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Aug 12, 2012

Too Alien

Back in the 70s, my copy had this
John Schoenherr cover art
Not alien enough. One of the first science fiction novels that I read was Against the Fall of Night, the precursor to  The City and the Stars. I was rather startled by how Clarke's story depicted humans still on Earth a billion years in our future. In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov explicitly adopted the view that it is possible for humans to create a stable cultural environment within which humans would not significantly change by evolution over the course of millions of years. However, since those two stories were written, there has been growing interest in the idea that much human evolution can be due to "genetic drift" rather than selection. In other words, due to random events, you can't stop evolution even if the environment remains constant.

By the 1960s, when the chemical basis of heredity was known, it became easy for science fiction writers to imagine a future in which we humans might engineer our own chromosomes and radically accelerate the pace of biological evolution (example). Also, with the miniaturization of computers, it became popular to imagine that Humanity could at some future time migrate from our biological bodies into robotic bodies or our species could give rise to descendants that take the form of some sort of non-biological artificial life.

Some futurists argue that we will enter into a technological singularity during this century which will radically change human existence. Is there any way to prevent Humanity from radically transforming itself?

Anti-Singularity. I've long been intrigued by how Asimov and Vance found ways to limit the rate and direction of human technological development in their "future histories" about Humanity's spread through the galaxy. Asimov imagined that Daneel had taken control of Humanity and so human technological advancement was carefully regulated so as to impose constraints that would protect humans from harm. Asimov introduced the idea that "mentalics" made it possible to control human creativity. Asimov showed that the Solarians diverged significantly from the human norm and Daneel arranged for the formation of Galaxia, a culture within which human brains would be engineered to incorporate a version of the Laws of Robotics. But for the most part, technology did not advance during the 20,000 years during which Humanity colonized the galaxy. Vance imagined The Institute, a mysterious and secretive organization that constantly worked to counter the potentially disruptive influence of new technologies.


Exode. I'm developing a new science fiction novel called Exode that is heavily  concerned with human evolution. The main character is Parthney, who is part of the Buld Clan. The Bulds are a minority group among the Prelands, those humans who live on worlds near the galactic core. I've been struggling with decisions about just how alien to make the Prelands. This is complicated by the fact that the Prelands are a diverse group composed of many different "clans".

The Prelands are the result of a human breeding project that was initiated by alien beings, the Huaoshy. The Prelands live in an artificial culture where people are not even aware of the possibility of invention and technological advancement. They have been given a few technological conveniences by the Huaoshy, but the Prelands do not view technology as a human creation.

All of the Preland clans are genetically modified variants of humans. I'm using "human" in a broad sense because some of the Preland clans had their biological origin as human variants (such as Neanderthals) that have become extinct on Earth during the past 100,000 years or so. One of the major goals of the Huaoshy breeding program is to allow humans to make use of nanoscopic devices (nanites) that integrate into the brain and allow for new types of communication such as a form of technology-mediated telepathic information exchange. Individuals in most Preland clans make use of nanite-assisted telepathy and they make little use of spoken language. The Buld Clan is relatively young and their brains are only partially capable of integrating with nanites, so they still use spoken language.

Right brain, left brain.


The Buld Clan does not have a written language (but a few Buld have learned to read and write). For Bulds, the parts of the brain that we make use of for reading are targeted by nanites and used to make possible a form of nanite-facilitated telepathy. This rather primitive telepathy does not allow for telepathic conversations, but rather the exchange of information that is almost entirely processed at an unconscious level of brain activity. This form of telepathic contact allows individual Bulds to be strongly linked into a type of collective unconscious. Compared to you and I, the behavior of a typical Buld is less constrained by left brain activity. Bulds, like all Prelands, are almost exclusively right brain dominant.

The Prelands are human, but are they too alien? It is challenging to convey to readers what it is like to have Buld-type telepathy and in Exode, I don't even try to make readers understand what it must be like to live as a typical Preland who never speaks. Can readers understand and empathize with people who have telepathy?

And there are other biological differences between Prelands and we Earthlings. Prelands have been engineered to not rely on conventional mammalian bisexual reproduction. The Bulds are hermaphroditic and retain the ability to reproduce without the use of technology. However, most Prelands have lost the ability to reproduce without technological assistance. This allows the Huaoshy to easily control Preland population size and the course of Preland evolution.

The Bulds have been engineered to have an additional synthetic chromosome. In some rare individuals, a Buld is born who lost the synthetic chromosome. The main character of Exode, Parthney, is a Buld who is genetically male (a "false" Buld). Readers get to experience Preland culture through the eyes of Parthney. While growing up, Parthney has no deep understanding of the fact that humans originated as a bisexual species on Earth, although he is intrigued by the idea that he could go to Earth and experience life among billions of fellow humans.

Note: I finally decided on just how "alien" to make the Prelands....see this blog post.

Asimov's Spacers. In Foundation and Earth, Asimov depicted a smoldering antagonism between the hermaphroditic Solarians and Trevize, the "never wrong", the story's protagonist. He wants to destroy Solaria, trusting his infallible sense of what is best. Asimov depicted most Spacers as being disgusted by the "short-lived" Earthlings and Settlers. In several novels,  Kelden Amadiro was the personification of antagonism between Settlers and the Spacers and the Spacers create robots programmed to kill Settlers, defining them as non-human. Giskard and Daneel ultimately decide that the Spacers must be marginalized. This makes sense to me in that Daneel cannot allow further development of robots if he is to maintain control over the fate of Humanity. Solaria's culture, once established, ultimately became a complete dead end for further technological advancement. Even more strange, the human populations of the other Spacer worlds just mysteriously go extinct. The Solarian civilization persists for 20,000 years, never changing over long periods of time after being established in its hermaphroditic perfection. Is it a psychohistorical theorem: human cultures that do not expand become extinct, but a hermaphroditic human off-shoot can persist?

What other experiments and manipulations of Humanity did Daneel perform along with the creation of Gaia? Was the bulk of Humanity little more than a breeding experiment to produce Trivize, the "never wrong"? In the end, Asimov suggested the possibility that aliens might interact with Humanity, but he died before writing a sequel to Foundation and Earth. Asimov's Foundation Saga ends on a xenophobic note with the Solarians waiting for the Settlers to destroy themselves and Daneel, as a last resort, forced to merge his robotic mind with Fallom's (a Solarian) in a desperate attempt to convert Humanity into Galaxia. In the final few pages of Foundation and Earth, Asimov wrote that aliens had not visited our galaxy, "as far as is known". 

Asimov left his great future history poised for a gallant defense of Humanity against either invading aliens or a self-generated danger from within. I suspect that Asimov really did not want to introduce alien invaders from a distant galaxy. Not sharing Asimov's reluctance to include aliens, in The Start of Eternity I assume that Daneel's desperate attempts to shape and modify Humanity are, in fact, due to a long-standing struggle between positronic robots and aliens from another galaxy.

So, aliens were out and apparently Asimov also could not imagine some internally-generated conflict that would comprise a worthy adversary for Galaxia. I can imagine Asimov starting the sequel to Foundation and Earth and calling it something like Hermaphrodites vs. Galaxia. Asimov's formula for the entire saga was based upon imagined conflict between groups of people who all believe that they are doing what is "good". Were the Solarians too alien to fit into Asimov's formulaic approach? And how could a thousand Solarians be a threat to the 25,000,000 worlds of Galaxia?

Gender Engineering
Ursula K. Le Guin imagined a human variant that had been engineered for pheromonal regulation of expression of either a male or female phenotype by hermaphroditic individuals. After spreading among the stars, the Hanish civilization collapsed.

In Assignment Nor'Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc depicted aliens who had a mysterious origin. We are told that the aliens did not originate on Nor'Dyren, that they were colonists from a long-defunct interstellar civilization. The Nor'Dyrenese were apparently genetically engineered into distinct subtypes so as to form a well-regulated civilization. Males and females were designed to have no distinctive physical differences upon casual observation.

There have been more recent attempts to portray fictional hermaphrodites in fantasy. I've never read any of the Wraeththu novels but they seem to devote significant effort to sketching a cultural backstory for Constantine's hermaphrodites. As a hard science fiction fan, I'm put off by the idea that the strange biology of these hermaphrodites arises by "mutation" and the Wraeththu have magical powers.

I've never read any of Banks' Culture stories, but as I understand them, they depict humanoid protagonists having adventures within an interstellar civilization that contains many technologically advanced lifeforms. The whole Culture setting strikes me as a kind of Star Trek holodeck fantasy stage. In Star Trek, Piccard gets to enter the holodeck and pretend to be his favorite detective. Using The Culture as a setting, Banks gets to play out James Bond secret agent missions with spaceships. His humanoids can select and change everything about their biology, including their sex, but apparently nothing arising from science fundamentally changes the way the protagonist humanoids behave. Life within the core of The Culture might be too strange for us to understand, but there is always the "fringe of the fringe", special operatives of Contact who can have typical Sci Fi adventures where the motivations and outcomes are typically human.

I've never read The Mote in God's Eye. The "Moties" remind me of "Tribbles", creatures with a physiology that a biologist can't accept. The individual Moties alternate between the two sexes and, although they are technologically advanced, they can't find a way to control their rapid population growth.

The Huaoshy design hermaphroditic reproduction into Preland clans as an intermediate evolutionary step leading ultimately to the abandonment of biological reproduction. For Prelands, both male and female gamete production is cyclical and rare, resulting in low fertility. In fact, almost all Preland reproduction takes place under the strict control of the Huaoshy-designed breeding plan. When a particular Preland clan is no longer of interest to the Huaoshy, it naturally dies out. The Huaoshy have a specific plan for how to evolve Humanity along the path that the Huaoshy themselves followed long ago. For an analogy, imagine that we found primitive unicellular life on Mars and decided to force that Martian life towards a multicellular existence. The Huaoshy view creatures like we humans as quite primitive, but worthy of having a chance to evolve. In their vast experience, the Huaoshy have learned that most human-like organisms, if left to themselves, self-destruct. I've previously compared the relationship between the Huaoshy and Humanity to the way a horse rancher might take care to tend a blade of grass in a pasture. 

For stories written in the first half of the previous century by authors like Asimov, was it impossible for readers to have anything but an aversive reaction to hermaphrodites? In this century, are attitudes changing? It is amusing to imagine a young Isaac Asimov trying to sell John Campbell a story about hermaphroditic humans. Asimov was able to integrate hermaphroditic Solarians into the Foundation saga, but he did so only after Campbell was gone and other science fiction authors had already begun to explore gender in their stories.

In "The Robots of Dawn", set several centuries in our future, Asimov depicted slightly different cultures (those of Earth, Aurora and Solaria) as rapidly diverging in terms of their sexual behaviors and reproductive practices. Asimov was a master at imagining how members of future human groups might be disgusted by the sexual practices of other groups. Within Auroran culture, Vasilia is depicted as being traumatized by the fact that her father refused to have sex with her. The early Solarians, while still bisexual, find sex a disgusting obligation of marriage.

Too Alien.
As humans, we have millions of bacteria that exist at the surface of our bodies. Normal gastointestinal function depends on the presence of bacteria, but we do not think of our microflora as being part of our selves. On the planet Hemmal, where Parthney is born, the Buld clan population is a minority that exists in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the biologically-distinct majority Preland population. In daily use, the term "Preland" is used as we might use the term "others" or "aliens". Members of each Preland clan refer to themselves by using the name of their own clan while all other humans are called "Prelands". The reader will learn about the other Preland residents of Hemmal through the eyes of Kach, a Buld clan member who finds it useful to imitate the Prelands who constitute the majority population of Hemmal.

Parthney and Kach struggle to understand the fact that they are "false", mutant Bulds who do not fit into Preland culture. Ultimately they must struggle with the broader mystery of the origin of the Prelands and the artificial Preland culture.

The Huaoshy, who are responsible for the existence of Preland culture, have taken pains to make sure that the Preland clans are not xenophobic. The Exode story has aliens, but no alien invasions, Exode has biologically distinct subgroups of humans, but no racial tensions. Parthney and Kach are mutants who do not fit into Preland culture, but they face no discrimination or prejudice. Readers get to follow Parthney and Kach while they struggle to understand the strangeness of the universe that they find themselves in. The reader might imagine that Exode is set in the far future, but part way through the story it is revealed that the universe of Parthney and Kach is our contemporary universe. The reader must then join in the struggle to understand how the existence of Preland culture is consistent with life on Earth as we know it. It should not matter if most Prelands seem too alien for the reader to empathize with. In the end, the reader will see the culture of we humans on Earth as being "too alien" and our own unique ways as the only true threat to our future existence.

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