consider it? We can be quite certain that they would not be as active as ordinary proteins at ordinary temperatures. But on a Mercury-type planet, they would be at higher temperatures, and where hydro-organics would be destroyed altogether, fluoro-organcs might well become just active enough to support life, particularly the fluoro-organics that life forms are likely to develop.

      Such fluoro-organic-in-sulfur life depends, of course, on the assumption that on hot planets, fuorine, carbon and sulfur would be present in enough quantities to make reasonably probable the development of life forms by random reaction over the life of a solar system. Each of these elements is moderately common in the universe, so the assumption is not an altogether bad one. But, just to be on the safe side, let's consider possible alternatives.

      Suppose we abandon carbon as the major component of the giant molecules of life. Are there any other elements which have the almost unique property of carbon — that of being able to form long atomic chains and rings — so that giant molecules reflecting life's versatility can exist?
      The atoms that come nearest to carbon in this respect are boron and silicon, boron lying just to the left of carbon on the periodic table (as usually presented) and silicon just beneath it. Of the two, however, boron is a rather rare element. Its participation in random reactions to produce life would be at so slow a rate, because of its low concentration in the planetary crust, that a boron-based life formed within a mere five billion years is of vanishingly small probability.

      That leaves us with silicon, and there, at least, we are on firm ground. Mercury, or any hot planet, may be short on carbon, hydrogen and fluorine, but it must be loaded with silicon and oxygen, for these are the major components of rocks. A hot planet which begins by lacking silicon and oxygen as well, just couldn't exist because there would be nothing left in enough quantity to make up more than a scattering of nickel-iron meteorites.
      Silicon can form compounds analogous to the carbon chains. Hydrogen atoms tied to a silicon chain, rather than to a carbon chain, form the "silanes." Unfortunately, the silanes are less stable than the corresponding hydrocarbons and are even less likely to exist at high temperatures in the complex arrangements required of molecules making up living tissue.
      Yet it remains a fact that silicon does indeed form complex chains in rocks and that those chains can easily withstand temperatures up to white heat. Here, however, we are not dealing with chains composed of silicon atoms only (Si-Si-Si-Si-Si) but of chains of silicon atoms alternating with oxygen atoms (Si-O-Si-O-Si).
      It so happens that each silicon atom can latch on to four oxygen atoms, so you must imagine oxygen atoms attached to each silicon atom above and below, with these oxygen atoms being attached to other silicon atoms also, and so on. The result is a three-dimensional network, and an extremely stable one.
      But once you begin with a silicon-oxygen chain, what if the silicon atom's capacity for hooking on to two additional atoms is filled not by more oxygen atoms but by carbon atoms, with, of course, hydrogen atoms attached? Such hybrid molecules, both silicon- and carbon-based, are the "silicones." These, too, have been developed chiefly during World War II and since, and are remarkable for their great stability and inertness.
      Again, given greater complexity and high temperature, silicones might exhibit the activity and versatility necessary for life. Another possibility: Perhaps silicones may exist in which the carbon groups have fluorine atoms attached, rather than hydrogen atoms. Fluorosilicones would be the logical name for these, though, as far as I know — and I stand very ready to be corrected — none such have yet been studied.
      Might there possibly be silicone or fluorosilicone life forms in which simple forms of this class of compound (which can remain liquid up to high temperatures) might be the background of life and complex forms the principal character?

      There, then, is my list of life chemistries, spanning the temperature range from near red heat down to near absolute zero:
  1. fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone
  2. fluorocarbon in sulfur
  3. *nucleic acid/protein (O) in water
  4. nucleic acid/protein (N) in ammonia
  5. lipid in methane
  6. lipid in hydrogen
Of this half dozen, the third only is life-as-we-know-it. Lest you miss it, I've marked it with an asterisk.
      This, of course, does not exhaust the imagination, for science-fiction writers have postulated metal beings living on nuclear energy, vaporous beings living in gases, energy beings living in stars, mental beings living in space, indescribable beings living in hyperspace, and so on.
      It does, however, seem to include the most likely forms that life can take as a purely chemical phenomenon based on the common atoms of the universe.

From NOT AS WE KNOW IT by Isaac Asimov (1961)

In parallel, I am trying to push research frontiers on biosignature gases. Those are potentially detectable gases that can be created by life and could accumulate in a planet’s atmosphere. My team decided to evaluate all the molecules that are in gas form at Earth’s surface conditions and are made from the six main life-related molecules: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus. From the list of 14 000 possible gases, about a quarter of them are made by life on Earth.

Beyond this factoid, we found something fascinating. We are starting to work through identifying the molecular fragments that life avoids. For example, there are almost no nitrogen–sulfur bonds in life’s products, despite the commonality of both atoms in life’s products. It turns out that most N–S bonds are very reactive in the presence of an S–H bond (hydrogen-sulfur), and S–H bond–containing compounds are a key for life. It appears that life could have a metabolism based on S–H or on N–S bonds, but the two are incompatible. If we were to encounter life on another planet that for some reason relied on N–S bonds, we might actually dissolve each other. We would be poison to each other. So, in going through all the molecular fragments in gases, liquids, or solids rarely produced by life, we are hoping that it will help us understand something about the origin and evolution of life.


(ed note: The tiny group of human interstellar settlements contact an alien race called the Qax. Shortly afterward the Qax conquered humanity and implemented the Qax Occupation. Jasoft Parz is the main human Quisling under the Qax governor. The Spline are aliens that genetically engineered themselves to be living starships. They rent themselves out to other species as the finest starships in space. Spline ship-individuals are huge, a couple kilometers in diameter.)

           Like everybody else Parz had never actually seen a Qax. He suspected that they were physically extensive—otherwise, why use Spline freighters to travel?—but, in any event, it was not their physical form but their minds, their motivation, that was so fascinating. He'd become convinced that it was only by knowing the enemy—by seeing the universe through the consciousness of the Qax—that men could hope to throw off their heavy yoke of Occupation.
     He had come to suspect, for instance, that comparatively few individuals comprised the Qax race—perhaps no more than thousands. Certainly nothing like the billions that had once totaled humanity, in the years before the development of AS technology. And he was sure that there were only three or four Qax individuals assigned to the supervision of Earth, orbiting in the warm bellies of their Spline freighters.

     This hypothesis had many corollaries, of course.
     The Qax were immortal, probably—certainly there was evidence that the same Governor had ruled Earth from the beginning of the Occupation. And with such a small and static population, and with all the time in the world, each Qax would surely come to know the rest of its species intimately.
     Perhaps too well.
     Parz imagined rivalries building over centuries. There would be scheming, maneuvering, endless politicking... and trading. With such a small and intimate population surely no form of formal policing could operate. How to build consensus behind any laws? How to construct laws that would not be seen to discriminate against individuals?

     ...But there were natural laws that governed any society. Parz, drifting into a contemplative doze, nodded to himself. It was logical. The Qax must work like so many independent corporations, in pure competition; they would swim in a sea of perfect information about each other's activities and intentions, kept in some semblance of order only by the operation of the laws of economics. Yes, the theory felt right to Parz. The Qax were natural traders. They had to be. And trading relationships would be their natural mode of approaching other species, once they started spreading beyond their own planet.
     Unless, as in the case of humanity, other opportunities, too soft and welcoming, beckoned...

     Parz didn't believe—as many commentators maintained—that the Qax were an innately militaristic species. With such a small number of individuals they could never have evolved a philosophy of warfare; never could they have viewed soldiers (of their own race) as expendable cannon fodder, as a renewable resource to be husbanded or expended to suit the needs of a conflict. The murder of a Qax must be a crime of unimaginable horror.
     No, the Qax weren't warlike. They had defeated humanity and occupied the Earth merely because it had been so easy.

(ed note: Parz is summoned into the interior of the Spline spacecraft containing the Qax governor of Earth)

     The flitter passed through miles, it seemed, of unlit, fleshy passages; vessels bulging with some blood-analogue pulsed, red, along the walls. Tiny, fleshy robots—antibody drones, the Governor called them—swirled around the flitter as it traveled. Parz felt claustrophobic, as if those bloodred walls might constrict around him; somehow he had expected this aspect of the Spline to be sanitized away by tiling and bright lights. Surely if this vessel were operated by humans such modifications would be made; no human could stand for long this absurd sensation of being swallowed, of passing along a huge digestive tract.
     At last the flitter emerged from a wrinkled interface into a larger chamber—the belly of the Spline, Parz instantly labeled it. Light globes hovered throughout the interior, revealing the chamber to be perhaps a quarter mile wide; distant, pinkish walls were laced with veins.
     Emerging from the bloody tunnel into this strawberry-pink space was, Parz thought, exactly like being born.

     At the center of the chamber was a globe of some brownish fluid, itself a hundred yards wide. Inside the globe, rendered indistinct by the fluid, Parz could make out a cluster of machines; struts of metal emerged from the machine cluster and were fixed to the Spline's stomach wall, so anchoring the globe. A meniscus of brownish scum surrounded the globe. The fluid seemed to be slowly boiling, so that the meniscus was divided into thousands, or millions, of hexagonal convection cells perhaps a handsbreadth across; Parz, entranced, was reminded of a pan of simmering soup.
     At length he called: "Governor?"
     "I am here."
     The voice from the flitter's translator box, of course, gave no clue to the location of the Governor; Parz found himself scanning the stomach chamber dimly. "Where are you? Are you somewhere in that sphere of fluid?"
     The Qax laughed. "Where am I indeed? Which of us can ask that question with confidence? Yes, Ambassador; but I am not in the fluid, nor am I of the fluid itself."
     "I don't understand."
     "Turbulence, Parz. Can you see the convection cells? There am I, if 'I' am anywhere. Do you understand now?"
     Jasoft, stunned, stared upward.

     The home planet of the Qax was a swamp.
     A sea, much like the primeval ocean of Earth, covered the world from pole to pole. Submerged volcano mouths glowed like coals. The sea boiled: everywhere there was turbulence, convection cells like the ones Parz saw in the globe at the heart of the Spline.

     "Parz, turbulence is an example of the universal self-organization of matter and energy," the Qax said. "In the ocean of my world the energy generated by the temperature difference between the vulcanism and the atmosphere is siphoned off, organized by the actions of turbulence into billions of convection cells.
     "All known life is cellular in nature," the Governor went on. "We have no direct evidence, but we speculate that this must apply even to the Xeelee themselves. But there seems to be no rule about the form such cells can take."
     Parz scratched his head and found himself laughing, but it was a laughter of wonder, like a child's. "You're telling me that those convection cells are the basis of your being?"
     "To travel into space I have been forced to bring a section of the mother ocean with me, in this Spline craft; a small black hole at the center of the Spline sets up a gravity field to maintain the integrity of the globe, and heaters embedded at the core of the fluid simulate the vulcanism of the home sea."
     "Not too convenient," Parz said dryly. "No wonder you need a Spline freighter to travel about in."
     "We are fragile creatures, physically," the Governor said. "We are easily disrupted. There are severe constraints on the maneuverability of this freighter, if my consciousness is to be preserved. And there are comparatively few of us compared to, say, the humans."
     "Yes. There isn't much room, even in a planet-wide sea..."
     "The greatest of us spans miles, Parz. And we are practically immortal; the convection cells can readily be renewed and replaced, without degradation of consciousness... You will understand that this information is not to be made available. Our fragility is a fact that could be exploited."

     This warning sent a chill through Parz's old bones. But his curiosity, drinking in knowledge after years of exclusion, impelled him to ask still more questions. "Governor, how could the Qax ever have got off the surface of their planet and into space? You're surely not capable of handling large engineering projects."
     "But we are nevertheless a technological race. Parz, my awareness is very different from yours. The scales are different: I have sentience right down to the molecular level; if I wish my cells can operate as independent factories, assembling high technology of a miniaturized, biochemical nature. We traded such items among ourselves for millions of years, unaware of the existence of the rest of the universe.
     "Then we were 'discovered'; an alien craft landed in our ocean, and tentative contact was established—"
     "Who was it?"
     The Governor ignored the question. "Our biochemical products had enormous market value, and we were able to build a trading empire—by proxy—spanning light-years. But we must still rely on clients for larger projects—"
     "Clients like humans. Or like the Spline, who cart you around in their bellies."
     "Few of us leave the home world. The risks are too great."

From TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter (1992)

(ed note: I was wondering if such fungi could be used as natural nuclear reactor shielding, but probably not. It could self-repair damage, but would take too long. It also probably is not very efficient at shielding.)

Radiotrophic fungi are fungi which appear to perform radiosynthesis, that is, to use the pigment melanin to convert gamma radiation into chemical energy for growth. This proposed mechanism may be similar to anabolic pathways for the synthesis of reduced organic carbon (e.g., carbohydrates) in phototrophic organisms, which capture photons from visible light with pigments such as chlorophyll whose energy is then used in photolysis of water to generate usable chemical energy (as ATP) in photophosphorylation or photosynthesis. However, whether melanin-containing fungi employ a similar multi-step pathway as photosynthesis, or some chemosynthesis pathways, is unknown.



Radiotrophic fungi were discovered in 1991 growing inside and around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that three melanin-containing fungi—Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Wangiella dermatitidis, and Cryptococcus neoformans—increased in biomass and accumulated acetate faster in an environment in which the radiation level was 500 times higher than in the normal environment. Exposure of C. neoformans cells to these radiation levels rapidly (within 20–40 minutes of exposure) altered the chemical properties of its melanin, and increased melanin-mediated rates of electron transfer (measured as reduction of ferricyanide by NADH) three- to four-fold compared with unexposed cells. Similar effects on melanin electron-transport capability were observed by the authors after exposure to non-ionizing radiation, suggesting that melanotic fungi might also be able to use light or heat radiation for growth.

Comparisons with non-melanized fungi

However, melanization may come at some metabolic cost to the fungal cells: in the absence of radiation, some non-melanized fungi (that had been mutated in the melanin pathway) grew faster than their melanized counterparts. Limited uptake of nutrients due to the melanin molecules in the fungal cell wall or toxic intermediates formed in melanin biosynthesis have been suggested to contribute to this phenomenon. It is consistent with the observation that despite being capable of producing melanin, many fungi do not synthesize melanin constitutively (i.e., all the time), but often only in response to external stimuli or at different stages of their development. The exact biochemical processes in the suggested melanin-based synthesis of organic compounds or other metabolites for fungal growth, including the chemical intermediates (such as native electron donor and acceptor molecules) in the fungal cell and the location and chemical products of this process, are unknown.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for RADIOTROPHIC FUNGUS

Silicon Life

Life on Terra is based on Carbon, since carbon can join with not one, not two, not even three, but a whopping four other atoms. This allows the construction of complex molecules like proteins and DNA, a requirement for living creatures. The only other element that can do this is Silicon, so the SF writers seized it. They are also fond of harping on the fact that while most carbon-based animals on Terra exhale gaseous carbon dioxide, a poor silicon-based critter would breath out silicon dioxide, i.e.,sand. In "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley Weinbaum is a silicon life creature that "exhales" bricks of silicon dioxide, which it uses to build a pyramid around itself.

Macromolecule in
at 1 Atm
Fluorosilicones in Fluorosilicones 400°? to
500°? C
Silanes (chains of silicon atoms) are too unstable. Silicones (chains alternating silicon and oxygen atoms) are more suitable for making "silicon life" protein analogues.

James Cambias notes that such life will consume carbon dioxide (and other carbon compounds) out of the air, combining it with silicon to create complex silicone compounds. Oxygen will be released but that will immediately combine with silicon to make silicon dioxide sand. The atmosphere will become depeleted in carbon dioxide. This might cool the planet off enough that fluorocarbon-sulfur life will take over the planet.

      Suppose we abandon carbon as the major component of the giant molecules of life. Are there any other elements which have the almost unique property of carbon — that of being able to form long atomic chains and rings — so that giant molecules reflecting life's versatility can exist?
      The atoms that come nearest to carbon in this respect are boron and silicon, boron lying just to the left of carbon on the periodic table (as usually presented) and silicon just beneath it. Of the two, however, boron is a rather rare element. Its participation in random reactions to produce life would be at so slow a rate, because of its low concentration in the planetary crust, that a boron-based life formed within a mere five billion years is of vanishingly small probability.

      That leaves us with silicon, and there, at least, we are on firm ground. Mercury, or any hot planet, may be short on carbon, hydrogen and fluorine, but it must be loaded with silicon and oxygen, for these are the major components of rocks. A hot planet which begins by lacking silicon and oxygen as well, just couldn't exist because there would be nothing left in enough quantity to make up more than a scattering of nickel-iron meteorites.
      Silicon can form compounds analogous to the carbon chains. Hydrogen atoms tied to a silicon chain, rather than to a carbon chain, form the "silanes." Unfortunately, the silanes are less stable than the corresponding hydrocarbons and are even less likely to exist at high temperatures in the complex arrangements required of molecules making up living tissue.
      Yet it remains a fact that silicon does indeed form complex chains in rocks and that those chains can easily withstand temperatures up to white heat. Here, however, we are not dealing with chains composed of silicon atoms only (Si-Si-Si-Si-Si) but of chains of silicon atoms alternating with oxygen atoms (Si-O-Si-O-Si).
      It so happens that each silicon atom can latch on to four oxygen atoms, so you must imagine oxygen atoms attached to each silicon atom above and below, with these oxygen atoms being attached to other silicon atoms also, and so on. The result is a three-dimensional network, and an extremely stable one.
      But once you begin with a silicon-oxygen chain, what if the silicon atom's capacity for hooking on to two additional atoms is filled not by more oxygen atoms but by carbon atoms, with, of course, hydrogen atoms attached? Such hybrid molecules, both silicon- and carbon-based, are the "silicones." These, too, have been developed chiefly during World War II and since, and are remarkable for their great stability and inertness.
      Again, given greater complexity and high temperature, silicones might exhibit the activity and versatility necessary for life. Another possibility: Perhaps silicones may exist in which the carbon groups have fluorine atoms attached, rather than hydrogen atoms. Fluorosilicones would be the logical name for these, though, as far as I know — and I stand very ready to be corrected — none such have yet been studied.
      Might there possibly be silicone or fluorosilicone life forms in which simple forms of this class of compound (which can remain liquid up to high temperatures) might be the background of life and complex forms the principal character?

From NOT AS WE KNOW IT by Isaac Asimov (1961)

All known life on Earth is built upon carbon and carbon-based compounds. Yet the possibility has been discussed that life elsewhere may have a different chemical foundation – one based on the element silicon.

Early speculation

In 1891, the German astrophysicist Julius Scheiner became perhaps the first person to speculate on the suitability of silicon as a basis for life. This idea was taken up by the British chemist James Emerson Reynolds (1844–1920) who, in 1893, in his opening address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science,1 pointed out that the heat stability of silicon compounds might allow life to exist at very high temperatures (see thermophiles). In an 1894 article,2 drawing on Reynolds's ideas and also those of Robert Ball,3 H. G. Wells wrote:

One is startled towards fantastic imaginings by such a suggestion: visions of silicon-aluminium organisms – why not silicon-aluminium men at once? – wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say, by the shores of a sea of liquid iron some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace.

Thirty years later, J. B. S. Haldane suggested that life might be found deep inside a planet based on partly molten silicates, the oxidation of iron perhaps providing it with energy.

Silicon biochemistry?

At first sight, silicon does look like a promising organic alternative to carbon. It is common in the universe and is also a p-block element of group IV, lying directly below carbon in the periodic table of elements, so that much of its basic chemistry is similar. For instance, just as carbon combines with four hydrogen atoms to form methane, CH4, silicon yields silane, SiH4. Silicates are analogs of carbonates, silicon chloroform of chloroform, and so on. Both elements form long chains, or polymers, in which they alternate with oxygen. In the simplest case, carbon-oxygen chains yield polyacetal, a plastic used in synthetic fibers, while from a backbone of alternating atoms of silicon and oxygen come polymeric silicones.

Conceivably, some strange life-forms might be built from silicone-like substances were it not for an apparently fatal flaw in silicon's biological credentials. This is its powerful affinity for oxygen. When carbon is oxidized during the respiratory process of a terrestrial organism (see respiration), it becomes the gas carbon dioxide – a waste material that is easy for a creature to remove from its body. The oxidation of silicon, however, yields a solid because, immediately upon formation, silicon dioxide organizes itself into a lattice in which each silicon atom is surrounded by four oxygens. Disposing of such a substance would pose a major respiratory challenge.

Life-forms must also be able to collect, store, and utilize energy from their environment. In carbon-based biota, the basic energy storage compounds are carbohydrates in which the carbon atoms are linked by single bonds into a chain. A carbohydrate is oxidized to release energy (and the waste products water and carbon dioxide) in a series of controlled steps using enzymes. These enzymes are large, complex molecules (see proteins) which catalyze specific reactions because of their shape and "handedness." A feature of carbon chemistry is that many of its compounds can take right and left forms, and it is this handedness, or chirality, that gives enzymes their ability to recognize and regulate a huge variety of processes in the body. Silicon's failure to give rise to many compounds that display handedness makes it hard to see how it could serve as the basis for the many interconnected chains of reactions needed to support life.

The absence of silicon-based biology, or even silicon-based prebiotic chemicals, is also suggested by astronomical evidence. Wherever astronomers have looked – in meteorites, in comets, in the atmospheres of the giant planets, in the interstellar medium, and in the outer layers of cool stars – they have found molecules of oxidized silicon (silicon dioxide and silicates) but no substances such as silanes or silicones which might be the precursors of a silicon biochemistry.

Even so, it has been pointed out, silicon may have had a part to play in the origin of life on Earth. A curious fact is that terrestrial life-forms utilize exclusively right-handed carbohydrates and left-handed amino acids. One theory to account for this is that the first prebiotic carbon compounds formed in a pool of "primordial soup" on a silica surface having a certain handedness. This handedness of the silicon compound determined the preferred handedness of the carbon compounds now found in terrestrial life. An entirely different possibility is that of artificial life or intelligence with a significant silicon content.

Silicon-based life in science fiction

Notwithstanding the gloomy prognosis from chemists, silicon-based life has flourished in the imaginary worlds of science fiction. In one of its earliest outings, Stanley Weisbaum's A Martian Odyssey, the creature in question is half a million years old and moves once every ten minutes to deposit a brick – Weisbaum's answer to one of the major problems facing siliceous life. As one of the watching scientists observes

Those bricks were its waste matter... We're carbon, and our waste is carbon dioxide, and this thing is silicon, and its waste is silicon dioxide-silica. But silica is a solid, hence the bricks. And it builds itself in, and when it is covered, it moves over to a fresh place to start over.

More recently, a silicon-based life-form, the Horta, is discovered by miners on Janus VI in "Devil in the Dark" (original Star Trek series, episode 26). Every 50,000 years, all the Horta die except for one individual who survives to look after the eggs of the next generation.4


1. Reynolds, J. E. Nature, 48, 477 (1893).

2. Wells, H. G. "Another Basis for Life," Saturday Review, p. 676 (December 22, 1894).

3. Ball, R. S. W. "The Possibility of Life in Other Worlds," Fortnightly Review, 62 (NS 56), 718 (1894).

4. Alison, A. "Possible Forms of Life," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 21, 48 (1968)

From SILICON-BASED LIFE by David Darling

I am rather doubtful that the cruder substitutions suggested by various writers, such as that of silicon for carbon, would actually work, though of course I cannot be sure that they wouldn’t. We have the fact that on Earth, with silicon many times more plentiful than carbon, life uses the latter. The explanations which can be advanced for this fact seem to me to be explanations as well of why silicon won’t work in life forms. (To be more specific: silicon atoms are large enough to four-coordinate with oxygen, and hence wind up in hard, crystalline, insoluble macromolecular structures—the usual run of silicate minerals. The smaller carbon atom, able to react with not more than three oxygens at once, was left free to form the water-reactive carbon dioxide gas.) True, some Earthly life such as scouring rushes, basket sponges, and foraminifera use silicon compounds in skeletal parts; but not, except in trace amounts, in active life machinery.


To understand why dwarfs and trolls don't like each other you have to go back a long way.

They get along like chalk and cheese. Very like chalk and cheese, really. One is organic, the other isn't, and also smells a bit cheesy.

Dwarfs make a living by smashing up rocks with valuable minerals in them and the silicon-based lifeform known as trolls are, basically, rocks with valuable minerals in them. In the wild they also spend most of the daylight hours dormant, and that's not a situation a rock containing valuable minerals needs to be in when there are dwarfs around.

And dwarfs hate trolls because, after you've just found an interesting seam of valuable minerals, you don't like rocks that suddenly stand up and tear your arm off because you've just stuck a pick-axe in their ear.

From MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett (1993)

Ain't Gonna Look Like Mr. Spock

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Winged Aliens

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Wheeled Aliens

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Tentacle Aliens

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Hive Entity

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Composite Creatures

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Crystal Life

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Electronic Life

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Energy Creatures

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Ecosystem Classification

In the Traveller role playing game, it broke down animal types into four broad classes: Herbivore, Omnivore, Carnivore, and Scavenger. They were further broken down into sub-types:

  • Herbivore: Animals that eat unresisting food. Plant-eaters, but also whales eating krill and anteaters eating ants.
    • Grazers: Herbivores that devote most of their time to eating. They may be solitary or grouped in herds. Their primary defense is running away very fast. Examples: antelope, moose, whale.
    • Intermittents: Herbivores that do not devote most of their time to eating. They tend to be solitary. They tend to freeze when encountering another animal but will flee if attacked by something larger. Examples: chipmunk and elephant.
    • Filters: Herbivores that pass the environment through their bodies. Grazers move towards food, filters move a flow of water or air through their body in order to gain food. They generally suck, trip, push or pull anything at close range into their digestive sack. They are solitary and tend to be slow-moving. Examples: barnacle.
  • Omnivore: Animals that eat food regardless of its resistance. For instance: bears eat berries as well as small animals.
    • Gatherers: Omnivore that display a greater tendency to herbivorous behavior. They are similar to Intermittents. Examples: raccoon and chimpanzee.
    • Hunters: Omnivore that display a greater tendency to carnivorous behavior. Similar to small or inefficient chasers. Examples: bears and humans.
    • Eaters: Omnivore that does not distinguish its food, it consumes all that it confronts. Examples: a swarm of army ants.
  • Carnivore: Animals that eat violently resisting food by attacking and killing said food.
    • Pouncers: Carnivore that kill their prey by attacking from hiding, or by stalking and springing. Generally solitary since it is hard to coordinate such attacks. If they surprise their prey they will attack, but will sometimes attack even when surprise is lost. If they themselves are surprised they will flee. Examples: cats.
    • Chasers: Carnivore that kill their prey by attacking after a chase. They tend to be pack animals. Examples: wolves.
    • Trappers: Carnivore that passively allow their prey to enter a created trap, whereupon the prey is killed and eaten. They tend to be solitary and slow, but will attack literally anything that enters the trap. Examples: spider and ant lion.
    • Sirens: Similar to Trappers, except it creates some kind of lure to draw prey into the trap. Sometimes the lure is specific to some prey animal, sometimes the lure is universal. Examples: angler fish, Venus fly trap.
    • Killers: Carnivore that devote much attention to killing, a blood lust. They have a raw killing instinct. Attacks are fierce and violent. They do not care how large their opponent is. Examples: shark.
  • Scavenger: Animals that share or steal the prey of others, or that takes the nasty unconsumed left over bits.
    • Intimidators: Scavenger that steal food from other animals by frightening or threatening. They approach another animal's kill and force it away by appearing to be a threat. Examples: coyote.
    • Hijackers: Scavenger that boldly steal food from another animal. Hijackers are stronger or larger than the victim animal, so that it cannot effectively object. Examples: lion, tyrannosaurus rex.
    • Carrion-Eaters: Scavengers that take dead meat when it becomes available, often waiting patiently for all other threats to disperse first. Examples: buzzard.
    • Reducers: Scavengers that act constantly on all available food. They eat the remains of food after all other scavengers are finished with it. They are generally microscopic. Examples: bacteria.

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Predator / Prey

Note that the animal type which an intelligent alien evolved from will give clues as to that alien's psychology. One of the most fundamental catagories of animals is where do they fall on the predator-prey spectrum? Fundamental because it it literally a matter of life and death. This will influence things ranging from diet to starship battle tactics.

Predator Vision

Basically predators are looking for prey while prey are looking out for predators.

Here on Terra, Carnivores and Omnivores tend to have their eyes aimed forwards working together, so as to allow binocular vision to gauge the distance to their prey. This tells them when they are close enough to strike and kill their victim.

In self-defense, Herbivores (i.e., the prey) tend to have monocular vision, eyes on the side of their face aimed left and right working separately. This allows them to approximate 360° vision thus reducing the blind spot a carnivores can use for ambush purposes.

The upshot of this is one can theoretically figure out if an alien species is predator or prey just by examining the arrangement of their eyes.

Or maybe not. Dr. Luke Campbell makes a strong case for the "carnivors alway have binocular vision" theory to be a big steaming pile of bovine excreta.


We've all heard it before. Predators have eyes facing the front of their face to gauge the distance to their prey, for accurate pouncing. Prey animals, meanwhile, have sideways-facing eyes so they can see in all directions to make it hard for predators to sneak up on them. It makes sense, and all we have to do is look at our favorite furry friends to confirm our belief.

Therefore, we can confidently predict that if you find an animal with forward facing eyes, it will be a predator, and all herbivores will have sideways-facing eyes. Like this Diana monkey:

Oops. It seems that there are a lot of animals out there that are herbivores and have their eyes set squarely in the front of their face. All primates, for example, including lemurs, bushbabies, tarsiers, old-world monkeys, new-world monkeys, and the great apes, have forward facing eyes. With two exceptions, none of these are primarily predators. Many are entirely herbivorous, others will opportunistically take small animals for food but these are usually encountered at close range while foraging, or otherwise under conditions that don't require accurate pounces, and the meat thus gained is but a small contribution to their diet. Do the predatory primates, at least, have eyes that are more forward facing than the herbivores?

For this discussion, I will rely on photographs. I will try to use photos with a perspective that gives a reasonable idea of the degree of binocular overlap, but judging this is tricky. The ideal photo for this purpose would be from overhead, but such photos are hard to find (and may not be public domain or creative commons). A serious study would go and take actual measurements on preserved specimens in a natural history museum, but that's a bit beyond the level of detail I want to go in to.

So, about those primates ... are predators more binocular-capable than non-predators?

Umm, nope. Not really. Although the eyes of the tarsier are really freaky looking.

But wait, you say. Primates are an exception. They live in trees and need binocular vision to jump from branch to branch. They also need to make accurate pounces, just they are grabbing boughs rather than squirming victims.

So what about the primates that don't live in the trees? Humans, of course, laze about in living rooms, not jungles — but they get a pass for also being predators. Patas monkeys, on the other hand, live in open savanna and are not very predatory. See the picture of the patas monkey above? With eyes as forward facing as all the other primates? There doesn't seem to be much selective pressure to push this prey animal to evolve wide angle vision.

All right, so we have one group of animals that are plant eaters and often prey. Surely all the other animals conform to our initial expectations?

Except what are those animals that are predators and have forward facing eyes? Lions. Wolves. Mongooses. Wolverines.

Like primates, all these animals belong to the same taxonomic order, the carnivorans. Maybe the forward facing eyes of the carnivorans are just a relic of their ancestry, a quirk of fate that left the major mammalian predators with binocular vision? How can we test this? By looking at carnivorans that are not dietary carnivores, of course!

Note that all these carnivorans also have front-facing eyes, regardless of dietary preference. Compare the brown bear where vegetable matter comprises the majority of its diet (in most locations) with the almost entirely carnivorous polar bear, and you don't see much difference in binocular overlap.

So, just because you're not a predator doesn't mean you don't have binocular vision. What about the other way around? Surely all animals that are predators do have binocular vision? The carnivorans are the rock-star predators of the mammalian world, but there are other predatory mammals out there. We'll ignore bats and cetaceans, because they hunt by sound rather than sight. Likewise, shrews and moles use touch and smell rather than eyesight for hunting.

The highly carnivorous grasshopper mouse does not seem to have any greater binocular vision than other herbivorous or omnivorous mice or hamsters. The grey squirrel is a curious case because you would expect that if similar sized primates had binocular vision because they were arboreal, you would get strong binocular overlap among arboreal squirrels which also need to accurately judge distances when leaping from branch to branch - but you don't. So arboreality might not be a good explanation either

Carnivorous marsupials seem to generally have less binocular overlap than do carnivorans. This is particularly evident when comparing Thylacoleo carnifex to a lion. They do have more binocular overlap than ruminants like goats, and about the same as that of rodents. Compared to other marsupials, however, there is no obvious difference between fully terrestrial large prey herbivores (kangaroos), arboreal herbivores (koalas, ring-tailed possums), arboreal omnivores (brush-tailed possums, Virginia opposum) and the carnivores (quolls, Tasmanian devils, various large extinct carnivorous marsupials).

But why focus only on mammals, I hear you ask. Let's look at some birds. There are certainly predatory birds with extreme binocular overlap: the owls.

Ah-ha! Surely other predatory birds also have a lot of binocular overlap! Let's also look at some other major groups of predatory birds: Accipitriformes (hawks and eagles), falcons, shrikes, kingfishers, herons, and storks.

Compare these to some common herbivorous and omnivorous birds

It's hard to tell without actually going to a natural history museum and measuring their specimens, but it looks like the emu has greater binocular overlap than falcons and hawks. The falcon and hawk are roughly on par with the largely herbivorous crane, and predatory herons, kingfishers, shrikes, and storks have eye placement similar to the rest of the herbivore and omnivore birds.

Of course, just comparing within the birds alone is like only considering a subsection of the mammals — say, bats. The birds are just one branch on the evolutionary tree of a much larger group of animals — the dinosaurs. So lets look at some predatory dinosaurs and see how they stack up in the peepers department. Tyrannosaurus rex is famous for having good binocular vision, but good ol' T. rex was not the only predatory dinosaur out there. Lets also look at Allosaurus, Velociraptor, Dilophosaurus, Carnotaurus, Ceratorsaurus, and Torvosaurus, to capture most of the major branches of predatory dinosaurs.

So we see that except for the tyrannosaurs, predatory dinosaurs had pretty crap binocular vision - on par with the worst of the birds. Both early, primitive tyrannosaurs like Alioramus and later derived tyrannosaurs like T. rex had pretty good binocular vision. Hmm, not looking so good for the hypothesis of binocular predators.

So lets expand our phylogenetic net just a bit farther to encompass all the archosaurs. In addition to the birds, we have another group of archosaurs living among us today, and they are very predatory:

Here again — large predatory animal that needs good depth information for its lunging ambush strikes, with little binocular overlap.

Shall we compare predatory turtles to herbivorous turtles?

No matter how predatory they are, they all have about the same level of binocular overlap.

Or should we compare predatory squamatates with herbivorous squamatates?

The herbivorous skink has more binocular vision than any of the predators, including the über-active pursuit predatory argus monitor.

We don't have any plant-eating amphibians, but the predatory amphibians can be investigated

They've got a bit of binocular overlap — about on par with many birds, reptiles, and marsupials, whether predatory or not, but nothing spectacular. It's still not looking good for our binocular predator hypothesis.

Going out onto more distant branches of the tree of life, we can examine other vertebrates:

Again, here, among all the bony fish and cartiligenous fish, we see little binocular overlap, regardless of whether the fish is a fierce predator or prefers to munch on plants.

I'm going to stop with the vertebrates, since so many invertebrates either don't use eyes or have lots and lots of eyes or huge eyes that point in all directions (allowing simultaneous binocular and wide-angle vision).

In conclusion, there seems to be little correlation between good binocular vision and diet or means of acquiring food. Some binocular animals are predatory, some are not. Some predators have poor binocular vision and thrive. Some plant eaters have adapted to have forward facing eyes. What explains the distribution of binocularity we see among the animal kingdom? I don't know. I don't have an explanation. I do, however, see that the explanation of binocular vision being a result of predatory behavior does not seem to be supported by the facts.

From THE EYES HAVE IT by Luke Campbell (2016)

(ed note: After the Rim Wars, the former planets of the human empire are trying to re-connect. The bumbling idiots of the Rediscovery & Reeducation Service discover lost settlements and attempt to add them to the empire. And behind them the Investigation-Adjustment service follows and tries to clean up the mess that R&R makes.

Things get worse on Gienah. The I-A stumbles over a new inhabited planet first for a change. But it isn't a human planet, it is aliens. What's worse it that I-A intercepted a routine request sent to R&R for an instructor to be sent to Gienah. The request was seemingly sent by a officer named Riso.

Except that Riso was on a R&R starship called the Delphinus Rediscovery. Which was lost eighteen months ago.

I-A realizes that the aliens of Gienah have captured the Delphinus Rediscovery, and forged the routine request. The aliens are dangerous. But this could be a valuable contact. So I-A sends their new hot-shot recruit, a man named Orne. He will have five days to try and make an alliance with the aliens and find out where the Delphinus Rediscovery is being held. If he fails, I-A is going to wipe out the aliens with a planet-buster bomb. Orne knows that the aliens are pretending to be genetically mutated humans. As a precaution, they have surgically implanted a radio in Orne's neck so that I-A can listen in.

As the scene opens, Orne is being briefed by his boss, Umbo Stetson)

      (Orne askes) "What do we know about them?"
     (Stetson says) "Not much. They look something like an ancient Terran chimpanzee, but with blue fur. Face is hairless, pink-skinned." Stetson touched a button at his waist. The translite map above him became a screen with a figure frozen on it. "This is life size."
     "Looks like the famous missing link (halfway between ape and human)," Orne said.
     "Yeah, but you've a different kind of link to find."
     "Vertical slit pupil in their eyes," Orne said. He studied the figure intently. The Gienahn had been recorded from the front by a mini-sneaker. The figure stood about a meter and a half tall. The stance was slightly bent forward, long arms hanging. The nose was flat with two vertical slits. The mouth was a lipless gash above a receding chin. Four ringers on the hands. It wore a wide belt from which dangled neat pouches and what appeared to be tools, although their use was obscure. Perhaps they were weapons. There appeared to be the tip of a tail protruding from behind one of the squat legs. The creature stood on lawn like greenery and behind it towered the faery spires of the city they'd observed from the air.
     "Tails?" Orne asked.
     "Right They're arboreal. Not a road on the whole planet that we can find. Lots of vine lanes through the jungle, though." Stetson's face hardened. "Match that with a city as advanced as the one there."

     "Slave culture?"
     "How many cities do they have?"
     "We've found two. This one and another on the far side. The other one's a ruin."
     "You tell us. Lots of mysteries here."
     "How extensive is the jungle cover?"
     "Almost complete on the land surfaces. There are polar oceans, a few lakes and rivers. One low mountain chain follows the equatorial belt about twothirds of the way around the planet. Continental drift scars are old. The surface has been stabilized for a long time."
     "And only two cities. Are you sure of that?"
     "Reasonably. It'd be pretty hard to miss something the size of that place." He pointed to the city behind the figure on the screen. "It must be two hundred kilometers long, at least fifty wide. It's swarming with these creatures. We've a good zone-count estimate; it places this city's population at more than thirty million. In population, it's the biggest single city we've ever heard of."
     "Whee-ew," Orne breathed. "Look at the size of those buildings. What these Gienahns could tell us about urban living."
     "And we may never hear what they have to say, Orne. Unless you bring them into the fold, there'll be nothing but ashes for our archaeologists to pick over."

     "Stet, what're my chances?"
     "Slim. Maybe less than that. These goons probably captured the Delphinus. Our best guess is they want you just long enough to get your equipment and everything you know."

(ed note: Orne is in an antigravity sled, disguised as an R&R officer. He heads to the alien city when his sled is abruptly surrounded by aliens who leaped down from the trees.)

     Orne braked to a creaking stop that shifted the load behind him. He found himself staring through the windshield at a native of Gienah. The native crouched on the hood, a Mark XX exploding-pellet rifle in his right hand directed at Orne's head. In the abrupt shock of meeting, Orne recognized the weapon: standard issue to marine guards on all R&R survey ships.
     "Who are you?" the Gienahn demanded.
     Orne dropped his hand, said: "I'm Lewis Orne of the Rediscovery and Reeducation Service. I was sent here at the request of the First-Contact officer on the Delphinus Rediscovery."
     "What do you carry in your … vehicle?"
     "The R&R equipment, the things a fieldman requires to help the people of a rediscovered planet restore their civilization and economy. When do we go?" Orne asked.
     "The great sun goes down soon," Tanub said. "We can continue as soon as Chiranachuruso rises."
     "Our satellite … our moon."
     "What a beautiful word," Orne said. "Chiranachuruso."
     "In our tongue it means 'The Limb of Victory,'" Tanub said. "By its light we will continue."
     Orne turned, looked back at Tanub. "Do you mean to tell me you can see by what light gets down here through those trees?"
     "Can you not see?" Tanub asked.
     "Not without the headlights."
     "Our eyes differ," Tanub said. He bent toward Orne, peered at Orne's eyes. The Gienahn's vertical slit pupils expanded, contracted.

     "Why do you have just the one big city?" Orne asked. Silence. "I said, why do you …"
     "Orne, you are ignorant of our ways," Tanub growled. "Therefore, I forgive you. The city is for our race, for the foreverness. Our young must be born in sunlight. Once, long ago, we used crude platforms on the tops of the trees. Now … only the wild ones do this. The ones who control the birthing sites control our world," Tanub said. "Once there was another city. We destroyed it, shattered its towers and sent it crashing into the dirty mud where the jungle can reclaim it."
     "Are there many … wild ones?" Orne asked.
     "Fewer each season," Tanub said. His voice sounded boastful, confident.
     "There's how they get their slaves," Stetson said (secretly to Orne through the implanted radio).
     "Soon, there will be no wild ones left," Tanub said.

     Orne said. "Your city — I saw very tall buildings. Of what do you build them?"
     "In your tongue, glass," Tanub said. "The engineers of the Delphinus said it was impossible. As you saw, they are wrong."
     Stetson's voice came hissing on the carrier wave: "A glassblowing culture! That'd explain a lot of things."
     The disguised air sled crept down the jungle aisle as Orne reviewed what he had heard and what he had observed. Glassblowers. High Path Chief. Eyes with vertical slit pupils. An arboreal species. Hunters. Warlike. Slave culture. The young must be born in sunlight. Culture? Or physical necessity? They learned quickly. They'd had the Delphinus and her crew only eighteen standard months.

     "We have not deceived you, Orne, have we?"
     Orne felt his stomach contract. "What do you mean?" The furry odor of the Gienahn was oppressive in the cab.
     "You have recognized that we cannot be mutated members of your race," Tanub said.
     "That's true," Orne said.
     "I like you, Orne," Tanub said. "You shall be one of my slaves. I will give you fine females from the Delphinus and you will teach me many things."
     "How did you capture the Delphinus?" Orne asked.
     "How do you know of this?" Tanub drew back and Orne saw the rifle muzzle come up.
     "You have one of their rifles," Orne said. "We don't pass around weapons. Our aim is to reduce the numbers of weapons throughout the …"

     "Weak ground crawlers!" Tanub said. "You are no match for us, Orne. We take the high path. Our prowess is great. We surpass all other creatures in cunning. We shall subjugate you."
     "I am of the I-A," Orne said. "I came here to find out where you'd hidden the Delphinus."
     "You came to die," Tanub said. "We have hidden your ship in the place that suits us best. In all of our history there has never been a better place for us to crouch and await the moment of attack."
     "It's too bad you feel that way," Orne said. "When two cultures meet as ours are meeting they tend to help each other. Each gains. What have you done with the crew from the Delphinus?"
     "They are slaves," Tanub said. "Those of them who still live. Some resisted. Others objected to teaching us what it is we must know." He pointed the Mark XX at Orne's head. "You will not be foolish enough to object, will you, Orne?"
     "No need for me to be foolish," Orne said. "We of the I-A are also teachers. We teach lessons to people who make mistakes. You have made a mistake, Tanub. You have told me where you have hidden the Delphinus."

     "Go, boy!" Stetson shouted on the hissing carrier wave. "Where is it?"
     "Impossible!" Tanub snarled. The gun muzzle remained centered on Orne's head.
     "It's on your moon," Orne said. "Dark side. It's on a mountain on the dark side of your moon."
     Tanub's eyes dilated, contracted. "You read minds?"
     "No need for the I-A to read minds," Orne said. "We rely on superior mental prowess and the mistakes of others."

     "Two attack monitors are on their way" Stetson's voice hissed. "We're coming in to get you. I'll want to know how you figured this one out."
     "You are a weak fool like the others," Tanub gritted.
     "It's too bad you formed your opinion of us by observing the low grades of R&R," Orne said.
     "Easy, easy," Stetson cautioned. "Don't pick a fight now. Remember he's arboreal, probably as strong as an ape."
     "You ground-crawling slave," Tanub grated. "I could kill you where you sit."
     "You kill your entire planet if you do," Orne said. "I'm not alone, Tanub. Others listen to every word we say. There's a ship above us that could split open your planet with one bomb—wash everything with molten rock. Your planet would run like the glass of your buildings. Your entire planet would be one big piece of ceramic."
     "You lie!"

     "I'll make you an offer," Orne said. "We don't want to exterminate you. We won't unless you force our hand. Well give you limited membership in the Galactic Federation until you've proven you're no menace to other —"
     "You dare insult me," Tanub growled.
     "You'd better believe me," Orne said. "We —" Stetson's voice interrupted: "Got it, Orne! They caught the Delphinus in a tight little mountain valley right where you said it'd be! Blew the tubes off it. We're mopping up now."
     "It's like this, Tanub," Orne said. "We've already recaptured the Delphinus."

(ed note: the Gienahns give up, mission accomplished. Later, Orne is debriefed)

     (Stetson asks) "Tell me, Orne, how'd you tumble to where they'd hidden the Delphinus? We'd already made a quick scan of the moon and it didn't seem possible they'd try to hide it up there."
     "It had to be there. Tanub's word for his people was Grazzi. Most sentients call themselves something meaning 'The People.' But in his tongue, that's Ocheero. There was no such word as Grazzi on our translation list. I started working on it. There had to be a conceptual superstructure here with direct relationship to the animal shape, to the animal characteristics — just as there is with us. I felt that if I could get at the conceptual models for their communication, I had them. I was working under life-and-death pressure and, strangely, it was their lives and their deaths that concerned me."

     "Yes, yes, get on with it," Stetson said.
     "One step at a time," Orne chided. "But on solid ground. By that time, I knew quite a bit about the Gienahns. They had wild enemies in the jungle, creatures much like themselves who lived in what might be enviable freedom. Grazzi. Grazzi. I wondered if it might not be a word adopted from another language. What if it meant 'enemy'?"
     "I don't see where this is leading," Stetson said.
     "It is leading us to the Delphinus."
     "That … that word told you where the Delphinus was?"
     "No, but it fitted the creature pattern of the Gienahns. I'd felt from our first contact that the Gienahns might have a culture similar to that of the Indians on ancient Terra."
     "You mean with castes and devil worship, that sort of thing?"
     "Not those Indians. The Amerinds, the aborigines of wilderness America."
     "What made you suspect this?"
     "They came at me like a primitive raiding party. The leader dropped right onto the rotor hood of my sled. It was an act of bravery, nothing less than counting coup."
     "Counting what?"
     "Challenging me in a way that put the challenger in immediate peril. Making me look silly."

     "I'm not tracking on this, Orne."
     "Be patient; we'll get there."
     "To how you learned where they'd secreted the Delphinus?"
     "Of course. You see, this leader, this Tanub identified himself immediately as High Path Chief. That wasn't on our translation list either. But it was easy: Raider Chief. There's a word in almost every language in our history to mean 'raider' and deriving from a word for road or path or highway."
     "Highwayman," Stetson said.
     "'Raid' itself," Orne said. "It's a corruption of an ancient human word for road."

     "Yeah, yeah, but where'd all this …"
     "We're almost home, Stet. Now, what'd we know about them at this point? Glassblowing culture. Everything pointed to the assumption that they were recently emerged from the primitive. They played into our hands then by telling us how vulnerable their species survival was dependent upon the high city in the sunlight."
     "Yeah, we got that up here. It meant we could control them."
     "Control's a bad word, Stet. But we'll skip it for now. You want to know about the clues in their animal shape, their language and all the rest of it. Very well: Tanub said their moon was Chiranachuruso. Translation: 'The Limb of Victory.' When I had that, it all fell into place."
     "I don't see how."
     "The vertical slit pupils of their eyes."
     "What's that mean?"
     "It means night-hunting predator accustomed to dropping upon its prey from above. No other type of creature has ever had the vertical slit in its light sensors. And Tanub said the Delphinus was hidden in the best place in all of their history. For that to track, the hiding place had to be somewhere high, very high. Likewise, dark. Put it together: a high place on the dark side of Chiranachuruso, on 'The Limb of Victory.'"
     "I'm a pie-eyed greepus," Stetson whispered.

From THE GOD MAKERS by Frank Herbert (1972)

      (Beowulf Shaeffer said) “I’m all for caution. Discretion is the better part of valor and like that. You can even be good businessmen, because it’s easier to survive with lots of money. But you’re so damn concerned with various kinds of survival that you aren’t even interested in something that isn’t a threat. Nobody but a puppeteer would have turned down my offer to describe the Core.”

     (the herbivore alien Puppeteer said) “You forget the kzinti.”
     “Oh, the kzinti.” Who expects rational behavior from kzinti? You whip them when they attack; you reluctantly decide not to exterminate them; you wait till they build up their strength; and when they attack, you whip ‘em again. Meanwhile you sell them foodstuffs and buy their metals and employ them where you need good games theorists. It’s not as if they were a real threat. They’ll always attack before they’re ready."

     “The kzinti are carnivores. Where we are interested in survival, carnivores are interested in meat alone. They conquer because subject peoples can supply them with food. They cannot do menial work. Animal husbandry is alien to them. They must have slaves or be barbarians roaming the forests for meat. Why should they be interested in what you call abstract knowledge? Why should any thinking being if the knowledge has no chance of showing a profit? In practice, your description of the Core would attract only an omnivore.”

     “You’d make a good case if it were not for the fact that most sentient races are omnivores.”
     “We have thought long and hard on that.”
     Ye cats. I was going to have to think long and hard on that.

From AT THE CORE by Larry Niven (1966)

      The Centaurs (they call themseles K'kree) are among the most massive of the major races and are the only example of a major race to be descended from herbivores. An adult Centaur stands about 1.5 meters at the shoulder and between 2.0 and 2.4 meters tall when standing erect. Weight averages 550 kilograms. They are bilaterally symmetrical, hexapedal, and homeothermic. They bear some resemblance to the centaurs of ancient Terran myth, a trait noted by the earliest explorers. There are two sexes.

     Smell is the sharpest of the K'kree senses. Their works of art concentrate upon olfactory rather than visual or auditory elements (although these are often present). Perfumery is as valid an art form for them as sculpture and music are to humans. K'kree differentiate other beings by scent more than by sight or sound, and can detect the approach of enemies at considerable distance. A K'kree with experience in dealing with humans (and other races) can detect certain basic emotions (fear, sexual desire, anger, etc.) from their smell. Due to their sensitive noses they are uncomfortable on worlds with tainted atmospheres, even with filter masks, but this does not prevent them from operating on such worlds.

     Centaurs are extremely conservative in all aspects of their culture. Ceremonial military units (such as bodyguards) are armed with equipment which K'kree military technology outdated centuries ago, and (aside from modifications made necessary by the discovery of spaceflight) K'kree government has not changed significantly in centuries.

     Because of their plains origins, the Centaurs are claustrophobes; they cannot stand to be enclosed. Centaur cities are clumps of low, broad, transparent domes, the buildings inside being never more than one story in height and open to the sky. Partitions inside buildings are achieved with curtains or tapestries. Through training and discipline, some individuals (AFV crews, starship pilots, and so on) are able to overcome this phobia.

     Centaurs are extremely gregarious. They are rarely (if ever) found alone, and will quickly sicken and die if removed from other K'kree for any length of time. A lone K'kree is either deathly ill, and has been exiled by the herd to die, or is dangerously insane. Receiving a trade or diplomatic delegation from the centaurs means entertaining the entire family (one or more wives, servants, scribes, assistants, etc) of the merchant or the ambassador. The K'kree word for "my" refers to a possession of an individual's herd or family, not to that of an individual. Privacy and individuality are exotic and little understood concepts for the K'kree.

     The K'kree are vegetarians, and (understandably) have an instinctive hatred of meat-eating creatures. The K'kree are very uneasy anywhere their sensitive noses detect the smell of cooking meat, any place where meat has been cooked recently, or in the presence of anyone who has eaten meat within the last two or three days (they smell it on the body oils and breath).

by Loren Wiseman and William Keith (1981)

Archaeological sophontology


The K'kree developed as a plains herbivore, who developed intelligence to thwart carnivorous predators. K'kree quickly achieved dominance and, convinced of the righteousness of their ways, committed genocide against a number of meat-eating carnivorous species, called "G'naak" in K'kree speech.

At least one species of G'naak was intelligent and possessed rudimentary spaceflight technology, which they used to escape the K'kree to the Kirur's, the K'kree homeworld, moon. However, the K'kree were determined to wipe out this species and soon followed them to the moon of Kirur and wiped them out to the last sophont. Not even the name of this intelligent "G'naak" species is known any longer. However, non-K'kree sophontologists refer to this "G'naak" species as the Kirrixurians.

Another big evolutionary influence was a planetary holocaust caused by a supernova that caused a great extinction wave on their homeworld. Intelligence was one of the evolutionary responses to this planet-wide disaster.

First Contact & Empire

K'kree expansion into space progressed very slowly after the discovery of the jump drive in -4142. The conservative nature of society and the technical limitations placed upon space flight by that society (K'kree spaceships must be very large, for example (because they are claustrophobic and gregarious)) combined to inhibit early exploration and colonization.

The discovery of other sophonts caused a xenophobic reaction in K'kree society. The realization that intelligent carnivores might exist somewhere in space sparked the K'kree obsession to convert the universe to herbivorism. This obsession stimulated the growth of the Two Thousand Worlds to its present size and still dominates K'kree culture. Local cultures are tolerated and other aspects of K'kree society are not heavily enforced, but all races within the Two Thousand Worlds are herbivorous.

The K'kree Empire eventually stopped in its expansion. Increasing problems of administration over interstellar distances and contact with other starfaring races, such as Hivers and Humaniti, have stabilized the Two Thousand Worlds at its present size.

Hiver-K'kree War of (-2029 to -2013)

K'kree history is one of constant triumph until the K'kree of the Two Thousand Worlds encountered the Hivers of the Hive Federation. K'kree contact with the Hive Federation was soon followed by the Hiver-K'kree War of -2029 to -2013. The military technology of the K'kree proved superior in the first stages of the war. The war ended due to nonmilitary considerations, however, when the Hive Federation demonstrated a plan to radically alter the K'kree social order through the use of psycho-historical techniques and threatened to implement it. The K'kree withdrew to the antebellum borders, and the border between the two states has remained stable to this day.

Cultural sophontology

K'kree are highly social animals with an intense respect for their elders. Their love of nature and the outdoors is legendary manifesting itself in large, open forms of architecture that display the surrounding countryside and optimally create a view of the horizon. K'kree have little concept of private ownership and whenever possible go in for large, public infrastructure shared by large communities.

Belief system and philosophy

K'kree have a compulsory practice of ancestor worship. They venerate their ancestors to a degree that makes the ancient Terran Chinese look like amateurs. This obsession with one's forbears leads to many interesting K'kree art forms as well as a very widespread level of appreciation for history and chronicling.

Morality and ethics

Perhaps the most visible and outwardly visible sign of K'kree philosophy is their incredibly welcoming social behavior. K'kree openly welcome guests and have a long tradition of hospitality. If a K'kree is your friend, he will be your best friend... However, if one steps over one of the lines of K'kree propriety, a K'kree will just as quickly become your worst enemy.

K'kree have an average level of socio-plasticity (tolerance) about most matters except for that of diet. The eating of animals (carnivory), is an overwhelming taboo and will quickly offend a K'kree as well as possibly invoking a vendetta. Foreign merchants, ambassadors, and visitors are advised to avoid meat consumption while in K'kree space.

Cultural hierarchies

The K'kree having a strong interventionary stance balanced by a competing trend towards tribalism, somewhat focused by the herd and steppelord hierarchies.

  • Most K'kree have a general agreement that the "meat-eaters" should be brought to justice to protect herbivorous kind.
  • On the other hand, while gregarious, most K'kree want to protect their culture from outside influences in an isolationist stance.
  • Somehow, it all works to a somewhat successful degree for the K'kree although cultural schisms sometimes produce offshoots such as the Lords of Thunder.
  • After all, the K'kree are known for having one of the most stable, least overtly quarrelsome, and long-lasting societies in Charted Space.


K'kree society is very different than what loose norms exist for Humaniti:

  • K'kree find any kind of carnivory or meat consumption to be both offensive and an extreme taboo. K'kree are not only willing to go to war over such matters, but have actually done so.
  • K'kree find the great diversity of Human societies to be incredibly strange. K'kree societies are far more uniform and basic K'kree values and sensibilities are far more standard upon K'kree systems and worlds.
  • K'kree find the human penchant for argument and tolerance very strange compared to K'kree ideas on the same matters. What humans most often call "dissent", the K'kree call "heresy". They do not believe in any but the most limited tolerance for a lack of respect for elders or for unrestrained dissent. The human ideal of "freedom of Speech" practically doesn't exist within mainstream K'kree societies.
  • K'kree are extreme monophobes. They harbor a near suicidal fear of being alone. K'kree are almost never depicted alone within the visual arts. Even great leaders are always appeared with several colleagues nearby. K'kree sculpture almost never depicts a singular K'kree physical form.


K'kree have a vast variety of traditions and cultural practices including:

The K'kree believe in ecological preservation and practically worship the environment. They bring their nature with them on their starships or at least as much of it as their technology can permit. This idea of reverence for life does not extend to carnivores, which are to be eliminated at all costs.

This believe in the value of ecological preservation causes great feelings of guilt and some schisms within K'kree society as many early K'kree settlements suffered from unregulated industrial development early in K'kree interstellar expansion and colonization. Some think of this as an ideal that many leaders do not adhere to.

From Traveller Imperial Encyclopedia entry K'KREE

(ed note: Chee Lan is a Cynthian, an alien resembling an angora cat. Adzel is a Wodenite, resembling a cross between centaur and a dragon. The team is trying to figure out the psychology of the Shenna of Dathyna, who are like minotaurs without horns.)

He drained his beer. Soothed thereby, he lit his pipe, settled back, and rumbled, "We got our experience and information. Also we got analogues for help. I don't think any sophonts could be total unique, in this big a universe. So we can draw on our understanding about other races.

"Like you, Chee Lan, for instance: we know you is a carnivore—but a small one—and this means you got instincts for being tough and aggressive within reason. You, Adzel, is a big omnivore, so big your ancestors didn't never need to carry chips on their shoulders, nor fish either; your breed tends more to be peaceful, but hellish independent too, in a quiet way; somebody tries for dictating your life, you don't kill him like Chee would, no, you plain don't listen at him. And we humans, we is omnivores too, but our primate ancestors went hunting in packs, and they got built in a year-around sex drive; from these two roots springs everything what makes a man a human being. Hokay? I admit this is too generalistic, but still, if we could fit what we know about the Shenna in one broad pattern—"

On Dathyna, the predicament was worse. The solar bombardment was always greater than Earth receives. At the irregular peaks of activity, it was very much greater. Magnetic field and atmosphere could not ward off everything. Belike, mutations which occurred during an earlier maximum led to the improbable result of talking, dreaming, tool-making herbivores. If so, a cruel natural selection was likewise involved: for the history of such a planet must needs be one of ecological catastrophes.

The next radiation blizzard held off long enough for the race to attain full intelligence; to develop its technology; to discover the scientific method; to create a worldwide society which was about to embark for the stars, had perhaps already done it a time or two. Then the sun burned high again.

Snows melted, oceans rose, coasts and low valleys were inundated. The tropics were scorched to savanna or desert. All that could be survived. Indeed, quite probably its harsh stimulus was what produced the last technological creativity, the planetary union, the reaching into space.

But again the assault intensified. This second phase was less an increase of electromagnetic energy, heat and light, than it was a whole new set of processes, triggered when a certain threshold was passed within the waxing star. Protons were hurled forth; electrons; mesons; X-ray quanta. The magnetosphere glowed with synchrotron radiation, the upper atmosphere with secondaries. Many life forms must have died within a year or two. Others, interdependent, followed them. The ecological pyramid crumbled. Mutation went over the world like a scythe, and everything collapsed.

No matter how far it had progressed, civilization was not autonomous. It could not synthesize all its necessities. Croplands became dustbowls, orchards stood leafless, sea plants decayed into scum, forests parched and burned, new diseases arose. Step by step, population shrank, enterprises were abandoned for lack of personnel and resources, knowledge was forgotten, the area of the possible shrank. A species more fierce by nature might have made a stronger effort to surmount its troubles—or might not—but in any event, the Dathynans were not equal to the task. More and more of those who remained sank gradually into barbarism.

And then, among the barbarians, appeared a new mutation.

A favorable mutation.

Herbivores cannot soon become carnivores, not even when they can process meat to make it edible. But they can shed the instincts which make them herd together in groups too large for a devastated country to support. They can acquire an instinct to hunt the animals that supplement their diet—to defend, with absolute fanaticism, a territory that will keep them and theirs alive—to move if that region is no longer habitable, and seize the next piece of land—to perfect the weapons, organization, institutions, myths, religions, and symbols necessary—

—to become killer herbivores.

And they will go farther along that line than the carnivora, whose fang-and-claw ancestors evolved limits on aggressiveness lest the species dangerously deplete itself. They might even go farther than the omnivora, who, while not so formidable in body and hence with less original reason to restrain their pugnacity, have borne arms of some kind since the first proto-intelligence developed in them, and may thus have weeded the worst berserker tendencies out of their own stock.

Granted, this is a very rough rule-of-thumb statement with many an exception. But the idea will perhaps be clarified if we compare the peaceful lion with the wild boar who may or may not go looking for a battle and him in turn with the rhinoceros or Cape buffalo.

The parent stock on Dathyna had no chance. It could fight bravely, but not collectively to much effect. If victorious in a given clash, it rarely thought about pursuing; if defeated, it scattered. Its civilization was tottering already, its people demoralized, its politico-economic structure reduced to a kind of feudalism. If any groups escaped to space, they never came back looking for revenge.

A gang of Shenna would invade an area, seize the buildings, kill and eat those Old Dathynans whom they did not castrate and enslave. No doubt the conquerors afterward made treaties with surrounding domains, who were pathetically eager to believe the aliens were now satisfied. Not many years passed, however, before a new land-hungry generation of Shenna quarreled with their fathers and left to seek their fortunes.

The conquest was no result of an overall plan. Rather, the Shenna took Dathyna in the course of several centuries because they were better fitted. In an economy of scarcity, where an individual needed hectares to support himself, aggressiveness paid off; it was how you acquired those hectares in the first place and retained them later. No doubt the sexual difference, unusual among sophonts, was another mutation which, being useful too, became linked. Given a high casualty rate among the Shenn males, the warriors, reproduction was maximized by providing each with several females. Hunting and fighting were the principal jobs; females, who must conserve the young, could not take part in this; accordingly, they lost a certain amount of intelligence and initiative. (Remember that the original Shenn population was very small, and did not increase fast for quite a while. Thus genetic drift operated powerfully. Some fairly irrelevant characteristics like the male mane became established in that way—plus some other traits that might actually be disadvantageous, though not crippling.)

At length the parricidal race had overrun the planet. Conditions began to improve as radiation slacked off, new life forms developed, old ones returned from enclaves of survival. It would be long before Dathyna had her original fertility back. But she could again bear a machine culture. From relics, from books, from traditions, conceivably from a few last slaves of the first species, the Shenna began rebuilding what they had helped destroy.

But here the peculiar set of drives which had served them well during the evil millennia played them false. How shall there be community, as is required for a high technology, if each male is to live alone with his harem, challenging any other who dares enter his realm?

The answer is that the facts were never that simple. There was as much variation from Shenn to Shenn as there is from man to man. The less successful had always tended to attach themselves to the great, rather than go into exile. From this developed the extended household—a number of polygynous families in strict hierarchy under a patriarch with absolute authority—that was the "fundamental" unit of Shenn society, as the tribe is of human, the matrilineal clan of Cynthian, or the migratory band of Wodenite society.

The creation of larger groups out of the basic one is difficult on any planet. The results are all too likely to be pathological organizations, preserved more and more as time goes on by nothing except naked force, until finally they disintegrate. Consider, for example, nations, empires, and world associations on Earth. But it need not always be thus.

The Shenna were reasoning creatures. They could grasp the necessity for cooperation intellectually, as most species can. If they were not emotionally capable of a planet-wide government, they were of an interbaronial confederacy.

Especially when they saw their way clear to an attack—the Minotaur's charge—upon the stars!

From SATAN'S WORLD by Poul Anderson (1968)

(ed note: WARNING: Spoilers for "Prey" by Paradigmblue

The League of Species High Council, Messier 18 Cluster, Carina-Sagittarius Arm, is planning to send their grand fleet to the home system of a new upstart race called the Rashan, and put them in their place. There were rumors that the Rashan species developed from predator stock. However, everybody knows that is just science fiction. All known interstellar races are descendants of herbivore prey species. It is impossible for predators to develop the cooperation required for civilization.

So the League fleet will use standard herbivore tactics which have brought victory time and time again against upstart herbivore species...

The foolish League is fortunate indeed that the secretive new species who just joined the League are concealing a useful secret. The new species called "Humans". The ones who always wear full environment suits with opaque helmets, so that nobody knows what they look like.

At the council of war, the voting member species are shocked when the Dreeden ambassador yield their speaking time to the Human delegation.)

      “Thank you, Admiral.” The ambassador passed his speaking stone to a delegation directly to their right. “The Dreeden yield their time to representatives of the Terran People. May I introduce to you Ambassador Baden Woods and Admiral Patricia Davies of the Associated Republics of Terra.”
     Another bipedal figure accepted the Dreedle’s speaking stone. This “Terran” stood twice the height of Ambassador Dreeden. Other than the species possessing two limbs for locomotion and two arms for grasping, not much else was discernible to Nuryaw, as the entire Terran delegation seemed to be wearing full environmental suits with entirely opaque helmets. Nonetheless, there was something about their appearance that made Admiral Nuryaw uneasy, as if these Terrans tickled a half-forgotten memory.

     “Honorable Species of the League, Admiral Nuryaw, we thank you for your time. You do our young species honor to have our words heard by species as wise and as powerful as yours. You have fought many wars, and won many victories.” The human ambassador took a long pause. “Unfortunately, we do not believe this strike against the Rashan will be one of them.”
     If the spectacle unfolding on the security council chamber floor didn’t have every delegation’s attention before, it certainly did now. Nuryaw’s hackle-spines raised along her back. “You presume too much, calfling.” While the information about the Terrans she had been able to pull up on her screen was surprisingly sparse, with remarkably little about the physiology of the creatures beneath their environmental suits, the entry about how recently they became a space-faring species told her enough. “The Bonth were fighting interstellar war while your species was using stone tools. You jeopardize your future membership in the league by presuming you have a superior military analysis of the situation.” Around the Security Council chambers, [assent] was signaled by most of the delegations.
     “You are correct, of course, Admiral, with the Bonth leading its fleets, the League has prospered for millennia. We do not assume to question your tactical analysis, but only to suggest that it was made with incomplete information.” Ambassador Woods replied. “We have reason to believe that the Rashan will not wage war in the manner that you expect. We believe that they are a predator species.”

     Nuryaw stifled a laugh. “A predator species? A sentient, space-faring predator species? Don’t waste our time with that horror story.” Other security council members were not as successful at containing their laughter. “Simple calfing,” Nuryaw sighed, “Three thousand years this League has policed this corner of the Galaxy. Over a thousand sentient species under its protection,” she gestured over the gathered delegations with her fore-hoof. “And never has any of them encountered a sentient — or even close to sentient — predator.”
     “Surely you have access to the League’s database. It is the struggle against simple predators that evolves sentience! That forces species to use tools! It was our ancestral struggle as prey that was the crucible that forged every species in this League. Predators? Flesh eaters? Capable of space travel? I’m afraid you are mistaken, Terran.” Nuryaw moved once more to adjourn the session, only to hear the Terran speak once more. Her hackle-spines rose again in agitation, but Ambassador Woods didn’t seem to notice.
     “As implausible as it may seem, it is the truth Admiral. Our intelligence sources managed to find visual records of Rashans outside of their combat armor during one of their recent incursions into league space. Those records show that the Rashans have forward-facing eyes, and we believe teeth-analogs that indicate a carnivorous diet. They are predators, and they will wage war like them. Admiral Davies can elaborate, but their tactics will be nothing like those you have fought against before, and if you use the battle plan proposed today, your fleet will not survive.

     Despite the Terran Ambassador’s opaque helmet, Nuryaw felt his gaze on her and again repressed a feeling of unease. What was it about this creature that created that reaction? She brushed the thought aside. “Enough! This council will not be distracted by scientific impossibilities!” Nuryaw once again raised the gavel-stone to adjourn, and grunted with frustration as the symbol for [dissent] blinked insistently above Ambassador Nesh’s head. “You and your pets are trying my patience, Ambassador Nesh.” Nuryaw’s hackle-spines were now fully raised.
     “If it may please the security council, we would like to suggest an addendum to the battle plans. It is obvious that our Terran friends are terribly ignorant in the ways of war-making, and have let superstition guide their analysis. Surely they have misinterpreted the data. We believe that this could be a learning experience for such a young species, however. What better way for the Terrans to see that there is nothing to fear than to see the League in action?”, the Dreeden Ambassador implored. “Let the Dreeden military escort a small contingent of Terran ships to observe the battle to see for themselves that the mighty League fleet led by the Bothian vanguard will easily route the Rashan from the field.”
     Nuryaw waved a fore-hoof in exasperation. “If that is what it will take for the Dreeden to quit interrupting these proceedings, then so be it. I will not have their ships interfering with my line of battle, however.”
     “Of course not, Admiral,” Nesh bowed in the direction of the table. “We would only ask that our escorts and Terran calflings be allowed to engage any targets of opportunity, so that we may have the honor in fighting alongside a League battlefleet.”
     “You ask for much, but I see no reason to deny your request. How votes the council?”
     [Assent] appeared across the council chambers, and finally, Nuryaw was able to bring the gavel-stone down. As the delegations filtered out of the meeting hall, however, Nuryaw pondered her screen. Of course, the Terran’s claims were preposterous, but what was it about their appearance that bothered her so much, and why wasn’t she able to find any information on what they looked like under those suits?

(ed note: because Humans are indeed descendants of predators, and of all the League species only the Dreeden know)

(ed note: Later, in secret, Nesh the Dreeden ambassador consults with the human delegation. The humans are disgusted that the League did not listen to reason, and the entire League fleet will probably be destroyed by the Rashan. They have to figure out how to save the League fleet in spite of themselves)

     “I can’t help wonder if it would have helped for us to take our helmets off, to show them what we were,” Patricia mused, taking a slow sip.
     Nesh shook his head sadly. “We’ve been over this Admiral Davies. You know the reaction that my species had when you made contact with us. Predators in space! You’re the very things that our science-fiction authors have used for imaginary villains for centuries, and that swarm-mothers frighten their hatchlings with. I’m not sure if you can ever understand the instinctual reaction that we experienced when we encountered your species. We killed the last predator that preyed on our kind thousands of years ago, but still, we felt nothing but fear when we first saw you.
     “If you had taken off your helmet in that council session, the only thing you would have accomplished was to start a stampede that would have killed delegates, which isn’t a good opening argument. Gods knows where our relations would be if it weren't for the Vert slavers posing a common threat. Even then, after your fleet rescued our people held captive by the Vert when the League wouldn’t lift a finger, we still had those among us who wondered if you had eaten a few Dreeden on the way back.” Nesh sighed. “No, they are not ready for the Terran's secret yet, and even if they were, it would not have swayed them from their plan.”

(ed note: in the League fleet)

     “Line of Battle transit complete Admiral Nuryaw!”
     Nuryaw nodded to the over-enthusiastic Vice-Admiral. “Status report please.” It felt good to be away from the security council chamber and back on the bridge of her flagship, Flashing Hooves. Three million tons of warship vibrated beneath her, and it was hers to command. The battle-couch conformed to her carapace as she leaned toward her tactical screens, watching the other ships in her fleet pop into existence as light from their arrival reached the Hooves. 14 other Bothian dreadnaughts like her own made up the vanguard of the fleet, while the rest of the primary security council species contributed their own dreadnaught contingents. Less dominant species contributed battleship squadrons, while the least powerful among them made up the fleet train of tenders and supply ships.
     “I read the briefing packet as well,” Nuryaw said icily. “What is the disposition of Rashan forces in the system?”
     “We’re showing a large Rashan fleet between the orbits of the third and fourth planets. Direct line intercept takes us within 2 million miles of the gas giant.”
     “Make it so.” Nuryaw pointed a grasping-hoof forward, toward the waiting Rashan Fleet.
     The ships of the League crawled forward, moving into a wall of battle as they did. Behind the fleet, more vessels blinked into existence.

     A new mass of ships blinked into existence on Nuryaw’s holo-screen. “That’s not the fleet train.”
     “No Admiral, it appears to be the Dreeden contingent with their human observers.” The vice-admiral squinted at a tactical screen. “Their jump spacing is surprisingly tight.”
     Nuryaw grunted. She had noticed how tightly packed the ships were as well, exiting jump-space in neat formation, rather than scattered over several million kilometers like the rest of the Security Council joint fleet. “It could be the Dreeden kept some of their jump technology from us when they joined the League — make a note for an investigation committee once we return.”
     The Dreeden-Human fleet was an odd composition. Instead of battleships and dreadnaughts, the force was comprised of many smaller ships, not fit for the League battle-line. There were two larger vessels, but they appeared to be support vessels rather than warships, with few weapons visible to Naryaw’s dreadnaught’s powerful scanners. Lighter spacecraft that appeared to Nuryaw to be only frigates and destroyers, some with Dreeden ID codes, screened the two support ships. Near the center of the formation, two cruiser-sized ships joined the massive support craft.
     “Hmmph,” Naryaw flicked a grasping hoof dismissively. “It is no wonder the humans thought this battle was lost. They don’t even know how to form a proper wall of battle. Vice-Admiral, it’s time to show them and the Rashan why the Bonthan battle-fleet has not been bested in millennia. Plot an intercept with the Rashan fleet and take us in.”

(ed note: in the Human fleet)

     Their conversation was interrupted by the Admiral’s flag-lieutenant. “Ma’am, the League fleet has begun to accelerate well-ward (toward the planet's gravity well). Estimates show that they will cross the orbit of the gas giant in 13 hours.”
     “Thank you, lieutenant.” Admiral Davies manipulated her console, patching her through to the captains of her small fleet. “All ships, set condition three. Maintain current relative position. No flight ops from any ships without my direct orders.” In the flag bridge, the red lights that had bathed the room were replaced with standard lighting as the ship stood down from condition one.
     “Why not launch the fighters Admiral? In every operation I’ve observed before, your carrier's launch their CAP as soon as they exit their jump.” Nesh asked.
     “Currently, the Rashan don’t know we use small craft. I’d like to keep it that way as long as we can.” The admiral ran a hand through her close-cropped hair. “Get some rest Ambassador. I just hope that we’ll be able to save some of them.”

(ed note: in the League fleet)

     The battle-wall of the League fleet closed with the Rashan forces arrayed to face them. From Naryaw’s view-screens, a small, orange disk came into view, the outermost planet of the system.
     “Has there been any changes in the disposition of the Rashan fleet Vice-Admiral?”
     “No admiral Naryaw, they are still arrayed in a small wall of battle, facing our approach.” The vice-admiral switched the main view screen to a representation of the Rashan fleet. "We count five dreadnaughts and 18 battleships, plus a surprisingly large amount of cruiser and destroyer sized vessels.”
     “Re-broadcast our demand to surrender, vice-admiral. While I’m impressed such a minor species can field that many dreadnaughts, if they fight, it will be a short engagement.”
     Naryaw hoped they didn’t surrender. It had been too long since she had led the Flashing Hooves in battle. She also took some satisfaction in knowing that she would be showing those impertinent Dreeden and Humans how a league battle-fleet waged war.

     “Admiral, we’re receiving a transmission from the Dreeden-Human joint fleet.”
     Naryaw turned to the communications officer. “Well, what is it?”
     “It’s from the human Admiral. It’s is a warning. They believe that there is a second Rashan fleet hidden in the gas giant. They advise that we adjust course to veer away from the planet, and then re-approach so that our wall of battle faces both the Rashan fleet and the planet.
     Naryaw snorted angrily. “Remind the human admiral,” Naryaw chewed out each world, “That they are here as observers, not tactical advisors. If they offer any more unsolicited advice, their participation in this battle even in observer capacity will be terminated.” The gall! Naryaw realized that her hackle-spines were nearly fully extended, and made a conscious effort to retract them. It wasn’t seemly for her to seem agitated in front of the crew. “And ask what possible reason the human admiral would have to suspect there to be another Rashan force hidden in the gas giant.
     Naryaw fumed as they waited for a reply. Without FTL communication, the delay was maddening.
     “Admiral Naryaw, the humans conveyed their apologies, and have said that they will not make further tactical suggestions.” The comm officer paused, as the remainder of the message was received. “As to why they suspect a second Rashan fleet, the human admiral has replied with “Because that is what I would do.”
     “And that is why they are with the supply ships, and we are with the battlefleet.” The vice-admiral chuckled.
     “They are cowards,” Naryaw scoffed. “Tell them to watch the fleet carefully. We will show them what honor looks like.”

     “That was one of their battleships, Admiral. The first kill is ours.”
     “And their response?”
     “None yet admiral, they are holding their position and have not yet returned fire.”
     “Strange,” muttered Naryaw. “If they can’t match our weapons range, I would expect them to attempt to close the range as quickly as possible. Are we close enough for a visual of a Rashan ship? Put it on screen. It’s time we see what we’re dealing with.”

     The main holo-screen flared to life, with an image of one of the Rashan dreadnaughts. Naryaw felt a chill go through her bones, and her hackle-spines began to extend unconsciously. She was not the only one on the Flashing Hooves’ bridge with that reaction, she noticed. The Rashan ship was shaped like a blunted wedge, with numerous forward facing weapon placements. The rear of the wedge tapered slightly until the taper reversed as it met huge engine cowlings at the anterior of the ship. Where League ships were almost always shaped like half-spheres, presenting a hedgehog-like array of defenses and weaponry to the enemy while the flat portion of the flat sphere contained their engines, the Rashan ship appeared to be designed for pursuit.
     Unbidden, the memory of the council meeting flashed in Naryaw’s mind: We believe they are a predator species.
     Naryaw shook herself, metals ratting on her carapace. She was a Bonthan! Leader of the combined fleet! She would not let herself be unnerved by this opponent, especially one that had not even drawn blood. Still, she didn’t want to look at the ship on screen any longer. “That’s enough, vice-admiral.”

(ed note: in the Human fleet)

     Icons on the holographic tac-plot showed the League fleet closing with the Rashan battle-wall, which held its position.
     Admiral Davies sighed. “It’s as I feared. They’re letting the League fleet come to them, drawing them core-ward. Once they League fleet is fully committed, they’ll make their move.”
     “Isn’t there something we can do Admiral?”
     Admiral Davies shook her head. “I don’t think there is, Ambassador. Every attempt at warning Admiral Naryaw has been rebuffed. I’m afraid if we press the issue we’ll be ordered to jump out of the system. All we can do now is try and ensure that some of the League fleet lives through the day.”

     Suddenly, the tac-plot shifted. The Rashan battle-wall dissolved in space, reforming into arrow-shaped formations that began to accelerate toward the League ships. From each Rashan battleship and dreadnought, more icons emerged, hundreds of tiny contacts on the tac-plot.
     “They’ve released skirmishers (large space fighters), Admiral.” Davie’s flag-lieutenant reported.

(ed note: in the League fleet)

     Aboard the Flashing Hooves, Admiral Naryaw was at a loss to explain the Rashan’s behavior. Their entire wall of battle had disintegrated and reformed, and now instead of facing a traditional battle-wall, the League fleet instead was closing with five Rashan formations that were angling to the sides of the League battle wall, each formation lead by one of the Rashan’s dreadnaughts. What’s more, the Rashan’s cruisers and destroyers had formed up into these formations, and hundreds of tiny craft had emerged from the Rashan capital ships.
     “Vice Admiral, report!”
     “Yes Admiral.” The vice admiral's voice strained as he struggled to keep up with the new flood of data coming in. “It seems like the Rashan fleet is comprised of five squadrons of one dreadnaught and 3-4 battleships each, with approximately twenty cruisers and destroyers. They also have launched hundreds of what appear to be parasite craft. Each Rashsan squadron is headed spinward on a different heading.”
     “Could they be running?”
     “Unlikely, vice-admiral. The Rashan squadrons are estimated to meet the edges of our wall of battle. If they wished to run, they would have avoided us all together.’
     “Noted.” Naryaw was perplexed. Space battle was fought by bringing your wall of battle to the enemy, locking horns with them to determine the stronger force. The weaker fleet then surrendered. That was the way every space battle the League had fought in its history. These Rashans, they were doing something different, and Naryaw didn’t like it. “All ships, divide fire by sectors, bring them down before they close. Vice Admiral, divide our wall of battle into five smaller units — each one will maneuver to face one of the Rashan thrusts.” Naryaw tried to exude as much calm as possible, but inside, she was nervous. She hadn’t been nervous since her first command.
     “Yes Admiral Naryaw. Re-forming fleet now.”

     In space, the million-mile wide formation of the League fleet clumsily fractured into five square planes, each one attempting to angle their mushroom-cap shaped vessels toward the approaching Rashan. The reorganization was clumsy, ship captains reacting slowly to the unfamiliar orders. Some of the squares were larger than others, with individual League species choosing to keep their ships together rather than splitting them between multiple battle-walls.
     “Admiral, we’re beginning to take fire. Lasers, and particle beams.” The view-screens flashed white. “That was one of the Queel battleships. It appears that the each Rashan squadron is focus firing on one of their targets at a time. The Queel ship’s shields were overwhelmed.
     Naryaw clenched her grasping hooves in frustration. “Continue maneuvers; we still outgun them by a significant margin.” As if on cue, a Rashan battleship winked off the display, victim to Bonthan lasers.
     “Admiral, the Rashan are accelerating. Two of our five battle-lines will not reform before the Rashans reach them. Readings show that Rashan ships can accelerate nearly twice as fast as ours.”
     The five Rashan squadrons poured on the speed, lancing toward the League battle-walls. Re-formed League formations met three of them, raining laser fire onto the approaching ships. Two of the Rashan squadrons, however, reached the League vessels before they could turn and face them. Racing along the edge of the League formations, they picked off ship after ship as they brought their entire squadrons firepower to bear on one ship at a time, while the League ships struggled to keep their rounded half-spheres faced toward the Rashan.

     Then, unthinkably, the Rashan cruisers and destroyers separated from the rest of their squadrons and penetrated the wall of battle itself.

     The League wall of battle was designed to face other similarly arrayed formations; trading blows across space. Victory went to the fleet that blinked last. For thousands of years, this was how the League joined battle. For thousands of years, it’s crews and ships had been trained and designed for this kind of fighting. No one, it appeared, had informed the Rashans that this is how things were done.

     As the smaller Rashan vessels raced through the heart of the League formations, the battle-walls disintegrated. Each ship struggled to keep its armored facing pointed toward the Rashan cruisers and destroyers that sliced through their ranks. What’s worse, hundreds of Rashan skirmisher craft joined the battle, weaving and corkscrewing between the League capital ships. The League fleet was caught completely unprepared. With their massive, well-armored capital ships designed for engagements against other capital sized combatants, none of them possessed significant point defense, allowing the Rashan skirmishers to make strafing runs all but unmolested.
     Individually, these small craft were nothing but an annoyance, but in numbers they were deadly. There were too many and too fast to keep the armored mushroom-caps of the League ships pointed toward them, and the small Rashan craft exploited this mercilessly, raking fire across the vulnerable anterior of the League ships, where their armored half-sphere shell did not protect. As a ship was damaged and fell out of formation, the Rashan fighters swarmed the disabled vessel, like so many piranhas that smelled blood.
     Admiral Naryaw gaped as her command fell apart around her. Sirens sounded through her ship as it rocked from explosions and particle beam impacts. Acrid smoke from fried circuitry filled the bridge as the air handlers struggled to keep up. On her holo-screen, she watched helplessly as more and more League ships winked out. Closing her eyes, she uttered words that had not been said by a Bonthan admiral in living memory. “All ships, retreat.”

(ed note: in the Human fleet)

     “Why are we not meeting the League fleet along their retreat path?” He managed to squeeze out between labored breaths.
     “I thought I said no questions.” Admiral Davies wheezed in reply. A moment later, she relented. “That won’t be able to retreat that way. Any moment now, they will pass near the gas giant, and when they do…”
     “Admiral, we’re receiving a full spectrum transmission, it appears to be originating from the fourth planet. Audio and visual.” It was a testament to the communication tech’s high-g training that they were able to get the strained report out through clenched abdominal muscles.
     “Patch it through.”
     “Oh my gods.” Nesh gasped. .

     An image of a Rashan replaced the tac-plot on the bridge's holo-screen. Its appearance was vaguely vulpine, but with smooth, hairless skin and four, forward facing eyes. Even with the creature's mouth closed, Nesh could see sharp, serrated teeth. Its head sat upon a long, lean bipedal body. Two powerful arms ended in three mandibles, each tipped with a thick claw. From the creature’s chest, two smaller arms emerged, each ending in six delicate manipulators. It wore a uniform of iridescent purple, with what appeared to be rank insignia or awards across the breast. Nesh quivered in his acceleration couch. It felt like its eyes were looking directly at him, and age-old instincts screamed at Nesh to do what his people had done when a predator looked at you for millions of years. You run. Nesh glanced over at Admiral Davies, who appeared unphased.
     “I have to say,” the Rashan spoke in galactic basic. “It is... convenient when prey comes to us. You have more fight than most, and it seems that you have many systems. We look forward to our new hunting grounds.” The broadcast cut off, and the flag-bridge was silent for a moment.

     “Admiral Davies! Contacts reported rising from the atmosphere of the gas giant. It’s a second Rashan fleet.”

     Naryaw could not believe her eyes. Hundreds more Rashan ships rose from the surface of the gas giant, moving to cut off their retreat to the edge of the system where they could jump to safety.
     The broadcast replayed in her mind, those four, forward-facing eyes that seemed to look directly at her, paralyzing her with fear. The eyes of a predator. She had dismissed the humans so easily in council, so sure of her success, but now...
     Her vice-admiral was reduced a blubbering wreck, eyes rolling in terror. The rest of the bridge crew were no better, all of their hackle spines fully extended in agitation and fear. From the smell, at least one of them had wet themselves.
     Around the Flashing Hooves, ships were dying, each one taking thousands of crew-members with them, and now their escape to the jump point was cut off. Throughout the fleet, the transmission from the Rashan had dissolved all semblance of fleet discipline. Some ships sat still in space, paralyzed by their captains fear. Others fled the battle in random directions, as Rashan ships followed them and picked them apart one by one. Naryaw felt the eyes of her bridge crew on her, waiting for her leadership, waiting for her to save them, waiting for an order. Naryaw had never felt like this, paralyzed by fear, incapable of thinking clearly. For the first time she could remember, she did not know what to do.

     “Ma’am, incoming transmission from the Dreeden-Human fleet, audio only.” Her comm officer at least had managed to maintain his discipline. “It’s the human admiral again. She says that she has moved their combined fleet to these coordinates,” an icon flashed on the holo-screen, showing the location. “She urges you to rendezvous with her fleet, where she can cover our escape. She says if you don’t move to do so in the next five minutes, you’ll be trapped between the Rashan fleets.”

(ed note: and then the Rashan fleets learn the hard way that instead of a medium swarm of multi-crewed skirmisher ships, the human fleet has a huge swarm of two-crewed space fighters. All the human ships have massive point-defence suites. And the humans are predators too.)

From PREY by Paradigmblue (2017)

Alien Intelligence

The average level of intelligence of an alien species is anybody's guess. However, there are thought experiments suggesting that their intelligence would tend to be about the same as our own. Of course there might be outliers; morons on the planet Spengo and Pakled, super geniuses on Altair IV and Arisia. Or if they hit the Singularity and shoot off the top of the chart, turning into StarGods or something.


What is Intelligence?

Intelligence is much easier to talk about than to define. Webster calls intelligence “the power or act of understanding … the power of meeting any situation, esp. a novel situation, successfully by proper behavior adjustments ; also, the ability to apprehend the interrelationships of presented facts in such a way as to guide action toward a desired goal…"

Obviously, the dictionary does not define “intelligence” in the same way it defines more palpable terms like “height,” “weight,” or even “brain.” And note that the definition of “intelligence” is a subjective and external one. That is, to apply the definition, an outside observer must watch the antics of the creature in question and see if his behavior entitles him to be temed “intelligent.” Evidently there is no absolutely accurate way of measuring intelligence in the same manner that a physician can measure blood pressure or basal metabolic rate. Even an I.Q. test yields only a guide, an approximation.

Note also that the dictionary definition poses three tests for deciding if a creature is intelligent. The creature must “understand,” make “behavior adjustments,” and be able to “apprehend … interrelationships.” Understand, adjust, interrelate: certainly without these abilities a creature cannot be termed intelligent. Yet—every animal has the ability to recognize certain sets of sensory impressions, to interrelate them and adjust its behavior accordingly. The difference between intelligent man and unintelligent amoeba is in the degree of understanding, adjustment and interrelating.

More particularly, it has been said that the real test of intelligence is the ability to handle abstract thought. Animals live in the present, responding to immediate sense impressions. The past is meaningless and the future dimly perceived, if at all. Men live in a continuum of past, present and future. Man is evidently the only creature on Earth that can consciously conceive of a time that is not-yet. A male gibbon can make a sound that means “Keep away from my wife!” Imperative, immediate. A male human being can say, “If you don’t keep away from my wife, I will shoot you.” A choice of conscious actions which will take place in the future.

Intelligence, then, is a relative matter—something that may be judged qualitatively, but defies quantitative measurement.

All of which brings us to a rule-of-thumb test for intelligence: If a race of creatures has the ability to communicate, so that one individual of the species can share a pool of knowledge accumulated by the race as a whole, then we may say that the race is fully intelligent. This test carries within it the implications of abstract thought and communication, the ability to understand, adjust, and interrelate. Moreover, it implies that a truly intelligent race will be constantly adding to its pool of accumulated knowledge, as new individuals create and communicate new ideas. An intelligent race, in other words, will constantly change its environment —sometimes very slowly, sometimes explosively fast. This is what is usually meant when people speak of man’s “progress.”

Intelligent Species of Earth

Is man truly the only intelligent species on this planet? The social insects have accomplished remarkable achievements, and have survived many hundreds of times longer than man’s onemillion- year tenure on Earth. Some of the large sea-going mammals, such as the dolphins and killer whales, have large complex brains and the ability to make linguistic sounds. And there are other primates, particularly the chimpanzee, which show more intellect at birth than do human babies.

The social insects—particularly the ants—are a fascinating example of how complicated this problem of intelligence can be. A single ant is demonstrably dull. It can learn its way through a maze, but quickly forgets. It has not even the lowly intelligence of a mouse. Yet colonies of ants behave in a highly-organized fashion. There is division of labor, engineering and architecture, “nursing” of young, exploration, some degree of communication. The concept of group intelligence has often been raised in connection with the ants and other social insects.

Is an ant colony an intelligent, sentient creature composed of many unintelligent individuals? This is a bit hard for most human beings to accept, and yet an unbiased observer might point out that the human being is an intelligent, sentient creature composed of many unintelligent individual cells. A single brain cell is certainly not intelligent, yet it belongs to a system that is.

Let us apply our rule-of-thumb test to the ants, after making a slight mental adjustment that allows us to consider both an individual and a colony as a single creature. Have the ants been able to communicate and establish a pool of knowledge that can be shared by succeeding generations of colonies (and/or individuals)? The best answer that scientists can give today is: No. Apparently, everything the ants do, they do by instinct. They do not learn to speak, they are born with an instinctive communicative ability, and no ant can rise beyond the limitations of its instincts. Ants can perform prodigies of labor, but everything they do can be explained in terms of physical adaptions.

The final test of the ants’ intelligence is to compare their progress over the past million years with man’s. A million years ago, man-like primates were shambling through African forests. A hundred thousand years ago, human hunters were slaughtering every edible land animal on this planet. Ten thousand years ago, men invented agriculture and began to build cities. Today, humanity holds the power of the atom and has already begun to explore interplanetary space. And in all that time, the ants have changed their ways not at all.

Much the same argument can be applied to the dolphins. Recently there has been great interest in the relative intelligence of dolphins, and a Nobel Prizewinning scientist, Leo Szilard, has even written a science-fiction story that hinges on the credibility of intelligent, speaking dolphins. The main interest in this case is the large brain of the dolphin; it is larger than the human brain (about 1600-1700 grams compared to an average of 1400 for man), and structurally just as complex. Dolphins have been trained to imitate human voices. They evidently communicate among themselves in a primitive fashion. They are surprisingly bright, agile, and beautifully adapted to sea-faring. There are many, many stories, dating back to antiquity, of dolphins helping to save floundering human swimmers by buoying them up on their backs and carrying them to shore.

Admittedly, the scientific study of dolphins is just beginning. But to date, there is no really impressive evidence for an intelligence comparable to man’s. Despite their large and complex brains, the dolphins have shown an intelligence little better than a dog’s, and not as high as a chimpanzee’s. Their vocal abilities are on a par with a trained parrot’s, and stem mainly from their use of a vocal “sonar” in underwater navigation. However, man is at a distinct handicap in assessing dolphin intelligence, simply because we cannot watch the dolphins in their natural environment. It is only in the past ten years or so that we have built swimming tanks lai'ge enough to allow aquatic mammals to be studied.

In the open ocean, the dolphins are free-roaming hunters. They are playful and plentiful—two indications of at least some intelligence. Their cousins, the vicious, slightly larger killer whales, actually hunt in packs and show much ingenuity in attacking practically every type of sea-going mammal, including the gigantic blue whale. But, again, the killer whales have not shown a higher degree of intelligence than a pack of terrestrial wolves. If the dolphins or killer whales are as intelligent as man, their environment is so different from ours that we have, at present, no adequate method of gauging their talents. This is an important fact to keep in mind when considering the intelligence of creatures from alien planets.

Of all the potentially-intelligent animals of Earth, the chimpanzee is the closest to man, the most easily studied, and easily the brightest. In fact, for the first year or so after birth chimps actually learn more quickly than human babies. A one-year-old chimp can do a variety of tricks and even rasp out a few human words, if properly trained. The chimpanzee matures much more quickly than a human baby, both physically and mentally. But there is a cross-over point. Sometime during the second year, the human baby begins to learn how to speak. He starts to tap that reservoir of accumulated racial knowledge. The chimp, meanwhile, seems to get tired of doing tricks—the whole business of performing and saying words apparently becomes pointless to him. His “intellectual” development ends. In short, the human baby goes on to become human; the chimpanzee, despite a heroic effort, cannot be anything other than an ape.

The major reason for this is, of course, the relative sizes of the human and chimpanzee brain; man’s brain is some 3.5 times larger (1400 grams compared to about 400).

But there are other reasons also. In fact, many physical anthropologists now believe that man’s brain was the last part of him to become human. To bear this out they have unearthed evidence that points to the conclusion that man developed physically into human form before he developed mentally into Homo sapiens, thinking man.

Man's Five Gifts

The anthropologist Carleton S. Coon pointed out that man has five distinct features—five gifts—that distinguish him from the other primates: First, man stands erect and walks on two feet. This leaves him prone to backaches, due to the forced curvature of his primate spine. Man’s foot has fused into an arched load-carrier capable of supporting his body weight with no help whatsoever from the arms. The arch occasionally collapses and leaves man flat-footed. But even so, man’s overworked feet and aching back allow his hands complete freedom from the chore of locomotion.

Man’s remarkable hands are his second gift, and perhaps his most important. Once man becomes an erect biped, his hands are free to get into mischief—and also to pick fruit, to fold in prayer, to fashion a tool. Archeological evidence has shown that very primitive proto-men, creatures that were still mostly ape and had quite small brains, actually used tools. Anthropologists are now largely agreed that tools made man, not vice versa. Without his grasping hands, man could never have become a toolmaker. Human hands are more flexible, grasp better, and are capable of much more delicate manipulations than any of the primate apes’ (or, indeed, the grasping organs of any animal on Earth).

The ability to use his hands to grasp objects no doubt had much to do with man’s third gift—fine-focusing, stereoscopic, color vision. All the primates have good eyes, but man’s seem to be the best of the lot. Part of man’s visual acuity is probably due to the need to inspect very closely objects that his hands have picked up. A million years ago, man’s ancestors picked fruits and examined them carefully. Today, man uses the eyes he has developed to examine stars and atoms—and astronomers still insist that no camera made can equal the human eye’s ability to distinguish fine detail.

The first three of man’s five gifts were physical. The other two are mental. With feet capable of fleet running, hands free to seize the environment, the eyes sharp enough to spot a meal on the hoof from a distance of miles, man began to develop his ability to think. The anthropological evidence shows that man’s brain began to increase in size only after the rest of body became human. But once man’s brain did increase to its present size, it became his fourth gift.

Why and how man developed his brain is still a mystery. The plain truth is that man’s brain and his intelligence—is at least a full order of magnitude greater than that of his nearest rivals, the chimps. The dolphins, as we have seen, have larger brains. But, lacking hands, lacking the challenges and stimuli of a terrestrial environment, they have never developed their brains to the pitch that man has. The ants, clever and highly-regimented though they are, simply lack the brain size to break free of their instincts.

The fifth and final gift stems directly from man’s brain, and puts the final touch on his development of intelligence: it is his ability to speak. Not merely to make noises, as birds and monkeys and dolphins do. Not merely to communicate to few limited present-tense imperatives, as the ants and bees and some primate apes do. Man can speak. He can tell about the past, he can speculate about the future, he can unload his fears into the ear of a psychiatrist or a priest, he can recite poetry, he can argue physics, and metaphysics, he can add to—and draw from—an accumulation of knowledge that goes back to before the taming of fire.

The impact of this ability to speak must have been infinitely more meaningful to man’s development than its paler counterpart of historic times—the invention of printing. The ability to speak far beyond the range of the unaided voice, through books, ushered in the scientific age. Without printing, we would still be in medieval darkness. Without speech itself, we would be a little better than the chimpanzees.

Thus, while we cannot fully define man’s intelligence, we can describe its attributes and its sources. Now we are ready to look out into space and see if these qualities can be found elsewhere.


    The eminent Harvard biologist and philosopher of science, Edward O. Wilson, noted for his creation of the field of sociobiology and for his many books, has written a new book, The Meaning of Human Existence. It should be of great interest to the readers and writers of science fiction. The book attempts to explain how humanity has come to its present state of existence because of the forces of natural selection as they act on individuals and on groups. In particular, based on the lessons learned from the record of evolution that lead from viruses and bacteria to vertebrates to human beings, Wilson has attempted to produce a list of specifications of how some hypothetical intelligent beings that might have evolved on an earth-like planet of another star system would look and act.

    SF writers usually base their intelligent aliens on the assumption that the processes of evolution on an alien planet have produced some intelligent life form that in the course of time, because of its intelligence, proceeds to develop a complex technological civilization. Some of my favorite SF writers have invented fascinating alien species that combine instinctual animal behavior with high intelligence. Examples are Larry Niven's tiger-like carnivorous Kzin, his sheep-like herbivorous Puppeteers, and Poul Anderson's eagle-like territorial Ythrians. All became intelligent enough to form highly developed technological civilizations, carrying their innate animal behaviors with them to the stars.

    However, Wilson would say that the SF writers have it backwards: the random walk of evolutionary development and varying conditions of environment generates a species that by chance develops a cooperative social structure. Then, if the conditions are just right, the existence of that cooperative social structure pushes the development of intelligence. He traces the development of intelligence from the primarily vegetarian Australopithecines (which had a 600 cc brain volume) to meat-eating Homo Habilis (680 cc brain volume) to Homo Erectus (900 cc brain volume) to Homo Sapiens (1,400 cc brain volume). Wilson suggests that the initial innovation in Homo Habilis of including meat in their diet led to the establishment of semi-permanent camps in which the young were protected and to which roving cooperative hunters brought meat to feed the group. This led to villages with complex cooperative social structures. These ultimately led to cities, civilization, and technology. At each step along this path, increased intelligence provided group and individual advantages, and so high intelligence emerged.

    Wilson points out that such cooperative social structures are very rare among the animal species. The 400 million years of evolution on Earth has produced only 20 examples of species, with complex social structures, and most of these are insects. All of these social species developed rather late in the game, and all have been very successful. For example, among all of the highly variable insect species, only two groups of socialized insects, ants and termites, comprise about half of the total global insect biomass by weight, which can be taken as a measure of their success.

    In Chapter 10 of his book, Wilson uses the lessons learned in analyzing the intellectual and social development of Homo Sapiens to predict the characteristics of a hypothetical intelligent alien species that might develop on an earth-like planet of another star system. In what follows I have condensed and paraphrased Wilson's logic, but the arguments are basically his. We will consider his predictions one at a time:

(1) Intelligent Aliens will be land-dwellers, not aquatic. The final ascent to human intelligence required the use of fire as a portable high-energy source in developing technology beyond the stone-age level. It is difficult to imagine an ocean-dwelling species reaching iron-age technology.

(2) Intelligent Aliens will be relatively large animals. The most intelligent land animals, in descending order, are Old World apes and monkeys, elephants, pigs, and dogs, all at the high end of the animal size spectrum. Small body size means smaller brains, on the average, less memory capacity, and lower intelligence. The hypothetical aliens would probably have a body mass around 10 to 100 kg, i.e., somewhere between a dog and a human.

(3) Intelligent Aliens will be biologically audio-visual. In terms of sensory perception, humans, with their reliance on sound and sight in very restricted frequency bands, represent a rather isolated group. Most of the animal world depends much more directly on smell and on the use of specialized body-generated pheremone chemicals for signaling and communication. However, pheremones are unsuitable for rapid communication, and therefore represent a road block on the path to high intelligence. The hypothetical aliens could use facial expressions or sign language for communication. However, "telepathy" is ruled out, unless a species developed the capability of internally generating and detecting radio waves or electrical signals as communication. While electric eels and catfish have some capabilities in this direction, it has developed because they are adapted to murky environments in which vision is not useful.

(4) Intelligent Aliens will have a large distinct head located up front. All land animals have elongated, bilaterally symmetric bodies, with brains and key sensory inputs located in a head adapted for quick scanning and action. The hypothetical aliens should be similar.

(5) Intelligent Aliens will have light to moderate jaws and teeth. Animals with heavy mandibles and massive grinding teeth are typically vegetarians that eat coarse low-energy vegetation. Animals with fangs and horns use them for defense against predators and for competition among males. The hypothetical aliens should have progressed by cooperation and strategy rather than brute strength and combat. Only a broad high-energy meat and vegetable diet could sustain the relatively large populations needed for the later stages in the development of intelligence. Hence, moderate jaws with no fangs or horns.

(6) Intelligent Aliens will have a very high social intelligence. All social insects (wasps, bees, termites, ants) and the most intelligent mammals live in groups whose members simultaneously compete and cooperate. Functioning in such a fast-moving and complex social network requires a great deal of social intelligence.

(7) Intelligent Aliens will have a small number of free locomotory appendages, levered for maximum strength with stiff internal or external skeletons composed of hinged segments (as by human elbows and knees), and with at least one pair that are terminated by digits with pulpy tips used for sensitive touch and grasping. The four-legged-ness of land vertebrates is perhaps because fishes with four lobe-fins (instead of six) colonized the land. Insects have six locomotory appendages, and spiders have eight. Evidently a relatively small number of such appendages is good for evolutionary success on land. Only chimps and human invent tool artifacts, presumably because of the utility of fingers with soft sensitive tips. A technological civilization that depended on beaks, talons, scrapers, or claws for tool manipulation is difficult to imagine.

(8) Intelligent Aliens will be moral. The cooperation apparent in all of the highly social species of the Earth is based on some degree of altruism and self sacrifice. It has arisen from natural selection at both the individual and the group levels and has led to our sense of morality. Presumably alien intelligences derived from similar group evolution would inherit a similar sense of morality.

(9) Intelligent Aliens skilled in genetic engineering will not have used genetic modification to significantly change their social nature. Our technological civilization has only very recently reached the beginnings of an ability to modify and manipulate the human genetic code. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which we take the human genome in hand and change it to eliminate genetic diseases and disease tendencies, to give us better memories, more intelligence, bodies better adapted to hostile environments, and more longevity. Perhaps we might even decide to take this process a step further and edit out the inherited "baggage" of instinctual behavior that we call "human nature". Wilson believes that we will not do this, and instead will choose to retain the inherently messy, self-contradictory, internally conflicted, endlessly creative human mind that exists today, and that similarly intelligent aliens will do the same. We and they will be existential conservatives.

    Another aspect of Wilson's book that should be of interest to SF readers is his assessment of the prospects for interstellar colonization. Wilson has serious reservations about the colonization by humans of the planets of other star systems. These reservations are similar to those expressed in Paul Davies' Afterword in the recent book Starship Century (in which I wrote a chapter on interstellar wormholes).

    Basically, any planetary ecology is a vast array of interacting virus, bacterial, plant, and animal life that, after many eons of natural selection and responses to random events, challenges, and catastrophes, has arrived at a stable system. The ecology of an alien world would necessarily be qualitatively different from that of Earth and would be wholly incompatible with our own ecology. The two worlds would necessarily have radically different origins, different molecular machinery, and would differ in fundamental ways, due to the endless paths of evolution that produced the inhabiting life forms.

    The typical grocery store contains only a tiny subset of the Earth's plant and animal material, a subset carefully selected to be edible and non-toxic. The vast majority of terrestrial organisms are unsuitable for human consumption. The organisms of alien planets would be much more so. Wilson argues that the problem of transplanting the Earth's ecosystem to another planet basically has no solution, that we must resign ourselves to living on the one planet we currently occupy, and that we should take better care of it if we wish to continue doing so.

    These discussions of intelligent aliens and interstellar colonization, while perhaps of most interest to SF readers, represent only a small fraction of Wilson's book. He displays his expertise in the study of social insects with fascinating details on the behavior of driver ants, leaf-cutter ants, termites, and bees. He addresses the "two culture" problem, the disconnect between the sciences and the humanities, by announcing and promoting the dawn of a New Enlightenment in which the new insights into provided by science on the origins and outlines of human nature can shape and encourage a new flowering of art, literature, and philosophy. He also takes on religion, describing it as an essentially destructive syndrome that exploits the tribal us-vs-them tendencies of human nature, promotes unreason, and ultimately causes good people to do bad things.

    Overall, The Meaning of Human Existence is an important contribution to our understanding of humanity and of our place on the Earth and in the universe. It is disturbing, thought provoking, fascinating, and highly recommended.


The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson, Liveright Publishing Corporation, NY (2014); ISBN: 978-0-87140-100-7.

Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon,  Gregory and James Benford, eds., Microwave Sciences (2013); ISBN: 978-1-93905-129-5.


Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretically longest lives. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else–and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy–that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.


(ed note: a cosmic accident raises the IQ of everybody on Terra to about 500, or beyond super-genius. Eventually they send out a faster-than-light starship to survey the stars in the local area))

Lewis spoke slowly in the quiet of the ship: “This makes nineteen planets we’ve visited, fourteen of them with intelligent life.”

Corinth’s memory went back over what he had seen, the mountains and oceans and forests of whole worlds, the life which blossomed in splendor or struggled only to live, and the sentience which had arisen to take blind nature in hand. It had been a fantastic variety of shape and civilization. Leaping, tailed barbarians howled in their swamps; a frail and gentle race, gray like silver-dusted lead, grew their big flowers for some unknown symbolic reason; a world smoked and blazed with the fury of nations locked in an atomic death clutch, pulling down their whole culture in a voluptuous hysteria of hate; beings of centaur shape flew between the planets of their own sun and dreamed of reaching the stars; the hydrogen-breathing monsters dwelling on a frigid, poisonous giant of a planet had evolved three separate species, so vast were the distances between; the world-civilization of a biped folk who looked almost human had become so completely and inflexibly organized that individuality was lost, consciousness itself was dimming toward extinction as antlike routine took the place of thought; a small snouted race had developed specialized plants which furnished all their needs for the taking, and settled down into a tropical paradise of idleness; one nation, of the many on a ringed world, had scorned wealth and power as motivations and given themselves to a passionate artistry. Oh, they had been many and strange, there was no imagining what diversity the universe had evolved, but even now Corinth could see the pattern.

Lewis elaborated it for him: “Some of those races were much older than ours, I’m sure. And yet, Pete, none of them is appreciably more intelligent than man was before the change. You see what it indicates?”

“Well, nineteen planets—and the stars in this galaxy alone number on the order of a hundred billion, and theory says most of them have planets—what kind of a sample is that?”

“Use your head, man! It’s a safe bet that under normal evolutionary conditions a race only gets so intelligent and then stops. None of those stars have been in the inhibitor field, you know. (the "inhibitor field" is the cosmic accident that raised humanity's IQ)

“It ties in; it makes good sense. Modern man is not essentially different from the earliest Homo sapiens, either. The basic ability of an intelligent species is that of adapting environment to suit its own needs, rather than adapting itself to environment. Thus, in effect, the thinking race can maintain fairly constant conditions. It’s as true for an Eskimo in his igloo as it is for a New Yorker in his air-conditioned apartment; but machine technology, once the race stumbles on to it, makes the physical surroundings still more constant. Agriculture and medicine stabilize the biological environment. In short—once a race reaches the intelligence formerly represented by an average I.Q. of 100 to, say, 150, it doesn’t need to become smarter than it is.

Corinth nodded. “Eventually surrogate brains are developed, too, to handle problems the unaided mind couldn’t deal with,” he said. “Computers, for instance; though writing is really the same principle.

From BRAIN WAVE by Poul Anderson (1954)

Alien Communication

There are some notes on talking to aliens here.

In the real world, communication with hypothetical extraterrestrials is such a huge problem that it may never be properly solved. Researchers are having enough problems trying to talk to porpoises, and they are from our own planet. Alien thought processes might be forever inscrutable. There is a good list of examples of inscrutable alien languages on TV Tropes.

In C. J. Cherryh's Chanur novels, the methane-breathing Tc'a species are almost impossible to be communicated with, since their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings. In Piers Anthony's KIRLIAN QUEST, the Slash use modulated laser beams. As did the deep space beings in Jack Williamson's TRAPPED IN SPACE. In Charles Sheffield's PROTEUS novels, the Logeinan life form uses an area of skin that has changing color dots. As does the intelligent squid in Arthur C. Clarke's The Shining Ones.

And just imagine the headaches of trying to communicate with a species that uses various scents and smells instead of sound. Or radio waves. Or modulated laser beams. Or rapid changes in skin color. Or all four combined.

...the vast majority of sentients (alien races) cannot directly communicate with each other.

Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large, or perhaps, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us.

So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lives in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between them may be close to impossible.

Luckily it's not really a big deal, because they usually don't have anything to talk about. Or so it appears, right up until said atomic matrix life form begins a simple operation to make the local sun go nova in order to harvest neutrinos, and to their surprise, are vigorously opposed by those gritty little creatures clinging to their large orbiting rocks, who have had to start throwing anti-matter around to get their attention, and things usually deteriorate from there.

From Buck Godot: The Gallimaufry by Phil Foglio

"This man Boyce," said Karellen. "Tell me all about him." The Supervisor did not use those actual words, of course, and the thoughts he really expressed were far more subtle. A human listener would have heard a short burst of rapidly modulated sound, not unlike a high-speed Morse sender in action. Though many samples of Overlord language had been recorded, they all defied analysis because of their extreme complexity. The speed of transmission made it certain that no Interpreter, even if he had mastered the elements of the language, could ever keep up with the Overlords in their normal conversation.

From Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1954)

Alien Psychology

The psychology of an alien species is any body's guess. It could be so alien as to be forever beyond our understanding. It could be quite human. Or somewhere in-between.

For science fiction authors who need a bit of help with creating an alien's motivations, there is a sophisticated alien psychology generation system in the role-playing game GURPS: Uplift. There is also a good tutorial and list of examples in science fiction on TV Tropes.

Additional help can be found below in the Ecosystem and Classification System sections.


(ed note: This is from a campaign book for the GURPS role playing game. In GURPS, only conventional six-sided dice are used, none of those weird polyhedral dice common in other RPGs. This campaign book allows games to be playing in David Brin's Uplift Universe.)


     Diet, reproductive patterns, social habits and more affect the personality of a species in the form of “traits.” There are eight basic traits: Bravery, Gregariousness, Egotism, Imagination, Empathy (not to be confused with the advantage), Curiosity, Chauvinism and Concentration. Each trait has three negative and three positive levels. Each is a quirk, advantage or disadvantage.
     Traits represent basic categories of behavior, which may give rise to specific mental advantages or disadvantages. They can be affected by diet, social systems, reproductive behavior and other factors. A creature's final balance of traits will govern its instincts.
     Homo sapiens is the norm on this scale; the Galactics are rated against them. Thus, the trait cost for the human race is zero.
     It's likely that a species’ traits will be changed when their clients mold their minds and bodies (see Chapter 4). Be sure to record the original selection of traits; if a member of an uplifted species suffers a bout of Stress Atavism, it may act according to age-old instinct.
     Traits which are not changed during uplift will exist in the final, uplifted form of the species. But please note that ultimately it is the player who determines the actions of his or her PC! The most important thing the process of uplift gives a species is self-awareness, the root of free will.

     Listed below are new quirks, advantages and disadvantages used to describe the behavior of species described in the Family, Friends and Foes chapter. They are categorized according to the eight personality traits. 1-point disadvantages without defined effects (other than roleplaying) are considered "quirks."

(ed note: For example, under the Concentration personality trait: "single minded" is worth +5 points so it is an advantage, "short attention span" is worth -10 points so it is a disadvantage, and "distractable" is worth -1 points so it is a quirk. Advantages, disadvantages, and quirks are assigned below)

     New races generated using the “uplift” rules in this book may also acquire these. These are inborn, genetic traits, part of a species’ (pardon the term) “human nature." See Determining Personality Traits, p. 74.
     They may also be bought and used by characters as ordinary quirks, advantages and disadvantages.

(ed note: science fiction writers can just ignore anything about points, rolls, penalties, and things like that. They are used when playing the actual game, but writers just want to know how the aliens act)


     This is a measure of the whole species’ "ego," and its tendency to bond into in-groups.

Xenophobia -15 points
     The species instinctively hates outsiders. Social conditioning hardly matters; such species rarely beget clients. The Brothers of the Night are Xenophobic. This is rabid Intolerance; unless they can make a Will roll, they suffer a -5 reaction penalty.
Intolerance (Racial) -5 points
     The species instinctively dislikes outsiders. If the race has high Empathy or Gregariousness, it may include clan members in the “in group." Soro, who get along fine with their clients, are intolerant. Instinctive; can be ignored if a Will roll is made.
Chauvinistic (quirk) -1 point
The species is always aware of racial differences, even if there is no reaction penalty to other races.
Broad-Minded (quirk) -1 point
The species has low self-identity. Gets along well with other species; strange looks rarely bother them. Can ignore up to 2 points of reaction penalty to another race.
Undiscriminating (quirk) -1 point
Members of this species find it hard to make “us vs. them” comparisons. They are not necessarily empathetic; they just attach no importance at all to race. They are not likely to bond into any sort of strong group. Can ignore up to 3 points of reaction penalty to another race.
Xenophilia -5 points
The species is instinctively fascinated and attracted by strangers and aliens. +1 on reaction rolls and fright checks when meeting strange creatures.
Strong Xenophilia -15 points
The species is very fascinated and attracted by strangers and aliens. +3 on reaction rolls and fright checks when meeting strange creatures. Fun to roleplay.


     This is a measure of how much the species‘ individuals can concentrate on a single action, plan ahead, and think "deep thoughts.”

Single-Minded 5 points
When a Single-Minded creature puts its mind to something, it concentrates! +3 bonus when working on lengthy tasks, or when tracking prey. May ignore other important tasks while obsessed (make a Will roll to avoid this). -5 to notice interruptions.
Attentive (quirk) -1 point
These creatures tend to stick to one task until it’s done. +1 bonus when working on lengthy tasks, but -1 to notice any important interruption!
Distractible (quirk) -1 point
Members of the species are easily distracted, and don't do well on long-term projects. -1 when rolling to accomplish long tasks.
Short Attention Span -10 points
Individuals of the species have a problem concentrating on any one object or task for more than a few minutes. Roll vs. IQ to maintain interest in something for an extended period; failure means amomaric failure at that phase of any long task.


     This is the tendency for individuals to go out of their way to investigate new things and yearn for adventure.

Very Curious -10 points
Members of this race are compelled to look over anything remotely interesting. Roll vs. Will-3 to avoid investigating things.
Curious -5 points
The species is naturally inquisitive. When presented with an interesting item or situation, they must roll vs. Will to avoid examining it, even though it might be dangerous.
Nosy (quirk) -1 point
Nosy creatures are very curious, poking their nose into corners and everyone’s business.
Staid (quirk) -1 point
These creatures are likely to ignore matters that don't immediately affect them.
Incurious -5 points
The species hardly notices things outside of the business at hand. Roll vs. IQ to avoid ignoring something strange. -l reaction to new things.
Obdurate -10 points
Members of the species actually dislike novelty, and usually ignore it. -3 reaction to new things; roll vs. IQ-3 to bother to investigate something new.


     This determines the sense of personal importance that the members of the species have.

Self-Centered -10 points
Like Selfish, but more extreme. Self-Centered beings react at -6 to any perceived slight. Most Self-Centered races either fight among themselves constantly, or have elaborate rituals to avoid constant battle.
Selfish -5 points
Members of the race are very conscious of status, and spend much of their time striving for social dominance. Species with this trait often subliminate their striving for status in ritual and complex caste systems. Selfish characters react at -3 to orders, insults or social slights.
Proud (quirk) -1 point
Members of the race are very concerned about their own individual success, wealth and/or social standing. They feel a need for individual importance.
Humble (quirk) -1 point
Members of Humble species tend to put the concerns of others, or of the group, before their own.
Selfless -10 points
Selfless individuals have a very low sense of self. Think of Gunga Din … Includes one level of Weak Will.
Hive Mentality -20 points
Members of the race place no importance on personal fame and wealth, and little on comfort or even survival. They will willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the race. Includes two levels of Weak Will.


     This is a measure of whether the species cart sense, or comprehend, the feelings and attitudes of others.

Charitable -15 points
These creatures are aware of others’ emotions and are compelled to help others, even enemies. This is the equivalent of a weak Sense of Duty to sentient life; a character can avoid compulsion by making a Will roll.
Sensitive 5 points
Treat this like Empathy (p. B20), but all rolls are made at a -3.
Responsive (quirk) -1 point
These creatures are able to imagine the feelings and motivations of others, though whether they care about them depends on other factors.
Oblivious -3 points
Creatures with this disadvantage have a hard time "figuring out" the behavior of other creatures. They tend to be out of touch in social situations — classic “nerds.” -1 penalty when using (or resisting) Fast-Talk or any social skill.
Callous -6 points
Though not necessarily cruel, Callous creatures care little about the pain of others. They ignore lost, crying children and push aside beggars. Ebenezer Scrooge was callous. -2 penalty when using (or resisting) Fast-Talk or any social skill.
Solipsist -10 points
Members of the race can't really see anyone but themselves as real, even if they enjoy the company of others. -3 penalty when using (or resisting) Fast-Talk or any social skill.


     This is a measure of the species’ need (or dislike) for company.

Gregarious -10 points
Company, preferably lots of it, is a necessity. They react at +4 to others of the same species. They are miserable (roleplay it!) when alone and suffer a -2 penalty when using mental skills, or -1 when in a group of four or less.
Chummy -5 points
Chummy creatures work well together and seek out company They react at +2 to others of the same species — and possibly other species, if they're not chauvinists. They are very unhappy and distracted when alone, and suffer a -1 penalty when using mental skills.
Congenial (quirk) -1 point
Members of congenial species like company, and work well with others.
Uncongenial (quirk) -1 point
Members of the race prefer to be alone, or in small groups.
Loner -5 points
Loner react at -2 to others nearby under most circumstances. They tend to require a great deal of “personal space.”
Reclusive -10 points
Reclusive individuals find the mere presence of other beings extremely annoying. -4 reaction modifier to almost anybody.


     Imaginative creatures tend to come up with new ideas and find patterns in seemingly “random” data.

Versatile 5 points
Extremely imaginative. Gets a +1 bonus for skills requiring creativity or invention.
Imaginative (quirk) -1 point
The creature is a font of ideas. They may or may not be good ideas, of course. Roleplay it.
Dreamer (quirk) -1 point
Dreamers have a -1 on any long task, because they tend to spend time thinking of better ways to do it, rather than working.
Dull (quirk) -1 point
Dull beings rarely innovate. They stick with tried and true methods.
Hidebound -5 points
Hidebound species find it very hard to come up with an original thought. -2 penalty on skills that require invention or creativity.


     This trait determines how the species reacts toward new things — with pleasure or with fear or distrust. A very suspicious creature may be paranoid by human standards!

Edgy -5 points
These creatures tend to assume that all unexpected events are dangerous, and that the universe is a hostile place. -1 penalty on Fright Checks.
Careful Quirk -1 point
The species is naturally cautious, always on the lookout for danger.
Cool Quirk 1 point
Members of cool species hate histrionics and keep calm under pressure. +1 bonus on Fright Checks.
Collected 5 points
Very hard to panic. Assumes events are non-threatening unless there is clear proof of danger. +3 bonus to fright checks.
Imperturbable 10 points
A veritable rock; calm and collected in the face of danger, sometimes to the point of foolishness. +5 bonus to fright checks. This is not the same as Overconfidence, but the two make a suicidally brave combination.

Personality Trait Modifiers

(ed note: When the alien body system is used {see elsewhere}, certain body results can increase or decrease the value of one of the eight traits. Other body results can add trait advantages or disadvantages. For example, body result of Diet: Carnivore: Herder has a chance of increasing the alien's Gregariousness trait by +1 or +2.

Chances are determined by rolling a pair of conventional 6-sided dice and totaling the number. If the number is within the specified range, the chance succeeds. For example, if the chance succeeds on a roll of 3-6, it succeeds if the total on the two dice are 3, 4, 5, or 6)

(The eight traits all start at zero, and are increased and decreased during the alien body system generation. Keep a running total of each of the eight traits.)

  • Diet: Carnivore automatically have Suspicion -1. This is true of all carnivore types
  • Diet: Carnivore: Stalker (e.g., tiger) automatically have Imagination +1 and Concentration +1. Roll of 3-10 gives Empathy +1
  • Diet: Carnivore: Pouncer (e.g., leopard) roll of 3-8 give Concentration +1
  • Diet: Carnivore: Trapper (e.g., spider) automatically have Alertness +1
  • Diet: Carnivore: Chaser (e.g., cheetah) roll of 3-6 give Empathy +1, roll of 3-8 give Gregariousness +1 (roll separately for each)
  • Diet: Carnivore: Herder (e.g., wolf pack) roll of 3-6 gives Gregariousness +2 but if the roll is 7-11 it is only Gregariousness +1
  • Diet: Carnivore: Scavenger (e.g., hyena) roll of 6-9 gives Empathy -1, roll of 3-6 gives suspicious +1
  • Diet: Omnivore: Gatherer/Hunter (e.g., chimps and humans) roll of 6-7 gives Imagination +1
  • Diet: Omnivore: Opportunistic Browser (e.g., pigs) roll of 6-9 gives Imagination +1, roll of 6-9 gives Concentration +1
  • Diet: Omnivore: Hunter/Browser (e.g., raccoons and bears) roll of 3-8 gives Curiosity +1, roll of 3-8 gives Imagination +1
  • Diet: Herbivore: Saprophytes (e.g., fungi) automatically have Curiosity -2, Imagination -1, Concentration -1, Empathy -1
  • Diet: Herbivore: Grazing (e.g., horses and cows) automatically have Imagination -1, roll of 3-9 gives Curiosity -1, roll of 3-6 gives Suspicion +2 but if the roll is 7-11 it is only Suspicion +1, roll of 6-9 gives Concentration -1, roll of 3-10 gives Empathy -1
  • Diet: Herbivore: Browsing (e.g., goats) roll of 6-9 gives Imagination -1, roll of 3-6 gives Suspicion +1, roll of 6-9 gives Concentration -1, roll of 6-9 gives Empathy -1
  • Diet: Herbivore: Gathering (e.g., fruit bats) roll of 6-7 gives Imagination -1, roll of 6-7 gives Concentration -1, rol of 6-9 gives Empathy -1
  • Diet: Ergivore: Pure (e.g., radiotrophic fungus) automatically have Imagination -1, Concentration -1, and Empathy -1. Roll of 6-9 gives Chauvinism -1
  • Diet: Ergivore: Rooted (e.g., plants) automatically has Imagination -1, roll of 3-8 gives Concentration -1, roll of 3-8 gives Empathy -1, roll of 6-9 gives Chauvinism -1
  • Diet: Ergivore: Tapper (e.g., creature wanders around seeking hihg-energy sources) roll of 6-9 gives Concentration +1, roll of -9 give Imagination +1
  • Size: Huge (e.g., 400 to 900 pounds) automatically have Suspicion -1
  • Size: Giant (e.g., more than 900 pounds) automatically have Suspicion -2

(ed note: Society type is determined by rolling two dice and adding or subtracting the diet factor:)

Diet Factor
Diet: Carnivore: Stalker-3
Diet: Carnivore: Pouncer-2
Diet: Carnivore: Chaser-1
Diet: Carnivore: Herder+1
Diet: Omnivore: Gatherer/Hunter+2
Diet: Omnivore: Opportunistic Browser+1
Diet: Omnivore: Hunter/Browser+1
Diet: Herbivore: Grazing+3
Diet: Herbivore: Browsing+2
Diet: Herbivore: Gathering2
Diet: Ergivore: Pure-4
Diet: Ergivore: Rooted-3
Diet: Ergivore: Tapper-2
Society Type
2d6 roll
plus diet factor
TypeTrait Modification
1 or lessSolitaryauto Gregariousness -1
auto Suspicion +1
roll 3-10 gives Empathy -1
roll 3-10 gives Egotism +1
2-3Pair-bondingroll 3-6 gives Empathy -1
roll 6-9 gives Egotism +1
roll 3-10 gives Gregariousness -1
roll 3-10 gives Suspicion +1
4Family Grouproll 3-8 gives Chauvinism +1
roll 3-6 gives Suspicion +1
5-6Pack/trooproll 3-6 gives Chauvinism +2 but roll 7-11 gives Chauvinism +1
roll 3-6 gives Egotism -1
roll 3-6 gives Gregariousness +1
7-8Herdroll 7 gives Empathy +1
roll 6-9 gives Egotism -1
roll 6-9 gives Gregariousness +1
roll 6-9 gives Chauvinism +1
roll 6-9 gives Suspicion +1
9 or higherHiveauto Egotism -1
auto Suspicion +1
roll 3-8 gives Empathy +1
roll 3-10 gives Gregariousness +1
roll 3-8 gives Chauvinism +1

Assigning Advantages, Disadvantages, and Quirks

(ed note: at this point you will have a running total in each of the eight personality traits. A total that is positive or negative will assign an advantage, disadvantage, or a quirk for that trait. A total of zero does nothing, since it means that trait is Human Normal.)


     This is a measure of the entire species’ ego. Unless socialized to include others in its “in group,” individuals of chauvinistic species tend to be individually bigoted or patronistic; as a species they are often rebellious, resentful clients who become oppressive patrons. The Soro are a good example of a chauvinistic clan. Below-normal chauvinism, a rarity in the Five Galaxies, makes for an adaptable, friendly species.

+3 or moreChauvinistic Quirk. As +2, but if Suspicion is greater than +1, this becomes Xenophobia
+2Chauvinistic Quirk. If Empathy is less than 1 or Suspicion is more than -1, this becomes Racial Intolerance
+1Chauvinistic Quirk. If Empathy is less than 0 or Suspicion is more than 0, this becomes Racial Intolerance
0Human Normal
-1Broad-Minded Quirk
-2Broad-Minded Quirk. If Suspicion is below 0 and Empathy is above 0, this becomes Xenophilia.
-3 or lessUndiscriminating Quirk. If Empathy is above 0 or Suspicion is below, this becomes Xenophilia.
If both of these are true, it becomes Strong Xenophilia


     This is a measure of how much the species’ individuals can concentrate on a single action, plan ahead, and think “deep thoughts." At high levels, this may result in "savant" abilities. At low levels, habit and instinct take over.

+3 or moreSingle-Minded and either High Pain Threshold, Mathematical Ability, Musical Ability or Language Talent.
The creator may choose one, or roll randomly.
+1Attentive Quirk
0Human Normal
-1Distractible Quirk
-2Short Attention Span
-3 or lessAbsent-Minded


     This is the tendency for individuals to go out of their way to investigate new things, appreciate art, and yearn for adventure. Note that if a creature is not curious, it may still notice something new; it just doesn't find it worthy of attention.

+3 or moreVery Curious. If Concentration or Suspicion is 0 or less, all future Curiosity rolls will be at -2.
+2Curious. If Concentration is 0 or less, all future Curiosity rolls will be at -2.
+1Nosy Quirk. If Concentration is 0 or less, this becomes the Curious disadvantage.
0h>Human Normal
-1Staid Quirk
-2Incurious. If Suspicion is below 0, this becomes Obdurate.
-3 or lessObdurate


     This determines the sense of personal’ importance that the members of the species have. If a race has low egotistn, its members will put their own interests below those of the race.

+3 or moreSelf-Centered
+2Selfish. If Suspicion is +1 or more, or Empathy is -1 or less, this becomes Self-Centered.
+1Proud Quirk.
A high Suspicion score enhances this.
If Suspicion is +1, this becomes Selfish.
If Suspicion is +2 or more, or Empathy is -2 or less, this becomes Self-Centered.
0Human Normal.
-1Humble Quirk
-2Selfless. But if Chauvinism is +2 or higher, take Hive Mentality instead.
-3 or lessHive Mentality


     This is a measure of whether the Species can sense, or comprehend, the feelings and attitudes of others.

+3 or moreEmpathy advantage. If Gregariousness is above 0, the race is also automatically Charitable.
If Gregariousness is +1 or better, roll 3 dice; the race is Charitable on a result of 8 or less.
+1Responsive Quirk.
If Gregariousness is above 0 and Suspicion below 0, replace this with Sensitive.
0Human Normal.
-2Callous. If the race is carnivorous, there is a 1 in 6 chance of Bloodlust
-3 or lessSolipsist. If the race is carnivorous, there is a 50 % chance of Bloodlust


     This is a measure of the species’ need (or dislike) for company. Note that this interacts with Chauvinism. The less chauvinistic a race is, the more its liking for company will extend to other species.

+3 or moreGregarious
+1Congenial Quirk
0Human Normal
-1Unocongenial Quirk
-3 or lessReclusive


     A measure of how good individuals of the species are at coming up with new ideas and seeing patterns in seemingly "random" data.

+3As for +1,
but must have Empathy +1 or better, or get the Odious Racial Habit “Won’t shut up about their great ideas!”
+2As for +1,
but if Egotism is above 0 or Concentration is below +1, the species also gets the Dreamer quirk.
It is possible to be Versatile and a Dreamer.
+1Imaginative Quirk.
Exception: If Concentration is 0 or better, and Egotism is below +2, the species gets the Versatile advantage
-1Dull Quirk
-3Hidebound and -1 IQ.


     This trait determines how the species reacts toward new things — with pleasure or with fear or distrust.

+3 or moreEdgy.
Also, roll 3d (+3 if Carnivore, -3 if Herbivore.)
If the roll is under 10, the species has Cowardice.
Otherwise it is Paranoid.
+2Edgy. If Curiosity is -3, the race is merely Careful Quirk.
+1Careful Quirk. But if Curiosity is -2 or less, treat Suspicion as normal.
0Human Normal.
-1Cool Quirk
-2Collected. If Egotism is +2 or greater, the race is Overconfident.
-3 or lessImperturbable. If Egotism is +1 or greater, the race is Overconfident

Combining Traits

     These traits can form the basis of dozens of personality types. Humble, Chauvinistic and Chummy make for a loyal, eager-to-please follower type. Add Suspicion and Single-Minded and you've got a soldier. Sympathy, Chummy, Single-Minded and Chauvinistic is a good combination for a diplomat who must deal with strange races yet retain a sense of purpose. Imagination and low Concentration might result in a brilliant “flake. " Curiosity and moderate Suspicion could make a great explorer; add Chauvinism and Egotism for a conquistador!

     If two traits seem opposed, compensating behaviors — often quite complex — may evolve. For example, Proud matched with Chummy may lead to constant, ritualistic struggles for dominance. Wolves, who are both individualistic and sociable, have just this sort of society.

     This is not always true if uplift changes or clan indoctrination result in curious combinations of traits. Egotism combined with low Empathy and Gregariousness might lead to a race impelled to seek out company … and constantly gets into fights because they are socially inept. In many cases the dichotomy may drive individuals of such species slowly mad! Only the most experienced uplifters can integrate the opposing traits, creating instinctive rituals and psychological “pressure valves" to compensate.

(ed note: You the author now have a general personality profile of an average member of this alien species)

From GURPS: UPLIFT 1st ed by Stefan Jones (1990)

Ecosystem Psychology

Some clues to an alien species psychology might be found in their ecosystem classification. For instance, herbivores might be skittish, only comfortable in groups, and tend to flee if they feel threatened. Poul Anderson used this concept quite a bit with the aliens in his novels.

In James P. Hogan's The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, on the giant's planet the herbivores evolved a third circulatory system full of toxins which made their flesh poisonous to carnivores. It was so effective that carnivores became extinct. The herbivores evolved to look like animal illustrations from a nursery or kindergarten story book, all cute, plump and cuddly. You can evolve that way with no ill effects if your planet has no predators that want to kill and eat you. The end result was that the giant psychology has no confrontation, pride, or sense of danger.

Larry Niven's Puppeteers evolved from herbivores. They are the cowards of the universe, their leader is called "The Hindmost" because it is the furthest from any danger. In Puppeteer society, courage is seen as a mental illness. Puppeteers are pragmatic to a fault. Human traits such as wishful thinking and superstition are nonexistent. This means there is no level of danger that they'd consider to be an acceptable risk, the only acceptable level is 0%. They are willing to go to any lengths to protect themselves from perceived danger and provide a safer environment for themselves.

In Niven and Pournelle's classic novel Footfall, the alien Fithp are herd creatures. They do not understand how or why you would possibly initiate diplomacy before first fighting to see which party was dominant. When a Fithp is defeated, it surrenders, and thereafter becomes totally devoted and subservient to its conqueror.

Fithp are horrified when they defeat humans in battle, the humans surrender, then the humans suddenly break their surrender and counter-attack. To the Fithp, this is mad-dog behavior, and the humans are treated as such.

In James White's Sector General series, the alien species called Kelgians are incapable of using tact. They look like two-meter-long caterpillars with coats of silvery hair in constant rippling motion. The motion is completely involuntary, and reveals to all other Kelgians exactly what the entity in question feels about the subject under discussion. Since is it obvious what Kelgians are thinking, they always say exactly what they mean. The concepts of diplomacy, tact, and lying are completely alien to them.


(ed note: Chee Lan is a Cynthian, an alien resembling an angora cat. Adzel is a Wodenite, resembling a cross between centaur and a dragon. The team is trying to figure out the psychology of the Shenna of Dathyna.)

He drained his beer. Soothed thereby, he lit his pipe, settled back, and rumbled, "We got our experience and information. Also we got analogues for help. I don't think any sophonts could be total unique, in this big a universe. So we can draw on our understanding about other races.

"Like you, Chee Lan, for instance: we know you is a carnivore—but a small one—and this means you got instincts for being tough and aggressive within reason."

"You, Adzel, is a big omnivore, so big your ancestors didn't never need to carry chips on their shoulders, nor fish either; your breed tends more to be peaceful, but hellish independent too, in a quiet way; somebody tries for dictating your life, you don't kill him like Chee would, no, you plain don't listen at him."

"And we humans, we is omnivores too, but our primate ancestors went hunting in packs, and they got built in a year-around sex drive; from these two roots springs everything what makes a man a human being. Hokay? I admit this is too generalistic, but still, if we could fit what we know about the Shenna in one broad pattern—"

From SATAN'S WORLD by Poul Anderson (1968)

(ed note: On the dying planet t'Kela is a small base established by idealistic humans from the planet Esperance. They think that with a big investment and a alot of technology the decay of the ecosphere can be reversed and the native aliens rescued from extinction. Joyce Davisson has been working at the base for about a year

Nicholas van Rijn, the pragmatic but erudite owner of the Solar Spice And Liquor company, is visiting the base. He was in that section of space and heard rumor about some local product that could be a lucrative trade item. Aliens living on the planet Throra think the spices on t'Kela are delicious. Side note: "Rijn" rhymes with "Fine".

But one night the base is attacked by the natives.)

      An explosion went crump. She (Joyce) heard small things rattle on her desk top and felt her bed shaken. Suddenly the glissandos were louder in her head, and a snarl of drumtaps accompanied them, a banging on metal and a crashing as objects were knocked off shelves. The attackers must have blown down the door of the machine section and swarmed through. Only where could they have gotten the gunpowder?
     Where but in Kusulongo the City?
     That meant the Ancients had decided the humans were better killed. The fear of death went through Joyce in a wave. It passed on, leaving bewilderment and pain, as if she were a child struck for no reason. Why had they done this to her, who came for nothing but to help them?

(ed note:van Rijn and Joyce are knocked down by an explosion, and the rest of the Esperancian leave them for dead and flee the planet in their starship. van Rijn and Joyce try to figure out their options. Which are few on a planet where they cannot even breath the atmosphere.)

     "Where we go now?" he (van Rijn) demanded. "To yonder town on the mountain? You said they was local big cheeses."
     "The Ancients? No!" Joyce stiffened. "They must be the ones who caused this."
     "Ha? Why so?"
     "I don't know, I don't know. They were so helpful before … But it has to be them. They incited … No one else could have. W—we never made any enemies among the clans. As soon as we had their biochemistry figured out, we synthesized medicines and—and helped them—" Joyce found suddenly that she could cry. She leaned her helmet in her hands and let go all emotional holds.

(ed note: they escape in a groundcar, a mobile base with life-support, food, and a range of several thousand kilometers)

     "What he say?" van Rijn asked. Joyce translated. "So. What use to us, making league with savages out here? We only need to wait for rescue."
     "If it comes," Joyce said. She shivered. "When they hear about this at Esperance, they'll send an expedition to try and learn what went wrong. But not knowing we're alive, they may not hurry it enough."
     "My people will," van Rijn assured her. "The Polesotechnic League looks after its own, by damn. So soon as word gets to Earth, a warship comes for full investigation. Inside a month."
     "Oh, wonderful," Joyce breathed. She went limp and sat down again.
     Van Rijn scowled. "Natural," he ruminated, "they cannot search a whole planet. They will know I was at that bestinkered Kusulongo place, and land there. I suppose those Oldsters or Seniles or whatever you call them is sophisticated enough by now in interstellar matters to fob the crew off with some story, if we are not nearby to make contact. So … we must remain in their area, in radio range. And radio range has to be pretty close on a red dwarf's planet, where ionosphere characteristicals are poor. But close to our enemies we cannot come so well, if they are whooping after us the whole time. They can dig traps or throw crude bombs or something … one way or other, they can kill us even in this car. Ergo, we must establish ourselves as too strong to attack, in the very neighborhood of Kusulongo. This means we need allies. So you have right, we must certain go along to your friend's peoples."
     "But you can't make them fight their own race!" Joyce protested.
     Van Rijn twirled his mustache. "Can't I just?" he grinned.
     "I mean … I don't know how, in any practical sense … but even if you could, it would be wrong."
     "Um-m-m." He regarded her for a while. "You Esperancers is idealists, I hear. Your ancestors settled your planet for a Utopian community, and you is still doing good for everybody even at this low date, nie? Your mission to help this planet here was for no profit, except it makes you feel good …"
     "And as a matter of foreign policy," Joyce admitted, under the honesty fetish of her culture. "By assisting other races, we gain their goodwill and persuade them, a little, to look at things our way. If Esperance has enough such friends, we'll be strong and influential without having to maintain armed services."
     "From what I see, I doubt very much you ever make nice little vestrymen out of these t'Kelans." "Well … true … they are out-and-out carnivores. But then, man started as a carnivorous primate, didn't he? And the t'Kelans in this area did achieve an agricultural civilization once, thousands of years ago. That is, grain was raised to feed meat animals. Kusulongo the City is the last remnant. The ice age wiped it out otherwise, leaving savagery—barbarism at most. But given improved conditions, I'm sure the autochthones could recreate it. They'll never have unified nations or anything, as we understand such things. They aren't gregarious enough. But they could develop a world order and adopt machine technology."
     "Except, from what you tell me, those snakes squatting on top of the mountain don't want that." (the Ancients living in Kusulongo the City on top of the mountain. The ones who ordered the attack on the human base)
     Joyce paused only briefly to wonder how a snake could squat, before she nodded. "I guess so. Though I can't understand why. The Ancients were so helpful at first."
     Van Rijn clicked his tongue. "Not so promising materials, that," he said. "You civilize them if you can. I am content to get home unpunctured by very sharp-looking spears, me." He rekindled his pipe and sat down beside her. "To do this, I must understand the situation. Suppose you explain. Some I have heard before, but no harm to repeat."

     "Well, to begin with, this is a very unusual planet. Not physically. I mean, there's nothing strange about a type M dwarf star having a planet at a distance of half an A.U., with a mass about forty percent greater than Earth's."
     "So much? Must be low density, then. Metal-poor."
     "Yes. The sun is extremely old. Fewer heavy atoms were available at the time it formed with its planets. T'Kela's overall specific gravity is only four-point-four. It does have some iron and copper, of course … As I'm sure you know, life gets started slowly on such worlds. Their suns emit so little ultraviolet, even in flare periods, that the primordial organic materials aren't energized to interact very fast. Nevertheless, life does start eventually, in oceans of liquid ammonia."
     "Ja. And usual goes on to develop photosynthesis using ammonia and carbon dioxide, to make carbohydrates and the nitrogen that the animals breathe." Van Rijn tapped his sloping forehead. "So much I have even in this dumb old bell. But why does evolution go different now and then, like on here and Throra?" (Throra is an alien inhabited planet in a nearby star system with a similar ecosystem)
     "Nobody knows for sure. Some catalytic agent, perhaps. In any event, even at low temperatures like these, all the water isn't solid. A certain amount is present in the oceans, as part of the ammonium hydroxide molecule. T'Kelan or Throran plant cells have an analogue of chlorophyll, which does the same job: using gaseous carbon dioxide and 'dissolved' water to get carbohydrates and free oxygen. The animals reverse the process, much as they do on Earth. But the water they release isn't exhaled. It remains in their tissues, loosely held by a specialized molecule. When an organism dies and decays, this water is taken up by plants again. In other words, H-two-O here acts very much like nitrogenous organic material on our kind of planets."
     "But the oxygen the plants give off, it attacks ammonia."
     "Yes. The process is slow, especially since solid ammonia is denser than the liquid phase. It sinks to the bottom of lakes and oceans, which protects it from the air. Nevertheless, there is a gradual conversion. Through a series of steps, ammonia and oxygen yield free nitrogen and water. The water freezes out. The seas shrink; the air becomes poorer in oxygen; the desert areas grow."
     "This I know from Throra. But there a balance was struck. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria evolved and the drying-out was halted, a billion years ago. So they told me once."
     "Throra was lucky. It's a somewhat bigger planet than t'Kela, isn't it? Denser atmosphere, therefore more heat conservation. The greenhouse effect on such worlds depends on carbon dioxide and ammonia vapor. Well, several thousand years ago, t'Kela passed a critical point. Just enough ammonia was lost to reduce the greenhouse effect sharply. As the temperature fell, more and more liquid ammonia turned solid and went to the bottom, where it's also quite well protected against melting. This made the climatic change catastrophically sudden. Temperatures dropped so low that now carbon dioxide also turns liquid, or even solid, through part of the year. There's still some vapor in the atmosphere, in equilibrium, but very little. The greenhouse effect really dropped off!
     "Plant life was gravely affected, as you can imagine. It can't grow without carbon dioxide and ammonia to build its tissues. Animal life died out with it. Areas the size of a Terrestrial continent became utterly barren, almost overnight. I told you that the native agricultural civilization was wiped out. Worse, though, we've learned from geology that the nitrogen-fixing bacteria were destroyed. Completely. They couldn't survive the winter temperatures. So there's no longer any force to balance the oxidation of ammonia. The deserts encroach everywhere, year by year … and t'Kela's year is only six-tenths Standard. Evolution has worked hard, adapting life to the change, but the pace is now too rapid for it. We estimate that all higher animals, including the natives, will be extinct within another millennium. In ten thousand years there'll be nothing alive here."
     Van Rijn blew foul clouds of smoke a while in silence. Finally he rumbled almost gently, "But you have a cure program worked out, ja?"
     "Oh … oh, yes. We do. The research is completed and we were about ready to summon engineers." She found comfort in proceeding.
     "The ultimate solution, of course, is to reintroduce nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Our labs have designed an extremely productive strain. It will need a suitable ecology, though, to survive: which means a lot of work with soil chemistry, a microagricultural program. We can hasten everything—begin to show results in a decade—by less subtle methods. In fact, we'll have to do so, or the death process will outrun anything that bacteria can accomplish.
     "What we'll do is melt and electrolyze water. The oxygen can be released directly into the air, refreshing it. But some will go to burn local hydrocarbons. T'Kela is rich in petroleum. This burning will generate carbon dioxide, thus strengthening the greenhouse effect. The chemical energy released can also supplement the nuclear power stations we'll install: to do the electrolysis and to energize the combination of hydrogen from water with nitrogen from the atmosphere, recreating ammonia."
     "A big expensive job, that," van Rijn said.
     "Enormous. The biggest thing Esperance has yet undertaken. But the plans and estimates have been drawn up. We know we can do it."
     "If the natives don't go potshotting engineers for exercise after lunch."
     "Yes." Joyce's blond head sank low. "That would make it impossible. We have to have the good will of all of them, everywhere. They'll have to cooperate, work with us and each other, in a planet-wide effort. And Kusulongo the City influences a quarter of the whole world! What have we done? I thought they were our friends …"

     "Odd, when you come here to help them. By damn, but you was a bunch of mackerel heads! You should have begun with depth psychology first of all. That fool planetography could wait … Rotten, stinking mackerel, glows blue in the dark …". "You must tell me much, but we begin with going back to why the natives are not so polite to anybody who works for your mission." (natives like Uulobu who work for the Esperancian are treated with scorn by the other natives)
     "Well … as nearly as Uulobu could get it across to me, those who came to us were landless. That is, they'd stopped maintaining themselves in their ancestral hunting grounds. This means a tremendous loss of respectability. Then, too, he confessed—very bashfully—that our helpers' prestige suffered because we never involved them in any fights. The imputation grew up that they were cowards."
     "A warlike culture, ha?"
     "N-no. That's the paradox. They don't have wars, or even vendettas, in our sense. Fights are very small-scale affairs, though they happen constantly. I suppose that arises from the political organization. Or does it? We've noticed the same thing in remote parts of t'Kela, among altogether different societies from the Horde culture."
     "Explain that."
     "As I said, we never did carry out intensive xenological research, even locally," she told him. "But we do know that the basic social unit is the same everywhere on this world, what we call the pride. It springs from the fact that the sex ratio is about three females to one male. Living together you have the oldest male, his wives, their offspring of subadult age. All males, and females unencumbered with infants, share in hunting, though only males fight other t'Kelans. The small—um—children help out in the work around camp. So do any widows of the leader's father that he's taken in. The size of such a pride ranges up to twenty or so. That's as many as can make a living in an area small enough to cover afoot, on this desert planet."
     "I see. The t'Kelan pride answers to the human family. It is just as universal, too, right? I suppose larger units get organized in different ways, depending on the culture."
     "Yes. The most backward savages have no organization larger than the pride. But the Kusulongo society, as we call it—the Horde people—the biggest and most advanced culture, spread over half the northern hemisphere—it has a more elaborate superstructure. Ten or twenty prides form what we call a clan, a cooperative group claiming descent from a common male ancestor, controlling a large territory through which they follow the wild herds. The clans in turn are loosely federated into Hordes, each of which holds an annual get-together in some traditional oasis. That's when they trade, socialize, arrange marriages—newly adult males get wives and start new prides—yes, and they adjudicate quarrels, by arbitration or combat, at such times. There's a lot of squabbling among clans, you see, over points of honor or practical matters like ammonia wells. One nearly always marries within one's own Horde; it has its own dress, customs, gods, and so forth."
     "No wars between Hordes?" Van Rijn asked.
     "No, unless you want to call the terrible things that happen during a Völkerwanderung a war. Normally, although individual units from different Hordes may clash, there isn't any organized campaigning. I suppose they simply haven't the economic surplus to maintain armies in the field."
     "Um-m-m. I suspect, me, the reason goes deeper than that. When humans want to have wars, by damn, they don't let any little questions of if they can afford it stop them. I doubt t'Kelans would be any different. Um-m-m." Van Rijn's free hand tugged his goatee. "Maybe here is a key that goes tick-a-lock and solves our problem, if we know how to stick it in."
     "Well," Joyce said, "the Ancients are also a war preventive. They settle most inter-Horde disputes, among other things."
     "Ah, yes, those fellows on the mountain. Tell me about them."
     "The Ancients are survivors of the lost civilization," she said. "They hung on in their city, and kept the arts that were otherwise forgotten. That kind of life doesn't come natural to most t'Kelans. I gather that in the course of thousands of years, those who didn't like it there wandered down to join the nomads, while occasional nomads who thought the city would be congenial went up and were adopted into the group. That would make for some genetic selection. The Ancients are a distinct psychological type. Much more reserved and … intellectual, I guess you'd call it … than anyone else."
     "How they make their living?" Van Rijn asked around a mouthful.
     "They provide services and goods for which they are paid in kind. They are scribes, who keep records; physicians; skilled metallurgists; weavers of fine textiles; makers of gunpowder, though they only sell fireworks and keep a few cannon for themselves. They're credited with magical powers, of course, especially because they can predict solar flares."
     "And they was friendly until yesterday?"
     "In their own aloof, secretive fashion. They must have been plotting the attack on us for some time, though, egging on the Shanga (the native group who actually attacked the base, while the Ancients watched from their mountain) and furnishing the powder to blow open our dome. I still can't imagine why. I'm certain they believed us when we explained how we'd come to save their race from extinction."
     "Ja, no doubt. Only maybe at first they did not see all the implications." Van Rijn finished eating, belched, picked his teeth with a fingernail, and relapsed into brooding silence. Joyce tried not to be too desperately homesick.
     After a long time, van Rijn smote the control board so that it rang. "By damn!" he bellowed. "It fits together!"
     "What?" Joyce sat straight.
     "But I still can't see how to use it," he said.
     "What do you mean?"
     "Shut up, Freelady." He returned to his thoughts. The slow hours passed.

(ed note: They meet a local tribe. The tribe is trying to protect their herd animals. The sun often has solar flares which can lethally sunburn the animals. A flare had been predicted by the Ancients to happen at this very moment. While the animals are restrained, the head of the prides sound brass horns, shake their weapons, and launch arrows at the sun.)

     "What they doing?" van Rijn asked. "Exorcising the demon?"
     "No," said Joyce. "They don't believe that's possible. They're defying him. They always challenge him to come down and fight. And he's not a devil, by the way, but a god."
     Van Rijn nodded. "It fits the pattern," he said, half to himself. "When a god steps out of his rightful job, you don't try to bribe him back, you threaten him. Ja, it fits."

     "You see," van Rijn lectured, "I am not on this world long, but I been on a lot of others, and read reports about many more. In my line of business this is needful. They always make parallels. I got enough clues about these t'Kelans to guess the basic pattern of their minds, from analogizings. You Esperancers, on this other hand, has not had so much experience. Like most colonies, you is too isolated from the galactic mainstream to keep au courant with things, like for instance the modern explorer techniques. That was obvious from the fact you did not make depth psychology studies the very first thing, but instead took what you found at face valuation. Never do that, Joyce. Always bite the coin that feeds you, for this is a hard and wicked universe."
     "You seem to know what you're about, Nick," she admitted "Well, tell me, what pattern did you deduce? How do their minds work?"
     "You assumed they was like warlike human primitives, in early days on Earth," he said. "On the topside, that worked hokay. They is intelligent, with language; they can reason and talk with you; this made them seem easy understood. What you forgot, I think, me, was conscious intelligence is only a small part of the whole selfness. All it does is help us get what we want. But the wanting itself—food, shelter, sex, everything—our motives—they come from deeper down. There is no logical reason even to stay alive. But instinct says to, so we want to. And instinct comes from very old evolution. We was animals long before we became thinkers and, uh—" van Rijn's beady eyes rolled piously ceilingward—"and was given souls. You got to think how a race evolved before you can take them … I mean understand them.

(ed note: van Rijn's changing his sentence is due to his remembering who he is talking to. "Take" means "take advantage of them", which is an important interstellar trader skill. But this would shock an idealistic Esperancian such as Joyce, so he amends his sentence to "understand them")

     "Now humans, the experts tell me, got started way back when, as ground apes that turned carnivore when the forests shrank up in Africa for lots of megayears. This is when they started to walking erect the whole time, and grew hands fully developed to make weapons because they had not claws and teeth like lions. Hokay, so we is a mean lot, we Homo Sapienses, with killer instincts. But not exclusive. We is still omnivores who can even survive on Brussels sprouts if we got to. Pfui! But we can. Our ancestors been peaceful nut-pluckers and living off each other's fleas a long, longer time than they was hunters. It shows.
     "The t'Kelans, on the other side, has been carnivores since they was still four-footers. Not very good carnivores. Unspecialized, with no claws and pretty weak biting apparatus even if it is stronger than humans'. That is why they also developed hands and made tools, which led to them getting big brains. Nevertheleast, they have no vegetarian whatsolutely in their ancestors, as we do. And they have much powerfuller killing instincts than us. And is not so gregarious. Carnivores can't be. You get a big concentration of hunters in one spot, and by damn, the game goes away (this is why carnivores are so territorial. A second carnivore in a territory could mean starvation for both, as all the prey animals flee. An intruder carnivore must be fought and driven off or it may mean death)."
     "I begin to see," she said with growing excitement. "That's why they never developed true nations or fought real wars. Big organizations are completely artificial things to them, commanding no loyalty. You don't fight or die for a Horde, any more than a human would fight for … for his bridge club."
     "Um-m-m, I have known some mighty bloodshot looks across bridge tables. But ja, you get the idea. The pride is a natural thing here, like the human family. The clan, with blood ties, is only one step removed. It can excite t'Kelans as much, maybe, as his country can excite a man. But Hordes? Nie. An arrangement of convenience only.
     "Not that pride and clan is loving-kindness and sugar candy. Humans make family squabbles and civil wars. T'Kelans have still stronger fighting instincts than us. Lots of arguments and bloodshed. But only on a small scale, and not taken too serious. You said to me, is no vendettas here. That means somebody killing somebody else is not thought to have done anything bad. In fact, whoever does not fight—male, anyhow—strikes them as unnatural, like less than normal."
     "Is … that why they never warmed up to us? To the Esperancian mission, I mean?"
     "Partly. Not that you was expected to fight at any specifical time. Nobody went out to pick a quarrel when you gave no offense and was even useful. But your behavior taken in one lump added up to a thing they couldn't understand. They figured there was something wrong with you, and felt a goodly natured contempt. I had to prove I was tough as they or tougher (van Rijn beats the local pride's champion in single combat). That satisfied their instincts, which then went to sleep and let them listen to me with respects."

     Van Rijn put down his empty cup and took out his pipe. "Another thing you lacked was territory," he said. "Animals on Earth, too, has an instinct to stake out and defend a piece of ground for themselves. Humans do. But for carnivores this instinct has got to be very, very, very powerful, because if they get driven away from where the game is, they can't survive on roots and berries. They die.
     "You saw yourselfs how those natives what could not maintain a place in their ancestral hunting grounds but went to you instead was looked downwards on. You Esperancers only had a dome on some worthless nibble of land. Then you went around preaching how you had no designs on anybody's country. Ha! They had to believe you was either lying—maybe that is one reason the Shanga attacked you—or else was abnormal weaklings."
     "But couldn't they understand?" Joyce asked. "Did they expect us, who didn't even look like them, to think the same way as they do?"
     "Sophisticated, civilized t'Kelans could have caught the idea," van Rijn said. "However, you was dealing with naive barbarians."
     "Except the Ancients. I'm sure they realize—"
     "Maybe so. Quite possible. But you made a deadly threat to them. Could you not see? They has been the scribes, doctors, high-grade artisans, sun experts, for ages and ages. You come in and start doing the same as them, only much better. What you expect them to do? Kiss your foots? Kiss any part of your anatomy? Not them! They is carnivores, too. They fight back."
     "But we never meant to displace them!"
     "Remember," van Rijn said, wagging his pipe stem at her, "reason is just the lackey for instinct. The Gaffers is more subtle than anybody else's. They can sit still in one place, between walls. They do not hunt. They do not claim thousands of square kilometers for themselves. But does this mean they have no instinct of territoriality? Ha! Not bloody likely! They has only sublimed it. Their work, that is their territory—and you moved in on it!" (That is why the Ancients engineered the attack on the Esperancian base, right after the Esperancians figured out the t'Kelan biochemistry and synthesized medicines. This encroached on the Ancient's territory of being physicians)
     Joyce sat numbly, staring out into night. Time passed before she could protest. "But we explained to them—I'm sure they understood—we explained this planet will die without our help."
     "Ja, ja. But a naturally born fighter has less fear of death than other kinds animals. Besides, the death was scheduled for a thousand years from now, did you not say? That is too long a time to feel with emotions. Your own threat to them was real, here and now."
     Van Rijn lit his pipe. "Also," he continued around the mouthpiece, "your gabbing about planet-wide cooperation did not sit so well. I doubt they could really comprehend it. Carnivores don't make cooperations except on the most teensy scale. It isn't practical for them. They haven't got such instincts. The Hordes—which, remember, is not nations in any sense—they could never get what you was talking about, I bet. Altruism is outside their mental horizontals. It only made them suspicious of you. The Ancients maybe had some vague notion of your motives, but didn't share them in the littlest. You can't organize these peoples. Sooner will you build a carousel on Saturn's rings. It does not let itself be done."

From TERRITORY by Poul Anderson (1963)

Classification System

When a science fiction author is worldbuilding a background for their novel: if there is more than one alien species, creating unique psychologies for every single species can be a daunting task.

In such a case, it might be fruitful to created multiple psycholgies by using the powerful Interesting Holes technique. However, the first step in using that technique is inventing or researching a classification system to use as a framework. A few suggested frameworks are:

Alien Psychologies in Piers Anthony's Cluster Series

When Piers Anthony was writing his multi-alien Cluster series, he decided to use an algorithm, instead of trying to invent each alien by brute force creativity. He decided to give each species a unique central organizing principle. This principle would determine not only the alien psychology, but also all facets of their existence. This determined their standard method of solving problems, techniques of debate, method they used to move their bodies across the landscape, sexual organs, and everything else.

Human beings are a "thrust" culture, that is their organizing principle. They solve problems by analysis, that is, cutting away like a scalpel or woodcutting tool. They debate by "getting to the point". They move by thrusting one leg forward in sequence. Their sexual organs thrust in and out.

Meanwhile the Polarians are a "rolling" culture. They solve problems by circling around it and examining it from all sides. They debate by moving around in circles. They move by balancing their bodies atop an organic sphere and roll along. Their sexual organs are used to spin spherical germ cells between the participants. And so on.

Occasionally he would use the same principle for two difference alien species, and use it to highlight how similar they were underneath even though superficially they looked different.

Yes, this is a simplistic and silly way to create an alien culture, but at least it provides good initial brain-storming ideas as a springboard. Hey, it sure beats staring at the blank word-processing document until drops of blood form on your forehead.

As a convenient source of organizing principles, Anthony used details from Tarot cards, particularly the archetypal imagery and divinatory meanings in the lesser arcana (card suits). Human "thrust" culture was inspired by the card suit of Swords. Polarian "rolling" culture was inspired by the card suit of Discs or Coins.


(ed note: Flint is a human, Tsopi is a female Polarian. As an emissary, Flint has had his mind transferred into the body of a male Polarian on the Polarian home planet)

      (Tsopi said) "Thus I, as a basically planet-bound creature, am Solid or Ground, while you, as a highly mobile off-planet creature, your essence expressed wholly by your Kirlian aura, are Gas or Air. In the archaic Solarian terms, I'm a Coin and you're a Sword."
     "You certainly are a coin," he (Flint) agreed. "You roll and you're precious."
     "Thank you," she said, vibrating her ball against his trunk in a most stimulating way.
     "And I have seen some combat in my time, so I'm a Sword. In fact, I'm a flintsmith—I make weapons. Good ones, too."
     "I am aware. I knew you then. Remember?"
     "So you did." He paused. "You knew me as a human being. So to you I'm a stick figure, all angles and bones. Doesn't it bother you?"
     "No. We believe in outside contacts, in exogamous cooperation. It's part of our nature. We have known of the nature of Solarians for many centuries. The Tarot itself has prepared the way, for we associate ourselves with the circular Coins and Solarians with the thrust of Swords. The message of the Tarot is that all systems are valid, no matter how strange some may seem at first. I know you are a fine person in alien guise. And we have a common debt. And now you are here in rotary form, visiting my Suit of Solid as it were, and it is good."
     "Yet you will not let me—the Big Wheel will not let me complete my mission."

     She drew up on a fine expanse of hard foliage overlooking a flowing stream. Paddlewheeled waterfowl disported on its surface, and two-wheeled animals moved away, alarmed by the intrusion of sapients. Originally all creatures of the Polarian home planet had been bicycled, but in time the sapients had lifted one wheel, becoming unicycled, freeing the other to become the communicatory ball. The pattern seemed familiar to Flint; human beings had progressed similarly, from quadruped to biped status.

     "Try to understand," she said. "To us, the individual is paramount in the circuit. Government exists only to serve the needs of the citizens. Where the interests of a single entity conflict with that of society, the entity takes precedence."
     "That's backwards! Government must always serve the good of the greatest number."
     "In a thrust-culture, perhaps that is so. Here, no." She made a little gesture with her tail, much as a human used hands to augment a difficult point. "What is good for the individual is good for the society."
     "But centralized society would collapse!" Flint was not used to debating economics or political science, yet his point seemed irrefutable.
     "Well, it is true we lack the straight-thrust dynamism of your muscle-and-bone mode. But we have achieved the equilibrium of the turning wheel. We accomplish much by accommodation and mutual respect, rather than force."

     "And your Sphere (interstellar empire) is twice the diameter of ours," Flint said. "I don't claim to comprehend it, but I admit I like it. But what happens when the interests of individuals conflict?"
     "This is the heart of our system. It is a form of mutual debt (since their culture is symbolized by coins). They must work it out together."
     "Debt. There is the key I don't have. How do you—"
     "Divergent interests must be reconciled. Factions must unify. The interest of one entity must merge with the other, so that no dichotomy exists. You might call it love."
     "Love thine enemy?" Flint remembered another of the fragments of wisdom of the Shaman that had not come clear.
     "There can be no enemy. Only debt to be expiated."
     Flint pondered. "Let me see whether I have it straight," he said at last. "Or curved, as the case may be."
     "Circular," she supplied. "At Sol, a straight line may be the solution to most problems; here it is a spiral."
     "Yes. You and I saved each other's lives, and so we owed each other our lives. A mutual debt, very hard to repay. You can't take back a life, after all. Now in our thrust-culture, we'd call that self-canceling. Equal and opposite forces. But I suppose if you plotted it on a spiral, it could start quite a spin. Equal and opposite thrusts applied to the two sides of a wheel can make it roll twice as fast. So—" But he stopped, beginning to realize. "Pleasant news from a lady...."

     "I'm aware that different conventions obtain in your culture," she said. "You tend to be indrawn, perhaps as the natural consequence of your outward thrust."
     "That's what I was saying! The Shaman explained it to me, back when I hardly understood and had to stretch my mind to take it in. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."
     "Yes. So you are an expansive, extroverted species—but also strongly introverted, alienophobic. Your mating pattern reflects this. You seek a stranger for the purpose of procreation, then establish lifelong liaison with that stranger. To us that seems extreme. We prefer familiar matings—but we form no restrictive relation."
     "You're saying you're polygamous?"
     "No, that would be the wrong connotation. We mate for social or economic reasons, but our love is intense while it endures. At the end, there is a child—and all debts have been expiated by that act of creation, all differences reconciled in that child. The chapter is finished; we never mate again with the same partners."
     "To us that would be frivolous," Flint said. "Mating is tantamount to marriage—a permanent commitment. This is my relation to Honeybloom, the Queen of Liquid. Or Water, Cups, or Hearts, by the cards. When I return to (planet) Outworld, I'll marry her."
     "I understand that, and I wish you well. It is your system," Tsopi said. "But at the moment you are part of the Polarian culture, and you cannot complete your technical mission until our debt is expiated. There is no conflict between me and Honeybloom"—she had used his term, for there were no parallel concepts in Polarian, no flowers, hence no blooms and no bees and no honey—"so love me now, and never again. You may regard this in the line of duty, since the Big Wheel is anxious to have our debt abated, and will meet with you immediately afterward."

     So, circuitously, politics had become sex. "On Planet Earth, that would be called prostitution," he said.
     "I do not understand the term."
     Indeed, there had been no concept for this either; he had had to use the human word. "Allow me to be a bit finicky," he said. "I can indulge in sex on a purely casual basis, or as a necessity of my mission, or I can marry. You seem to be offering something in between. Short-term love. And I don't even know how it is done here. You have no—do you know how Solarians do it?"

     "Yes," she said, glowing with distaste. "It is linear, again. The male pokes his little stick into the female's—
     "All right. You have the idea. Now how do Polarians get the male seed together with the female egg?"
     "I propose to show you," she said.
     "I could learn faster if you told me first," he said with developing exasperation. This reluctance to speak directly to the point—but of course, that was Polarian nature. (speaking directly to the point is a characteristic of thrust cultures, reluctance to speak to the point is characteristic of a circularity culture)
     "Why did you stop me from describing the Solarian act?" she inquired in return.
     "Solarian act?" For a moment he was baffled.
     "How the male makes his stick stiff and—"
     "Oh. That sort of thing isn't discussed openly among humans. Not in mixed company." Then he did a double-take. "I see. Some things are better performed than described."
     "Yes. Also, your human viewpoint might cause you as much distress as our own viewpoint causes us in contemplation of the Solarian act, which seems aggressive and unnatural to us. Why, if the male poked too hard, or missed the opening—"

From CLUSTER by Piers Anthony (1977)

Totally Alien Psychology

Utterly alien type aliens can have such a bizarre psychology as to be forever beyond comprehension, as in Terry Carr's "The Dance of Changer and the Three"

The Dance of the Changer and the Three

(ed note: on the mineral-rich planet, the miners make contact with the alien energy-creatures native to the place (the Loarra). They receive permission to mine. After mining for four years, the Loarra show up and kill everybody outside of the mountain and destroy all the mining equipment)

After a while I sent out a fourth “eye.” One of the Loarra came over, flitted around it like a firefly, blinked through the spectrum, and settled down to hover in front for talking. It was Pura Pur who was a thousand million billion life cycles removed from the Pur we know and love, of course, but nonetheless still pretty much Pur.

I sent out a sequence of lights and movements that translated, roughly, as, “What the hell did you do that for?”

And Pur glowed pale yellow for several seconds, then gave me an answer that doesn’t translate. Or, if it does, the translation is just “Because.”

Then I asked the question again, in different terms, and she gave me the same answer in different terms. I asked a third time, and a fourth, and she came back with the same thing. She seemed to be enjoying the variations on the Dance; maybe she thought we were playing.

Well … We’d already sent out our distress call by then, so all we could do was wait for a relief ship and hope they wouldn’t attack again before the ship came, because we didn’t have a chance of fighting them, we were miners, not a military expedition. God knows what any military expedition could have done against energy things, anyway. While we were waiting, I kept sending out the “eyes,” and I kept talking to one Loarra after another. It took three weeks for the ship to get there, and I must have talked to over a hundred of them in that time, and the sum total of what I was told was this:

Their reason for wiping out the mining operation was untranslatable. No, they weren’t mad. No, they didn’t want us to go away. Yes, we were welcome to the stuff we were taking out of the depths of the Loarran ocean.

And, most importantly: No, they couldn’t tell me whether or not they were likely ever to repeat their attack.


Alien Sex


      This is the sixth of a series of blogs on the subject of alien and monster biology. The first, which covers respiration, can be found here.

     Reproduction can take various forms, but allows a race to produce a new generation of offspring.

     In some animals pregnancy can go into suspended animation for months or years. This allows the creature to conceive, and then pause the pregnancy until a time of year or a resource state when the young are most likely to survive. This happens in creatures as diverse as the sea otter, wallaby, skunk, polar bear, roe deer, red panda, armadillo and various rodents and marsupials.
     Could this happen in other alien species? There is no reason why not. It is postulated it could also happen in people; scientists think we still have the genes for the process, they are just turned off. In order to settle another planet, wouldn’t it be useful if your initial colonists could effectively carry a second generation, who did not immediately need resources to survive?
     It is usually a female which carries the embryos or young, but does not have to be. In seahorses and pipefish, it is the male who becomes pregnant.

     Other creatures lay eggs, which may be fertilised within the body, during sexual reproduction, or outside the body in a process called external fertilisation. This is used by such diverse creatures as dinosaurs, turtles, amphibians and birds.
     Some species guard the nests, which is obviously more efficient for survival of the species; others leave the young to it. Many times more turtles hatch on beaches than ever make it to the sea. There are also creatures who sneak their young into other creature’s nests for protection eg cuckoos.
     Eggs may have hard protective shells, such as those of birds, or softer exteriors as found in frog spawn. They all contain some food store to help the maturation and growth of the creature inside the shell.
     Would alien eggs necessarily be recognised as what they are by explorers of a new environment? It is possible that they could accidentally upset a friendly species, or utterly fail to eradicate a threat species, where they had missed a life stage.

     Common chemicals such as Altrazine, a weedkiller can cause sex changes in creatures, such as frogs and fish. In a recent study of 40 male African clawed frogs, kept in a solution of Altrazine, 10% of the frogs developed into females, with 2 of those 4 frogs mating with male frogs and producing male offspring. The other 2 developed ovaries, despite maintaining male DNA.
     It is possible that your protagonist could have their sex changed by the atmosphere of the planet that they arrived on. Imagine the surprise if a male character unexpectedly became female and pregnant!
     Some animals are hermaphrodite, meaning that the are both sexes simultaneously. This is the case with slugs which can mate as either male or female; frequently they mate simultaneously as both male and female.

     Male and female creatures are not necessary for reproduction. In parthenogenesis, which is used by creatures such as snakes, sharks and amphibians, an embryo develops from an unfertilised ovum.
     Poding or budding is an asexual reproduction, used by yeasts and simple creatures, where an existing individual divides into two or more new creatures. In this way, an creature can continue almost indefinitely.


How does it reproduce?

Reproduction can, as we see on Earth, be either sexual or asexual, depending on the needs of the creature. Some organisms can actually do both, depending upon circumstance. Some types of plankton, for example, reproduce asexually when competition is low, and switch over to sexual reproduction once their population is large enough. This is called heterogamy.

Also, some "distressed, dispersed reptile communities" can reproduce by parthenogenesis, notes Dr. Mark Bullock, an astrobiologist at University of Colorado.

It's possible an alien species might have a third or even forth sex, but it's improbable due to the reduced odds of necessary interactions between the genders. Multiple species of fungus have unique mating types, which prevent an individual fungus from accidentally mating with itself. It's possible aliens may have their own mating types.

As with everything else, how your alien reproduces depends on the environment of its homeworld — but most experts seem to believe sexual reproduction of some sort will be common elsewhere. The main stumbling block for asexual reproduction is that it doesn't create the same amount of genetic diversity as sexual reproduction does, points out Dr. Jim Kasting (Dept. of Geosciences at Penn State).

by Charlie Jane Anders and Gordon Jackson (2011)

A man seeing those two Jovians would doubtless have thought, Centaur. But that was too crude. Theor's hairless red body, stub-tailed and tiger-striped, did stand upon four stout legs; but each foot had three prehensile toes. His long arms, four-fingered hands, and blocky torso might be considered anthropoid, if one overlooked innumerable details. But his round head lacked external ears and bore a roosterlike comb, fifty inches above the ground. The mouth sat close below the great eyes, and was only for eating and drinking. Speech came by vibrating muscle tissue in a pouch under the jaws.

He had no nose or lungs in any terrestrial sense. Half of a dozen slits on either side of this thorax, with lips to close them at need, let hydrogen diffuse inward, where his metabolism employed it to obtain energy by reducing organic compounds whose ultimate source was vegetation. The methane and ammonia given off by this process came out through abdominal vents. At Jovian air pressure, the system was efficient enough to support a large, active animal.

Except for a tool belt and the communicator disc hung from his neck, he was nude, being homoeothermic, and living on a planet whose slight axial tilt makes for less temperature variation than on Earth, Jovians rarely had any practical need to dress.

However, Norlak’s sex went in for gaudy clothes. The demimale was short and slim. He lacked a comb, his antennae were longer and more acute—an interminable list of differences might have been compiled. Male and demimale must both impregnate a female within a few hours of each other, for conception to result. With genetic diversity thus increased, evolution had proceeded about as fast as it does on Earth, despite the lower mutation rate in this cold and weakly irradiated environment. A mother gave live birth and fed her infant by regurgitation. In Nyarr, a three-way marriage was considered permanent and exclusive. Other societies had various other ideas.

From THREE WORLDS TO CONQUER by Poul Anderson (1964)

Chapter 12. Alien Sex

     Reproduction is unique among the many biological functions performed by living things. Take away an animal’s food or drink, or drain away its blood, or remove its skeleton, and death rapidly overtakes its enfeebled body. But deprive it of the ability to reproduce and nothing happens. The species may die out, but the individual organism lives on. Reproduction, while an enormous convenience, is not an absolute essential of life.
     This is true despite all protests that duplication is "the point of biological activity."20 The vast majority of social insects never engage in personal reproduction, and such species are extremely successful. One highly evolved contemporary terran lifeform, the mule, is quite sterile.
     It is relatively easy to imagine a nonsentient alien species designed such that, when mating occurs in a certain way or in a special environment, sterile but intelligent offspring are the result of the union. Clearly, there is no bar to the rise of intelligence in such a situation: Perhaps the hybrid’s brain mass or neural complexity is twice that of its nonsentient parents.
     At any rate, we can conceive of a race of intelligent but sterile alien hybrids residing somewhere in this commodious Galaxy. Their numbers would be supported entirely by a subrace of nonsentient breeders. The hybrids would corral and manipulate the teeming parental population, much as stockmen raise cattle and stablemen breed champion thoroughbreds. An extraterrestrial culture based on this peculiar inversion of the standard parent-offspring relationship would be fascinating to observe.
     Still, reproduction is not without its advantages. Whole-body duplication allows rapid expansion and fast evolution in new niches. We might expect that many, perhaps even most, alien races will involve reproducers.
     When the first exploratory crewed starships from Earth touch down on the continents and seas of distant worlds, will we discover that aliens, too, know sex? Is the uniquely human preoccupation with matters lustful more or less universal? If extraterrestrial lifeforms do enjoy sex as much as we, then exactly how many sexes do they enjoy? Two? Three? Ten? Might sex be alterable at will, or could more than one somehow be incorporated into a single individual? What about alien sex practices? Do ETs have orgasms? Are interspecies sexual relations possible?
     The curious Earthling demands to know.

12.1 Is Sex Necessary?

     If reproduction is merely a useful convenience, we must admit that sex is pure luxury. There is no fundamental reason why evolution and diversity cannot thrive in its absence. There is no law against asexuality.
     In point of fact, asexual reproduction is vastly more prolific in the short run. Bacterial lifeforms churn out literally billions of offspring in the space of hours, relying solely on such simple techniques as binary fission and budding. No "opposite sex" is required. And while it is true that many sexual species are also quite fecund, as a general rule fewer offspring are produced and survive to adulthood than among the asexuals.
     Furthermore, asexual reproduction is good economics. An organism which copies itself without sex passes its entire genetic heritage to its young undiluted. Offspring are exact duplicates of the originals.
     A sexual parent, on the other hand, may contribute only half of its own genes towards the construction of a child. The other half, in the case of a bisexual species, must be donated by the other parent. From the standpoint of the selfish gene, sex has a lousy profit margin in comparison to no-sex.
     Nevertheless, there is a more subtle difficulty with asexuality that turns virtue into vice.
     A completely asexual species produces a population of virtual duplicates -- except for an occasional mutation. Since variation is the raw material of evolution, and the lack of sex decreases this variation, such lifeforms should be at a distinct disadvantage when competing with their sexual brethren. New genetic combinations in asexual species can only proceed through a sequence of fortuitous mutations in the same family lineage. Asexuals therefore must "stand in line" to wait for a series of rare mutations. Change spreads only slowly through the gene pool.1044
     But sex allows the accumulation of variation in parallel, rather than in series.1045 A sexual species is able to spread many new genes rapidly throughout the population, because gene-jumbling allows a new combination, a new throw of the genetic dice, with each act of reproduction. Rare mutations become widely dispersed. So great are the advantages of sex that even many normally asexual organisms have occasional sexual encounters to beef up the waning gene pool. This is especially true in harsh or rapidly changing environments.
     For example, the freshwater hydra and the aphid reproduce asexually for most of the year. As winter approaches, with hard times ahead, these animals switch over to sexual reproduction. This ensures genetic diversity when the colonies disband and disperse with the arrival of cold weather.
     In the billion years or so since its invention, sex has proven remarkably successful -- if we are to judge from the fossil record of life on this planet. Sexual species have come to dominate the animal world, and the most widespread and important groups are all but exclusively sexual in their mode of reproduction. These broad brush strokes of nature should paint a similar picture elsewhere in the universe.
     Of course we don’t know if aliens have genes, or even if information-carrying molecules are necessary at all. For all we know, extraterrestrials may reproduce by xerography85 or in direct response to the environment by inheriting acquired characteristics.22 But one fact is clear: Variability is an advantage in the quest for biological complexity. And sex provides a unique opportunity for shuffling the data deck -- genetic or no -- which asexual techniques simply cannot match.
     If sex is necessary, then how many sexes are best? Can there be more than two?
     Terran lifeforms provide several examples of multisexuality, although they are few and far between. The lowly paramecium, for instance, has between five and ten sexes -- depending on how you count. These are distinct mating forms which arise at different times under definite conditions, and which can only mate in certain specific combinations. Another example includes fungi, notably Basidiomycetes, in which there are four distinct sexual groupings. Fungi are quadrisexuals. Still another example is found among the greylag geese -- a rather clear case of behavioral trisexuality.455 (One goose "marries" and mates with two male ganders.) Multisexuality is clearly a viable alternative. Science fiction writers and many others have toyed with the implications of intelligent trisexual and multisexual aliens for years. See especially Asimov,2485 Farmer,2500 Niven,753 Ritner,1550 and Stapledon.1946 Norms of marriage, inheritance, language, religion and social behavior would be profoundly affected by this state of affairs. Indeed, they might prove virtually incomprehensible to us. The normal social tensions caused by sexual competition would be greatly aggravated in a society in which every member was a potential mate. In their eyes, humans might appear perverted.97
     Why, then, is the vast majority of sexual terrestrial lifeforms bisexual?
     The answer seems to be that two sexual partners are just enough to provide the requisite genetic recombination. Each healthy individual has a reasonable chance to mate with a member of the opposite sex. Apparently, two are both necessary and sufficient.
     More than a single pair of sexes may seriously impair the chances for species continuity. The more sexes required for successful reproduction, the more difficult it becomes to bring them all together properly at just the right time. If there is a weak link in the mating chain -- as where one member of a reproductive triad is characteristically vulnerable to certain predators or other environmental severities -- the future of the entire species would be jeopardized. Finally, it is not clear how, say, three sexes could shuffle the genes very much better than two.
     There are no compelling reasons to exclude the possibility of a thriving population of alien multisexuals on another planet. That is, extraterrestrial multisexuality cannot be ruled out. But requiring more than two sexes for reproductive activity seems to be an unnecessarily complicated solution to a problem elegantly solved by only two.
     It’s a safe bet that bisexuality is the overwhelmingly dominant mode of sexual reproduction among the biological alien lifeforms in our Galaxy.

12.2 The Bisexual Universe

     The apparent general restriction of ETs to only two sexes is no cause for alarm. An incredible number of variations can be played on the single theme of bisexuality.
     For example, bisexuality -- contrary to popular belief -- does not demand the existence of distinct male and female forms. A case in point is the black mold Rhizopus nigricans, which displays an unusual type of sexual behavior known as "heterothallism."
     This species of fungus is bisexual, inasmuch as two organisms are required for fertilization and reproduction. However, the two sexes are indistinguishable! There are no constant differences between members of opposite mating groups other than their reciprocal behavior when crossed. Thus, it is impossible to designate one form of the black mold as male and the other as female. The complementary groups are labeled merely "+" and "-" for convenience during experiments.
     One can imagine a race of intelligent extraterrestrials, apparently unisexual to our undiscerning eyes but which actually practices heterothallic sex. Such creatures would most certainly lack secondary sexual characteristics, those hormone-induced physical landmarks such as beards and breasts to which we humans are accustomed. They might even lack distinctive primary sexual characteristics such as internal or external gonads.

12.2.1 Intersexuality

     While we might expect maleness and femaleness to be well defined among most bisexual alien species, intersexuality constitutes a major exception to this rule. Intersexuality is a state in which an organism is neither strictly female nor strictly male. Rather, it displays some alternate, intermediate, or variable condition that lies somewhere in between.2494
     There are two major classes of intersexes.
     The first of these is illustrated by a strain of fruit fly (Drosophila) which has three copies of all its chromosomes instead of the normal two. In most bisexual hereditary systems, each parent contributes one set of genes -- including the sex-determining ones -- to the offspring. But with three sets, this special strain of fly can attain intermediate states of sexual expression. Using artificial breeding techniques, any desired degree of intersexuality may be arranged: 30% male/70% female, 60% male/40% female, and so forth.
     These insects, and various higher animals such as the bovine freemartin (the female of a male-female twin pair in cattle), are called spatial intersexes. They are stuck with their ambiguous constitution for the rest of their lives. They cannot change, and are often sterile.
     Hermaphrodites represent an interesting special case of spatial intersexuality. A "simultaneous hermaphrodite" is an organism which possesses at once both female and male sex organs. Ovaries and testes are present together in the same individual. Planarians, earthworms, annelids, sponges, hydras and snails exhibit this form of bisexuality.2493 A few vertebrate simultaneous hermaphrodites are known, such as the banded flamefish (Serranus subligarius).
     But the intersexual animal can be a sex-mosaic in time as well as space. There are many organisms, of which the g*psy moth Lymantria is but one example, which start life as one sex and finish it as another. This condition, in which the two sexes are separated temporally, is called temporal intersexuality or "sequential hermaphroditism."
     Sequential hermaphrodites come in many varieties. Protoandry is a system where an animal is first male, and later female; proterogyny is the converse, with young females metamorphosing into functional males as they age. And there are many other more complicated arrangements. Populations of sea anemones, for example, consist only of females and simultaneous hermaphrodites, a condition known as gynodioecy.
     What would a temporal intersexual extraterrestrial be like? We can take a few clues from the freshwater shrimp Gammarus pulex. Each individual crustacean is both male and female, but not at the same time. Newborn animals spend early life in a neuter stage, after which they pass through puberty and enter the first sexually active phase as functioning males.
     After a while, the maleness is exhausted. Latent ovaries ripen into maturity, and the organism spends the remainder of its life as a full-fledged female. Eggs are shed by middle-aged mothers and fertilized by energetic youthful males (who are still in the middle of their first cycle).
     It is a magnificent bisexual system, one that works quite well on this planet. No one is excluded from any phase of the reproductive process. Still more significant, each member of the colony plays both male and female roles during his/her life. This cannot fail to have major effects on the intensity and depth of interpersonal relationships among these beings. In the case of such hermaphroditic aliens, the impact on the development of society, patterns of competition and aggression, laws and government, and attitudes toward the young are scarcely imaginable. (Science fiction writers have had a field day with this theme.97,226,442)
     If there exist extraterrestrial hermaphrodites patterned after the freshwater shrimp on some other planet, what would their lives be like? Dr. Norman J. Berrill, Professor of Zoology at McGill University in Montreal, gives us some insight into the lifestyle of a temporal intersexual alien:
[Measured against a human yardstick], all half-grown individuals, about ten years old and weighing about 34 kilograms, would be males, the only males, ready to act as such both sexually and probably in other wayward ways. But as troublemakers like their truly human counterparts they would undoubtedly be kept in place by a closed society of matriarchs, roughly equal in number to the males, each twice the weight and much older and wiser. And not only wiser in a general way, but in the special sense of having each been a male herself, as understanding as a mother with a child and as little likely to put up with any nonsense, perhaps wistfully looking back to her youthful manhood. Girlhood would bud as usual when masculinity had faded, with growth continuing and full female maturity yet to come. Apart from lovelife the only question is, who would do man’s work? Little men browbeaten by large women who once had been little men themselves, or the women themselves, whether full-grown and breeding or not?89
     Of course, the reverse of the above is also quite possible in ET races, although it appears much less common among the fauna of Earth. There is no reason why bisexual alien hermaphrodites could not develop along a cycle in which young females transformed into old males.
     An example of this appears in the sword-tailed minnow (Xiphophorus helleri), a teleost fish that bears live young much as the mammals do. Xiphophorus females typically produce offspring until they are a few years old. Then, during a period of only a few short weeks, they take on the characteristics of the male of the species. They produce sperm and are capable of fertilizing females. Exhaustion of the ovaries is believed to trigger the changeover.
     We see that both male-first and female-first alien intersexuals may be common, if not abundant, among the many intelligent extraterrestrial races in the universe.

12.2.2 Optional Sex

     What about the fascinating possibility that extraterrestrials might be able to choose their sex voluntarily in some fashion? How much different the world would be if sex were a matter of choice rather than accident or compulsion! It would also matter a great deal whether the decision to switch was made by society, by pressing cultural or environmental exigencies, or by the individual himself (who might exercise his sexual option at puberty).
     Xenologists are convinced that optional sexuality is a real prospect for alien lifeforms because of the many times this system has arisen independently on Earth. One common transformation, found among starfish, the slug (Limax maximus), and the molluscan gastropods Crepidula plana and Patella, involves a changeover from male to female. The cause in this case is environmental. When necessary to maintain proper ecological balance, some members of the colony will voluntarily transmute from male to simultaneous hermaphrodite. Soon thereafter, they blossom into full females without any trace of maleness remaining.
     Given the relatively major body alterations that occur during puberty in the higher mammals, it is not inconceivable that ETs might be capable of altering sex in response to the environment.
     Extraterrestrials may also be able to change sex as a purely personal prerogative.2863 Quite a few terrestrial creatures can switch back and forth between male and female on a regular basis -- and at their own pleasure. The most notable examples include the oyster and the clam.
     The native oyster begins its life as a male. After a year or two, it may change to female much like a sequential hermaphrodite. But after the animal has "ovulated" (deposited its ova into the mantle cavity), it becomes "white sick" and reverts to maleness.
     While still carrying its own embryos, the female oyster can fully retool as a working male in a matter of weeks. Male and female phases typically follow one another, in irregular cycles a few months long. This ensures that all fertilized eggs are the product of different parents, and eliminates the problem of accidental self-fertilization.
     Intelligent extraterrestrials modeled after the changeable oyster would probably experience fewer psychological conflicts, in many ways, than humans. Each individual would have the advantage of knowing the world from the viewpoint of either sex. Furthermore, the opportunity to assume the role of either mate at any time could encourage what some earthlings might regard as a promiscuous social and cultural code of liberal sexual behavior. Their political, legal, religious and humanistic traditions would doubtless reflect this added layer of complexity.
     While the sexual identity of aliens may be regulatable either by the environment or by the individual as discussed above, it may also be subject to sociocultural management. There is ample precedent for this on Earth. Numerous behavioral adaptations exist which allow colonies to regulate their sex ratio (the fraction of each sex in the population). These systems usually favor the female, and it is easy to see why.
     The female carries the egg. This is the basic raw material of reproductive activity. On the other hand, the male’s function is clearly ancillary. He is expendable.
     Consider the purely "parthenogenic" species, in which the male is dispensed with altogether. In such systems of virgin birth, eggs develop into full adults without ever being fertilized at all. The sawfly is a case of an all-female species. All of their eggs develop into more insect females, with no males -- or sex -- required in the process.89 This amounts to practical unisexuality.
     In less extreme systems, the male is not totally expendable but is still optional. A typical colony of the crustacean waterflea Daphnia is all-female, producing offspring by parthenogenesis like the sawfly. But at the first sign of trouble, such as overpopulation or the approach of winter, an interesting thing happens. The females "panic," and lay some eggs which quickly develop into males.
     If the trouble passes without incident, the males have no duties to perform and are ignored by the females -- who continue breeding parthenogenically as before. But if major difficulties do materialize, the females deign to use the male stud service to increase variability in the gene pool and ensure survival of the colony. Says one marine biologist of this arrangement: "Males are necessary, but only as a last resort." Parthenogenesis (all-female reproduction) is not limited to insects. Many species of lizards, for instance, commonly reproduce without males.2583
     So we might expect that if society has the final say, alien races will consist mostly of females when optional sex is available. Many females can be sexually serviced by a single male, so this choice is hardly surprising. What is striking and unusual is the degree of social stratification which frequently results. Biological caste systems are not uncommon.
     Honeybees are a case in point. The focus is on the only fertile female, the queen bee. A hive’s queen mates but once in her lifetime, and then only with a single male and only on her nuptial flight. The penis of the male honeybee breaks off during mating, and he promptly bleeds to death. The severed organ remains inside the queen for some time thereafter, serving as a plug to prevent the semen from dribbling out. All the eggs the queen will ever produce must be fertilized by the sperm stored from that single mating.
     As a general rule only female offspring are produced, and the beehive is populated almost exclusively by sisters. Males appear only occasionally in small numbers, whenever a new queen is needed either to replace an aging matron or to found a new colony.
     The apian assembly line is faintly reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. All eggs start in the queen’s ovaries. If they are not fertilized they grow into male bees called drones. Most eggs, however, are fertilized and placed in tiny compartments in the hive. Those which are fed the regular pap of the drones mature into female bees called workers. Larvae raised on a specially enriched nutrient mix (royal jelly) grow into queens.
     Notice that the honeybee has a genetically programmed three-caste system. Queens constitute the reproductive caste. Workers, while technically females, are really neuters because their sex organs are degenerate. They represent the laboring caste, able to carry on with the daily chores of the hive without the distraction of sex. The drones, or stud caste, are virile males who lack this admirable detachment and are not good for useful work. They are usually exterminated by the workers at the approach of winter.
     Ant and termite societies have four castes -- generally two classes of royalty and two classes of industrious eunuchs. As with bees, the queen retains many fertilized eggs in her swollen belly. Kinghood and queenhood is the reward for those few active larvae who are fortunate enough to make an early escape from the maternal womb. For the vast majority, however, the exit is delayed and a horrible thing happens to them: They begin to be reabsorbed back into the body of the gravid female. The longer they delay, the smaller they are at birth. The largest become soldiers, the smallest workers. (All are sterile.)
     It is a kind of merit system. The more active the organism, the bigger its body and the higher its social status.
     The extrapolation of a breeding system with genetic castes to a race of intelligent extraterrestrials has been attempted by science fictioneers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their recent collaboration The Mote in God’s Eye.668 Their aliens, the Moties, have many tens of biological castes, each one specializing in a particular societal function. Depending on the details of birth, there are Engineers, Farmers, Mediators, Warriors, and so forth. Though the Moties are fictional, can reality be much less strange?
     As suggested earlier, there is no real limit to the dimensions of bisexual reproduction. To some ETs, optional sex may mean more than mere changeability. It may mean instead the decision to reproduce, the option to mate, the choice between life and death.
     Consider the common mole, Antichinus stuarti. These tiny animals have a brief but concentrated rutting season spanning only a few days in June. Shortly after copulation, a sudden surge of hormones automatically kills the male. This makes available greater quantities of food, water, and other critical resources for the pregnant female and, later, for the developing fatherless family.
     The price of love is death.
     Extraterrestrials patterned after such a scheme may exist on some arid world in our Galaxy. Could humans hope to fathom the psychology of an alien species in which marriage was the culmination of the life of every father, in which only females lived on from year to year and provided social continuity, and in which a single act of sex meant inevitable, almost instant, death? Conversely, could such sentient ETs comprehend our peculiar addiction to erotica, our marriage vows, our complex family life, our political institutions, or our social sexual mores and taboos?
     And which of us would better know, and understand, the true meaning of ecstasy?

From XENOLOGY, CHAPTER 12 ALIEN SEX by Robert A. Freitas Jr. (2008)


Alien species with hyper-fecundity are ones that "breed like rabbits." Which was a funny gag in ST:TOS "The Trouble with Tribbles", The Rolling Stones, and "Pigs is Pigs".

But in the real world, such creatures come under the dire heading of "Invasive Species". People dealing which such invasions do not find them funny at all, especially in Australia. Those cute adorable bunny rabbits introduced by ecologically ignorant British in 18th century are still causing millions of dollars worth of damage to crops. They've tried controlling the little monsters by ploughing up warrens, poisoning, ferrets, steel-jawed leg traps, and fences. These have had little or no effect. The only thing that partially worked was introducing a plague of Myxomatosis. In 1950 the plague reduced the rabbit population from 600 million to around 100 million. However genetic resistance has allowed the rabbit population to swell to 300 million by 1991.

The bunny-rabbits have a double advantage: they breed like rabbits, and Australia has no natural rabbit predators. Species who are either not quite as prolific as rabbits or who do have natural predators are still a problem. Most people are familiar with the headaches caused by infestations of mice, rats, swarms of Locust, army ants, and cockroaches. And currently most people are getting a crash course in the mathematics of pandemics.

Hyper-fecund species harness the dread power of exponential growth, as do all plagues. This does mean that sooner or later they run into the brick wall of the Malthusian growth model and start starving to death when there is no more food. Which is of zero confort to anybody else who relying on that food, the hyper-cockroaches may be dying now but everybody else perished of famine years ago.


The wheat and chessboard problem (sometimes expressed in terms of rice grains) is a mathematical problem expressed in textual form as:

If a chessboard were to have wheat placed upon each square such that one grain were placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard at the finish?

The problem may be solved using simple addition. With 64 squares on a chessboard, if the number of grains doubles on successive squares, then the sum of grains on all 64 squares is: 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + ... and so forth for the 64 squares. The total number of grains equals 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion four hundred and forty-six quadrillion seven hundred and forty-four trillion seventy-three billion seven hundred and nine million five hundred and fifty-one thousand six hundred and fifteen)—about 2,000 times annual world production—much more than most expect.

This exercise can be used to demonstrate how quickly exponential sequences grow, as well as to introduce exponents, zero power, capital-sigma notation and geometric series. Updated for modern times using pennies and a hypothetical question such as "Would you rather have a million dollars or a penny on day one, doubled every day until day 30?", the formula has been used to explain compound interest. (Doubling would yield over five million dollars, and twice that the following day.)

From the Wikipedia entry for WHEAT AND CHESSBOARD PROBLEM

(ed note: screenplay by David Gerrolds. Novelization by James Blish)

      Nobody seems to know where tribbles come from, though obviously they are comfortable in oxygen-bearing air at Earthlike temperatures and pressures. Newborn tribbles are about an inch long; the largest one ever seen, about sixteen inches.
     A tribble looks a little like a cross between an angora cat and a beanbag. It has no arms or legs, no eyes, and in fact no face—only a mouth. It moves by rolling, by stretching and flexing like an inchworm, or by a peculiar throbbing which moves it along slowly but smoothly, rather like a snail. It does, however, have long fur, which comes in a variety of colors—beige, deep chocolate, gold, white, gold-green, auburn, cinnamon and dusky yellow.
     Tribbles are harmless. Absolutely, totally, completely, categorically, inarguably, utterly, one hundred per cent harmless ...

     Freeman looked at Kirk. "I don't have any objections to pets on this ship," Kirk said. "Within reason. But if these tribbles want to stay on the Enterprise, they'd better be a little less prolific."
     The tribbles, however, did not seem to get the message. Visiting sick bay the next day—another prolonged shouting match with Baris had given him a headache—Kirk found that McCoy had what seemed to be a boxful of the creatures.
     "I thought Uhura gave you only one of those things, Bones. It looks more like you've got ten here."
     "Average litter. I had eleven, but I dissected one. The nearest thing I can figure out is that they're born pregnant."
     "Is that possible?"
     "No, but it would be a great timesaver, wouldn't it? I can tell you this much: almost fifty per cent of the creature's metabolism is geared to reproduction. Do you know what you get if you feed a tribble too much?"
     Kirk's mind was not really on the subject. "A very fat tribble?"
     "No. You get a whole bunch of hungry little tribbles. And if you think that's a boxful, you should see Uhura's. She's got about fifty, and she gave away five."
     "Well, you'd better find homes for this batch before you've got fifty, too." Kirk swallowed the headache pill.

     It was worse on shipboard. The corridors seemed to be crawling with the creatures. On the bridge, Kirk had to scoop three or four of them out of his chair before he could sit down. They were all over the consoles, on shelves, everywhere.
     "Lieutenant, how did all of these tribbles get onto the bridge?"
     "Through the ventilator ducts, I expect, Captain. They seem to be all over the ship."
     "They certainly do. Mr. Spock, have a maintenance crew come up here to clean out this bridge. How many of them are there now, anyhow?"
     "Assuming one creature—the one Lieutenant Uhura brought aboard—with an average litter of ten," the First Officer said, "every twelve hours. The third generation will total one thousand, three hundred thirty-one. The fourth generation will total fourteen thousand, six hundred and forty-one. The fifth generation will..."
     "That's already enough. I want a thorough cleanup. They've got to go."
     "All of them?" Lt. Uhura said protestingly. "Oh, Captain …"
     "Every last one."
     "A logical decision," Spock said. "Their breeding rate is beyond our control. They are consuming our supplies and returning nothing."
     "Oh, come on now, Mr. Spock. I don't agree with you at all. They're giving us their love. Cyrano Jones says that a tribble is the only love money can buy."
     "Lieutenant," Kirk said, "too much of anything—even love—is not necessarily a good thing. And in view of the fact that this all started with just one tribble, clearly the only safe number is none."
     "And since feeding them is what makes them breed," Spock added, "one need only imagine what would happen if they got into the food processing machinery, or the food storage areas."
     Kirk stared at the First Officer, thunderstruck. "Storage areas!" he said. "Great thundering fireballs! Storage areas! Lieutenant Uhura, contact Commander Lurry, and Nilz Baris. Have them meet us at the station mall. Mr. Spock, we're beaming over. Lieutenant, have Doctor McCoy join us in the transporter room—on the double!"

     There were two guards before the warehouse door. "Is that door secure?" Kirk demanded.
     "Yes, sir. Nothing could get in."
     "Open it."
     The guard produced a magnetic key. Nothing happened. "Don't understand it, sir. It seems to be . .."
     What it seemed to be will never be known, for at that moment the door slid open. There was a sort of silent explosion. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tribbles came tumbling out, cascading down around them all, wriggling and seething and mewling and writhing and throbbing and trilling and purring ...
     They stood aghast as the mountain of fur grew. Spock recovered first. Scooping up a tribble, he examined it with clinical detachment. "It seems to be gorged," he observed.
     "Gorged!" Baris gasped. "On my grain! Kirk! I'll hold you responsible! There must be thousands—hundreds of thousands!"
     "One million, five hundred and sixty-one thousand, seven hundred and seventy-three," Spock said, "assuming, of course, that they got in here three days ago, and allowing for the maximum rate of grain consumption and the volume of the warehouse."
     "Beggin' your pardon, Captain," Cyrano said, "but a certain amount of the blame might be lyin' in sheer ignorance of the little creatures. If you keep their diet down below a certain intake per day, why sure and they don't breed at all. That's how I control mine."
     Kirk stared at him. "Why didn't you tell us that before?"
     "Nobody asked me. Besides, Captain, any man's common sense should tell him that it's bad for little animals to be overfeedin' 'em."

From THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES by James Blish (1969)

(ed note: When the good ship Rolling Stone arrives at Phobos, the familiy starts looking around Marsport. Would-be teenage entrepreneurs Castor and Pollux Stone are examining the goods at Mr. Angelo's store. )

      "Say, Mr. Angelo, what is this? At first I thought it was a fur cap; now I see it's alive." Castor pointed to the furry heap on the counter. It was slowly slithering toward the edge.
     The shopkeeper reached out and headed it back to the middle. "That? That's a 'flat cat.'"
     "'Flat cat?'"
     "It has a Latin name but I never bothered to learn it." Angelo tickled it with a forefinger; it began to purr like a high-pitched buzzer. It had no discernible features, being merely a pie-shaped mass of sleek red fur a little darker than Castor's own hair. "They're affectionate little things and many of the sand rats keep them for pets—a man has to have someone to talk to when he's out prospecting and a flat cat is better than a wife because it can't talk back. It just purrs and snuggles up to you. Pick it up."
     Castor did so, trying not to seem gingerly about it. The flat cat promptly plastered itself to Castor's shirt, fattened its shape a little to fit better the crook of the boy's arm, and changed its purr to a low throbbing which Castor could feel vibrate in his chest. He looked down and three beady little eyes stared trustfully back up at him, then closed and disappeared completely. A little sigh interrupted the purrs and the creature snuggled closer.
     Castor chuckled. "It is like a cat, isn't it?"
     "Except that it doesn't scratch. Want to buy it?"
     Castor hesitated. He found himself thinking of Lowell's anxiety to see a "real Martian." (Lowell is Castor's toddler little brother) Well, this was a "Martian," wasn't it? A sort of a Martian. "I wouldn't know how to take care of it."
     "No trouble at all. In the first place they're cleanly little beasties—no problem that way. And they'll eat anything; they love garbage. Feed it every week or so and let it have all the water it will take every month or six weeks—it doesn't matter really; if it isn't fed or watered it just slows down until it is. Doesn't hurt it a bit. And you don't even have to see that it keeps warm. Let me show you." He reached out and took the flat cat back, jiggled it in his hand. It promptly curled up into a ball.
     "See that? Like everything else on Mars, it can wrap itself up when the weather is bad. A real survivor type." The shopkeeper started to mention another of its survival characteristics, then decided it had no bearing on the transaction. "How about it? I'll make you a good price."
     Castor decided that Lowell would love it—and besides, it was a legitimate business expense, chargeable to good will. "How much?"
     Angelo hesitated, trying to estimate what the traffic would bear, since a flat cat on Mars had roughly the cash value of still another kitten on a Missouri farm. Still, the boys must be rich or they wouldn't be here—just in and with spending money burning holes in their pockets, no doubt. Business had been terrible lately anyhow. "A pound and a half," he said firmly.
     Castor was surprised at how reasonable the price was. "That seems like quite a lot," he said automatically.
     Angelo shrugged. "It likes you. Suppose we say a pound?"
     Castor was again surprised, this time at the speed and the size of the mark-down. "I don't know," he murmured.
     "Well … ten per cent off for cash."

     Meade picked Fuzzy Britches up; it immediately began to buzz—whereupon Lowell demanded to hold it. Meade passed it over. "I don't see," she remarked, "why anything as helpless as that would have such bright colors."
     "Think again, honey lamb," advised (grandmother) Hazel. "Put that thing out on the (Martian) desert sand and you would lose it at ten feet. Which might be a good idea."
     "No!" answered Lowell.
     "'No' what, dear?"
     "Don't you lose Fuzzy Britches. He's mine." The child left carrying the flat cat and cooing a lullaby to it. Fuzzy Britches might lack legs but it knew how to win friends; anyone who picked it up hated to put it down. There was something intensely satisfying about petting the furry thing. Hazel tried to analyze it but could not.

     Fuzzy Britches took to free fall as if the creature had been born in space; if it was not being held and stroked by someone (which it usually was) it slithered over wall and bulkhead, or floated gently around the compartments, undulating happily.
     Castor maintained that it could swim through the air; Pollux insisted that it could not and that its maneuvers arose entirely from the air currents of the ventilation system. They wasted considerable time, thought, and energy in trying to devise scientific tests to prove the matter, one way or the other. They were unsuccessful.
     The flat cat did not care; it was warm, it was well fed, it was happy. It had numerous friends all willing to take time off to reward its tremendous and undiscriminating capacity for affection. Only one incident marred its voyage.
     (Father) Roger Stone was strapped to his pilot's chair, blocking out—so he said—a chapter in his book. If so, the snores may have helped. Fuzzy Britches was cruising along about its lawful occasions, all three eyes open and merry. It saw one of its friends; good maneuvering or a random air current enabled it to make a perfect landing—on Captain Stone's face.
     Roger came out of the chair with a yell, clutching at his face. He bounced against the safety belt, recovered, and pitched the flat cat away from him. Fuzzy Britches, offended but not hurt, flipped itself flat to its progress, air-checked and made another landing on the far wall.
     Roger Stone used several other words, then shouted, "Who put that animated toupee on my face?"
     But the room was otherwise empty. (Mother) Dr. Stone appeared at the hatch and said, "What is it, dear?"
     "Oh, nothing—nothing important. Look, dear, would you return this tail-end offspring of a dying planet to Buster? I'm trying to think."
     "Of course, dear." She took it aft and gave it to Lowell, who promptly forgot it, being busy working out a complicated gambit against Hazel. The flat cat was not one to hold a grudge; there was not a mean bone in its body, had it had bones, which it did not. The only emotion it could feel wholeheartedly was love. It got back to Roger just as he had again fallen asleep.
     It again settled on his face, purring happily.
     Captain Stone proved himself a mature man. Knowing this time what it was, he detached it gently and himself returned it to Lowell. "Keep it," he said. "Don't let go of it." He was careful to close the door behind him.
     He was equally careful that night to close the door of the stateroom he shared with his wife. The Rolling Stone, being a small private ship, did not have screens guarding her ventilation ducts; they of course had to be left open at all times. The flat cat found them a broad highway. Roger Stone had a nightmare in which he was suffocating, before his wife woke him and removed Fuzzy Britches from his face. He used some more words.
     "It's all right, dear," she answered soothingly. "Go back to sleep." She cuddled it in her arms and Fuzzy Britches settled for that.
     The ship's normal routine was disturbed the next day while everyone who could handle a wrench or a spot welder installed screens in the ducts.
     Thirty-seven days out Fuzzy Britches had eight golden little kittens, exactly like their parent but only a couple of inches across when flat, marble-sized when contracted. Everyone including Captain Stone thought they were cute; everyone enjoying petting them, stroking them with a gentle forefinger and listening carefully for the tiny purr, so high as to be almost beyond human ear range. Everyone enjoyed feeding them and they seemed to be hungry all the time.
     Sixty-four days later the kittens had kittens, eight each. Sixty-four days after that, the one hundred and forty-sixth day after Phobos departure, the kittens' kittens had kittens; that made five hundred and thirteen.
     "This," said Captain Stone, "has got to stop!"
     "Yes, dear."
     "I mean it. At this rate we'll run out of food before we get there, including the stuff the twins hope to sell. Besides that we'll be suffocated under a mass of buzzing fur mats. What's eight times five hundred and twelve? Then what's eight times that?"
     "Too many, I'm sure."
     "My dear, that's the most masterly understatement since the death of Mercutio. And I don't think I've figured it properly anyway; it's an exponential expansion, not a geometric—provided we don't all starve first."
     "I think we should— Eh? What?"
     "I believe there is a simple solution. These are Martian creatures; they hibernate in cold weather."
     "We'll put them in the hold—fortunately there is room."
     "I agree with all but the 'fortunately.'"
     "And we'll keep it cold."
     "I wouldn't want to kill the little things. I can't manage to hate them. Drat it, they're too cute."
     "We'll hold it about a hundred below, about like a normal Martian winter night. Or perhaps warmer will do."
     "We certainly will. Get a shovel. Get a net. Get a barrel." He began snagging flat cats out of the air.
     "You aren't going to freeze Fuzzy Britches!" Lowell was floating in the stateroom door behind them, clutching an adult flat cat to his small chest. It may or may not have been Fuzzy Britches; none of the others could tell the adults apart and naming had been dropped after the first litter. But Lowell was quite sure and it did not seem to matter whether or not he was right. The twins had discussed slipping in a ringer on him, while he was asleep, but they had been overheard and the project forbidden. Lowell was content and his mother did not wish him disturbed in his belief.
     "Dear, we aren't going to hurt your pet."
     "You better not! You do and I'll—I'll space you!"
     "Oh, dear, he's been helping Hazel with her serial!" Dr. Stone got face to face with her son. "Lowell, Mother has never lied to you, has she?"
     "Uh, I guess not."
     "We aren't going to hurt Fuzzy Britches. We aren't going to hurt any of the flat kitties. But we haven't got room for all of them. You can keep Fuzzy Britches, but the other kittens are going for a long nap. They'll be perfectly safe; I promise."
     "By the code of the Galaxy?"
     "By the code of the Galaxy."
     Lowell left, still guarding his pet. Roger said, "Edith, we've got to put a stop to that collaboration."
     "Don't worry, dear; it won't harm him." She frowned. "But I'm afraid I will have to disappoint him on another score."
     "Such as?"
     "Roger, I didn't have much time to study the fauna of Mars—and I certainly didn't study flat cats, beyond making sure that they were harmless."
     "Harmless!" He batted a couple of them out of the way. "Woman, I'm drowning."
     "But Martian fauna have certain definite patterns, survival adaptations. Except for the water-seekers, which probably aren't Martian in origin anyhow, their methods are both passive and persistent. Take the flat cat—"
     "You take it!" He removed one gently from his chest.
     "It is defenseless. It can't even seek its own food very well. I understand that in its native state it is a benign parasite, attaching itself to some more mobile animal—"
     "If only they would quit attaching to me! And you look as if you were wearing a fur coat. Let's put 'em in freeze!"
     "Patience, dear. Probably it has somewhat the same pleasing effect on the host that it has on us; consequently the host tolerates it and lets it pick up the crumbs. But its other characteristic it shares with almost anything Martian. It can last long periods in hibernation, or if that isn't necessary, in a state of lowered vitality and activity—say when there is no food available. But with any increase in the food supply, then at once—almost like throwing a switch—it expands, multiplies to the full extent of the food supply."
     "I'll say it does!"
     "Cut off the food supply and it simply waits for more good times. Pure theory, of course, since I am reasoning by analogy from other Martian life forms—but that's why I'm going to have to disappoint Lowell. Fuzzy Britches will have to go on very short rations."
     Her husband frowned. "That won't be easy; he feeds it all the time. We'll just have to watch him—or there will be more little visitors from heaven. Honey, let's get busy. Right now."
     "Yes, dear. I just had to get my thoughts straight."
     Roger called them all to general quarters; Operation Roundup began. They shooed them aft and into the hold; they slithered back, purring and seeking companionship. Pollux got into the hold and tried to keep them herded together while the others scavenged through the ship. His father stuck his head in; tried to make out his son in a cloud of flat cats. "How many have you got so far?"
     "I can't count them—they keep moving around. Close the door!"
     "How can I keep the door closed and still send them in to you?"
     "How can I keep them in here if you keep opening the door?"
     Finally they all got into space suits—Lowell insisted on taking Fuzzy Britches inside with him, apparently not trusting even "the code of the Galaxy" too far. Captain Stone reduced the temperature of the entire ship down to a chilly twenty below; the flat cats, frustrated by the space suits and left on their own resources, gave up and began forming themselves into balls, like fur-covered grape fruit. They were then easy to gather in, easy to count, easy to store in the hold.
     Nevertheless the Stones kept finding and incarcerating fugitives for the next several days.

From THE ROLLING STONES by Robert Heinlein (1952)


They say you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance every time you go out. That makes it one chance in eight that you’ll live to see your third furlough; the one I’m on now.
     Somehow the odds don’t keep people from trying to join. Even though not one in a thousand gets through the years of training and examination, there’s no shortage of cannon fodder. And that’s what we are. The most expensive, best-trained cannon fodder in the history of warfare. Human history, anyhow; who can speak for the enemy?
     I don’t even call them snails anymore. And the thought of them doesn’t trigger that instant flash of revulsion, hate, kill-fever—the psyconditioning wore off years ago, and they didn’t renew it. They’ve stopped doing it to new recruits; no percentage in berserkers. I was a wild one the first couple of trips, though.

     We hit the atmosphere of Anomaly at an oblique angle and came in passive, like a natural meteor, until we got to a position where we were reasonably safe from detection (just above the south polar sea), then blasted briefly to slow down and splash. Then we spent a few hours in slow flight at sea level, sneaking up on their settlement.
     It appeared to be the only enemy camp on the whole planet, which was typical. Strange for a spacefaring, aggressive race to be so incurious about planetary environments, but they always seemed to settle in one place and simply expand radially. And they do expand; their reproduction rate makes rabbits look sick. Starting from one colony, they can fill a world in two hundred years. After that, they control their population by infantiphage and stellar migration.
     The snails populate ten planets for every one we destroy.

From TIME PIECE by Joe Haldeman (1970)

      Almost anybody else knew more about how the war was going than we did, even though we were in it. This was the period, of course, after the Bugs had located our home planet, through the Skinnies, and had raided it, destroying Buenos Aires and turning "contact troubles" into all-out war, but before we had built up our forces and before the Skinnies had changed sides and become our co-belligerents and de facto allies. Partly effective interdiction for Terra had been set up from Luna (we didn't know it), but speaking broadly, the Terran Federation was losing the war.

     We didn't know that, either. Nor did we know that strenuous efforts were being made to subvert the alliance against us and bring the Skinnies over to our side; the nearest we came to being told about that was when we got instructions, before the raid in which Flores was killed, to go easy on the Skinnies, destroy as much property as possible but to kill inhabitants only when unavoidable.

     What a man doesn't know he can't spill if he is captured; neither drugs, nor torture, nor brainwash, nor endless lack of sleep can squeeze out a secret he doesn't possess. So we were told only what we had to know for tactical purposes. In the past, armies have been known to fold up and quit because the men didn't know what they were fighting for, or why, and therefore lacked the will to fight. But the M.I. (Mobile Infantry: powered armor troopers) does not have that weakness. Each one of us was a volunteer to begin with, each for some reason or other—some good, some bad. But now we fought because we were M.I. We were professionals, with esprit de corps. We were Rasczak's Roughnecks, the best unprintable outfit in the whole expurgated M.I.; we climbed into our capsules because Jelly told us it was time to do so and we fought when we got down there because that is what Rasczak's Roughnecks do.

     We certainly didn't know that we were losing.

     Those Bugs lay eggs. They not only lay them, they hold them in reserve, hatch them as needed. If we killed a warrior—or a thousand, or ten thousand—his or their replacements were hatched and on duty almost before we could get back to base. You can imagine, if you like, some Bug supervisor of population flashing a phone to somewhere down inside and saying, "Joe, warm up ten thousand warriors and have 'em ready by Wednesday … and tell engineering to activate reserve incubators N, O, P, Q, and R; the demand is picking up."

     I don't say they did exactly that, but those were the results. But don't make the mistake of thinking that they acted purely from instinct, like termites or ants; their actions were as intelligent as ours (stupid races don't build spaceships!) and were much better coordinated. It takes a minimum of a year to train a private to fight and to mesh his fighting in with his mates; a Bug warrior is hatched able to do this.

     Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. (single human soldier) it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn't care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with "lessons from history" is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

(ed note: the Human/Revain alliance is fighting an interstellar war with the Nerne. The latter species has a breeding rate which makes rabbits and cockroaches look like pikers. They use soldier-wave tactics, Nerne life is less than worthless, they store millions of their newborn offspring in vats under suspended animation.)

      He (Captain Randall) waited with ill-restrained impatience and then began to turn the hand control of the periscope. When the instrument cleared the surface, he was pleased to see that shadows were gathering on the horizon; it was close to darkness. He made a complete sweep with the periscope and saw that the current had carried them at least six miles from the point of attack. Three to four miles ahead, the black outline of the alien (Nerne) city stretched backwards from the sea. Here the cliffs gave way to long grey beaches. The aliens had built their city almost to the water’s edge.
     He made another half sweep and stopped, becoming aware of something he had noticed but failed to remark on before. On the green choppy sea were slowly drifting patches of — no it wasn’t weed. It looked more like froth, but thicker, brown froth. Yes, he had it now: frog spawn! Where the hell had it come from? There had been none of it when he had attacked. Something dislodged from the seabed by the explosion, perhaps? Hell of a lot, wasn’t there? Some of the patches must be a hundred feet across.
     He became aware of some close at hand and swivelled the periscope quickly to catch it. He was lucky. He caught the nearest patch on the crest of a wave with the light behind it. Jelly, exactly like frog spawn, only the jelly-like transparent eggs were almost as big as a normal hen’s egg. In the centre of each transparent egg or jelly sack was a tiny black humanoid figure, like a tadpole, but with legs and arms. It wasn’t human, of course; probably was a sort of sea tadpole peculiar to this planet. Yes, that was it; no doubt about it, none whatever.

     At the back of his mind, however, there was doubt and he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to convince himself.

     Through his binoculars Randall could see a large deputation waiting on the pier but before he was close enough to distinguish features a single robot came racing above the smooth sea to greet him.
     Randall read the white lettering on the hive-shaped body and asked, ‘Well, Ford, good news?’
     ‘Excellent, sir.’ The voice was so enthusiastic that a smile was implied.
     ‘Let’s hear it, in order, and summarise, please.’
     ‘Yes, sir. Well, in order, three days after your departure there was a heavy explosion. Subsequent checks confirmed the destruction of a second Mluck ship. It ran afoul of the minefield, sir. Continual monitoring of the enemy communication systems were entertaining, sir. The enemy area commander was publicly deleted within an hour and his successor barely installed before you made your highly successful and paralysing blow at the installations.’

     ‘Yes, sir. I must explain that. By a careful check on enemy communications and working in close conjunction with the master computers of the Department of Biology we think we have arrived at the basis of the aliens’ war motivation, sir. Would you care to hear about it?’
     ‘Yes, I would, but briefly please, I’m very tired.’
     ‘The enemy is a bisexual humanoid, sir, and the species has found no method of controlling reproduction. Consequently their early history was ravaged by wars for living space. When, however, they expanded to the stars, they thought the problem was solved. They considered it their divine right to seed every habitable planet with their own kind. This went on until a race called the Revain took exception to the aliens’ methods and a war began. This war has now been raging for several centuries and our friends have taken, despite continual advances, some really horrible beatings in their many theatres of war. Unfortunately, the aliens regard these colossal leases with contempt; their grotesque manpower situation is such that these losses only ease the pressure behind them. So immense is this pressure that vast areas of their territory, conquered and otherwise, are covered with “freeze vats”.
     “The aliens spawn like an Earth frog, you see, sir, and, so intensely overpopulated are his worlds already that he must, from necessity, keep this spawn in deep freeze until he can find room to mature it.’
     ‘Don’t tell me.’ Randall leaned forward, gripping the rail. ‘They brought a couple of these vats here, built beds in which they could mature, and I torpedoed them.’ He was seeing again the jelly-like eggs on the water containing the tiny black human-like figures.
     ‘You are very quick, sir. Yes, you set back the seeded occupation of this planet by five years.’
     ‘It makes me feel sick.’
     ‘Although applauding your reactions, sir, the enemy does not share your disquiet. Although heads are rolling in the military sphere, there is jubilation in what they term the Department of Colonial Expansion. The dispatch of two more vats makes more space at home, presumably for more vats. The aliens appear to be lacking in certain emotions, sir, and life is less than cheap.’

     Randall climbed a small mound of churned earth by the ship and stopped. On the opposite side of the mound, sprawled on its back, was a dead alien. He sighed inwardly and looked at the alien again. So that was the species of Nerne, one of an endless chain of creatures stretching away to God knew where. Almost a factory product, come to think of it, with a vast area of storage space containing replacements. Worse, the blasted factory was still pouring its goods off the production line at maximum effort Who could hope to win against an enemy who could toss away a complete army division with the same indifference that he, Randall, would toss away a spent match?
     It isn’t quite as bad as that.’ Reener (of the Revain allies) was staring up into his face.
     ‘Are you reading my thoughts?’
     ‘No, only guessing what you are thinking. I know how I pondered these Nerne when I first saw them.’
     ‘I was thinking of their numbers.’
     ‘It is a frightening thought but it is not always decisive. One of our most resounding victories, although local, was brought about by exploiting the numerical superiority of the enemy.’
     ‘How did you do that?’ Randall was interested.

     ‘May I simplify? Call a planet an island and you will see it more clearly. You hold — what shall we call it? — North Island. North Island is equipped as a base to handle five hundred vessels and cater to the needs of half a million men. One day a report comes in that the biggest war fleet in living memory is heading straight for you. You are not to know, of course, that ninety-five per cent of this giant fleet are dummy plastic shells.
     ‘Any intelligence faced with this kind of information is apt to take panic measures. Your nearest neighbours, Eastern and Southern Islands, are too far away to lend big ship support in time, so you have to make do with what you have — the matter-transmitters. You have men funnelled through in floods, and your garrison grows from half a million to seven million in a matter of days. You can’t put a large vessel through a matter-transmitter but you can get small ones — the equivalent of your period motor torpedo boats. Before you know where you are, you’ve got more than three thousand and you’re only equipped to handle five hundred. You’ve stores for half a million men but suddenly you’ve got to cater for nearly eight. You haven’t room for the ships, nor the fuel, and suddenly it’s chaos. It’s like thirty men in a room designed for three.’
     Reener smiled, an infectious elfin smile. ‘We hit Eastern Island and Southern Island simultaneously with two small fleets. Both had funnelled so many men and ships to Northern Island that they were virtually defenceless. We wiped out both garrisons.
     ‘At this period a larger fleet, which had been sneaking in from the opposite direction to the dummy fleet, hit the congested island without warning. It was a massacre; the aliens lost almost as many ships from collisions and panic take-offs as we knocked down.’
     He paused and looked at Randall thoughtfully. ‘Now make these islands planets in the vast sea of space. For every ship multiply my figures by ten thousand; for every million men multiply one hundred thousand and you will have some idea of the magnitude of that defeat.’

     He sighed, his expressive elfin face suddenly weary and old. ‘Victory, defeat, it means nothing. We have been fighting this war for three centuries but the million we remove today, the Nerne can replace with four million tomorrow. Slowly but surely we are being pushed back. Oh, yes, yes, we both have super weapons, devices capable of wrenching apart a planet and strewing its ashes across the galaxy. We are both afraid of them: the Nerne because it would deny them the living space which means survival, and ourselves because we hold so little. We thrust, therefore, and we parry but survival forces its own laws upon us both.’
     Randall nodded but his eyes were cloudy with thought. ‘Have you ever paused to think what you’re up against, Reener?’
     ‘I do not quite understand you.’
     ‘Every time you remove one of the enemy, you do him a favour. Although, militarily, he loses a unit, it makes that much more space on the home front. You — you and I — are attempting the impossible. We’re telling the tides to go back or trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. In the long run, we, or those who follow us, are bound to go under.’

      On the northern continent, Area Commander Folve (local Nerne commander) stared moodily from the narrow slit which served as a window and locked his six fingered hands behind his back. Had there been room he might have paced moodily up and down but since there was none, the thought did not occur to him. He was used to cramped quarters; in fact, after the claustrophobic overcrowding of his parent planet, this office was almost spacious. Here he could move his arms, even turn with moderate quickness; it was one of the very few compensations of promotion.
     Folve removed a small blue pill from a receptacle and began to chew it slowly. As he had two jaws, operating at right angles to the normal human mouth, the operation made an unpleasant grating noise.
     The pill itself served much the same purpose as human tobacco except that it included high tranquilisation properties. Folve needed those properties: his lot was not a happy one. High Command was ruthless, demanding, petty, and vacillating. It demanded that its officers conduct their affairs according to procedure but blamed the officer if procedure was insufficient for the situation. It applauded initiative if initiative produced results but condemned the offending officer for not adhering to procedure if it didn’t. There were no second chances, no hope of redemption. One failure meant not demotion but deletion. Life was not cheap; it was less than worthless.
     Folve was ironically aware that those in higher command, above the powers of the deletion courts, could receive a reprimand from the military for a defeat and a citation from Board of Expansion for the same operation. The military dealt with success and the Board of Expansion with living space. Only when one acquired living space by armed conquest did one gain citations from both authorities.

     His thoughts drifted away from his own problem to the larger one of interstellar conflict. Centuries ago his own species had evolved a technique of stellar conquest which was well suited to their prodigious powers of reproduction: send in a ship, establish a base and hold it against attack for long enough to get the matter-transmitters in operation. After that it was simple: pour in troops and weapons powerful enough to hold off a space-borne attack. Once you had done that, the planet was yours and troops could keep pouring in until it was literally flooded.
     Understandably, the Revain, with their vastly slower reproductive capacities and limited numbers, could not match this technique. They could not affordthe eighty percent casualty rate of interstellar matter-transmission so they had stuck stubbornly to their growing space fleet. The Nerne had only constructed to keep ahead, not to gain a vast lead in ships, but now, with the humans adding their weight, the Nerne would be compelled to increase their own production. The Commodore felt a twinge of unease. How? Where? They would need at least sixty more production sites to meet the allied construction threat and where would they put them? With every vacant space filled with vats, just how and where would they do it? There was no room in orbit; his home worlds had already lost sixty-five percent of their light from the vast conglomeration of orbiting repair shops, construction vessels and factories.

     It was, however, only a few days before the first stirrings of the coming collapse came from two newly acquired planets (Nerne planets recently captured by the Human/Revain alliance).
     The garrisons, confined to the force bubbles by the close orbital attention of allied ships, were running short of supplies. No supplies could be sent because of enemy transmission interference (which render the matter-transmitters useless) and in the face of enemy superiority in space the Nerne could not send ships.
     The alien high command woke suddenly to the need for ships. Production! They must out-build and out-produce the enemy.
     It was then that the writing on the wall became clear to them—where?

     The surfaces of the Nerne home planets were like beehives. The buildings climbed almost to the limits of the breathable atmosphere and burrowed far into the ground. They floated on the deepest oceans and extended far beneath. They could of course, delete several million of their kind, tear down the buildings and start construction, but highways, landing fields and space for research would be needed near the construction sites. They could no longer transmit matter even over short distances. An estimate provided by construction experts recommended the deletion of seventy million citizens after which, perhaps, allied ship production could be equalled but not overtaken.
     The Department of Reproduction pointed out that with stellar expansion halted the space so gained would by that time be required for vats.

     The Nerne faced one another with consternation and growing terror.
     They could delete each other but not the vats. The destruction of the spawn, the species’ ticket to continuation, was as repugnant and as psychologically impossible for them as a hungry man’s devouring his own body.
     Space construction? The allies, with their growing fleet superiority, were already making daring hit-and-run raids in the home systems.

From THE TIME MERCENARIES by Philip E. High (1968)

Kill The Queen

There are a couple of science fiction stories where a relentless alien empire is trying to conquer the entire freaking galaxy, and eventually the hard-pressed humans notice that the aliens reproduce by Gynes. This means that for purposes of reproduction there are NOT equal numbers of male and female aliens. Instead each large group has zillions of males and sterile females, and a single fertile female.

A queen bee, in other words. This is found on Terra with bees, ants, wasps, and termites

If the Terrans are in a war-to-the-knife situation, where it is either us or them, they will see the obvious solution. If they can manage to terminate all the alien queens, then the Terrans just have to hold out until all the alien warriors die of old age. Genocide by fertility control, as it were.

Understand that in the real world, if a beehive loses their queen, the workers can create an "emergency queen" by flooding newly hatched larvae with royal jelly.

Also in the real world, beekeepers will sometimes find that a hive is composed of vicious Africanized bees. The standard cure is to endure the assault of the bees while you kill the queen bee and replace it with a new queen of a more docile breed. I guess the scifi version would be more like the Manchurian Candidate.

Kill The Queen 1

(ed note: the Kemiri are insectoid aliens who hold much of the local spiral arm in their iron grip, enslaving hundreds of alien species. As they try to conquer the Terran United Planets, the humans are driven to desperate measures)

      Set-Sixteen was a Kenmiri provincial capital, deep on the far side of the Empire from the United Planets. The Kenmiri hadn’t been expecting an attack and their defense fleet was weaker than it should have been. That fleet was still five full dreadnought battle groups and the UPSF’s Vesheron allies were getting hammered.
     Panther’s grav-shields and weapons could turn the tide of that fight—but that wasn’t their mission, and the birdlike starship plunged through the Kenmiri lines.

     “There,” Henry’s avatar said sharply. “That ship. Broos, confirm.”
     Commander Broos Van Agteren wasn’t a normal part of Panther’s crew. He was from United Planets Intelligence, their handler for Operation Golden Lancelot.
     “Confirmed,” Van Agteren told him. “That’s the evacuation ship for the Kenmorad. The queen and her consorts will be aboard.”

     The ship was the size of one of the dreadnoughts pounding the Vesheron ships behind Panther but lacked their devastating main guns. The evacuation ship had one purpose and one purpose only: to evacuate the Kenmorad population of Set-Sixteen if they felt the planet was threatened.
     A Kenmorad breeding sect could repopulate an entire planet of Kenmiri drones in a few years. They could create more breeding sects, more drones…more Kenmiri.
     The Kenmiri couldn’t reproduce without the Kenmorad.

     “Ser, that’s the last one. We can’t kill her!”
     Lieutenant Colonel Emil Tyson had been Panther’s executive officer, Henry’s right-hand man and lubricant who kept a battlecruiser working in the face of the enemy. The redheaded Irishman hadn’t raised any complaints on the day. They hadn’t known.
     “Stand by all missiles and prep the main gun,” Henry’s avatar ordered, as if Tyson hadn’t spoken. “Vela, get us in hard and fast.”
     Panther lunged across the void in a quarter of the time she had in real life. Suddenly, it was the moment of truth, the evacuation ship’s escorts making a suicide charge at the battlecruiser as Panther dove toward her prey.

     “She’s the last one, ser,” Tyson repeated, the avatar of Henry’s subconscious. The one that knew what he’d done, even if he hadn’t then. “If we kill that ship, we commit genocide. We end a species.”
     Henry hadn’t known the full scope of Golden Lancelot. He wasn’t sure if anyone aboard Panther had—he knew that Van Agteren hadn’t known when they fired. He suspected the Intel officer had guessed…but hadn’t realized that the breeding sect they were firing on was the last one left.
     “Ignore the escorts,” dream-Henry barked. “Target the evac ship with everything. Fire!”
     It had taken dozens of missiles and multiple hits from the main gun to take out the evacuation ship. In his dreams, however, there was only the single gravity-driver round that had finished her off. It flashed across space and detonated, turning itself into a shotgun blast of superheated plasma.

     “That’s it, then,” Van Agteren said, “The Kenmorad are no more. The Kenmiri will die. We are victorious!”

Kill The Queen 2

The horror Third WatchMaster found while inspecting passenger compartments was on the manifest. He had been warned by Timmerbach that Glorious Spent carried two aliens who had boarded on the Atlantean Rim. But…

It (a Godspeaker) looked like a group-grope involving giant hydras and starfish atop a heap of exposed intestines. It was some sort of colonial, symbiotic intelligence. It was a methane breather, which explained why it had not turned out for the passenger muster.

It was revolting.

What the hell excuse was there for letting something that hideous run loose? What was Canon coming to?

The Godspeakers had plenty of warning, though WarAvocat used Hellspinners liberally to burrow a channel so he could reach his objective more quickly. He sent a rider force ahead to strike at two incomplete habitats Seeker feared would flee before they could be destroyed.

Strate told Klass, “Tell him to concentrate on tracking those things.” Minutes after VII Gemina’s breakaway Seeker had announced that each habitat contained a “brood mass,” a mindless superGodspeaker colony serving a reproductive function resembling that of a queen ant and the data storage function of a Starbase Core—though the brood mass could not manipulate that data itself.

“It’s a repository for genes and knowledge,” Klass said. “Without one there could be no more Godspeakers.”

“Why hasn’t he mentioned it before? He’s been holding out.”

“We destroyed the original when we hit their homeworld. He says he didn’t think they could put another one together. They’ve never had two at once, ever.”

WarAvocat knew little about the biology of the methane breathers. He did not care. They were the enemy. Their biology signified only when it could be used against them.

From THE DRAGON NEVER SLEEPS by Glen Cook (1988)
Put The Screws On

(ed note: this is an example of the opposite: aliens have conquered Terra and want to make the human race die out. Since humans do not have queen bees, the aliens have to do it the hard way.

Marion is guilty of manslaughter. The alien conquerors have forced Terra into a corner, so Terra has no choice but to make almost all crimes punishable by death. Landon is the captain of the starship which is transporting Marion to the deadly planet. )

      Marion sighed. “A hundred years ago it would have been a manslaughter charge but today they have to look around to find laws which don’t carry the death penalty. I suppose it’s a kick-back from the armistice terms, something has to be done about the population problem.” He laughed bitterly. “Generous terms I believe they were called. They took the best parts of Earth for themselves, seven of our colonies and gave us one of their own planets in return.” He scowled suddenly at Landon. “One we can’t use.”
     “Who told you that ?” said Landon sharply.
     “You did. (You just told me that) There is an invulnerable animal called a zipcat which obviously makes the planet untenable, otherwise we should be shipping our surplus population out there for all we were worth.” He flicked ash on the floor with his finger tip and grinned wryly. “ Sounds like a tough job—killing zipcats. If our technically superior conquerors couldn’t clear them up, it seems pretty obvious that we can’t.”

(ed note: on the planet, Marion is told that all he has to do is figure out a way to kill zipcats. He is allowed any weapon he wants. Unfortunately every other person who has tried was unsuccessful and was swiftly killed by a zipcat.)

(ed note: Arkroyd is the current elected representative of the human race, who is regularly given impossible orders by the alien conquerors.)

     Arkroyd had been lithe but now moved like an old man. His face had been clear and smooth but in two years of office, strain and bitterness had carved lines into his cheeks and a premature senility of movement.
     “ Mousac Benik,” he said, steadily. “ If you take more of our world my people will die.”
     Benik made a gesture with a long, six-fingered hand. “ We have given you a world to which they may migrate.”
     “ You failed to colonise it.”
     “ Not failed, Arkroyd, the venture would have been too costly. Again, we were not in the desperate position which you so constantly protest. You must devise ways and means to make colonisation possible.”
     Arkroyd said: “ My God,” under his breath and watched the knuckles of his hands whiten almost detachedly. “ With a technology inferior to your own ?” he asked.
     “ I have already reminded you, your need is desperate, ours was not.” He rose, twining the orange robe tightly about his body. “ We are setting up a military base in area 67 as soon as equipment comes to hand. All buildings and power installations must be removed or demolished in this section of your world before the new year.” He paused, looking at the bent human with faint contempt. “ You understand?”
     “ I understand.” There was a world of weariness and resignation in the tired voice.

     Arkroyd sat unmoving at his desk long after the alien had gone. More land, more cities, a piece here, a piece there, taking away the peoples’ living space slice by slice. What did Williams say they were calling it? Ah, yes, a squeeze box. He had a vague recollection it was a slang term for some sort of musical instrument but was not certain. One thing he did know was that if you put animals in a cage and kept making the cage smaller, there would come a time when the animals began to eat each other. They hadn’t reached that yet but it would come.
     He looked about his office—squeeze box was right. At a push the room might hold four people and that for the race’s elected representative. A desk which swung out from the wall, bed which pulled down from ceiling, toilet and washing facilities which folded into the floor.
     Overcrowding, everyone in each others pockets, sleeping in relays, working in relays, staggered meals, rising tuberculosis and declining morals.

     Something had to be done and his predecessors, perhaps more ruthless than himself, had set the machinery in motion. They had re-introduced the death penalty and used it to save the race from complete collapse. It was applied at first with reserve but sheer necessity had forced the government to extend it to almost every form of misdemeanour. It was a capital offence to hoard, to steal food, to deal in ration cards, to breed without state permission, to spread rumours likely to cause alarm and despondency—
     Bluntly they had to kill people behind a facade of law and order to save the race. It was expedient that a few million should die to save the race.
     Arkroyd put his head in his hands and something deep down inside him whimpered like a child. There was no revoking the law now, no way out; to let the population increase, or even remain static, would lead only to starvation, riots and subsequent plague. This, too, was another form of expediency from which the race might never recover.

     The squeeze box. Yes, if you put animals in a cage and kept making it smaller, there would come a time when they started to eat each other. Arkroyd knew, as his predecessors must have known, that the conquerors need to install equipment and erect vast defensive devices was pure fabrication. This was a planned policy of extermination but what could he do about it? Defiance would only bring about one of the ruthless pogroms which would cut down their chances even more.
     The conquerors programme was almost childlike in its simplicity and was being applied over a period of time with ruthless efficiency. Race extermination was, after all, a messy and tiresome business. The easiest and best method, obviously was to create a situation from which the only escape was self-destruction. That way the job was done for them with the vanquished obligingly burying their own dead. It was all so simple, just make a cage and squeeze.
     Arkroyd was beating his clenched fists on the metal desk and couldn’t feel it…

(ed note: ...later)

     Arkroyd rose and bowed stiffly as he had been taught. He felt like a buffoon a puppet who moved when the strings were pulled. “ Yes, Mousac Benik ?”
     The alien loosened his cloak and sat down. “ I am here to inform you that our installations will require far more space than we at first supposed.” He pointed to the wall map with a long stick-like finger. “ All of this.” The finger described a circle.

     Arkroyd felt the muscles stiffen beneath his skin. “ But that’s nearly a thousand square miles.” Despite himself his voice was almost a sob. “ It’s impossible.” His mind raced insanely trying to calculate how many millions he would have to crush into the already overcrowded cities. No time to build, no time to dig, the hammocks in the dormitories already less than an inch apart and winter coming—Oh God, Oh God !
     “ Impossible ?” The alien looked at him strangely. “ What is impossible ? We require the demolition of some buildings, the removal of installations, such a task is not beyond the capacities of your people, surely?”

     Arkroyd was thinking: ‘ I could kill him now. I could reach out from here and break that pipe-stem neck with my bare hands but what good would it do? Reprisals, pogroms, more millions uprooted and some other poor devil sitting in this same chair, dying as he sat or, like many before him, fingering the gun in the desk drawer and finally blowing off the top of his head.’
     The alien folded his hands, intertwining his fingers so that they reminded Arkroyd of thin saffron-coloured worms. “The impossibility, Arkroyd, lies with you, it is a block in your own mind due to emotional disturbance and confused thinking. An application of the laws of expediency would leave your mind clear to perform the duties your position imposes. Like all your race you allow emotion and sentimentality to obscure your vision and influence your judgment.” He rose, tightening his robe. “ Demolition must be completed by the first day of the new year.”

     Arkroyd’s bow was purely reflex as the alien left, his conscious mind barely noticed the empty chair and the closed door. The new year ! It was fantastic. An area so large, he hadn’t the labour or the machines to do it, there was no time even to plan the demolition. Machines producing synthetic foods must come first and room made to operate in space needed for the population they must uproot. They could, perhaps, dig even deeper into the ground but that would mean splitting a labour force that was already inadequate for demolition.
     His mind became curiously numb and sluggish as if it had revolted of its own accord and refused to juggle with statistics. Perhaps it was a sort of safety factor but whatever it was, it was occurring with greater frequency each week.

     He pulled open the desk drawer and stared dully at the squat blue-black weapon lying casually on the white, never used, pre-invasion note paper. All he had to do was to put it to his head and squeeze the trigger. It was all so easy, six of his predecessors had done it as if to prove its simplicity and the suicide weapon had never been removed. Perhaps, after all, it was not a weapon at all but an instrument of mercy to be resorted to when the strain became too much. Selection for Representative was not dependent upon the mass of the people but the findings of a computer which based its selection on taped psychological information recorded at each yearly medical examination.
     When he had been selected Arkroyd had had dreams of improving the lot of his people, now his dreams were escapefantasies and he knew it. Secretly he called them “ If-only ” dreams. If only they could find a weapon powerful enough to support an uprising— If only the enemy would fall sick— If only someone would find a way to destroy zipcats—

(ed note: but then, the impossible happens. On the planet, Marion actually makes contact with the zipcats. And though they do not realize it yet, the alien conquerors are suddenly in hot bubbling sewage up to their eyebrows… and the human race is saved)

From SQUEEZE BOX by Philip E. High (1959)

Square-Cube Law

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Body Type Classification

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Alien Lebensraum

Desirable Real Estate

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Gas Giant Dweller

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Alien Contact

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Drake Equation

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Contact Motivation

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Contact Anti-motivation

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The Fermi Paradox

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Fermi's Nightmare

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Exterminomachy and Consequences

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Radio Silence

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The Dark Forest Rule

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The Killing Star

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Run To The Stars

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We Know You Are Out There

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Why I Don't Worry

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The Prisoner's Dilemma

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Alien Tech Level

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Apes or Angels

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Chariots of the Gods, Terran Style

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Technology Level

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Star Gods

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Indistinguishable From Nature

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Aquatic Technology

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