|Debut of the Gw'oth|
I recently wrote "Alien Aliens: Beyond Rubber Suits" for the science side of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (see the April 2013 issue). The Gw'oth served in the article as an extended example of how an author might go about creating alien worlds and alien aliens.
If you read the zine (and if you enjoy hard SF, you really should), check out the article. And if you don't? Read on for an extract (slightly adapted) from the article for a peek at the science and thinking behind the Gw'oth.
But be advised: bits of what follows are spoilers for Fleet of Worlds (though not the remaining books of the series) ...
|As close as I've been to a Gw'o|
Biochemistry. Sunlight can’t penetrate the ice, and so photosynthesis isn’t the basis of the ecosystem. Instead, life on Jm’ho depends on chemosynthesis, on harvesting energy and resources from minerals and hydrogen sulfides that endlessly upwell from the abyssal depths. A similar biome is found along the hydrothermal vents beneath Earth’s oceans. Life on Jm’ho hugs the vents and undersea volcanoes; everywhere else, the world ocean is lifeless, effectively a desert.
Evolution. Along Earth’s hydrothermal vents, tube worms are at the top of the food chain. On Jm’ho, chemosynthetic life has evolved further. Some worms evolved to hunt in packs. They developed vision optimized toward the red end of the human-visible spectrum. (Why and how, in the inky depths, could they have any sight? They see in infrared, the better to discern ocean vents and the fainter heat of prey. Their vision gradually expanded to exploit the sporadic reddish glow of fresh lava from volcanic eruptions.)
Some pack-hunting worms also evolved the ability to connect nervous systems. In such linkages, they extended the resolution and angular separation of their primitive IR-sensitive triangulation. From such worm colonies, over time, evolved starfish-like hunters: the immediate ancestors of the Gw’oth.
Physiology and appearance. A Gw’o loosely resembles a starfish crossed with an octopus. The Gw’o’s five flexible extremities are equally spaced around a disklike central mass. Each tubular tentacle—tubacle—harkens back to the Gwo’s ancestral, free-ranging tube worms. From the mouth inward, arrayed in consecutive rings around the tube’s inner surface, are teeth, eyes, ears, and the myriad chemoreceptors for taste and smell. Shared organs, including most of the central nervous system, reside in the central disk. Flattened and with its tubacles outstretched, a Gw’o spans about two-thirds of a meter.
The Gw'oth look radially symmetric. The Krulirim, who appeared in my earlier solo novel, Moonstruck, are fully radially symmetric. Lacking notions of front and back, left or right, Krulirim needed an out-of-body reference to indicate any external object. So: I gave them a magnetic sense, such that they always knew the direction to the nearest magnetic pole.
I saw no reason to repeat that complication with the Gw'oth. Hence: not remarked upon in the Gw’oth’s adventures (but known to me), the internal organs of, and markings upon, the central mass give the Gw’o left/right symmetry. A Gw’o therefore has no need for a Krul-like out-of-body reference. That’s fortunate, because neither Jm’ho nor its primary has much of a magnetic field.
Sensory apparatus and communications. A Gw’o’s vision, compared to a human’s, is biased toward infrared; it can’t see past blue. Its hearing and speech coevolved with echolocation. Befitting a carnivore at the apex of a chemosynthetic ecology, a Gw’o has keen senses of taste and smell. Complex communication relies upon modulated sound, but a Gw’o, like an Earthly squid, conveys emotions—sometimes involuntarily—with color patterns on its spiny skin.
Locomotion. Gw’oth both swim and scuttle along the ocean floor. To swim, they draw in water through an orifice in the central mass and expel the water through their tubacles. That is, a Gw’o is jet-propelled. It steers, veers, and spins by aiming and reaiming its tubacles.
Reproduction. Gw’oth have genders—but neither gender roles nor sex. Females deposit egg clusters within breeding chambers in the Jm’ho analogue to coral reefs. Males later fertilize the egg clusters. Some social groupings limit breeding-chamber access to individuals of suitable prestige. At birth, the immature, not-yet-sentient newborns scatter; those few spawn that manage to elude predators and to mature are accepted into Gw’oth society.
Gw’oth can eject gametes anywhere, and egg and sperm could manage to meet anywhere. But the sea is full of predators .... And the very few unsanctioned offspring that do survive? Newly mature Gw’oth return to their spawning ground, at which time they are taken into the social grouping. Unsanctioned spawn that survive are apt to become rogue and feral adults.
Group minds. To make the Gw’oth really alien (and to advance a plot), I had a tiny fraction of the population retain the ancestral ability to link nervous systems. When Gw’oth link minds this way, they form a biological computer: a Gw’otesht. With their memories and engrams imprinted into the group consciousness—a limited sort of upload—members of a Gw’otesht experience a degree of life after death.
A Gw’otesht of enough members can be scary smart ….
Technology. With prehensile and opposable tubacles to manipulate objects, Gw’oth are natural tool users. Living underwater, alas, they’ve been without fire to smelt ores or forge metals; for most of Gw’oth history they’ve had only stone tools. Their communities of stacked-stone buildings hug the serpentine ocean-floor vents. He who controls the life-giving vents holds all power; Gw’oth government tends toward dictatorship—just as the pharaohs used their control of the life-giving Nile to maintain a water-monopoly empire in the Egyptian desert.
And then some enterprising Gw’oth learn to fashion watertight leather suits, and to circulate water to and from the suits with leather hoses pumped by leather bellows. And go exploring above the ocean through (once again, Europa-like) fissures in the world-girding ice. And first encounter stars. And everything changes …
(Looking for more of a Gw'oth fix? There are always the Fleet of Worlds series novels, of course. And I've added a Gw'oth label to make it easy to find related posts here on SF and Nonsense.)