Halloween is not a universal instinct. It is a learned behavior practiced by a specific human community at a particular time in their history. Therefor, it is not worthy of discussion.
"Mr. Grumbles, make a fire," said the raven perched on a troll's shoulder. His name was General Graa.1
"I will skewer snacks for roasting," said the giant spider, whom we shall call Hostess.
"Let me gather rocks to heat for a mud-bath," said the bug-eyed monster, Twine.
"A lovely idea," said Digeridoo the sea-beast. "I'll dig out a wallow for us."
And the killer space-robot spoke thoughtfully, his communication laser-fire rendered into comprehensible sound by the translator bugs hovering by or clinging to each of the gathered friends. "A fire." The robot's name was Arch-Beacon Clay. "I appreciate the symbolism. Graa, I will help you with a well-chosen word."
Graa understood what Clay was about to do and pecked his hairy steed in the cheek. "Mr. Grumbles, full retreat!"
The domesticated Homo erectus stumbled back from the pile of kindling just in time to avoid the burning light that blazed forth from Clay.
"Fire!" communicated Clay, and there was fire.
It was fall in the Zogreion. Specifically, in the nature reserve north and west of the city. Here, Twine's species had not converted the land into artificial mangrove swamp, but left it as a forest.
The trees had turned dark and glassy as their leaves withdrew into their trunks, and unharvested reproductive netting littered the ground with orange tangles and curds. Quad-wing fliers called to each other as they soared south. A distant aircraft glowed pink with the light of a sun hidden behind the rim of this version of earth.
The five friends had no reason to gather and talk, and that was exactly why they enjoyed it. Tonight they would not have to negotiate or charm. They could relax, set aside diplomacy and trade, and speak of more important things.
"Have any of you seen the most recent broadcast of Heavy Bombardment?" asked Digeridoo.
Graa nibbled on his steed's ear as he added more wood to the fire. "Is that the prequel series? My secretaries won't stop talking about it."
"Yes!" squealed Twine around the rock in her mouth. "Are your secretaries Team Ceres or Team Eris? I'm Team Eris all the way. Woo! Boost that ice! Right?"
"Right!" Under the mobile web of Hostess the spider, puppets dangled. One of them was shaped like Twine.2 Hostess manipulated this puppet, saying "Scatter those tholins!"
With a bird-shaped puppet, however, she whispered an aside to Graa. "It's not as good as the original series, but I feel I have to keep up with it so I have something to talk to people about."
Arch-beacon Clay sadly flickered his lasers. "I stopped watching Tensor fiction broadcasts a long time ago. It is as if the writers have never talked to a real person. It is as if they have lost their grip on meaning."
"They are not paid to grip meaning," said Graa. "The show's writers are paid to extrude stories that the audience enjoys."
"Yes." Digeridoo spoke out of the hole he was excavating in the forest floor. "You're overthinking, Clay. Just lie back and let the show wash over you. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just fun."
"Don't you want something deeper?" asked Clay.
Digeridoo stopped digging, closed his eyes and nostrils, and hugged himself with all four flippers. "No. There are things swimming in deep places."
"Don't scare him," chided Hostess.
Graa stretched his neck and raised his wings. "Belay that order!"
Clay played lidar up and down Graa's feathered body. "You mean I should scare Digeridoo?"
"Yes!" Graa paced back and forth across his steed's padded shoulder. "Fear is precisely the reason I invited you to this campfire gathering at the tipping point of autumn."
"I thought you invited us so that we could roast treats over the fire," said Hostess. She manipulated threads, and clockwork arms hammered skewers of food into the ground.
"Treats are only my secondary goal," said Graa.
Digeridoo upended his tank of camping water into the hole he'd made. "You had an ulterior motive," he accused. "A trick!"
Graa's throat-feathers bristled in smugness. "Now tell me: what scares you?"
Silence around the campfire. Night creatures pipped to each others. Migrating fliers cried. The friends considered whether they were friendly enough to talk about this sort of thing.
"I will lead the attack!" Graa crowed. "Now hear this! I am scared of food. I command you to imagine it!"
Hostess visibly obeyed, releasing ratchets and tugging threads in her complex web to trigger memories and run simulations. The others just sat there, brains presumably working. Digeridoo closed his eyes.
"You're perched above the carcass," said Graa. "You are entranced by the pattern of its blood on the snow. Vapors still rise from it. The meat is fresh! But this means that whatever killed the meat will still be near."
As he talked, Graa lost his dominant posture. His feathers smoothed down and he tucked his wings tight to his sides. His voice took on the harsh qworks and triple-raks of fear.
"If I stoop upon the meat, what will stoop upon me? How dare I? How dare I eat?" Graa huddled on his steed's shoulder. The domesticated Homo erectus whined and put his hand around his rider.
Hostess shook her legs, rattling all four of her puppets. "Thank you for that tasty offering. I'll offer you my fear next: I'm scared that I'm not attractive."
"Oh no, don't say that," said Twine. She rolled her rock, now heated, from the fire toward Digeridoo's mud bath. "You're very attractive."
The rock went kshh and Digeridoo snorted in appreciation.
"Thank you." The spider manipulated her puppets to give the various species' equivalents of appreciative bows. "You have all joined me for a meal, and I am grateful. But what about next time? Or the time after that? Every day I grasp my web and take up my puppets and wait for guests to come. I do my best to appeal to the widest range. I craft the most convincing decoys I can. But some days, my number of guests falls. What if it falls to zero? Someday it must, and what will I do when I have no one to mimic? Alone, who will I be?"
"Interesting that your fear is loneliness," said Graa, who had calmed himself and his steed. "I would have thought you would be more afraid of being eaten by birds."
Hostess twitched a leg, and one of her puppets flapped papier-mâché wings. "I have better ways to feed birds, my friend. Would you like a roasted fruit or a heated strip of meat?"
Graa flapped down to grab both and cached them away where no-one else could see. "Who's next?"
Twine twitched her single eye and raised her mouth above the mud-bath to chitter. "I am scared of staying huddled in my hive. Seeing the same clone-sisters every day, speaking about nothing that everyone does not already know. Forgetting the cold outside. And when the cold comes inside, I will not know how to fight it."
Lasers sparkled from the anti-gravity cylinder that housed Arch-beacon Clay. "You and I are two ends of a tether, Twine. You fear falling in toward the heat, but I fear flying outward into the cold. Will I be unable to tolerate others? Will I throw away all my bindings and tumble, alone forever?"
Hostess scuttled across her web and spun a symbolic thread linking it to Clay's cylinder.
"Thank you," said the space-robot.
"I wish I could feed you," said the spider.
Clay spun himself, sparkling in his anti-gravity vacuum cylinder. "I absorb some energy from the fire, but what you give me is something better."
"It's gotten dark," said Digeridoo, who was uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability.
"That's the whole point of a campfire," said Twine. "We create a warm brightness to form the heart of a little hive, safe from the cold outer darkness."
"Safe," said Hostess. "Exactly."
Graa growled. "And yet there are treasures in the darkness, aren't there? To grab them, we must ride out. We must follow our fear, as if led by the pole."
Clay understood, but those species without a magnetic sense required a little more clarification.
"You think we should be led by our fear?" said Digeridoo. "Find things that scare you and then do them? That sounds foolish and dangerous. And I don't like all these metaphors."
Twine vibrated her eyeball. "What danger? We are sophonts! We habitually leap between universes. We fear no predators. No starvation."
"That's evidence in favor my argument," said Digeridoo. He was a bit hurt at Twine's aggressive tone. Hadn't he dug out all this nice mud for her? "We do not need to venture from our burrows in order to find food. We can stay safe, and let what we need come to us."
"I confess I do like that idea," said Hostess the spider.
Graa gave a kek kek kek call of frustration. "There the food lies, steaming in the snow below you. You hunger, you rage, you fear the glint of eyes in the darkness: predation. But you should also fear the rush of many wings coming up behind: starvation."
"Metaphors again!" Digeridoo snorted. "Do I have to re-tune my translator?"
Clay extended robot claws from his spherical shell. "You mean if you do not overcome your fear and snatch your prize, other people will steal it."
"Exactly," said Graa.
"You speak like someone who doesn't trust your neighbors," said Twine.
"Yes. How many of us are killed by predators or natural disaster? How many of us are killed by each other? Why did we evolve intelligence in the first place. Not to outsmart hawks or blizzards, but to outsmart other sophonts."
"You mean," said Hostess, "that we are our own monsters."
"Yes!" Graa spread his tail, feathers on his legs and heads fluffy with dominance. "I win this conversation!"
Clay spoke in a low-wattage murmur. "And yet you are the one who invited us here."
Graa's feathers slimmed back down. "When the idea caught my eye, at first I blinked. My pride raised its wings, but behind those wings was fear. I recognized the fear, and oriented myself against it. I rode out to this campground, and I perch now before people not of my species. That is what a brave bird does."
Twine's puppet bird gave the equivalent of applause while Clay aimed a laser at Digeridoo.
"You accepted the invitation as well."
"The queen says I need to get out more," grunted sea-beast.
"They are expanding the burrow," explained Twine. "Digeridoo's colony needs money, as does my hive. This is
why we network."
"Ah," sighed the spider. "Networking."
"I was most surprised of all to find you here, Hostess" Clay confessed. "Isn't it very difficult for you to travel from your restaurant?"
Hostess moved her space-robot puppet in the equivalent of a nod. There was even a little electric light that flashed like a laser.
"There is always a moment of terror when my web moves," she said. "Digeridoo might feel the same way flying, or Graa trapped in a watery burrow. Or in free fall..." She flashed her electric light again. "Clay, do you feel that terror when you look down, and see the ground does not move beneath you?"
"I confess that I do."
"And yet you're here with us."
"And you've been to space."
"Oh," said Digeridoo. "Space. I remember. Yes, that trip was terrifying, but nothing I've seen was more beautiful."
Graa made a kek kek sound. "Alright! I accept your challenge! Next time, we can meet in a burrow."
1 The troll's name was Mr. Grumbles.
2 A one-eyed vacuum-cleaner with legs.
This story was originally published on Royal Road
So here I am, trying to write about the most interesting thing that happened to me in September, when all I can think about is Fellow Tetrapod. This will be a newsletter about Fellow Tetrapod.
Way back before Covid, I went to a really good team-building.
We were all volunteer teachers at an orientation event for the Refugee Project, preparing to go to refugee camps around Sofia and teach English, Bulgarian, and homework prep for children. The organizers and speakers were Bulgarian, but most of the volunteers were foreigners. I loved them all, because, like I said, the team-building exercises were so good.
I remember walking around a group holding a card covered with little symbols: dog, car, watering can, etc. We were supposed to use the symbols to help us remember something we had in common with other volunteers. You don't like dogs? Me neither! You take the bus? So do I! Watering can…uh…I took a class on plant physiology and you…are studying human physiology at Sofia Medical University. Bam! We have so much in common.
I had to back to my partner and ignore her while she described a good sandwich. I wasn't allowed say "yes?" or "oh wow!" or in any way acknowledge that sandwich description, and it was almost physically painful to hear how hard she had to push to get the words out while I pretended to ignore her. When the two minutes were up, I whirled around, babbling about what a great sandwich that must have been, and how I was so sorry for not responding. Once we'd all had our turn to ignore and be ignored, we felt as if we'd all been terribly rude to each other. Now we needed to be extra nice to make up for it.
We broke up into randomly-assigned groups and were told to discuss such topics as the rights of religious minorities. You'd think that a bunch of people who'd volunteered to help Syrian refugees would find nothing to disagree about, but no. This one guy in my group was (I think) Indian Muslim, and he said that the only way to guarantee the rights of a religious minority was for them to carve out an independent state. I disagreed with him, citing Balkan history as an example. This was all somewhat disjointed because this guy spoke better Bulgarian than me, but not English, while the other members of our group didn't speak Bulgarian at all. It's the sort of conversation you can imagine starting a family feud over a Thanksgiving table. And yet we all saw each other's points. We continued to disagree, but that didn't matter. We'd been team-built.
We were doing something important together, yes, but we'd also connected on a more basic level. We had things in common. We owed each other social credit. We ate together. We experienced the right series of cues and our animal instincts flipped from "stranger" to "friend."
So then I think: what if team-building didn't work? What if you knew which human instincts to target, but you weren't dealing with a human? How much could you have in common with a giant rotifer? What would a colony of salps care if you ignored them?1 And how would an intelligent sea-slug respond to a political disagreement? How could you even know if you'd pissed it off? How could you work with these beings?
That was seven years ago, and now I've got this story I'm serializing. It's my next big experiment. Is it possible to take a rough draft of a novel and polish it up fast enough to post a new one-to-two-thousand-word chunk every weekday? Will reader reactions steer the manuscript in interesting directions? Should my speculative-evolution team-building story resemble a Korean office drama quite this much? So far, the answers are all "yes."
In other news, I drew some spec-evo griffons on youtube and created a "blog" category in my new website to house them.
But of course the only other news that I want to talk about is Fellow Tetrapod. A new post comes out every weekday at 5pm EEST, and you can read them on Royal Road or one week earlier on my Patreon. See if you like it. I think you might.
And I read some stuff.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – good bedtime reading
Cozy and exciting, but not too much of either. I was happy to walk along after Bryson as he told me the history of whichever British town and what it reminded him of. The autobiographical part cuts out about halfway through, because I guess Bryson went farther north than he'd been before. And I wish he'd talked to more of the people around him. He seemed sometimes to be scared of them.
Deep Storm by Lincoln Child – a tightly-packed scifi thriller
I read this back in college and I thought 'yeah, sure.' Now, I'm in a better position to appreciate the tight storytelling. Hidden mysteries get revealed, bip, bop, boop. The tension rises. Oh no! How will our hero escape? And there's a medical mystery that gets solved. Nicely done.
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman – a surprisingly powerful meditation on art, craft, and perfectionism
Michael Ruhlman strikes me as a journalist who wants to be a chef. He hangs out at the Culinary Institute of America, watching the Certified Master Chef exam, then hangs out some more in the kitchens of Michael Symon and Thomas Keller. He loves telling the reader about fancy French methods of food-preparation, and even though I will never use them, I enjoyed listening. There's valuable "what's it like to be a chef" scenes, as if we're watching a camera hidden in a kitchen. I also appreciate Ruhlman's commitment to the hard questions like "what's the point of being a Certified Master Chef?" "Why pay so much for food?" and best of all "why work so hard?" I was surprised by how deep we went. There's real insight here.
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" – I promise to be more like Richard Feynman
I was completely unprepared for how much fun this book turned out to be. Apparently it's a bunch of short autobiographical stories that Feynman told to his drum circle buddies, transcribed and put in chronological order. I don't know if that's true, but the result is a damn good portrait of a man. I want to know more. I want to copy Feynman's curiosity and humor, his excitement about being in such a spectacular place as the world.
Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold -- a ghost has possessed a corpse and actually that's not very interesting
I guess the point of these novellas is to be low-stakes, but it gets disappointing when we encounter a cool new implication of the magic system and then the problem turns out to solve itself with time. The only tension seems to be how depressed the main character will end up after the story over. The happy ending isn't a better life for anyone, it's a life that failed to get worse. It's not actively bad, just oatmeal.
The Freeze Frame Revolution – I rooted for the murderous AI
The book starts with a very cool premise, which it abandons. There are god-monsters pouring out of wormholes, but they don't do anything except trigger the characters' angst and panic attacks. There isn't even much of Watts's usually fun speculative biology. The crew of the star ship all think that their lives are a waste of time, and when it turns out the ship's AI might be killing them, they fall on this source of meaning as if starving. Finally, something we can hate! The greatest moment of satisfaction I experienced was when an astronaut is like "f- you!" for the Nth time, and the AI just shoots him in the head with a laser.
Abbot in Darkness by D.J. Butler. Finally, a grown-up protagonist!
A hungry young accountant ups stakes and moves with his family to a frontier planet, where something fishy is going on with human-alien trade relations. Some people are nice, some are nasty, some have interests in common with Abbot the protagonist, some want what's best for the community, and none of those categories match up. Abbot has to make compromises, trust people, and balance work and family time. He does a pretty good job. I just wish the book had seen another round of revision. The plot sometimes gets blurry, and the worldbuilding ought to have more depth. I am glad, though, that I've found an author I can depend on to write books I enjoy.
1 They can keep each other company.
See you next month
Alright, here we go!
My speculative-evolution serial novel Fellow Tetrapod is finally live on Royal Road.
Go check it out. If it looks like your sort of thing, follow the story. It updates every weekday.
(if you want to know more...)
Koenraad Robbert Ruis used to be a paleontologist, but now he's a cook at the United Nations embassy to the Convention of Sophonts. His bosses must negotiate with intelligent species from countless alternate earths, and Koen must make them breakfast. It turns out, though, that Koen is rather better at inter-species communication than any other human in this world (all nine of them). Everyone loves to eat (certain autotrophs excepted).
Fellow Tetrapod is an speculative-evolution office comedy about food preparation, diplomacy, and what it’s like to be a talking animal.
Serialized every weekday on Royal Road and (one week earlier) Patreon
Cover art by Simon Roy. Illustrations by Tim Morris.
Daniel M. Bensen