Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Bird People and the Great Chain of Being

A very short workday today, as I spent the morning doing administrivia, then the early afternoon doing research into binary pulsars (PSR J0437-4715, to be exact) and outlining. Knocking off early this afternoon, as we're taking the rare opportunity to go out to dinner (the second time in a month!) at the County Line, where BBQ and homemade ice cream await me.

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
47,255 / 90,000

Today's sample is one of only two chapters I finished today. The other was a lecture by two uplifted ravens about the mechanics of threshold wormholes and the uses and abuses of cosmic string fragments, but this one is mostly about a robot talking about a planet of bird-people.

To be “commander” of the Further was a somewhat nebulous concept, I quickly discovered. As the spokesperson for the majority shareholder, I was able to make decisions—or at least cast a tie-breaking vote—on large scale decisions affecting the ship as a whole. On the small scale, though, the various departments and groups that made up the ship’s crew were functionally autonomous, essentially their own little fiefdoms. So long as they carried out their designated role, the departments were free to govern themselves however they saw fit. Most had adopted a more-or-less strict hierarchical structure, individual workers reporting to supervisors, who themselves reported to department heads, with the department heads themselves directly answerable to me. But a few of the departments, particularly those which constituted only a handful of sentients, had adopted more novel organizational approaches.

Astrogation was, so far as I was aware, made up of only three individuals. The department head, and member of the command crew, was Xerxes. Ey was assisted by two others, though it was some days into our shakedown cruise before I discovered who. At first, all I knew was that Xerxes didn’t appear to be terribly busy, and that he could often be found in the Atrium, watching the birds.

It was there that I found him, with still a day’s journey ahead of us before we reached Aglibol.

I had been rambling around the ship, trying to familiarize myself further with its layout, and been stymied by the fact that some of the corridors and compartments had been restructured even since I had passed them last, only a few days before. In the end, all I really managed to do was tire myself out, and make the nodding acquaintance of a hundred or so of the crew I’d not previously met. At the end of a few hours of that, I was ready to get off my feet for a while.

As short tram ride carried me to the Atrium, where I knew if nothing else the large scale structures would have remained principally unchanged, I could find a place to sit, and someone might be willing to bring me something to drink. I was right on all three counts, though since my last visit the café appeared to have shifted a few meters to one side, to make room for a collection of chairs that seemed to be some sort of virtual reality parlor or gaming area, those in the chairs connected via interlink in a simulated sensorium.

Picking up a tall glass of ice-cold water from the café, I wandered into the park to find a comfortable place to rest my legs, and chanced upon Xerxes, sitting on a bench, head titled back, eyeless gaze fixed on some point high above. I looked up, and saw a small flock of birds wheeling overhead.

“You’re not disturbing me, captain, if that’s the reason for your hesitation.”

I’d been standing behind Xerxes, some meters off, and as ey had said, I’d indeed be hesitant to approach, reluctant to interrupt what seemed to be a private moment.

“Thanks,” I said, simply, and closing the distance to the bench, settled down beside em. “I keep forgetting that you see in all directions.”

“Any light that hits my surface registers,” Xerxes said, sighing, “though I find I only pay attention to a small percentage of the visual information at any given time.”

I glanced at the flock overhead, which seems to shift and move like a single organism as it swooped and dove back and forth above the treetops, darting first one way and then another. “Bird-watching again, eh? Is it a habit of yours, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Xerxes shrugged. “I suppose. That it is a habit, that is, and not that I mind you asking, which I don’t. A few incarnations ago my signal was intercepted by a planet colonized in the later days of the so-called Diaspora by sentients descended from uplifted terrestrial avians.”

“Bird people?”

“Precisely. And in the years I spent with them, observing and cataloguing their culture, I was forever amazed to find preserved in their habits the biological imperatives of their subsentient ancestors.”

“Such as?”

“Well, flocking behavior, principally. Whenever they moved from one population center to another during their seasonal migrations, they would spread out over the landscape like black clouds, tens of thousands of flightless individuals in any given cluster, and yet without any central authority or guiding intelligence they still managed to move essentially as one, maintaining set distances each from another, the mass moving almost as a single organism.”

“Just like a flock of birds,” I said, watching the cloud of birds darting back and forth overhead.

“Exactly like a flock of birds,” Xerxes agreed. “The scientists and sociologists of the avian culture had spent generations studying their own inborn imperatives, and had developed whole classes of mathematics devoted to continuum dynamic predictions and the analysis of the effects of individual fluctuations on group movements, and in the end, the only result of the countless years of labor was a single, simple statement.”

Ey paused, thoughtfully.

“Well?” I asked, at length. “What was it?”

Xerxes turned eir eyeless face to me. “We are animals, and we do as animals must.”

I took a long sip of my water. “That seems somewhat… bleak.”

“Only if one finds the notion of being an animal as something to be avoided. If anything, the avians found it to be a tremendous comfort.”

“They were… comforted? By someone saying that they were no better than animals?”

Xerxes shook eir head. “They wouldn’t have said ‘no better,’ and I won’t either. It assumes some hierarchy with an animal at one extreme and the speaker at another, and is suggestive of nothing so much as the ancient notion of a ‘great chain of being,’ in which organisms were ranked by how closely they approached some divine ideal.” Ey paused, and looked at me. “You are not a holder of an irrational believe in some divine, are you, Captain Stone?”

I took another sip of water, thoughtfully. “If you mean do I believe in a god, or gods, some supreme intelligence that exists outside the observable universe, then the answer would be no. However, by the same token I can’t say to you definitively that none exists. We simply lack substantial evidence to make a decision one way or another.”

Xerxes gave a small nod, pursing metallic lips. “A supremely defensible position, captain. And one which goes to support what the avians’ contention.” Xerxes glanced around, a gesture that was clearly for my benefit, to indicate the variegated crewmembers who were scattered through the atrium. “The Human Entlechy takes great pride in its name, and in the notion that it has extended the franchise of ‘humanity’ to all of the children of earth, biological, synthetic, and otherwise. The avian culture among which I lived came to a related, but apposite conclusion. Rather than saying that all sentients were humans, as no clear dividing line between animal and human could be drawn, the avians concluded that all sentients were animals, though with varying levels of sophistication and degrees of expression. There was no ideal to which they were evolving, no divine atop a great chain of being, but rather an accumulation of instinct and tradition carried down to them by their forebears. And as such, there was no shame in recognizing that, as animals, there were certain biological necessities which were their inheritance, and which they would no sooner escape than you could the need to consume quantities of hydrogen hydroxide.”

I tipped my glass in a mock salute, and took another long swallow. “And that’s why you watch birds?”

Xerxes shrugged. “No,” ey said simply. “I watch them because I find it difficult to predict what they’ll do next, and that helps me pass the time.”
I didn't realize until I came to write this bit that I was probably unconciously riffing on Ursula K. Le Guin's very excellent "The Seasons of the Ansarac." But I probably was.

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