The Contactor Spooky Motion At A Distance

Want to see something neat? This is Scott Dunphy’s Contactor, Spooky Motion At A Distance. The game’s got some really neat features! The expedition has already failed once — they got to their intended colony, only to find it dead, with evidence that its inhabitants came from somewhere else! Does that mean that a Rectifier will follow them, only to find no evidence of their having been there but their Bridges?

Scott told me about this in the course of discussing a Human Contact story repository. I started working on a wiki a while back but abandoned it because I couldn’t get my chosen wiki to not be a pain in the ass. I’ve since messed around with a couple more wikis but would love help getting one working well.

Aliens Have Edges: The Storm Sailors of Relimeët

When the Contactor Temporary Reduction in Entropy arrived in orbit around Relimeët, its members found themselves in intense debate over the proper location for their elevator. The environment faced them with extreme hostility. Two stable Coriolis storms slowly orbited the equator-spanning ocean of the planet, spinning off unpredictable eddies of smaller hurricanes and ruling out the establishment of a floating anchor. They found safe dry land no closer than 22° north in the form of a small island entirely inhabited by hominins and their ancestral structures. They could find no clear space for an anchor on the island, even if they could figure out a way to generate the ribbon to span the extra distance. A vote determined that the Contactor would send expeditions to start their work without the benefit of an elevator, using aerodynamic Messengers to search for a solution to the now prohibitive distance between Contactor and surface.

The expedition led by the oceanographer Mekzja Kefn sought a solution at the equator itself. Responsible for three other zoölogists, Mekzja constructed a submersible Messenger and they set about trying to find a way to build an anchored ribbon attached to a seamount that could withstand the storms.

They never found a suitable undersea location for the elevator. What they found though was more central to their purpose as a Contactor and as members of the Academy.

Traveling at the internal edges of the storms, they found gargantuan creatures, some 100 meters long, living at the surface of the ocean. They learned later that the Relimëetka called the creatures storm sailors.

Storm sailors live both by filtering nutrients and plankton from the ocean and by drawing kinetic energy from the storms. Their long, sleek, slightly flat bodies have two major features that distinguish them from other large sea creatures in Academic databases: a long, retractable keel on their ventral side and an array of “kites” that they retract into dorsal folds. At appropriate times, the sailor releases the kites into the storm, stretching out internal fibers that act as springs. The sailor then retracts the wings into the bodies of the kites, letting them fall and taking up the slack of the fibers with little effort. They repeat this process as often as they need to and use the energy they gain in this process to power both mechanical and metabolic processes.

The skin on their backs is tough, thick, and rubbery, capable of withstanding the lashings of the storms.  Striations line their backs, housing the folded kites when diving.

Their keels have on their surfaces an array of bioluminescent features. Each individual’s array of lights appears unique. They use these features to communicate with other members of their school.

Their nervous systems are hugely redundant. Several redundant chemical information processing systems, similar to those found in simpler sea creatures in the oceans of Relimeët, seem to do long-term processing in parallel, communicating through a subcutaneous web of silicon strands. At points around the sailor’s midline, these strands expand into lens structures and protrude slightly through the skin around the equator of the creatures’ bodies, giving the creatures body-wide compound vision.

Through an yet-unknown process, the storm sailors can predict the eddy storms, choosing to follow the ones that best balance danger and nutrition. They communicate their predictions with each other with their bioluminescent keels, the light patterns directly interacting with each others’ brain networks. When in vicinity with each other, they furiously pass patterns back and forth, mimicking and modifying the patterns they see on the keels of the nearby individuals. They seem to converge on a common pattern, then place themselves in optimum configuration to benefit from the storms as they have predicted.

Mekjza Kefn has devoted his remaining time to interacting with these creatures. Though the team he led has largely disbanded to interact with the hominins living at the island, his partner Mna Kofa has decided to stay. They live together in their artificial sailor, complete with kites and luminescent panels, learning the language and cultures of these creatures.

Principles of creation

Often, when pressed to devise an alien on the spot, I’ve seen groups (including me) freeze, not wanting to overdefine things. I think this is part of our game culture, where you don’t want to step on others’ creative toes. Human Contact (because of Shock:s underlying Minutia rules) tell you when it’s time to listen, though, and I encourage you to use that to your advantage. Here are some steps to help you take the problem by the horns and create some unusual, plausible, and playable lifeforms for your colonies.

When I’m talking about life, I’m talking about two things, one literary and one biological. This article is to help you balance the two of these to help you make good science fiction.

The literary concern is whether these are creatures who are interesting from a point of view of society. They are features of the world that we recognize as sufficiently like people that they provide a moral question, simply by their presence. The Grid and the Minutia systems help this to happen. When in doubt, refer back to it.

The biological definition is a phenomenon that is a product of, and can participate in, evolution by the process of natural selection. Life as we largely experience it as 21st century real humans is largely a matter of extremely complex chemical and electrical processes that result in self-reproducing proteins. The things we see those proteins do are amazingly complex. Not only do their produce skin, scales, feathers and hair, but also through subtle variations in those protein reproduction processes develop pheremonal communication systems that allow them to build colonies in logs, systems of turning carbon dioxide into energy and releasing oxygen, religions, technologies, and philosophies.

Other life, given the broad array of environments in which natural selection and reproduction of slightly altered patterns can take place, might be truly mind-blowing. In addition to other possible forms of chemicals from our own carbon-based proteins, arsenic, silicon and sulphur might form the basis of other self-replicating chemicals.

But some might operate in completely alien environments other than the chemical realm. Pieces of computer code that can adopt each others’ variations when writing copies of themselves; Harmonic frequencies of the crystalline structures that vary themselves to benefit from to seismic events; Planetwide networks of simple life forms that predict and alter the weather according to their needs. How do these systems interact with a hominin presence?

Naturalism

Human Contact takes a Naturalist view of the universe. When we describe something, we describe the effect it has on our senses: what it looks, feels, smells (tastes? sounds?) like. It exists because the process of evolution has resulted in this particular phenotype that you’re looking at now. We define it by the characteristics that have helped its ancestors to reproduce. We know, of course, that they’re serving a purpose in our narrative, but the lens through which we look at it is a naturalist one.

A lot of adventure fiction doesn’t take that perspective, though. It cares that monsters are terrifying, perhaps, but it cares more about the impact it has on a character (and by extension, the reader). Attempts at describing a supernatural world in Naturalist terms yields questions about the buoyancy of dragons and the implausibility of interstellar species’ mating viability. The purpose of dragons in a story is to have something supernatural, intelligent, and malevolent. The purpose of Spock is to provide a metaphor for multiracial individuals in American society.

So, when we’re creating a creature from scratch, our tendency is to create something we need at the time, relying on either cliché or vagueness. Let’s talk instead about how to make something that you can look, feel, and taste. Something that belongs in its environment first — you can develop its metaphorical qualities later.

This branch of art is called speculative zoölogy. Let’s look at some of my favorite examples:

Æsthetics

The first thing you’ll notice about these is the consistency from one creature to the next. Real life is more complex than any art can hope to simulate of course; we have both starfish and birds here on Earth. But we also have sparrows, ostriches, penguins, kestrels, and a million kinds of finch. Our challenge is to find a balance between excess, dull similarity and total unfocused divergence.

When you want to make it seem like ecologies are neighboring, do the same thing that you do with dialects in Human Contact: change a subtle but noticeable thing or two here, leaving the rest and seeing what your new synthesis produces. Rather than starting from scratch every time, use the stuff you’ve already created.

On Earth, we might aesthetically divide our creatures into bilateral (insects, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, cephalopods, etc.) and multilateral (starfish, jellyfish) symmetry. The bilaterally symmetrical particularly interest us, so we can divide those into tetrapods (fish, birds, mammals) and polypods (arthropods, mollusks).

If I needed to create a creature for Earth, I might say, “OK, there are a lot of polypods. A lot of of those live in the ocean, so I’ll take a nautilus, and I’ll give it symbiotic algae that live on its surface. They attach to this giant nautilus and absorb sunlight. The nautilus eats them and travels seasonally to the places where the algae are healthiest.”

Symmetry

Much of the process of evolution is about efficiency — the maximum use of available resources. Sometimes that means growing two or more parts the same way. In many animals, that means bilateral symmetry (one side of a being mirrors the other). In others, it means radial symmetry (similar structures all connected at a central point or  branching (structures that are copies of the structures they’re attached to, which are copies of the structures they’re attached to). Such shapes form blossoms, spirals, and stars. These patterns are one of the things we recognize as features of life. While some nonliving phenomena like crystals and weather patterns have these characteristics, most nonliving phenomenal don’t, and by contrast, most living phenomena do.

Starting from a niche

But we can make more interesting things if we don’t have to start with  Earth animals. To do that, we’ll have to come up with an environment. We’ll do this in much the same way we do with our hominins, without the assumption of basic human physiology.

  • What environmental factors have shaped their bodies? We call a set of physical constraints on evolution a niche. Some fish live in salty water. Some in fresh. To maintain turgor pressure in their cells, very few can do both; when they do it requires a biochemical and physical change.
  • What colors or patterns are their surface? Does it require protection from the sun? Camouflage? Bright colors and patterns to communicate?
  • What holds the creature together and protects in from hostile elements? Skin? A shell? Hair? feathers? Leaves? A biopolymer made of chewed plants that hold stones in place?
  • How big are they compared to the hominins of this colony and the Academics?
  • How muscular, fat, and boney are they? Do they have tensor muscles like we do? Hydraulic compressor muscles like spiders? External sliding threads?
  • How do humans interact with these creatures? Do they use them for food, drugs, labor? Do they live in symbiosis? Are they predated by them?
  • If social, how do the creatures communicate? By sound? By vibrations in the ground? By patterns on feathers? By chemicals? By a naturally evolved radio?

If you make your ecosystem according to your Grid — according to your Shocks and Issues — then your creatures will, in some proportion, support those themes or add to a vivid background. There’s no reason to force them into allegory, so make them maximally plausible and you’ll find your way toward what they mean readily enough.

After all, we’re humans. We make metaphors out of everything we see.

Everyone is a Person (But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Weird)

Eppy wants me to play Ironclaw with him so I can play a seven-penised, pregnant zebra woman.

The colony Efwehasht

The subtle axial tilt and mid-habitable zone orbit of Efwehasht (“Arbor”) make for a wide, verdant temperate zone. The three smallest continents cover much of the northern zone, while the southern hemisphere is dominated by vast, rocky deserts.

In the temperate zone lives a robust and varied ecosystem. Many subtle niches exist, including a mid-sized predator called the “awkweh”, an arboreal ambush hunter camouflaged to look like the leaf/baleen of the “hyeshyehasht”, the  “filter tree”. The awkweh leaps from above with a partner onto any human-sized prey.

A hundred generations ago, the Great Parents of the Efwehasht people gave them gifts to protect them. One such gift is the mass of 25cm quills in two or four stripes down their backs. When scared, their quills stand up on end and rattle. The quills have barbed tips, teaching an inexperienced awkweh a lesson.

Those of the Carryer caste trim their quills to 2cm stubs to show obedience. Among the Etyo people, who have no Carryer caste, the trimmed quills are a sign of philosophical maturity and an indication that the individual no longer fears death.

In all societies, the warriors among them decorate their quills with heraldic patterns, a tradition that continues with today’s intertribal sports teams. The Kopeh people paint patterns onto each quill, while the Pshemet warriors, possessed of their people’s four rows of quills, instruct their apprentices to write a bragging form of ancestral supplication poetry along each one in tiny letters.

A mottled brown pattern covers their skin and they consider symmetrical patterns beautiful.

Their eyes are large and dark, providing them with good vision in the dim forests in which they live. When they venture outside of those forests, they cover their eyes with goggles.

The hair on their head feels stiff and quill-like (though these hairs lack barbs), but underneath grows a soft fur, though most of their bodies are otherwise hairless.

Women grow fatter toward the end of the year as they approach winter and time for hibernation, growing breasts and becoming fatter than the men. While they will have sex with each other at any time of the year as part of any intimate relationship, this fattening indicates that a woman is actually ovulating, a visual indicator to males.

The principles of creation

In Human Contact, one of the types of Minutiæ you’re required to create is the physiological description of the colonists — humans who have taken an evolutionary path separate from that of the Academics.

The rules themselves go into this a little bit, asking a couple of central questions:

  • What environmental factors have shaped their bodies?
  • What colors or patterns are their skin?
  • How hairy are they? Where is their hair?
  • How tall are they?
  • How muscular, fat, and boney are they?
  • Which of these change with ethnicity, sex, class, or distinctions unique to this world?

Let’s break those down a little.

What environmental factors have shaped their bodies?

The major environmental factors for you and me as residents of our particular Earth are:

Gravity is 1G. Most of us are about 1.7m tall. Greater gravity will favor shorter, more heavily-muscled bodies, while lower gravity will tend to free the body to be taller and more energy-efficient.

An atmosphere of primarily nitrogen with some oxygen and a scattering of other elements. Adult lung capacity is around 6l. People who live at extreme altitudes have greater lung capacity (and larger thoraxes to hold the larger lungs). Other species of hominin might need to filter out toxins or safely break ozone into regular oxygen.

Temperatures between -50°C and 85°C. That’s a pretty broad range, but under the right circumstances, a planet could get a little warmer or a little colder and still support life as we know it, at least in parts of that world. We are relatively hairless as mammals go, in order to effectively dissipate heat because we evolved close to the equator. Had we evolved from some sort of arctic ape, we might all be covered in fur or layers of fat.

The planet is only 25% land and only a small portion of that is inhabitable by humans— about 2% of the planet. We spend a lot of time (historically) walking from one habitable spot to another, both seasonally and as the planet’s climate has changed. That’s given us our ability to walk tremendous distances in our many migrations. A planet with a more genial ecology might favor people who can run fast (instead of far), or might take to the water with webbed feet and half-hour breath holding capacity.

Half of humans live within 200km of the coast. We’re a largely littoral species.

Those who live in areas with more exposure to the sun have greater amounts of melanin in our skin, making it darker brown, which protects from vitamin D poisoning. A few groups living in the north with little sun exposure have little melanin so they can get enough vitamin D. Some bodies substitute iron for melanin, producing reddish skin and hair, protecting (a little) from sunburn while allowing for vitamin D synthesis.

What colors or patterns are their skin?

We know that iron and melanin can color skin. Other hominins might produce other pigments for display, camouflage, or fashion.

How hairy are they? Where is their hair?

Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that’s you and me) have a mane like baboons. In some places, we have heavy body hair and many of us grow beards, but very few humans have true fur. Other species might have porcupine-like spines, rhinoceros-like horns or shells, or otter-like inborn wet suits. Others might be as hairless as dolphins.

How tall are they?

The Maasai are very tall and thin — their tallest, thinnest ancestors survived the sun by presenting less body surface to it. Their average male height is about 2.2m. The Aka, on the other hand, constrained by natural resources, grow to only 1.2m. The hominin species Homo Floresiensis grew only a meter or so tall (surrounded by pygmy elephants and other island-constrained animals), evolving a neurological structure that allowed their tiny heads to contain plentiful brainpower to create fires and tools.

Homo Floresiensis represents a breaking of the bottom limit of what paleoanthropologists thought was possible for tool-using primate; we’ve never seen brain structure as sophisticated (rearranged as it is) in such a small skull.

On the other hand, we know of no upper limit to primate size. Gigantopithecus may have stood as much as 3m tall, more than the story of a building. At that height, it probably weighed 540kg, or the weight of a small car. If such a creature could domesticate animals, construct tools and speak, would there have been anything that could stand in its way?

How muscular, fat, and boney are they?

Humans vary to some degree in the amount of body fat they carry. Genetic inheritance, access to food, and social preferences all contribute to the amount and distribution of fat on the body. It defines the shape of the body and determines how and when they can use their body’s energy. Men tend to store it in their middle, while women tend to store it on thighs and breasts.*

Other animals, though, use fat for other purposes. Seals and dolphins have evolved fat that smooths their body contours into a fishlike shape to make them effective hunters and migrators. Bears and camels use it for long-term storage of energy for desert travel and hibernation, respectively.

Orangutans, one of the largest hominids alive today, have sophisticated social systems and cultures (with individuals occasionally meeting and socializing with other individuals), use tools, and even plan trades with other individuals. Traditionally, they’re called “forest men”; not distinct from humans at all. They have powerful muscles and apparently also have powerful minds.

Bonobos, on the other hand, have much more gracile bodies and seem to be our closest relatives. They spend the vast majority of their time in close contact with each other. They use sex as a bartering method and as social currency as we do, engaging far more than can actually produce offspring, including enthusiastically varied sexual practices. They communicate with a sophisticated form of vocalization and appear to have a greater capacity for vocabulary of human signs.

Which of these change with ethnicity, sex, class, or distinctions unique to this world?

Among H. Sapiens Sapiens, we have a fair amount of variation. Some groups have no facial hair at all. Others have pink skin, epicanthal folds over our eyes, concave noses, curly hair, or other markers that, while they don’t denote a difference in species, denote a difference in the specific genetic history of a region.

Sexual dimorphism is subtle in Homo Sapiens Sapiens. While females tend to be slightly smaller, have slightly paler skin, and possess permanent breasts and hips, individuals overlap significantly.

Not all hominids are like that; male orangutans weigh twice what females do, have prominent facial flanges, but don’t fully develop their secondary sexual characteristics until they have established territory of their own.

Social class often has to do with the availability of calories. Here on Terra, many cultures value fat as an indicator of health; others view brown skin as an indication of leisure time while others see it as a marker of a field worker. Some grow their fingernails to show that they don’t need to work.

Now go make some people!

I’d love to answer questions below!

* Thanks to Simon for helping me work out this paragraph in an interesting way.

Jennisodes!

Hey, I like to talk a lot! Want to hear me talk about Shock:Human Contact? Listen to the first of the two parts! Want to talk listen to me talk about Kickstarter? Listen to part two!

Why We Explore

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oY59wZdCDo0&feature=player_embedded

In an early Human Contact game, a player asked me why Academics go to the stars. The answer is this video.

Another Sagan quote, this one from a rejected layout that we might yet see in a future edition of the game:

As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt.

But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth.

But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us.

First Human Contacts Roll In!

Good news! After two weeks of technical issues, the first copies of Human Contact are in! The technical issues persist, unfortunately, so there’s not quite closure, but I have 60 copies now, should have another 200 or so next week, and another 50ish the week after that.

The nature of the technical issue isn’t clear; it’s just one of those thing that happens when printing. But I can say that my printer, 360 Digital, has done a fantastic job of both printing them and keeping me abreast of things that have gone wrong. The measure of a printer, after all, is not that nothing ever goes wrong. Things go wrong. The measure of a printer is in how they communicate and make good when that happens.

I won’t be shipping any books until more are in, but I will have copies at Dreamation, so if you’re one of my backers, please let whoever’s at the Indie Bazaar and I’ll sign and hand you your copy right there.

Size

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEheh1BH34Q&feature=related

I’ve seen a couple of videos of this now, but this one uses the soundtrack of The Black Hole and Blade Runner. The choice was obvious.

Human Contact contains a similar exercise that runs in the margin through the whole book.

Human Contact Proof

A very exciting FedEx package just arrived! I have to confirm a couple of things with the press, but it’s looking good to go straight into production this week!

More discussion of scale

A video called Scale by Brad Goodspeed gives us another view of the scale of our cosmic neighbors in a different way than Human Contact does.

Protected: PDFs for my Kickstarter homies!

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