The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Editor's Note


I'm the author of this blog. I'm thinking of either ending this blog, or putting it on hiatus. Readers, do you have an opinion? If the threat of this stopping triggers an outcry, I'll keep it going, but if nobody really cares I'll put my energy into something else. Please let me know.


Monday, July 23, 2012


It’s been both quiet and busy here, these last few weeks. It’s fall, now, and harvest season for several local vegetables. The La’helis don’t sell vegetables, but they do have a garden for their own use, and they’ve been busy harvesting. The new orchardist is also busy planning crabapple crosses ahead of the flowering season. The heat is starting to back off a bit, and the days are noticeably shorter, but it doesn’t look like fall in any sense I am used to. No leaves are falling. The trees here  are all evergreen, as I think I’ve mentioned before.

Not much is going on, other than the harvest and our preparations for our trip. Ka’te can go, we got that settled out. But I thought I’d take the opportunity of little news  to describe something the ethnic Imperials have unquestionably given this country, since I have otherwise painted them in an unflattering light. It’s a little, local thing, but a fairly good example of how things work around here.

All the larger towns and cities in this country were originally Imperial settlements. The local cultures preferred a more dispersed settlement pattern, and their cultural descendants are still mostly rural people (hence “country folk”). Since the Imperials were dependent on water transportation, all the cities and towns are along navigable rivers, including the town that I go into to do my shopping. The river wouldn’t quite count as navigable to us, but it is big enough for the Myrmeoid barges, which only need about 40 centimeters to float.

But, the town does not rely on water only for transportation. They also use the water to generate a modest amount of electricity and some mechanical power for mills, and for that they need dams. But dams would cut off the runs of various fishes that come up from the sea to breed, among other problems. On Earth, we ran into the same problem, of course, and decided to sacrifice the fishes, precipitating various political and technical struggles  over the following generations. We’re still dealing with this, centuries later. But in this country at least, they did something different, and it was the Imperials who did it.

Imperial food culture is based mostly on fish, since they were an island culture originally. They prefer oceanic fish, but of course once you get inland, freshwater fish are cheaper. The fish runs were a major part of the local culture and economy, and the upstream towns refused to allow their supply of fish to be cut off. The solution they finally hit on was to build a canal several kilometers long, along an old, silted-in river channel.  At the top, the canal takes water from the river, but the bottom of the canal is higher than the bottom of the river so that in a drought it is the canal, not the river, that will run dry. Then there is a series of eight dams along the canal. Each dam takes half a day to empty before the spillway must be closed so the reservoir can refill, so some of the dams are paired; two supply electricity to the hospital, and two supply electricity to the communications tower and the police station and jail. The other four supply mechanical and electrical power to factories and mills. The workers rest while their dam recharges. 

But at the bottom of the canal, this big pulse of water has to rejoin the river, and it used to make the water level very variable in a way that caused environmental problems. The solution lay in more engineering, but not by Myrmeoids—they brought in this planet’s equivalent of beavers.
These are, of course, snakelike animals covered with short, mottled brown feathers. They’re about three meters long. They have big front teeth, like beavers, which they use to fell small trees and also to cut channels through the marshes that form at the edges of the ponds behind their dams. Unlike beavers, though, they don’t eat bark. Instead, they eat a particular kind of fish that lives only in these ponds. The people encouraged the fish-beavers to move in by splitting the bottom of the canal into several smaller canals, of the size fish-beavers prefer. They also fenced off certain areas so that the fish-beavers would not be able to use the whole thing at the same time. Then when the first dams were exhausted, the fish-beavers could move to the areas that had been fenced while the first impoundments grew back. Within a few years, the bottom of the canal became a huge marsh that evened out the flow of water, something like a giant sponge might. Mosquitoes love it, of course, but then the dozens of kinds of gorgeous dragonflies love the mosquitos, and the town makes a lot of money from tourists who come to the marsh for recreational hunting—of dragonflies. The people train their pet house-wasps like falcons.

Imperial culture does this sort of thing a lot. We have a history of trying to solve one problem and in the process creating three more. Myrmeoids can certainly  make the same kinds of mistakes. But it is part of the Imperial culture to, as they would put it, “study the enemy and the battlefield before committing troops.” They don’t always agree with other peoples (or each other) about what really constitutes a problem, but once they decide to attack a problem, they study the matter very carefully. They anticipate better than we do.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The High Seas

It looks like we'll get permission to take Ka'te with us on our trip--we have the permission of the La'helis, and although we're waiting for permission from the government (since they are funding the trip), they are unlikely to deny a child the right to travel with her mentor. In the meantime, we are getting ready, making plans...though we have to wait at least a few more weeks, since Dan is still growing into his new body and his hormone levels are still shifting wildly.

While we wait, Dan has been getting to know his new family--he's still living with the La'helis, but when his new job starts he will leave the La'helis and become a Banesi. They are a large family, as most ethnic Imperials are, and they run two merchant marine ships and a small warehouse. Dan has no prior experience sailing, but since most sailors are flyers, very few sailors have sailed before molting.

Today, he took me down to the port to meet some of the Banesis and to see a war ship that's in port for a resupply right now. The Banesis were friendly, and it looks like Dan is starting to make friends, but nothing of particular note happened while we were talking to them. But I want to tell you about the ship.

It wasn't  like a scaled-down version of one of our navel ships. If Myrmeoids had wanted to build an aircraft carrier, they would have built one about the same size as our aircraft carriers, because the size would be dictated by the behavior of the sea and the wind, not by the size of its crew-members. But of course, we have huge amounts of steel recycled from the days of heavy mining and we have high-energy infrastructure  adapted from the days of fossil fuel--Myrmeoids don't have any of that. They can't make large quantities of steel, and they can't build the huge machines necessary to create aircraft carriers. A lot of Myrmeoid watercraft are either simple barges or leather coracles built on wooden or recycled aluminum frames. But coracles are vulnerable to attack, so war ships and armed merchants are made of wood. They are wooden sailing trimarans. That's what I saw today.

This is the kind of ship built from the huge trees. Its main hull is over two meters across at its widest point and twenty-three meters long, cut from a single log. The secondary hulls are over a meter wide and about twelve meters long. The mast rises twenty meters from the deck and can support any of several configurations of sail. Aside from the small size of the crew members, such a boat would not seem particularly impressive given that we tend to think of sail as definitely low-tech. This sailcraft isn't. For one thing, nothing crude could handle the open ocean of this planet; Antworld is a bit smaller than Earth, but its continents are mostly clustered together, something like Eurasia and Africa but without the Americas. The ocean is thus split into a relatively tame Mediterranean-like sea and an outer ocean whose waves regularly rise hundreds of feet. For another thing, a ship like this can move under sail on the lightest breeze, can handle serious gales, can sail in any direction including upwind, and can go faster than the wind can. They cannot go as fast as our racing boats can, being much heavier, but they don't break as often, either. Unless taken in battle, a good Myrmeoid ship lasts an average of thirty years.

Unless taken in battle. There are no major wars on the planet at present, and this country's navy has nothing to do except deal with pirates and function as a kind of coast guard. In my experience, they seem kind of peaceful, and I'm used to thinking of sailing vessels as peaceful, beautiful things. Beautiful this one is, painted a camouflage pattern of blue, pale yellow, and white,  but it's loaded with weapons. I'm not allowed to go into specifics--the ship I saw is not a state secret, but it would be considered rude of me to actually publish its details for the whole planet to see--but it was scary. Most Myrmeoid weapons are anti-ship, not anti-personel in design, since the people are small enough that it's hard to hit them. The weapons also have to be small enough to be operable by small people, so no cannon balls or big explosive shells. Instead, the ship was bristling with harpoon guns that shoot bolts that explode, set fire to sails, or inject corrosives into the wood of an enemy hull. In battle, flyers would also take to the sky carrying tiny incendiary bombs and engaging in dogfights that end in hand-to-hand combat thousands of feet above the surface of the sea.

Dan is proud of the capability, but not proud of the violence. He says that anyone who fights to kill has already lost. Yet his merchant ship is armed, and he will have to learn to use its weapons. He doesn't see any conflict there. He does not object to defending himself from pirates.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Fans of Change

You know that old expression about a certain something "hitting the fan"? Well, I finally get it!

It's gotten so ridiculously hot here that Dan rigged an electric fan for me--it's solar powered. I really should have brought one of my own, but not even the diplomatic corps thinks of everything. They don't use fans for comfort here, since Myrmeoids tolerate heat better than we do, and they don't cool themselves by sweating, so a breeze doesn't do them as much good, so Dan had to build one from scratch. He used the head of one of the small, portable wind turbines they use on the coast (it's maybe 45 centimeters across), removed its snubbing mechanism, and rewired it so that it spins under current instead of generating current by spinning. Then he welded the casing to a metal ring that I could tie securely to the center pole of my house. It has a battery pack I can recharge from the same solar panel where I recharge my other electronics, and I can adjust the speed by adjusting the electrical power through five different settings. It really was a lot of work, though Dan has brushed off my thanks, saying he plans to get a patent, and if any other humans come to this country, he'll get rich making fans for all of us.

Anyway, looking at this thing, it occurred to me it must look a lot like the first household electric fans--just an exposed rotor fixed to a motor and mounted on some kind of stand. The ring fans we take for granted must have come later, maybe a lot later. And if--a certain substance--hit this primitive sort of fan, it would hit the moving blades and centripetal force would throw it all over the room--a sudden, big, awful mess. Which is exactly what "___ hitting the fan" means!

The reason why I bring this up, is that the metaphorical ___ has indeed hit the metaphorical fan. All those political posts I've been publishing? Well, I'm not being reprimanded or censured in any way, but my host government has finally that perhaps my experience of their culture has been somewhat one-sided, and I've been told to do some traveling. Dan will go with me as a guide--he's not due to start his new job for another five months or so, and his new employer will appreciate his expanded experience. We're trying to get permission for Ka'te to come, too, it'll be a great educational experience. So I'm not exactly in trouble, and this is a tremendous opportunity, and not just for me, but it's obvious that I've given offense, and that bothers me. Still, I would not retract anything--it is the truth as far as I can tell, and I have been honest about the limits of my knowledge.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Dan has learned to fly.

"Learned to fly" may be something of an over-statement, since he's still not allowed to fly in public air space, but he's trying his wings all over the farm. He won't go by land if he can go by air, now. The kids have recruited him for their games; they've rigged a kind of crossbow which shoots grass stems a couple of meters, and Dan flies along and catches them and pretends to die, falling out of the sky. Sometimes he is an enemy warrior, sometimes a marauding animal, sometimes an evil alien. Yes, the kids play "alien attack," and the fact that I AM an alien seems to bother them not one bit.

Actually, I suppose the enemy warrior is probably an invading Imperial, making Dan's participation ironic, too. While I do find it a bit disturbing that so many of these children's games involve pretending to be attacked by something (at least they always have themselves win), they do have the impressive ability to differentiate between the personal and the political. As I understand it, the Imperial invasion remains quite real, and much of the way the La'heli's live is a subtle act of resistance, yet individually the Imperials are not evil--they are not even a distinct "them." And while the governments I represent are friendly and respectful, that could change someday--and of course, we are not the only kind of alien. So the children are right to trust both Dan and I, yet psychologically prepare themselves to fight that which we represent.

You know, thinking about this, the bravery of these people in welcoming us astounds me. Individually I am continually struck by the fearlessness of most Myrmeoids with respect to me. If I so much as fell over in a crowded street I could become a mass murderer. I am such a giant. And yet when I go into town, most of the people just ignore me. Sometimes people come up to introduce out-of-town friends to me, or to suggest some kind of business deal, but that's about it. I go to a store to buy something, and of course I can't go inside, so I just sit down in the street and say something--everyone in town recognizes my voice now, to the shop clerks will come outside to take my order--and traffic parts around me as though a giant sitting in the street were the most ordinary thing in the world. And I haven't quite been here two years yet!

But of course, I really wouldn't hurt any of these people, so the fact that I can hurt them is irrelevant. I am very careful when I walk in crowded places. But can I swear that my species will never hurt theirs? No, I can't. And it's not because they're small that they're vulnerable, it's because we have them outgunned. They could have all of our technological wonders; they are smart enough, and in some ways their technology is more developed than ours. But they've chosen, the entire planet, to simply not have the industrial revolution.Credit--or blame--the fact that they had a nearly planetary dictatorship at the time when the steam engine was developed. I'm a bit fuzzy on the details--and there are books on this on Earth, so you can look it up--but it was something like the Imperial leadership feared that fossil fuel could be the beginning of an arm's race they might not win. After all, there are vast coal and oil deposits in the continental interiors where Imperial power has always been weak. They were always a naval power, principally. The native peoples in the interiors, for their part, feared that fossil fuel could free the imperials from the water and make their power total. So between the two groups, they pulled off a planetary ban on fossil fuel use that remains in force to this day. And their planet is the better for it. I can't tell you how green and how...diverse? this place is. It's like, everywhere you look is some new and different live thing, it's incredible. But the people here have no air force, no anti-aircraft or anti-missile capability, and no capacity to get anything much beyond low planetary orbit.

Maybe it's their pragmatism; they'd rather make friends while they can, so our people will protect theirs if the political wind ever shifts--if so, it's working, as I'd certainly stand with them if I had to. Not like I could do much of anything. Or maybe I've underestimated them; they do have an understanding of chemistry and biochemistry we can only dream of.

Look at this; what a weird and impolitic thing for me to be writing about! It speaks volumes about both our species' governments that I can even consider publishing something like this. I'm sure it will make some people angry. And yet, something about my mission here seems to include looking at these people directly, and honestly reporting my thoughts and impressions, not simply communicating soundbites and talking points. I didn't mean to write about any of this stuff today; I was just going to tell you about Dan learning to fly. But I won't delete it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Catching Up

I'm sorry it's been so long since since I posted anything. It's been crazy here this past month, and I'm just about emotionally wrung.

We took care of Ka'heni's body and Dan's old skin the same day, and in the same way; they have no funerals here, and it's one of the differences between our peoples that remind me I'm an alien here, even when the inhuman bodies of my friends and hosts don't seem important. Bodies are easy to ignore--as you read this, you can't see or touch my body, my shape doesn't matter to you, I'm just a mind, just words. We're used to this. I can recognize the mind of a friend on a flat screen covered only with changing words, and I can recognize the mind of a friend in the body of an eight-inch-long ant. Shape doesn't matter. But they have no need for funerals here, and I feel very far away from home.

They treat dead bodies, cast-off exoskeletons, and unwanted and uneaten eggs and larvae all the same way, as a special class of almost sacred trash, carried out to special, designated dumps or crematoria with solemn ceremony. When someone dies, mourning is a private thing, though several weeks later they do hold a sort of a wake, to help everyone get past their grief and back into daily life. We just had that party yesterday, so I guess this post is me getting back to daily life.

Dan is learning to fly. He had to recover from molting, build his body back up, and then he spent a week or two flapping madly every chance he got, his feet dug in to roots, fallen logs, or the carpet of my floor, so he wouldn't take off before he knew how to control his wings. Today he let go for the first time and went straight up about six feet before letting up. He drifted back to the ground like a fluttering leaf. I'm getting used to the new way he looks, and wondering how much longer he will stay here--he's got a job lined up, he starts as sailor aboard a merchant marine in five months, but usually new flyers take some time to travel between one molt and another. I'll miss him.

Ka'heni's last larva is not alone; I should have anticipated it, since the kids are is same-aged batches, but once Ka'heni decided to keep an egg, the female fliers each kept their next egg and added them to the pile. So there's four larvae now. Two of them, Ka'heni's and another, were laid the same week, and nobody knows or cares which is which. They don't pay any attention to biological parentage, only family. Mostly the larvae are kept inside, both to protect them and because there is no reason to take them anywhere else--they have no central nervous systems yet, so there is no point in showing them things. But I was curious, so someone carried one of the larvae out to me. It did look a bit like a sock, but only about three inches long. What it really reminded me of was just a really big, white maggot, a pale, soft tube with no legs or eyes, just a pair of jaws and a mouth. I had to keep my hands away from the mouth, as they bite reflexively and do not let go. I know the eggs are about the size of a marble, and that they hatch out at about half an inch long. Over three months they grow to eight inches long, then pupate for four months. It's only when they enter pupation that they legally become people; larvae are considered property, something that makes some sense considering that the offspring of layers are all genetically identical to their siblings, and so interchangeable until they grow brains capable of learning, but is still odd to think about. Again, it's not how we do things. It blows my mind that these grublike things will grow up to be people, and that post-pupals think they're cute.

And there are two new La'helis. The new layer, Ta-he'ki, is another accountant, and she has something like the equivalent of an MBA as well--not quite lineage, but close. It seems the La'helis want to explore getting into some new markets. The other new member is Dan's replacement, in as much as it (I've been criticized for ascribing gender to those without it) is a second post-pupal, but Ka'de is not an engineer. Instead, as Ka'heni suggested, we've got an orchardist knowledgeable in botany. Ka'de actually has lineage, as of a few weeks ago, though it's only thirty years old. Of course, the official story is that Ka'de was hired to transform the La'heli's plant genetics just as Dan transformed their mechanical apparatus a generation ago, but unofficially I think the hope is that Ka'de will, to some extent make up for Ka'te's loss of Dan. She's young to lose daily contact with her mentor, and anyway, more and more we are realizing that Ka'te's intellect is something special. She needs every advantage of education we can get her, and for a country family, that means making sure she has real experts in her life to talk to--real experts in its life for it to talk to, I should say, but it's no good; I can't stop thinking of Ka'te as a little girl. And it forty years she could become a male flyer, for all I know. I am sure she'll have lineage someday, if she wants it.

So here I am babbling, just telling you one thing and then another as they come into my head. I'm just emotionally tired. And it's hot. It's been hot for months, and still getting hotter. The Myrmeoids don't care; they have three different body temperatures, and they can adjust their bodies to whichever one suits the conditions of the moment. They're nice and comfy, because the air is still cooler than they are except at mid-day, while I'm sweating my brains out even in my sleep. And I still keep wearing clothes. Honestly, I need to quit that. No one here would care; they don't wear clothes, and a naked man's body wouldn't look any stranger to them than a clothed man's body. And the midges and mosquitoes and so forth here ignore me. I'm being stupid. I need to stop.

Friday, April 27, 2012


What a day!

And I thought everything seemed pretty normal in the morning—I left on my delivery rounds, and Dan set out in the opposite direction to go see a friend on another farm and have a look at their cider presses. I'd got into town and picked up my load, and I was getting close to my first stop, when I heard a low, loud drone coming up very quickly behind me.

Of course, it was a flying Myrmeoid, but the road was quiet today and the sudden sound startled me and I didn’t have time to think, just to react to what sounded like a giant bug flying at my head. I half turned, and threw my arm up protectively—and the flyer landed on my arm.
It was La’ne-ni, one of the La’heli flyers. I offered her my hand so she could talk to me, and she told me Dan had begun to molt, and had asked for me. Molting is a dramatic, dangerous process, something like human labor, except they give birth to themselves. They can die of it, and there's nothing you can do if it goes bad, but you can be there for them.

I didn't think I could make it in time, but La'ne-ni told me to drop my pack and she'd talk to the landowner about it. She also told me about a short cut through the woods. I ran most of the way, but she beat me back to the farm house and showed me which window to look in to see Dan.

He looked pretty normal, except he was standing stiffly, in an odd position, and not moving at all. There was an odd milkiness to his eyes. I could smell his fear, and I would have spoken so he could recognize my voice, but one of the others came over to tell me he couldn't sense anything at all--he had detached from his old exoskeleton just a few minutes earlier, and was now blind, deaf, and unable to smell.

“So he doesn’t know I’m here?” I asked.

“He knows; he knew you would come, therefor, he will assume that you have arrived,” the Myrmeoid at the window told me—I was just bowled over by that, I just didn't know what to say. So I just waited with the others.

Dan was standing on a stiff, woven mat that I could see was actually tacked to the floor, the claws of his feet dug in to the mat fibers. I knew the mat was important—when he got ready to pull out of the old exoskeleton he had to have something to pull against, some way to anchor the old exoskeleton. Otherwise he wouldn't be able to pull free and as his body tried to change shape his circulatory system would kink and he would die. The way you know you are going to molt is actually a sudden, irrational fear of being sucked up into the sky--it's the subjective experience of an instinct to get somewhere protected and to dig in with the feet. When the fear comes on, you've got about three or four hours to get ready--five at the outside.

So I watched, at it seemed for a while as though nothing was happening--and then a triangle of black appeared on the top of Dan's thorax. Then the point of the triangle elongated, shooting towards Dan's head, and a second triangle appeared, facing backwards from the first, and shot backwards. Dan's red-brown skin had split, and the split was growing as his body inflated itself with air.

It didn't take very long after that. The new, larger thorax domed up out of the old one, and as the cracks spread further the head and legs pulled free--I put all this in passive voice because Dan wasn't doing any of this deliberately. The progressive inflation of different parts of his body was causing him to bloom out of his old self like a flower. Finally, he stood for a moment entirely off the ground, his legs in the air, held almost vertically by his abdomen still caught in the old skin. Then two of the old legs buckled and he fell sideways. Two people caught him and laid him on the ground and he started to kick and struggle, pushing the old skin away from his abdomen as fast as he could. Then he lay for a moment, an odd, black, crumpled thing that looked nothing at all like my friend. The old exoskeleton lay beside him, and except for the two broken legs and the shredded abdomen, it looked like the Dan I knew--except the eyes. The eyes were clear shells.

Someone gave Dan water, and it was then I noticed the clumps of what looked like wet tissue on his back. They were growing, lengthening. I couldn't quite see the movement of growth itself, it was too slow, yet as I looked the filmy crumpled ovals grew, unfolded, filled out, till they became clear and shiny as soap bubbles and four wings, eighteen inches from tip to tip filled the room, reaching up and out as though ready to flap.

"Dan!" I shouted, though of course he wouldn't recognize it as his name. He recognized my voice, and held his antennae weakly out to me, listening, gathering scent. I smelled his greeting and reassurance, but no surprise. He had indeed assumed I was there.

He flapped his wings weakly, slowly, and folded them back down his back as they dried and lost that soap-bubble luster. Someone gave him more water. His body was changing, too, his legs and antenae shortening even as his thorax and abdomen continued to grow. He was becoming a creature of the air. Then, as the new exoskeleton began to harden it lost its wrinkled look and took on a glossy shine. I had been watching not much more than twenty minutes.

It will take him a day or so to grow into himself and lose the awkward weakness of molt. It will take him even longer to build up his flight muscles up enough so he can learn to fly. But he's through; he's a flyer, now. I left and went back to my house, to let him rest and to write this post.

But as I was walking, La'ne-ni again flew up to me. While Dan was molting, Kahe'ni completed a molt of her own; she is dead. The La'heli layer is free of her body completely. She doesn't have cancer anymore.