Thursday, February 13, 2020

Mandorla, by Cooper Shrivastava


(Alien SF) Old Plant thinks very slowly, but it’s the oldest on the planet, and it thinks profoundly. It struggles to communicate with a group of very short-lived creatures, though, and they seem to be changing the planet. (6,205 words; Time: 20m)

"," by (edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 161, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2020.080 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: I’m assuming the Kelp was the name of a starship, and the individuals are humans, who build a civilization on this planet-dominated, tidally-locked planet. We get the story of the life and death of their civilization from a very alien perspective.

Con: The problem with this story is just that it’s really dull. Old Plant isn’t trying to do anything in particular, so there’s no plot here at all, and once it becomes clear that the humans are doing bad things to the planet, it turns out it’s too late to do anything about it because an asteroid is going to kill everyone anyway—the end.

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12 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Where are you getting the Kelp being humans from? I'm pretty sure the Kelp are just kelp. I can't really see how the Kelp's actions make sense as performed by humans, unless Old Plant is *really* taking liberties in translation.

    1. That seems a stretch, given that 'generation', 'year', and 'ourselves' are also in italics. I think 'Kelp''s just an unfamiliar word for Old Plant, especially since Old Plant isn't used to referring to a species instead of long-lived individual. Specific quotes:

      >The Kelp then did something for which Old Plant had no reference, in that first meeting, but later came to understand was one of their many, many underlanguages: it danced. [...] Old Plant watched the slither and flutter, the countercurrent twisting of white blades in the red, bromine-rich waters, the inflating and deflating of the pneumatocysts.

      Did you read the Kelp a ship or an individual human? If it's a ship, how did it dance? If it's a human, why is it limited to the water?

      >One by one the tender young leaves Old Plant had sprouted to talk to the Kelp defoliated. They were delicate things, gentle, an experiment in absorbing and deflecting frequencies of light that had sprouted from the realization that the Kelp had been bombarding Old Plant with light-based signals for generations.

      If the Kelp are humans, why no mention of sound? Perhaps with a line in there about how the Kelp tried sound at first, but then realized that light might be more universally understandable?

      >The ribbons of others slid about beneath the waves urging through glimmers and reflections to await the arrival of someone they called the Warden.[...] This Kelp was attached to the blades and bladders of its dead forebears, and dragged them behind it like a tangle net.

      The Kelp are described in ribbons and one wears its dead ancestors on its body. If the Kelp are humans, what would this refer to? If the Kelp is a ship, why are there so many?

      >“We want to learn to hibernate.” Sporen said. “Specifically, we want our gametophytes to hibernate until they sense a trigger condition[...]"

      I suppose Old Plant could be taking severe liberties with translation, but if we're talking about humans who may be asking about putting babies or even zygotes in hibernation, why not use the more accurate but still plant-related 'sporophyte' (diploid, like humans) instead of 'gametophyte' (haploid)?

    2. Addendum: and if the Kelp are humans and they have a spaceship, why don't they just leave when they realize the asteroid is approaching?

    3. Those are pretty good arguments. As for the spaceship, I assumed they were stuck on the planet for some reason. And for communications, yeah, I assumed the colonists from the Kelp tried a variety of ways to communicate before finding one that worked. I have no idea what the dead ancestors thing might mean--human or not.

    4. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to take the description literally: the previous Wardens' holdfasts, blades, and/or pneumatocysts are wrapped up in (fastened to?) the current Warden's stipe or blades.

      The story takes place over millennia*, but the stuck humans have zero concern over the longevity of their life support systems? Even during a civil war?

      Another quote I missed the first time:
      >“In four years everyone planning this visionary project will be dead,” said Sporewarden.

      I guess I'm just a bit baffled because Occam's Razor suggests that the reader has to make fewer assumptions if the the kelp are just kelp rather than stranded humans.

      *Old Plant takes 20 generations to learn how to speak to the kelp. If they are humans, a generation is about 25 years, so that alone is 500 years gone by before Old Plant even addresses one of the kelp.

    5. It's a little confusing when it says "four years" since the tidally-locked planet must have "years" that are as few as four days or maybe as long as a month. Otherwise, "year" is a human concept, as is "generation."

      Occam's Razor is important, but a lot depends on what impression the reader (e.g. me) had on first encountering something. When I saw Kelp capitalized and in italics, I immediately assumed it was the name of a (probably crashed) starship. Thereafter, nothing ever forced me to abandon that idea.

      Assuming the story really is just talking about seaweed when it mentions kelp, I'll just point out that kelp would be just as alien there as humans would be.

      As far as life support goes, on a colony planet, you'd hope people could breathe the local air and eat local (or imported) crops. I think the story has some implications that the local atmosphere has gasses that aren't compatible with that, but, sadly, lots of stories mess that up.

    6. I mean, yeah, when I first saw Kelp capitalized and italicized, I did wonder if it were a ship, but it's sci-fi, so I kept my assumptions in check. As I read on, and the fifth paragraph down refers to white blades and pneumatocysts, so it's not like the description of the kelp came especially late in the story.

      I'm struggling to figure out a reply, in part because I can't see how anyone could read about an exclusively aquatic species decked out in pneumatocysts, undulating blades, and holdfasts and conclude that there's not enough information to abandon the idea that the species depicted are humans. Usually I can at least understand where someone with a different reading of a piece is coming from, but I'm at a loss here. Was there anything other than the capitalization and italicization of 'Kelp' that lends support to your claim that the kelp are humans?

      Even your counterarguments seem to undermine your reading: Why would kelp be just as alien there as humans would be? Plants (or something phenotypically similar) are endemic to Old Plant's planet, so why not kelp? (Even on Earth, kelp are more closely related to land plants than they are to fungi or animals.) But if you're right and the kelp are humans, and brown algae are just as alien to Old Plant as humans are, why would Old Plant translate human anatomy into 'blade' and 'holdfast' instead of plant terms like 'leaf' and 'stem'? If humans were doing farming (either on indigenous or imported crops), surely that would've come up during the entmoot the land Plants have? If 'year' is a human concept, and the years on Old Plant's planet are so much shorter than earth years, why would an entire generation not live past four years?

      Maybe I should probe the other way around: what could/should the author have added to the story that would have convinced you the kelp are kelp?

    7. I suppose the best answer is that once I decided Old Plant was an unreliable narrator, I didn't pay much attention to the physical descriptions. He's a plant, so he describes them in plant terms.

      But you're right; it replies heavily on deciding right off the bat that Kelp being the name of an Earth ship and then clinging to that idea like grim death.

      If the Kelp really are kelp, then either the story has to be set on Earth or the planet was terraformed by humans in the past. The same species can't evolve twice even on Earth, and alien life would be much more alien.

      I should also add that, on Earth at least, kelp aren't known for doing much of anything, but these kelp are building a civilization. That goes a long way to making them sound like humans and not like real kelp.

    8. There's a reason I included 'phenotypically similar' in my description. Technically speaking, 'Old Plant' is a misnomer too, because our current biological best practice prefers clades to be monophyletic: i.e., alien species can't be plants because they aren't related to earth plants.

      Or we can use the colloquial definition, which picks salient phenotypical characteristics to create informative categories: i.e., Old Plant acts like a plant in enough ways that it becomes linguistically useful to call it a plant. I am using this definition because it communicates the most information, especially since earth kelp are not a single species, but an entire Order of organisms (Laminiarales).

  2. Still, I think kelp that build a civilization are a bit of a stretch.

    1. Eh, no more of a stretch than sapient plants in general. We don't really get a clear picture of what Kelp civilization is like. We know they have wars, social organization, astronomers, control over their own chemical synthesis (which they share with Old Plant and the rest of the Plants on this planet), and their big terraforming project is explicitly '1. Root selves to isthmus. 2. Let current wash away self + attached soil'. Not that high tech.