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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays

Information does not travel instantly, a fact that people living on their own planet in an electronic age can easily forget. You can pull out your netpad and find out almost anything right as it happens. Interstellar conversation is different; these words of mine reach you at least three months after I write them—and I can’t explain to you why it’s even that fast, given how far away I am. Something to do with the new physics, I don’t understand it myself. But, I look at my calendar today and find that when you read my post it will be Christmas, or perhaps just after; merry Christmas, then.

They don’t celebrate Christmas here, of course. Why should they? Even aside from the issues of cultural integrity and freedom of conscience that occur on Earth, Jesus came to save all humanity, and Myrmeoids aren’t human. To the few evangelists that have made contact, they have listened politely and then explained that they have not fallen, and do not need to be saved.

They do have holidays here, but no organized religion. For Myrmeoids, spiritual matters are not separate from other concerns. The country people are, in our terms, more or less animist or pantheist, but they do not personify natural phenomena. When I defined the word “atheist” to Dan, he just laughed. No one he knew would doubt the existence of God, not any more than they would doubt rain or sunshine—and yet no one here has been able to explain country-people beliefs to me in a way that does not sound atheist. I guess I just don’t understand.

Imperial beliefs make a little more sense to me, in that they clearly descend from the worship of a pantheon of sky-gods. Anymore, the pantheon has been so abstracted that no one talks of gods. Instead, for centuries, they have used a phrase that translates as “Heaven” or “Spirit.” The reason we call them “Imperials,” in English is that conquest and empire is central to their culture and their spirituality. Traditionally, they believed that conquest was for the glory of Heaven, and that the Imperials generally, and the ruling family specifically, were the representatives of Heaven. Opposing them was therefore sinful, unless something—especially natural disasters—really hurt the ruling family, in which case everyone assumed they had lost the favor of Heaven and there was a revolt. These days, most Imperial people think of conquest in moral rather than military terms; they conquer ignorance or poverty, or even violence. Some people even hold a variation of the faith called “the inner empire,” in which the Self conquers the self. This is the only version Dan now has any respect for; he has lived with the country people so long that he has adopted their anger at the Imperial conquest and what he says is continuing Imperial bigotry. Yet even he takes for granted the basic metaphor of conquest; he speaks of resorting to violence as “surrender to baser instincts,” and his anger is mixed with disdain for anyone who would be so weak as to make that surrender.

I grew up celebrating Christmas, though I am not personally very religious. I’m not sure if I will celebrate it this year. I’m not sure when it is; should I celebrate when you do, in three months? But I’m not sure what the calendar on Earth really has to do with us here. Our sun and moons and seasons are all different. I could translate the timing of Christmas, and celebrate when the northern hemisphere of Antworld has just passed its winter solstice—but that was actually two months ago, and I didn’t think of it at the time. The local climate is warm enough that most plant growth appears uninterrupted, and I didn’t realize it was the solstice until a few weeks later. Anyway, the solstice is not quite Christmas. Christmas celebrates the bodily intrusion of divinity into the human world, and this is not the human world—so what mark can the Incarnation have left on its calendar? I am inclined to think that perhaps Christmas is not simply a season, but also a place, and that I am not in that place.

Yet perhaps I will simply consider today Christmas, for today I received a present; I have a pet!

The people here keep several kinds of pets, in addition to farm animals like urdles. The pets of ant-people are all large, intelligent arthropods like themselves—by “large” I mean maybe four to six inches long. The three most popular species look a bit like wasps, fleas, and tarantulas, respectively. House-wasps, as I have taken to calling them, don’t sting, though they are predatory and have a nasty bite. They are as closely related to Myrmeoids as monkeys are to us, and act something like very intelligent dogs. House-fleas—I call them that because they look like giant fleas, being two or three inches long—are strictly vegetarian and sweetly loyal beasts. And then there are jumpers, which look almost exactly like tarantulas except for only having six legs. I wanted a house-wasp, since they are gorgeous and fairly easy to train, but they tend to eat house-fleas. You can’t train them not to hunt, and sooner or later they always get out and kill something. They’re very popular, except with people who own house-fleas, which the La’helis do. They won’t let me keep a house-wasp on their property. And they won’t give me a flea because house-fleas imprint permanently imprint on those they grow up with, and I will eventually go away. I can’t have a pet I can’t give to somebody else. But today the La’heli gave me a jumper. They tell me it is a very useful pet, because jumpers go after spiders like cats go after mice. And there are a lot of spiders here—big ones. I hate spiders. I am not one to complain, but they get into my house at night and hide in my shoes. They climb up the walls of my room, I can hear them crawling in the dark. Some of the local spiders are seriously poisonous.

So now, if this jumper of mine works out, I won’t have any problems with spiders anymore. Granted, my new jumper looks like a spider, but it can’t spin a web and its bite is not poisonous. Also, it is intelligent enough that if I treat it well it will not bite me. Sometimes jumpers get very attached to their owners. Like the Myrmeoids, it can't make sense of spoken words, so it can't learn a vocal name. But I have given it a name anyway; I’m going to call it Jim.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Questions, Answered and Otherwise

I said I’d find out how an urdle is slaughtered, and today I did. First, I should say that I’ve never denied where meat comes from, but I don’t come from farming people; I’d neverbefore seen any animal die, except beloved pets. I was afraid I would find it disturbing, that it would interfere with my relationship with the La’heli to see them kill. And now…I can’t say I’m quite comfortable with slaughter. It’s not a friendly act. But the La’heli were…humane, an odd word to apply to non-humans.

They had the urdles trained to go to the slaughter site for a food reward—a distance of several hundred yards from the corrals the animals are kept in. The site is behind a screen of trees, and usually downwind. They injected each urdle with a strong sedative, and waited until all the urdles they wanted to slaughter (six juvenile males not needed for stud and one adult female past laying) were assembled and unconscious before killing any of them. The slaughter site is kept very clean when not in use, and no blood is allowed to fall to the ground there, so there is no scent of blood when the animals arrive. They not only feel no pain, they feel no fear.

Of course, avoiding fear on the part of an animal over ten times your size is simply good sense, but the La’heli do care about their animals' experience. Their nuanced understanding of chemistry also allows them to use sedatives in a way we can’t.

Myrmeoids have a far more advanced understanding of chemistry and biochemistry than we do, and ordinary people routinely perform complex tests we would have to hire specialists for. They hung each unconscious urdle from a tree by a hook through its tail, hoisting it by means of a pulley system, so that the long, legless bodies hung vertically, head down, over wheeled tubs meant to catch the blood. The animals were bled to death, but not before each one was given a blood test to establish remaining concentration of sedative, liver function, and current metabolic rate. Each urdle was cut at the exact moment when no more sedative remained than what its liver could process before dying. The animal’s body would end up clear of the drug, but only after too much blood had been lost for it to regain consciousness. A slight miscalculation would have resulted in either drugged meat or an awake and terrified animal, but apparently neither ever happens.

“Never?” I asked Dan.

“Not statistically ‘never,’” he acknowledged. “I suppose the rate of mistakes either way can’t possibly be a perfect zero, but I’ve never heard of it. Drugged meat would make the news, and it doesn’t. And I’ve seen maybe forty animals a year slaughtered for twenty years? Multiply that by all the people on other farms I’ve talked to, maybe thirty farms, average of seventy animals slaughtered per year, for an average of seventy years’ reliable institutional memory, that’s maybe a hundred and forty-seven thousand urdles all slaughtered properly that I know of. That’s, roughly speaking, ‘never,’ colloquially.”

Dan, you remember, is an engineer.

He designed the pulley system that holds the urdles for both killing and butchering. If they lowered the carcasses for processing they could do it much faster, since people could walk the length of the carcass to work on it. But then blood would soak into the ground and the scent would linger and frighten the urdles. Instead, they clean the carcass four inches at a time while it hangs vertically, then sever the finished section, cart the meat, skin, and offal away, then lower the carcass four more inches and do the next section.

As you might imagine, this is labor intensive, but the whole family, even the children, helped. Childhood, for them, is a single instar, the period of time between the end of pupation and the first post-pupal molt twelve years later. Since they can’t get bigger without molting, all children are about the same size, regardless of age. Even the six-year-old, who hasn’t even started school yet, is almost as big as an adult, and strong enough to work the ropes. That is strange enough. But watching from a distance, I couldn’t tell the children apart, and the sight of a child learning how to find and sever the proper blood vessels gave me the willies. Intellectually, I knew the kid in question was eleven years old, and nearly ready to molt, but all I could see was a child learning to kill.

Despite my queasiness, I would have helped, for the La’helis are kind to me, and have graciously allowed me to watch and learn about their lives. But as usual, they declined my help. They don’t know how to integrate an assistant so big and so alien into their teams, so I merely watch, unless a task arises that I can do without help, like my delivery job.

After the animals were all processed, there was no rest for the La’helis. They had a feast scheduled for the afternoon, and had invited all their neighbors—maybe two hundred people. Electricity is expensive here, so there is no refrigeration, and such small people cannot control a cooking stove easily—most foods are bought pre-cooked and dried. Meat is eaten either dried, fermented (a local delicacy I am happy to leave to the locals), or raw. Raw is considered best, but of course nobody can get any except on the day the animal died. The weather is hot, here. So they have these big harvest-day parties. The community schedules its harvest-days carefully so that no two are ever on the same day, and if one family must feed ten other families for a day, they also get to go to ten parties and be fed. It evens out, financially. This party would be particularly well attended, because I was available to gawk at. I don’t mind being gawked at—I’m just glad they’re not afraid of me, as I’m so big.

I helped with the party by cooking two dishes of “Earth-food.” There are a couple of problems with cooking Earth-food for Myrmeoids. First, how do you reduce the entire sweep of human culinary culture to two representative dishes? Second, how do you prepare meals that don’t depend for their taste on larger bites than Myrmeoids can take? Succotash, for example, to us tastes like a mixture of beans and corn because we can put multiple beans and multiple corn kernels into our mouths at once. For a Myrmeoid, a single bean would be a mouthful. To get the mixture of tastes, you’d have to puree the succotash, which does not sound like the same meal to me.

Myrmeoids cannot even bite off a piece of this and a piece of that; their jaws are outside their mouths, and so big as to be useless for eating. It’s like they have a big set of all-purpose pliers attached to their faces, but no teeth. Their mouths are just openings in their heads ringed by a circular lip. They cut their food with knives as needed, but knives are usually used in the kitchen, not in the dining room. A prepared meal should have mouth-sized pieces, or be very soft.

I settled on barbecue, and also sushi, of a sort. Barbecue worked because the slow-smoked meat becomes tender enough to shred very fine. With all local ingredients, it didn’t taste much like Earthly ‘cue, but it was good in the same way. I think any Earthly aficionado of the dish would have liked my version of it. The Myrmeoids liked it, and found the heavy sauce and cooked meat very exotic.

The sushi was less of a problem for taste—oddly, there are local equivalents of all the primary ingredients, even tamari and wasabi—and more a problem for texture. I made a few rolls so they could get a sense of traditional presentation, but otherwise I minced everything very fine and made a kind of salad. This seemed much less exotic to the Myrmeoids, especially to Imperials, like Dan. Imperial cuisine is recognizably Japanese in many respects, possibly because the Imperial culture developed on a chain of islands.

Usually, I do not eat with the La’helis, since I eat so much more than they do. Today I was able to at least taste their food, since I had contributed dishes of my own. They served it outdoors, making it easy for me to reach in with a spoon.

The first course of a country-folk meal is generally soup, and today it was a kind of cold-blood-and-onion affair that I did not like. It was served in proportionately large troughs about twelve inches long. The cooks filled these by bucket—a filled trough would be too hard to carry. Everyone dipped out a share using thimble-sized cups. Some took seconds. Then the cooks dumped in a mixture of what looked (and tasted) like couscous and slivered, toasted almonds, right on top of the dregs of the soup. On top of the couscous went what looked like a thick form of gazpacho—a mix of finely chopped, pickled, and seasoned vegetables. The thing to do was to scoop up some vegetables with some couscous, but the bed of couscous was too thick to be exhausted as quickly as the vegetables were. Next the cooks laid down fresh, raw meat on the remaining couscous, finally chopped and expertly seasoned. I had not expected to like this, but it was actually quite good. Urdle meat tastes something like a cross between turkey and pork, by the way. When the meat was eaten, there was still some couscous left. This time, the cooks added fresh fruit, and thoroughly stirred the contents of each trough. This last course used up all the liquids and remnant pieces of the previous courses, all soaked into the couscous, and left the troughs almost clean. It tasted a bit like pineapple fried rice, and I liked it much more than I expected to.

Myrmeoids don’t need to drink water; they get all the moisture they need from their food, though they like to drink a little extra water or juice, especially on hot days. But though they don’t drink much water with meals, they do drink—alcohol. Myrmeoids, as a generalization, like their alcohol. Half the La’heli’s crab apple crop is fermented and made either into a very strong brandy, or a kind of wine for use at home. Over half the farm's income comes from the sale of brandy alone. But because transportation is so expensive, the price of alcoholic beverages varies inversely with its proof. Wine is therefor much cheaper to make for home use, so there's virtually no market for the stuff. Feasts are a big deal for drinkers as well as for meat enthusiasts, because not only is there wine, but flyers are allowed to drink. Drunk flying is dangerous, so people with wings are never served alcohol in restaurants and bars.

As the evening wore on, guests started to leave, or to come over to me to ask questions. Many of them had never seen a human before, though others I knew socially for one reason or another, but I found them all very polite and restrained in their curiosity. I got several compliments on my use of their language—I am fluent in Imperial, and was before I arrived, but over the last seven months I’ve been learning the country speech, too. I’m nearly fluent now, though sometimes I get the speed changes wrong and make embarrassing mistakes. “Ka’temi-ho” means the meat jelly everyone around here but me likes. The transition between the first and second morphemes is faster than normal, the transition between the third and fourth morphemes is slower. Change the speed, say “kate’mi’ho,” and you are referring to a particular kind of diarrhea urdles are subject to. Kate’mi’ho is different in consistency, scent, and color from normal dung (which is “kate’mi”), and is a sure sign of a high vet bill. Everybody knows I can’t stand ka’temi-ho, and they pretend not to believe that my occasional mistake in pronunciation is really accidental.


Eventually, the party dwindled down to a dozen or so guests, mostly fliers, who planned to stay the night. I am glad Myrmeoids cannot vocalize; it means a rowdy group of partiers is completely silent, though happy pheromones wafted along the breeze. I went down to the urdle pens alone.

The smaller moon is in the south of the sky tonight, just past full, and the greater moon is about half, and riding high in the sky. Between the two of them there is plenty of light, enough to completely wash out all the stars except the one bright topaz-colored planet, and turn the sky a kind of clear, silvery blue. The urdles normally sleep at night and eat by day—they are vegetarians, and spend most of their waking hours eating—but the night is so bright that they are up and about. I stood there watching them for an hour or so—I have just now gotten back to my house. Some of them came over to investigate me, but they’ve seen me before. They mostly went about their business.

There are two pens, each about an acre in size, with a small pond in the middle. Only one pen is occupied, as the other pond is due to be dredged for fertilizer. A third pen is currently being left fallow, and its fence has been removed, except for the main posts. Maybe twenty urdles went about their business in the one, occupied pen. They are legless, as all land vertebrates on this planet are, but they don’t quite resemble snakes. Their heads are blunted, rather like those of iguanas, and unlike real snakes (on our planet or theirs) they have both necks and long tails. A snake’s body is mostly torso, but an urdle’s ribs don’t begin until the eighth vertebra back from the head. This neck is visibly thinner and more flexible than the rest of the body, and several of the younger urdles raised their heads on their thin necks to look at me. All the young males of the current generation were dead; the three promising studs had been sold as yearlings, when they are still small enough to transport easily. The farm’s own studs did not need to be replaced this year. Aside from the two studs, everyone in the pen was female, either adolescent or adult. One large one seemed to be looking for something, sniffing the ground near the gate by which the marked seven had left but not come back. She would crane her neck up in that direction, tasting the air, then make a circuit of the pen, swim in the pond, look under the bushes, then return to the gate and sniff again. The others showed no sign at all of missing their former companions.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I sat up late last night outside with Dan and some of the children. There’s a hill above the orchard that they use to grow fuel wood, but it’s just been harvested so there’s a great view of the sky.

Myrmeoids don’t go in for artificial lighting, much, except for hospitals and so forth, because they can get by pretty well in the dark by sensing air movements with their antennae. They also can’t see stars clearly, but I can, and the stars here are fantastic. Tonight was a good viewing night—only a few wispy clouds, and the larger moon was not in the sky. The smaller moon was, but showed only a half, low down on the horizon to the north, behind the trees. The smaller moon is an amazing thing, by the way. It’s tilted 90 degrees from the plane of the ecliptic.

On our world or theirs, most heavenly bodies appear to move from east to west, because the world itself is spinning underneath them. We’re moving, not them. The moon and the planets move differently, moving against the background of stars, because they are moving, and their real movement plus the world’s spin produces their apparent movement. Our moon appears to move across the sky more slowly than the sun because the real movement of the moon is a west to east orbit around Earth. It is the movement of the moon that gives it multiple phases, as it shows different faces of itself to the sun over the course of four weeks. Their larger moon works much the same way and looks much like ours—close enough that you might miss the difference if you weren’t paying attention.

Their smaller moon is different. Because it orbits around the poles, not around the equator, its apparent movement east to west is unaffected by its real movement. For ten and a half days it rises with the sun and sets with it and so is usually invisible in the sun’s glare. Then, it rounds the North Pole and rises at sunset to sit on the northern horizon all night as a half-moon. The next night it rises at sunset again, but climbs further into the sky, visibly rounder. For seven days it tracks across the sky every night on a slight diagonal, reaching full as it passes over the tropics, riding high in the southern half of the sky, then finally disappearing beyond the southern horizon as it wanes toward half. Fourteen days later, it pops back up in the north. Tides around here must be wild.

Anyway, last night the moonlight was minimal, and close to the top of the sky was a very bright, topaz-colored star. I could have resolved it into a disc if I’d had my binoculars with me, I’ve done it before, but I’d left them in the house. It’s the next planet out from Ant-World, a gas giant almost as large as Jupiter, and somewhat closer to us that Jupiter is to you. Next to it are three less bright stars, the largest of its five inner moons. Two of them are visibly green.

I’m looking at extraterrestrial life. The fact that I look at extra-terrestrial life while in the company of large, intelligent arthropods makes it no less fantastic. You get used to a situation, you even get used to living on another planet, but somehow seeing a green star gets me every time. That’s why I got into this line of work to begin with, you know? Those green stars.

They’re ice worlds. It’s the ice, stained green by algae, that I see. They must be slow, cold worlds, with so little light coming from the sun. Their plants can’t be able to trap much energy, so food chains must be short, metabolisms slow. We know both of them support algae within the shelter of a thin layer of snow. During relatively warm weather, the snow and sea ice subliminate slowly into the atmosphere, raising the humidity slightly. When the air shifts from cold to frigid, the extra water vapor snows back out. Over time, algal cells freeze into the sea ice and are eventually eaten by tunneling worms. The first few meters of water are also green with phytoplankton, which is eaten by tiny floating animals, including larval ice worms. The top predators are jellyfish, on either world. Probably there is nothing on either world we would call intelligent, but after sending a couple of probes we have decided to give them their privacy. The Myrmeoids have never visited the other planets of their system, not even their own moons, nor have they wanted to. Perhaps because so many of them can fly they are content with the sky nature has given them?

Then again, they can’t see these worlds. They know they are there; they have instruments that can measure light and etch the images on to metal plates they can touch. They can even measure the gas composition of other planets’ atmospheres. They knew without us saying so that the two green stars are living worlds. Aside from the color of the ice, both moons have atmospheres that contain free oxygen and water vapor, neither of which persist without the agency of life. But perhaps if you can’t see a world hanging there, day in and day out, you can’t form the emotional desire to visit it? And surely our human desire to visit the stars began with a desire to touch the moon, originally conceived, perhaps, as nothing more than a silver shield hung in the sky?

Dan and the others could not form images of the night sky, but they could see the light of the sky, like a meaningless splatter of crystal. They could smell and hear the night. One of the kids is named Ka’te, which makes it very difficult not to think of her as female. She is seven years old, which means about the same thing for them as for us, and she is Dan’s protégé. A mentor is a child’s one special adult, the closest thing they have to a parent in this communal society. Unlike parentage, it’s non-transferable; if a mentor dies, the child will never be able to feel quite the same way about anyone again. As Dan and I talked, Ka’te kept touching him with her antennae, reassuring herself of his presence by scent and touch. I guess Dan figured she needed extra attention. When our conversation hit a lull he turned and licked her all over, like a mother cat washes a kitten.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I’ll begin this time with a few notes on communication-it will make other things more clear later. Myrmeoids' brains process both sound and sight differently than ours do--it's not that these senses are weak, it's that they are less meaningful to them than touch and scent/taste. Not only are they unable to produce spoken language (they have no voices), they cannot even learn to understand our speech--the sound forms no pattern for them. To communicate, they dab scent on each other’s antennae. Where the scent is dabbed along an antenna is a "morpheme," their equivalent of a phoneme; our language is made of sound patterns, theirs is made of patterns of different kinds of touches. The scent makes the touches easier for them to understand, but they can learn to talk without scent--a bit like we can learn to read lips.

To talk with them, I use my two fingers to touch. My fingers are about the same length and shape as their antennae (though much thicker). When I transliterate words or names in their languages, I use a method that is standard among those of us who work with Myrmeoids. the correct length, though obviously much thicker, and have the right number of joints. Since each antenna has three receptive points, and both talking-antennae can dab scent at once, they have an anatomical maximum of twenty-one morphemes, each of which has been arbitrarily assigned one of the twenty-one consonants in our alphabet. To make their words pronounceable vocally, the convention is to insert a vowel after each consonant, in alphabetical order. Of course, we could just use one vowel over and over, but that would be boring. Changes in speed, which matter in some of their languages but not others, are indicated by apostrophes and dashes. The reason morphemes cannot be assigned to vowels directly is that there is no way to ensure that the resulting letter-strings would be pronounceable. This system can’t work in reverse, however, because many human languages lose meaning if vowels are not recorded (or: mny hmn lnggs ls mnng f vwls r nt rcrdd. S wht mn?). Instead, to convert human languages to Myrmeoid languages, the number of symbols is first reduced to twenty-one by combining similar letters before transliteration.

So, my hosts here are the La’heli family. There are rather a lot of them, though by their own standards they are, if anything, a small family. Myrmeoid families are communal, with fifteen or twenty adults tending the children and the family business together. The La’helis own about twelve acres, a good spread for people the size of a small lobster, where they raise a sort of a crab-apple from which they make wine and brandy, and also urdles. Urdles are rather like big, fat snakes as much as six feet long, and they are raised for both eggs and meat. How they slaughter animals so much bigger than they are, I do not know, but I will apparently find out in a week or so, as several urdles are scheduled to be “harvested.” The farm also has a vegetable patch for the family’s own use, and several acres of forest backing up to forested portions of neighboring farms. I have been told not to walk in the forest unaccompanied, as large animals sometimes move through there on the way between game preserves. Being told I need such small guardians was strange, until I realized that at least they know what is dangerous and what isn’t.

I get along well with the La’helis, and spend a lot of time with some of them, but so far, only one has become a true friend; Danekinohu, a being of indeterminate sex whom I nonetheless tend to think of as male. I call him Dan, for short, in my journal. You may notice that most of the names and words I use are fairly short (two to four morphems long) and include apostrophes and dashes. Dan's name is different, because he is ethnically different from the other La’heli’s; they are what are called “country people,” descendants of the indigenous peoples of this continent, while Dan is an Imperial, an ethnicity that is still in some ways dominant, even though the empire itself has long since broken up. An analogy might be an Anglo in one of the former British colonies on Earth. Most farmers around here are country people, and Dan, like most Imperials in the region, is a city boy by birth. But he is a mechanic by training, and was asked to join the family in order to build and maintain the cider presses and the distillery. He is intensely curious; he joined the farm precisely because he was raised in the city, and he befriended me precisely because I am an alien. Anything new or complicated is a great game to him. He is intelligent enough to lean anything his curiosity prompts him to study (he is already fluent in a sort of transliterated English—if I can order him books printed in Braille when the spraft comes again, I will). If I can get him away from the presses next week, I will try to get him to take me walking in the woods.