Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Quoth the Gw'oth ...

I won't say nevermore—if only because never encompasses a very long time—but there are no plans for further novels in the Fleet of Worlds series. And so ...

Debut of the Gw'oth
I invented the Gw’oth for Fleet of Worlds (coauthored with Larry Niven); the little guys returned in three (of the four) sequels. As often happens with species- and world-building, much background is merely hinted at in the eventual story or is omitted entirely. That’s okay. I needed to understand the Gw’oth before putting them through their many-tentacled paces. Hence: four novels after their debut, some details about the Gw’oth remain untold.

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
Setting. We’ll begin with Jm’ho, the Gw’oth home world. I took as my starting point Europa: an icebound moon of Jupiter. Jm’ho has—just as astronomers now believe to be true of Europa—a world-spanning ocean trapped beneath a thick sheath of ice. Again mimicking the Jupiter system, the gas-giant planet around which Jm’ho orbits exerts intense tidal forces upon its inner moons. The ceaseless flexing keeps Jm’ho seismically active and its ocean liquid. Above the ice lies deadly vacuum.

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.)


BJ Nicholson said...

I have really enjoyed the Fleet of Worlds books. I have been a huge fan of Niven's known space books and stories since I was a kid, and these books really rekindled my love of well written science fiction. Any plans on collaborating with Mr. Niven again? I would think Known Space would offers a treasure trove of ideas. I want to know what happened once Beowulf Shaffer and his family arrived on Home, and their response to young Louis running away. What other things has Carlos Wu invented? Can Beowulf overcome his love of being a tourist? Hope to see other titles in the future!

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, BJ. I'm glad (and I imagine Larry is, too) that you enjoyed the series.

Will I collaborate again with Larry? I won't say never -- it was a great experience -- but after five books set in Known Space I needed a change of scenery. For now, I'm enjoying "work" in my own settings.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

just read destroyer of worlds great book. Really love the research that back up a given species, even down to a given species hard wired genetic behaviours like the Pack. I do hope the Gw'oth find their place in space away from the controlling machinations of the puppeteers!

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Anon. You may be interested to know that the Gw'oth also figure prominently in Betrayer of Worlds and Fate of Worlds.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

great stuff! will be my winter read here in Northwestern Ontario, between shoveling snow that is. What I need is a disintegrator beam for the stuff.

Edward M. Lerner said...

I grew up in Chicago and lived a few years in upstate New York -- I understand snowy climes (and don't miss them).

Glad I can bring some distraction to your winter chores :-)

- Ed

Allison M. said...

I read Fleet of Worlds a while ago and these little guys really appealed to me. I felt so protective of them, though maybe that was the human scouts' viewpoint rubbing off on me. They're definitely one of the more imaginitive alien species of recent SF, and it's a pity Barlowe's isn't constantly updated so we could get a nice illustration of them.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Allison,

Thanks! I'm also partial to the Gw'oth. They were fun to develop.

- Ed