Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Case Study of Science in Science Fiction, Part 2

Previously, I talked about how I created the aliens in my first novel, Caliban Landing. If you didn't read that, look here.

To summarize, the aliens of Caliban were blind to normal light but saw by the emitted radio waves from the photosynthesis of Caliban's plants. Animals that saw in visible light were limited to nocturnal organisms that were active when photosynthesis, or similar reactions, were not active.

I wanted to give the natives of Caliban some interesting differences and similarities from humans. Humans have sex. But, then so do pretty much all vertebrates. For that matter, so do most multicellular organisms. Any nearly universal property of organisms bespeaks strong selective advantage.

The evolution of sex has been discussed and theorized in biology pretty much since Darwin. It's advantage is to mix possible gene combinations more quickly than waiting around for some mutation. It broadens the opportunity for selection across many gene combinations simultaneously, since each member of a generation is significantly different from any other generation even when springing from the same parents. They mystery is not how beneficial sex is-- that is obvious. It's how it got started. Which I will discuss at another time.

I also made the Calabi vertebrates of a sort. They have hair, a head, mouth something resembling vocal cords, etc. I did this on purpose since it would have been difficult to get into the head of or sympathize with a walking, oozing jellyfish. Similarities breed common ground.

Now, I knew there was no reason for there to be common ground between life that arose on earth and life that arose somewhere else. We have highly conserved life forms here. They all use essentially the same systems of DNA/RNA encoding and production of proteins. Proteins are used similarly. Oxygen based metabolism (the TCA cycle) and non-oxygen based metabolism (glycolysis) are essentially the same. Cellular organization falls into two basic camps: a prokaryotic approach which has a fluid approach to exposing operational DNA and the eukaryotic where DNA is systematically turned off or on in different tissues. Even across these basic differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes the process is one of how to exercise the basic mechanisms, not the mechanisms themselves.

How those mechanisms are applied to organism varies highly between species-- jellyfish versus coyotes, for example.

Whatever preceded the life forms that we now have is gone and left no relic as far as we can tell. (Though Peter Watts has played in this arena with his Rift novels.)

With only a sample size of one, we have no idea how life might originate on other planets or even if it has.

That said, I decided with Caliban that the Calabi would have genes, chromosomes and cells, something like an internal skeleton and other common characteristics with our world. I even made them tetrapods for which I had no basis in fact whatsoever. Why not make them six limbed? There are a lot of advantages in hexapod robots. Why not use that?

Because who wants to sympathize with an alien that looks like a spider. That's why.

So, I made them essentially human: tetrapod, skin, hair, feet and the ability to think.

But aliens have to be, well, alien. Don't they?

I had made their sensory systems alien enough. After all, radio waves pass through flesh with only a faint muddling. It wanders around corners. The Calabi had a very strong sense of texture in the same way humans have a very strong sense of surface. They understand warmth and seasons but have no understanding of stars or planets. They sense the sun as this light from the sky that is largely outshone by the plants. Cloud formations that are radio transparent are invisible to them but those containing rain are clear. They have a much better local weather sense than we do.

This is a lot to make them different. And I wanted to set at least part of the novel from a native's point of view.

But it wasn't enough.

All biological systems are driven by the need to reproduce. This should not be surprising: those that didn't were outcompeted by those that did.

Humans are no different. Our reproduction, as exemplified by our obsession with the act of sex, drives our fashion, conversational interactions, sports competitions and entertainment. Now, humans are different from most other species in that we don't have a particular time for reproductive activities. Most species cycle the opportunity for reproduction so that the opportunity to actually reproduce is maximized. In vertebrates this is driven by the female. Female dogs, chimps, opossums, cats and mice come into heat. That is, the urge for the sex act coincides with ovulation. Not so humans. Human beings have separated the sex act from the reproductive act.

Most terrestrial vertebrates have males and females of similar lifespan and function. This is not true universally across the kingdom of life. Anglerfish females are the fish people see. Male anglerfish are tiny little animals that attach to the female, parasitizing her for food and with the sole purpose of producing sperm for her. Spoonworm males live inside the spoonworm female, eating food the female provides and supplying her with sperm.

There are interesting evolutionary consequences to these models. When you have males and females of similar lifespan and function, selection can operate on males and females separately. It is to the male's advantage to reproduce with as many females as possible. It is to the female's advantage to be selective. Think cats. That's one strategy. Another strategy is to hold onto a single female and rear offspring with her. Think geese.

I decided that Calabi would have separate species with separate lifespans. But in this case, the females were long lived and mated with multiple males. However, the males were weak and fragile and died shortly after mating. This pushed the females to select multiple partners and put a strong bias in the males to pick the right female. This gave me the added drama to have the humans on Caliban accidentally kill the male being courted by the female.

Funeral rites are uniquely human. I postulate that Calabi would also have elaborate funeral rites. Here, however, I departed from science and wandered into mysticism.

I have always been fascinated by how religion depends on there not being a demonstrative deity. If a deity shows itself, there's no longer any point to the religion since all can see what the deity is and what the deity wants. Religion depends completely upon the deity being an unknown quantity.

I've played in this area by creating situations where something serving a deity equivalent is real and knowable and how that affects the situation.

In Caliban, I had the Calabi take their dead and apply them with ointments and preparations to the roots of a particular species of tree. The tree absorbs the chemical nature of the corpse and the personality and memory of the dead individual lives again within the tree. Since the tree is emitting radio waves and the Calabi speak by radio waves, the living can therefore communicate with the dead. I had fun with that.

And, no, I didn't steal it from Avatar. Caliban Landing was published in 1987. My wife has a strong opinion on the relationship between Avatar and Caliban Landing.

That's it for the Calabi. There are other aliens in the book and maybe I'll talk about them another time.

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