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

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.