Wednesday, 14 May 2014


Originally published as "Fascinating Aliens" on Poul Anderson Appreciation, Fri 8 Feb 2013.

Why are human beings the way we are, biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually? This question easily arises in science fiction when an author compares us with his imagined aliens, unless he pointlessly makes them exactly like us.

Characters in Poul Anderson's Fire Time (London, 1977) make two significant points:

(i) " '...beyond a certain point there is no selection pressure to increase brain power further, and indeed this would grotesquely unbalance the organism.' " (p. 83)

(ii) Hastily evolved human beings have three brains, the reptilian stem, the mammalian cerebellum and " '...the over-developed cerebral cortex...' " unharmoniously cobbled on top of each other, " '...hence ax murders, mobs...' " etc (p. 85).

All that I had remembered about the Ishtarians from an earlier reading of Fire Time was that they were quadrupedal. In hexapodal evolution, the forelimbs come to be freed from locomotion for manipulation so that the dominant species is quadrupedal, sort of leonine centauroids. In addition, however, a human colonist on Ishtar believes that the native Ishtarians " '...are a more advanced form of life than us.' " (p. 82)

(i) Not even their most violent barbarians are casually bloodthirsty. They have never tortured or massacred prisoners and have not exterminated the small, rarely seen, semi-intelligent "goblins" (p. 82).

(ii) Civilisation has developed without a state. (Neat.)

(iii) Regular scorching of Ishtar by the periodically approaching red giant star prevented reptiloid evolution and gave mammalian types longer to evolve.

(iv) They have evolved elaborate symbioses, including even plants that grow on their bodies, can be eaten in emergencies and then grow back quickly.

(v) They can live on a wide variety of foods and are less wasteful of water.

(vi) Their mutation rate is probably higher because their body temperature is.

(vii) Genes governing a metabolic function that is taken over by a symbiont are freed to do something else.

(viii) They have no insanity and little disease.

(vix) They are not culture shocked by the arrival of Terrestrials.

(x) They live for three to five hundred years which probably conserves their adaptations to the red star cycle.

Anderson indeed put a lot of thought into making Ishtarians different from human beings.

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