Trope-a-Day: The Unpronounceable

(Sorry for the delays in the next part of Darkness Within, folks – having some trouble getting it to gel in my head.)

The Unpronounceable: Quite a few, due to all those species that don’t use spoken language the way we understand it: as mentioned previously, esseli names are DNS strands, myneni names are made of sounds only a synthesizer could love, galari names are modulated EM radiation, and then there are the sonar pings, electrical waveforms, patterns of bioluminescence, complex aromatic chemicals, neural-gestalt-expressed qualia which are very, very hard to parse for anyone of different brain design, etc.  All of that is before you get to the really simple problems like different larynx designs.

It is somewhat averted due to the Eldraeic language being designed as a lingua franca, and thus possessing multiple different phonologies for its alphabet, including several designed for different ways of speaking, including sonar, bioluminescence, EM codes and DNA encoding, so in theory it should be possible to transliterate names encoded in those ways into something pronounceable and adequately unique, even if it doesn’t resemble the original all that much to the ear or other organ.

In practice, not so much, or not without your speech organ hurting, or not in a manner that’s agreeable to the person named.  But you can try, at least.

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…

Trope-a-Day: Shapeshifting

Shapeshifting: Not really practical for most natural biology (although there are the myneni, who can shape their crystalplasm fairly effectively), but a property that more than a few specially designed bodies can have; from relatively-close-to-baseline changeling-shells that can vary their appearance within their species quite well, to advanced nanoswarm bodies that can become pretty much anything, at least in shape and physical functionality, even if they stay composed of the same kind of matter – although some can disperse into nanoclouds without much more density than smoke.

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: Five Races

Five Races: Not terribly true for the Eldraeverse; for one thing, there’s a lot more than five species out there.  A lot more.  But let’s look at some archetypes, here:

Stout (Dwarf): One of the few that does have an obvious candidate, the pseudosaurian kaeth, whose physical strength and resilience, militaristic philosophies, and rather, um, kinesthetic way of life fit the bill to a T.  (The deeply spiritual and artistic aspects of their culture don’t, so much, but never mind those.)  They also wear the Proud Warrior Race hat, or one of them – it’s not like there’s a galactic shortage of Proud Warrior Races, after all.

Fairy (The Fair Folk): The most likely candidates for this hat are the various elder races (i.e., the Precursors that are still, to some degree, around), which by and large are alien and incomprehensible and to be kept out of the way of at all times.

It could also be argued that the Imperials wear this hat, but honestly, I think they’re more High Men.  But if not, the galari (ancient – even by the standards of the Empire – and immortal sophont rocks) are actually a much better fit than the eldrae in terms of being ancient, wise and benevolent, and – as Imperials – Sufficiently Advanced by many standards.

Mundane (Human): Everyone wears this hat, or, at least, something within delta of everyone. After all, even if it doesn’t look that way from the news, or the plots, the majority of species within the Associated Worlds are, by and large, regular folks just trying to get along, earn a living, make a little difference and have a little fun.  The ones actively engaging in war (or other, ahem, dynamic ideological praxis), galactopolitics, galaxy-spanning plots and schemes, uplifting programs, radical transsophontism, even madder science, personal apotheosis, computational theogeny, or applied theological engineering are the distinct minority, even if they do get more press.

High Men (Taller Elf or Human): This is where I would put the eldrae on the grounds of (a) transsophontism, and (b) literary inevitability.

Cute: Possible candidates here include the myneni – silicate-based shapechanging blobs, who can invent new organs on the fly, directly interface with computers, and construct all manner of useful things with their own secretions.

The esseli, who despite an extensive history of bioengineering themselves to the point that no-one, even themselves, actually remembers what they originally looked like (they’re currently brain-filled fleshy ovoids with short manipulating tentacles – for the most part) nonetheless manage to appear as cute.  Treating them as just cute would be a really bad idea, given that they’re an entire species of mad biologists, who are even as you speak contemplating how to better engineer your organs, but hey, it’s a mistake you’re only likely to make once.

And the dar-bandal, who are canine uplifts, who inherit this just because we’re prone to think of the furry as the cute, right?  Some people find out the hard way that condescending to someone descended from wolves by way of bred-for-brains dog-pluses is a good way to get said condescension bitten right off.  The rest have found one who’s more than willing to give you a big goofy grin and the winsome puppy eyes while taking you for everything you’ve got. Truly, their social-fu is strong.

Trope-a-Day: Starfish Language

Starfish Language: Oh, plenty of them.  Esseli native language, for example, is encoded on RNA strands (although fortunately they can and are more than willing to add extra speech organs as required).  Mirilasté language is also notable for using sequences of musical notes as its “phonemes”, and volume and tempo are as linguistically significant as pitch.  Seb!nt!at and various other solar clades, along with the galari‘s techlepathy, tend to use dialects designed to be transmitted electromagnetically and which translate very poorly into audio.  The qucequql and thegas-giant dwelling sssc!haaaouú use bioluminescence and chromatophores to display changing bands and patterns of color as a form of “speech”.  The mezuar communicate chemically, but primarily communicate through direct neural linkage where their roots and branches grow together.  Myneni communication has both a chemical dialect and one based on a very flexible chime-and-whistle audio generation that most more conventional larynxes can’t manage.  (And the uplifted dogs, of course, retain a certain facility for scent-based communication.)  The nsang communicate principally by writing with spinneret material, in two-dimensional ideograms, augmented by gestures for simple or immediate concepts.

Of course, that’s just the first layer.  Once we get into the difficulties of coping with higher-level grammatical quirks of the language: galari is structured like hypertext; digisapience communication is often discrete heavily-internally structured concept formats designed for packet transmission as high-speed data pulses (“here, have a wiki-database of my communication”); the múrast and embatil, as collegiate intelligences, throw out the tree-structure of most languages in exchange for matrix-hashes – and the mirilasté, curiously enough, use something more like a stack – seb!nt!at is a quantum language, in which it’s possible to tell three stories at once and then collapse the meaning at the end of the sentence; native whale, although fortunately not standard dar-ííche, doesn’t have sentences, but rather indefinitely long songs – whose individual phrases are even more long-winded than Entish – in which everyone can talk at once (their audio-processing brain finds resolving the threads of conversation trivial) and, indeed, modify each others’ sentences on the fly…

…and the difficulties of relatively simple issues like non-gender genders, attitudinals (very important, since They Do Not Speak Nonverbal), evidentials, context-dependent or referential concepts, alien metaphors, different methods of categorization or metaphysical perspectives on time, space, and reality – things get very weird very quickly.

Even Eldraeic, which was designed as a lingua franca for a polyspecific polity, suffers from this – since due to its ecumenical nature, it includes a very, very large set of optional grammatical features designed to cover as many of the quirks of the above languages as possible, a mode-switching grammar, three alphabets, an ideographic representation, and multiple isomorphic dialects to be spoken in different environments and with different apparatus, including underwater, over digital communications channels, by color, and even with nothing except pause and interval.  Speaking pidgin Eldraeic (which is to say, Trade) is easy – but speaking many of the more complex forms is very much not, and its capacity for willful obscurantism is generally acknowledged to be unparalleled.

Trope-a-Day: Starfish Aliens

Starfish Aliens: Most of them.  Digisapiences, of course, have no bodies at all.  The galari are sophont crystal-virus hybrids with inbuilt techlepathy and mechanical psychokinesis.  The codramaju are pseudo-fungoids which can merge, exchange, and separate bodies and minds at will.  The kaeth are vaguely draconic pseudosaurians with a metal-rich biology.  The hydrogen-breathing sssc!haaaouú are fragile collections of membranes that dwell in the upper layers of gas giants.  The myneni are crystal-based carbohydrosilicate amoeboids with built-in chemosynthetic talents.  The mezuar are a network of collectively sophont purplish-blue trees.  (Yes, as sessile as that implies, although the selyéva are green-blue plantimals – non-sessile photosynthetics – who probably most closely resemble walking broccoli.)  The esseli have engineered themselves into brains with manipulating tentacles and customized personal auxiliary organs, and don’t even remember what they used to look like.  (And the link!n-Rechesh are heading that way.)  The qucequql are ammonia-metabolising octopi from a world of nitrogenous oceans.  The múrast would be simple multiheaded snakes, except that they breathe methane, live in oceans of hydrocarbons, and their primary body structures are constructed of ice.  The ulakha are metal-plated, fast-moving lizardoids who think Venerian conditions are just about right for a planet.  The linobir resemble furless, leathery-skinned, hexapedal, hermaphrodite bears.  The shan kari resemble larger versions of Terran mustelids fairly closely, actually, except they prefer to breathe warm methane.  The mirilasté are legged-serpents with skin we would recognize as essentially plastic, who breathe the most astonishingly noxious fluorine-hydrocarbon soup.  The ktelaki are furry arachnids with trilateral symmetry and multi-branched legs.  The seb!nt!at are star-dwelling creatures of plasma and electromagnetic force.  The celsesh are quadrilaterally-symmetric with a fused-barrel body plan, and sensory organs on stalks in lieu of a head.  The embatil are worm/tentacle creatures whose life cycle begins with individuals, but which merge into single creatures as they mature – while transforming a ganglionic into a collegiate intelligence.  The tennoa are chlorine-breathing radial-crabs blessed/cursed with obligate utilitarianism…

And that’s all before we get to uplifts, neogens, and exotic neomorphic bioshells.