Trope-a-Day: Bizarre Alien Sexes

Bizarre Alien Sexes: While the eldrae started out with the standard two (male, female), biotechnology has since added two more to their repertoire (neuter, hermaphrodite). And the standard taxonomy of sexes in their language, which has to cope with other species, includes two more – the most common mappings of other-species sexuality (prenuptial catalyst, postnuptial catalyst). And the language allows for an arbitrary number of other gender affices, because while most species can fit into that six-gender system, usually having no more than four and the mode being two, the one-to-couple-of-dozen-variants spread in how species divide into sexes means that… well. Yeah.

X-anity

2016_X(Alternate words: none. Also, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m assuming you submitted it in the spirit of my single usage of it in this trope-a-day back in 2014, rather than as the more-commonly-seen abbreviation of “Christianity”, because it’s not like there is any of the latter *there* to write about.)

“What is X-anity, you ask?

“(Apart, that is, from a rather ugly portmanteau in Eldraeic that I strongly suspect will not be improved by translation into any of the other languages of the Accord.)

“It’s a general term referring to a different quality for each species: kar mkaeth for the kaeth, lishólen for the ciseflish, ësseldrae for my own species, except that we use that term to refer to an ideal, not a current state, and so forth. As for what those mean, well, it’s six things, and therefore none at all.

“First, and most usefully, in biological terms, it would mean the psychological characteristics that members of that species have in common. So for us that would be things like mélith as a sense and instinct, or for the kaeth, trasered vandthel, or for the dar-e’sevdra, estrus, or for the tennoa, utilitarianism, and so forth. That each species has its own unique essence in this way is undeniable; promoting these unique points of view is much of the motivation behind uplift, for example.

“That being said, most academicians and professionals who might need to reference it go out of their way to find some other term, because secondly, it’s an example of the applied naturalistic fallacy, in which people declare such psychological characteristics terminal rather than instrumental values and insist that they cannot possibly be modified lest they change the X-ane experience and thus destroy X-anity from within. Something that has been invoked to justify the retention of everything from hyperbolic discounting through envy and xenophobia to morbidity and mortality –

(Many loud interruptions from audience.)

“The bioconservatives are out in force tonight, I see.

“Thirdly, in an extension to the first definition, people have used it to define a larger number of common characteristics, which are typically cultural norms – meaning modal averages – for a given species, by reference claiming them as innate to some degree or another. Apart from the inaccuracy of this – any functioning sophont brain is necessarily remarkably plastic, as manifested by the high levels of cultural interchange in polyspecific societies –

(Heckler makes reference to interspecies mating.)

“That wasn’t actually the kind of ‘cultural interchange’ I had in mind, but it does make a good example. As it happens, the Empire does have a high xenophilia rate, as do most polyspecific societies, although I am rather pleased to be able to say that ours is one of the highest. Which is exactly what you would expect, since the way that instincts manifest is shaped by cultural imprinting in all sophonts and even many prosophonts, including what and who they find attractive.

“And biological cultural determinism, therefore, is so much arrant balderdash, despite which evidence, fourthly, this definition is so often misused by authoritarian culture-groups, either as a means to deny another culture-group membership in X-anity, at which point they no longer merit consideration as fellow sophonts, or to equate their culture or their preferences with the optimally X-ane, and use X-anity as a hammer to enforce cultural conformity.

“These multiple definitions, in any case, render X-anity as a concept both controversial,. fifthly, in any context in which it might be even slightly ambiguous, and sixthly, therefore useless in any serious debate.”

– Academician Vallis Archíël, sophontologist,
student’s transcript from a guest speaker session, Academy of Loryet

 

The Small Rot

The small rot (also known as: miner’s carbuncle; brass-hand’s growth; smelterman’s tumor; spacer’s neoplasm; cancer): The small rot, by any of its various names, is a dysfunction of normal cell growth processes in which genetic and/or epigenetic mutations imbue cells with the ability to replicate indefinitely, ignoring cell control signalling and programmed cell death. The term, “small rot” is derived both from an early analogy between fungal bodies found growing in timber and the masses (neoplasms) formed in the body by these dysfunctional cells, and from the tendency of larger neoplasms to develop necrotic regions as they continue to grow.

Identified causes of the small rot vary, but the primary causative factors are industrial, followed by a smaller number of factors traced to identified oncoviruses and hereditary genetic factors. Indeed, it is considered a primarily industrial disease, hence some of its names, due to the dominance of exposure to ionizing radiation as a causative factor; the small rot is strongly correlated with current or previous cases of blue-blotch fever, with long-term exposure to inadequately shielded nucleonic technology, and exposure to various industrial chemicals known to disrupt proper cellular function or cause genomic damage. In the pre-industrial era, cases of the small rot were most commonly found among miners or inhabitants of regions where uranium or thorium ores are found near or at the surface.

The small rot is considered difficult to diagnose accurately: while the dysfunctional cells form neoplasms – and as such unusual masses, when detected, should be subject to medical analysis – these rarely produce local or systemic symptoms in the early stages of development, and such symptoms are highly variable depending upon the location of the neoplasm. Such symptoms typically occur when the growing mass interferes with other bodily functions. Presently, periodic full-body scans are recommended for those at risk of industrial exposure.

The small rot is usually a minor health concern unless left untreated for an extended period. Small masses are typically self-limiting, as the immune system attacks and destroys the neoplasm. Historically, the treatment for larger masses has been surgical removal of the mass, permitting the body to heal itself in its absence.

In the current era, cells are substantially less likely to suffer from dysfunction leading to the small rot due to genetic upgrades, such as the removal of protooncogenes, and the self-limiting aspect of the small rot is enhanced by the common use of artificial immune systems, which include carcinophage nanites targeting neoplasms. Should these fail and further treatment is required, a course of immunoboosters and oncocidals is prescribed, followed by a carcinophage flush targeted at the specific neoplasm; surgical intervention may still be called for if the mass is particularly large.

In rare cases the neoplasms characteristic to the small rot may metastasize, a process in which neoplastic cells break off from the original mass and are carried by the circulatory or lymphatic system to other sites, most commonly lymph nodes, where they come to rest and continue to multiply, forming multiple secondary neoplasms. This wandering rot (q.v.) is a much more serious condition requiring a full cellular scrub in a healing vat, with a high mortality rate if left untreated. Fortunately, it occurs only with chronic exposure to causative factors or lengthy non-treatment of the small rot, typically in otherwise immunodepressed hosts.

– Oriane’s Home Medical Glossary

Trope-a-Day: Spare Body Parts

Spare Body Parts: The poster-people for this are the kaeth, who come from the kind of… robust ecology (see: Had to be Sharp) that makes a selection of extra backup organs very useful indeed. And a special shout-out goes to the myneni, who have a kind of this by default by virtue of forming all their organs ad hoc anyway.

Of course, it’s not like a lot of other species haven’t been merrily engineering redundancy into at least some clades of themselves in the name of extra resilience, starting with auxiliary hearts and working down, even if they can’t do the same sort of holistically comprehensive job…

Appearances Matter

Gabriel Fonseca asks if there’s anywhere that contains detailed physical descriptions of the various species of the Eldraeverse. Well, sadly, there isn’t right now, but for your visualizing pleasure, here’s some descriptions of most of the ones I’ve mentioned recently, anyway:

Ciseflish

In their home environment, the ciseflish superficially resemble the Terran mole in shape (approximately), specifically the star-nosed mole; that said, they’re six-limbed amphibians, who switch between hexapedal and bipedal locomotion at will (the former for speed, the latter for sociability), with breathing vents/gills (they work either way) located at the base of the throat, large sensitive eyes to handle low light levels, auditory tympana rather than ears, and tentacle-like chemosensory “nasal” protrusions that also serve as tasting organs. They’re about 4′ tall, and covered in short, downy fur, ranging in color from pale cream to dark, earthy brown. Oh, and they’re trisexual; the dominant ‘matriarch’ sex is somewhat larger than the other two.

But none of this is visible for the majority of people who meet them elsewhere, because the ciseflish are from Ólish (High Verge), a cold world with more in common with our outer-system moons than with Earth. They’re amphibians in oceans of liquid propane and other hydrocarbons, breathe a thick, cold, high-pressure atmosphere that’s heavy in ammonia – and as such that fur has a lot more in common with hydrocarbon polymer plastics than keratin – find free oxygen acutely toxic, oxygen-breather temperatures furnace-like, and as such are generally only seen off Ólish or their colonies through heavy, pressurized, refrigerated environment suits.

Despite the inconvenience, though, there’re quite a lot of them offworld, because they really, really love money and trade.

Codramaju

The codramaju are weird as hell.

The closest thing we have for comparison is the slime mold. Only a codramaju is a 6′ long (typical adult not multitasking right now), bright ocher, motile slime mold with various pseudopodia and temporary organelles attached. And the best part is, that’s not even the weirdest thing about them: that would be that personal identity is extremely fluid among the codramaju, who happily divide and recombine (including with bits of other codramaju), changing identity along the way. They can form temporary group minds by joining together, which they use for high-grade computation. That’s also how codramaju reproduction works; the combining of lots of bits contributed by many codramaju. And their speech is entirely chemical – either by direct merging close up, or by releasing spores at a distance (hope you bought that option for your translator).

They make a great example of exactly how little “warm-‘blooded’ oxygen-breather” means in practice, in terms of commonality.

D!grith

The d!grith, by contrast, are relatively conventional warm-blooded oxygen-breathers: they look something like small tailless apes with canine muzzles and cat ears, with all four arms having essentially identical “hands”. Dark-skinned, they have fur in winter or perpetually cold environments, but not the rest of the time. Natural brachiators, they found the microgravity environment quite congenial, which contributed to their painless interstellar expansion and large merchant marine.

Dar-bandal

Uplifted bandal, which is to say dogs. Bearing in mind that the bandal is already larger (due to some dire wolf ancestry as well as regular canis lupus) and higher-foreheaded (due to consistent breeding for smart) than the Earth dog, their uplifted cousins are even more so: imagine a human-sized Aussie, and you’re in the ballpark. Their forepaws are modified for greater manipulatory ability, but unlike, say, Traveller’s Vargr, they’re still quadrupeds. The uplift engineers at Family of Species, ICC, have no interest in turning every species they get their hands on into imitation monkeys.

(Not that they’d put it that way, since there aren’t actually any members of the ecology Terrageneae, order Primates anywhere in the Associated Worlds, with one heavily-engineered exception, but it comes to the same thing.)

Dar-célmek

The dar-célmek are uplifted rats, descended at a few removes from the local cousins of the brown rat (rattus norvegicus) – or, to be more precise, they’re rat kings, because rats are already remarkably smart for their size, and while they were able to engineer them to be partially-uplifted smart rats, there just wasn’t enough mass/volume available to push them all the way to sophoncy.

Not to be thwarted, then, the uplift engineers cyborged them using nanocyte technology (i.e., grows naturally, and is hereditary); a dar-célmek is a gestalt sophont composed of one mind spread across 12 to 48 rats. The individual members look like thin rats with opposable thumbs on their paws, metallic threads running along their tails (the antenna for their wireless gestalt link), and infrared lenses next to their eyes. They can’t speak naturally, but can communicate over the network, and in any case, most of them have a few members wearing a modified ring imager as a collar of sorts to let them project sound and image when they need to.

Eldrae

The eldrae, being that aforementioned heavily-engineered exception (and that’s the baseline species, I mean, not counting any of the engineering they’ve done to themselves since), are hominins. Or to put it the other way around, humans to such extent as they are known (from a few very old fragmented fossils recovered from Precursor uplift facility waste dumps) are Pseudoeldrae archaea on their taxonomic charts.

Granted, they’re hominins engineered to the point where they use amino acids we don’t and bleed indigo, but the gross physical morphology is close. They’re just very tall (6′ 8″ to 7′ 8″ average, both sexes), thin (160-240 lbs., with narrow hips, long limbs, and long fingers and toes), pale (copper to pale blue due to an immune system that basically obviates eumelanin), with pointy ears, angular facial features, a selection of psychological differences, and, oh yes, a remarkable tendency not to age and die.

Of course, the big problem for us is that they’ve been optimizing themselves for literally millennia at this point, so from a human point of view, its only those eldritch differences that stand between us and being punched hard in the superstimulus. Which would be problematic.

Esseli

No-one remembers what natural esseli used to look like, or at least if the esseli genetic memory still has it stored somewhere, no-one’s talking.

What they look like now, on the other hand…

Well, nominally, they look like big fleshy blobs with eyes and tentacles, which is the brain, a protective wrapping around the brain, and its sensors/manipulators. But, you see, they got that way by being master biotechnologists, and over the course of centuries have both stripped their physical form down to a minimum, and also then built it back up again by inventing whole suites of modular plug-in organs and symbiotic bodies they can put on and take off like other people change their pants. An esseli can look like anything, depending on what it’s doing at the time and how its personal taste runs – even more so than the people who have to rely on mere mindcasting to swap bodies.

The esseli are also notable in that the form of genetic storage and the form of memetic storage they use are identical: it’s all DNA. Thus, while esseli are entirely capable of conventional speech (in any number of modes, depending on which organs they have installed right now), when they want to convey lots of information, they just pass appropriate plasmids around.

In the esseli educational system, you literally drink knowledge.

Galari

It came as something as a surprise to (exo-)biologists that the first species they met was about as silicon-based as it could be, being a race of living crystals.

It turns out, of course, that that’s not exactly true. They’re carbon-silicon hybrids: the galari crystals live in symbiosis with wet carbon-based pseudonanoviruses which reshape the crystals. Over time, this mutually evolved to the point where the crystals, with their silicon-based intelligence, directed the viruses and the viruses reshaped the crystals.

So, the actual sophont galari are, at least the ones who travel, rounded roughly-tetrahedral crystal spindles, somewhere between 2′ and 6′ along their long axis, and come in a variety of gem-like colors; looking carefully at them, one can often see faint pulses of light as a byproduct of their cognitive processes. They don’t require much in the way of nutrition for material replenishment, as a rule; rather, they’re ergovores, soaking up and storing charge derived from the light of their homeworld’s hot, bright sun, or from a convenient broad-spectrum EM lamp. They communicate using bioradio.

In their natural state, they were sessile, leading to their immensely patient, philosophical, contemplative culture. The technological galari, however, invented vector control-based “effector belts”, enabling the smaller members of the species to move around and participate in galactic culture.

Kaeth

The kaeth are draconiform, or pseudosaurian if you prefer, 6-7′ tall bipeds. You could think of them as looking something like 4th ed. AD&D’s dragonborn, except the back is more humped, the eyes more widely set, and the legs digitigrade. Kaeth blood gleams like mercury, and their skin, or rather scale, tones are dietary-dependent variants on a dark gray-silver, both of which have to do with just how rich Paltraeth (their homeworld) is in various heavy metals, which their biology makes good use of – kaeth bones are strong as girders, and kaeth skin is basically naturally-grown double-lapped composite scale mail. (A typical kaeth masses something upwards of 400 lbs.) On top of all of that, kaeth evolution has provided them with natural weapons in the form of fang and claw, redundant, highly distributed organ systems, fast healing, and strong immunities, which should tell you something about just what a happy fun place Paltraeth was to evolve.

At least before the asteroid strike.

Kalatri

See previous post.

Lanect

The lanect are a warm-blooded, fleshy (i.e., so not classically insectoid) race whose bodies are nonetheless contained within a bony (not chitinous) segmented exoskeleton; they’re bilaterally symmetrical bipeds with four manipulating arms, with four-clawed hands, and recessed multifaceted eyes. The exoskeleton of worker-caste lanect is smooth, scars aside; those who claim the status of a Warmark in lanect society carve designs into their skull to signify this.

Of course, that’s the baseline lanect – given the vicious meritocracy that comprises lanect society, they do not hesitate to apply genetic, surgical, and (especially) cybernetic modifications to themselves using any technology they can buy or steal in the interest of greater personal success.

Linobir

Imagine a bear.

Now imagine it hexapedal, hermaphroditic, furless – with grayish, leathery skin – and bulging with the kind of muscles befitting a species that evolved on a planet with three times Earth’s gravity.

Now imagine it being possessed of a baseline temperament that makes an actual grizzly bear seem the sweetest, politest, calmest, most peaceful person you know.

That’s a linobir.

(There’s a reason their racial stereotype is “brute squad”. This hurtful stereotyping is often protested, exclusively by people who’ve never actually met one.)

Mezuar

The mezuar are purplish-blue trees, wood and leaf, and entirely sessile. Specifically, an individual mezuar is a grove of said trees, due to the requirements of sophoncy on a relatively low-energy plant metabolism (their roots grow together and intermesh their “nervous systems”). They thrive very well on their homeworld, the mezuar forests having successfully domesticated virtually the entire animal ecology of the planet to attend to their requirements.

Myneni

The myneni are a blob of nanomachines in a bag.

Well, yes, so is just about everything living. Unlike most species, however, the myneni are a blob of undifferentiated, general purpose nanomachines inside their integument, with no dedicated organs (if they need some sort of specialized organ or sensor, they whip one up on demand and dissolve it when they’re done). Not having any skeleton, their natural shape is a spheroidal blob with a slightly flattened base, but they can manipulate their internal plasm to take on any variant shape from a puddle to a tree, and generate limbs at will. They come in a wide variety of colors, but these don’t appear to have any particular significance, biological or cultural.

Nsang

The nsang are bullet-bodied and headless (their “eyes”, actually light-sensitive skin cells, cover all sides of their upper body), trilaterally symmetrical with long, folding arms and legs, the former tipped with three-fingered hands. A beak-like mouth is to be found between each arm-leg pair.

…this actually makes them pretty average by warm-blooded oxygen-breather standards.

Seforn

The seforn are quadrupeds, with gleaming, jewel-like skin (contains no actual jewels, much to the disappointment of people who have obtained seforn moltings), who possess a mouth and trinocular eyes in a partially-merged head at one body terminus, while.respiring through slit-like openings along the sides of their body. A ridge crest runs down the seforn back, thought to be an evolutionary leftover originally intended for thermoregulation. Monosexual and parthenogenic, they depend on an in-built process of gene-shuffling to produce genetic variation.

Even the poorest seforn will always be well-dressed. Denying a seforn access to the seforn equivalent of a quality business suit invariably causes them intense psychological distress, much to the puzzlement of sophontologists everywhere.

Skrandar

Well, no-one’s exactly sure quite what the skrandar looked like, since they weren’t exactly communicative even before they blew up their sun, and there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence left afterwards. From what there is, it is generally believed that they looked something like a cross between an alligator and a migraine.

Trope-a-Day: Mirror Chemistry

Mirror Chemistry: Played straight but in a much more complicated fashion.  After all, on Earth, life – for the most part – uses levoproteins and dextrosugars.  So there’s (trivially) four possible combinations right there, leaving aside more complex or dual arrangements, and that’s not even taking into account biochemistries that aren’t built around the same structural and energy molecules ours is, and/or that use the same compounds for completely different purposes…

Let’s just say that it’s really very important to pay attention to food labeling and the biochemical-compatibility plat attached to your restaurant menu.  Bartenders have fairly advanced degrees.  And if you throw a lot of polyspecific dinner parties, hire a specialist caterer.

Trope-a-Day: Evilutionary Biologist

Evilutionary Biologist: It might seem, at first, that there a whole lot of these (and, indeed, that the esseli are an entire species of Evilutionary Biologists).  Unfortunately for those who fancy this sort of thing, the average bioengineer is of the opinion that evolution is a hopelessly inefficient optimization process that, while it often throws up interesting traits, very often does not optimize for what the customer wants.  As such, in a world of sophont beings who can, with a little prompting, put some decent parameters around what they want, a competent designer can beat evolution quite substantially more than nine times out of ten.

Now, the bioengineers may have the attitude and some of the more scientifically valid methods down pat, but while they may not match 21st-century Earth notions of bioethics – and the Monument to the Martyrs of Science is quite large – local ethical standards are firmly in place.  (See the relevant sections of Blue and Orange Morality.)