The Union of Stars: The Quinix (and the Lesser Races)
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
The Great Races: Skennite
It can be difficult to discuss Skennite. When we speak of it, we speak of it as a material, not a being or even a series of beings. The Dryth Basic tongue does not give us the flexibility to encompass the paradox that is this, the first among the Great Races. Even our own Thraadi languages seem to have difficultly parsing an intelligence that both lacks and possesses individuality and that both is and is not alive by many standards. Even now, after many many centuries of living with Skennite, depending on it/them, and learning from the paths it/they have already tread, there is so much we do not understand.
To begin, then: Skennite is a crystalline structure/entity native, so far as we (or they) are aware, to the voids of space. It demonstrates, after a fashion, all the hallmarks of life – it reproduces, it grows, it reacts to stimuli, it has internal organization of enormous complexity – but it does none of these things in the fashion of other species. Shards of Skennite, by themselves, are inert crystals that drift through space. They are fed by the ambient radiation of the cosmos, and so tend to grow fastest near very bright stars or pulsars. As they grow, they gain more and more complexity and grow more and more intelligent until, at some point, they achieve sentience. What is interesting, however, is that this sentience is not precisely unique in form – all Skennite represents more-or-less the same identity, or perhaps shards of that identity. Indeed, when two large masses of Skennite encounter one another, they typically join and, curiously enough, those who knew either mass of Skennite before can ascertain no change in personality or behavior, but only come to learn that the entity they had conversed with before now has access to a much vaster array of knowledge and memory than it had before.
Because of this apparent lack of individuality, Skennite does not “die” so much as splinter. Gradually, any given crystalline mass of Skennite breaks down thanks to environmental factors and fractures apart. These shards later grow into new masses of Skennite, though this process can take centuries or even millennia depending on the availability of the kind of radiation the creatures need to grow. Shards of Skennite drift through space, through the deep voids between the stars, for uncountable aeons. Everywhere the Great Races of the Union have gone, there have we found Skennite.
Thanks to their essential immortality, Skennites possess an incredible depth of knowledge. Communicating with them, however, is difficult. They produce visible light in complex frequencies and wavelengths to communicate with most creatures and the technology to translate these patterns into words is ancient by our standards, but there must have been a vast period of history where ancient sentient creatures encountered the hyper-intelligent Skennite without realizing it and, indeed, there was likely just as vast a period of time where the Skennite were unaware that sentient, carbon-based life was at all interesting or could be communicated with. Indeed, packs of “wild” Skennite found in unexplored space often are unwilling to communicate with others unless the others have their own core of Skennite with which to make introductions.
Today, Skennite is an essential part of the Union of Stars. Most interstellar vessels, Bodani excepted, have Skennite cores that serve as databases, navigational and computational resources, and can also operate most of the ship’s systems. The Skennite itself then also consumes/absorbs a significant portion of the waste radiation given off by the ship’s power plant, making the arrangement mutually beneficial. When the Skennite grows too large, it will splinter parts of itself off and eject them into space, thus seeding the starts with its future descendants, if indeed “heredity” is relevant here.
In terms of culture, Skennite lacks anything truly resembling it on a level we can understand. It is known that they are curious and intelligent, endlessly patient, and entirely neutral on topics we would consider moral imperatives – life, death, love, religion, morality, the lot of it. While you can certainly discuss Kophis and Jaegai with it, such weighty philosophies seem like frivolous diversions from the Skennite perspective. It was here long before we were and it will likely be here long afterwards – our lives, and all our struggles, are merely passing through. One wonders, then, about the ancient legends that state that it was Skennite that taught the Dryth how to achieve slipdrive – for what purpose was this information transmitted? Was it, to the Skennite core in question, merely an idle conversation? It is hard to tell and we may never know, unless the shard containing that memory is, by some random chance, ever found and incorporated into a ship.
Skennite is utterly peaceful in nature – it is unclear how it would commit intentional violence in any rate, or why it should wish to – but it cannot be said to be faultless in the wars that ravage the Union each cycle. For every missile or piece of ordnance launched by a Lhassa cruiser and for every slipdrive jump calculated by a Lorca raiding vessel, there is a Skennite core running the numbers to make that feat possible. When the Lesser Races howl beneath the bootheel of a Dryth Solon, they must understand that Skennite put it there. Among the Great Races of the Union of Stars, there are no innocents.
The Union of Stars: The Tohrroids
The Union of Stars encompasses many billions of alien species, but none, perhaps, quite so fascinating nor so complex as the Tohrroids. Known colloquially as blobs, smacks, gobblers, or even slops, Tohrroids are semi-intelligent amorphous organisms capable of near-perfect mimicry of both sound, color, and shape. Almost perfect omnivores, they are able to consume all kinds of refuse – even waste hazardous to the Great Races – and therefore have become ubiquitous throughout the Union in their official capacity (waste disposal) and their unofficial one (stubborn vermin).
Tohrroids can range in size from 30cm to a full two meters across. In their “natural” form, they appear to be amorphous blobs, usually of a color best matching the ambient environment. They move through the use of pseudopods which they form to drag themselves along the ground and are capable of surprising strength. They can breathe in most oxygen-based environments but are temperature and humidity sensitive, preferring warm and damp climates. Excessive cold or a lack of moisture can lead to the Tohrroid growing sluggish and even drying out and dying.
The most fascinating aspect of Tohrroid physiology is their outer membrane. This is an enormously complex and flexible system of organs includes striated muscle fibers of the utmost deftness; light, chemical, and electro-sensitive sensory organs; incredibly versatile skin pigmentation; and, perhaps most amazingly, numerous stomas able to produce powerful digestive fluid and take in nutrients. In layman’s terms, the Tohrroid is able to reshape its skin into almost any shape down to alarming detail, it can see and smell and taste with any part of its skin (as well as sense electromagnetic fields), alter its skin pigmentation with an incredible range of color, and eat almost any substance it comes in contact with. This membrane system is the primary reason these organisms have been as successful as they have been.
Inside the Tohrroid is a soup of neural ganglia and fibrous growths that serve as the brain and “skeletal” system, respectively. Most of a Tohrroid is water – far moreso than most other large, complex organisms – but the pH of its internal fluid is very, very low. Most of the Tohrroid’s mass is, essentially, digestive fluid. Things the Tohrroid eats are absorbed by pseudopods and digested inside vacuoles that are part of their outer membrane system – basically a “bubble” inside of themselves. The digestive process is voluntary, too – Tohrroids can absorb an object and carry it around inside a vacuole indefinitely and can even spit those objects out at high velocity (and who hasn’t been pelted by something unsavory from a threatened Tohrroid, right?).
Another function of the fibrous growths inside the Tohrroid’s body is also to facilitate hearing. As vibrations in the air are transmitted through the outer membrane, the vibration of the inner fibers is akin to the aural organs used by other species.
Due to their unusual physiology, Tohrroids possess a very hardy immune system and are very difficult to poison. Though their outer membranes do very little to shield its inner organs from radiation, ionizing radiation does not kill a Tohrroid very easily. Tohrroids that spend time aboard leaky starships have a tendency to be very dangerous, as the amount of radiation their bodies can absorb is very unhealthy for other organisms.
Contrary to popular belief, Tohrroids are not amphibious, though they can swim very, very well and seem to enjoy the water.
Tohrroids are assexual and reproduce by budding. If a Tohrroid is well fed, it will eventually develop a kind of bulge in its side which, after a time, is discharged and forms into a whole new Tohrroid. Tohrroids do not demonstrate communal behavior, per se, but are often found in one another’s company. Because it is very difficult to identify individual Tohrroids or keep track of them for long periods, their precise lifespan is uncertain. Given their rate of genetic decay, it is theorized they live an average of 4 cycles, or 48 Standard Years.
Habitat and Behavior
Tohrroids are very intelligent and show complex problem solving ability and even a facility for basic language acquisition. While we know little about their original habitat (Tohrroids seem to have been in space as long as there have been starships), it is theorized that they originated on a hot and damp world, probably with relatively little direct sunlight. In the Union, Tohrroids can be found anywhere there is food, and for a Tohrroid that is a very broad definition. Many starships keep them aboard to keep corridors clean and plumbing systems unclogged, and their waste (a kind of nutrient rich slime) has proven to be excellent algae fertilizer, which makes them essentially part of any large ship’s life-support system. One of the more interesting theories of Tohrroid evolution is that they are not naturally occuring creatures at all, but rather engineered for their useful traits by some Race that predates the founding of the Union.
Tohrroids have been known to learn the rudiments of speech and can develop pet-like relationships with the Great Races, though they are not known to be loyal or particularly affectionate. Rumors of Tohrroids cable to speak as capably as any Dryth and who can flawlessly simulate bipedal forms have little basis in the record, though it is worth noting that any Tohrroid that could perform such feats would be extremely hard to detect in any case.
Furthermore, it can be seen that…
~From Notes on Xenobiology by Khush Moch of Thraador
The Perfect Apocalypse
Our imagined apocalypses (apocali?) are reflections of our fears, this much is clear. What is less apparent is what fear is being plumbed by each imagined apocalypse; they are typically stand-ins for various insecurities held by the culture and society in question. Zombies, for instance, often symbolize either the menace of foreign invaders or ideas (communism, desegregation, etc.) or some other loss of individuality in the face of overwhelming tides of “others”. Alien invasion is much the same thing (only clearer). Fear of world-ending pandemic is also a fear of foreign influence or, more simply, a fear of those considered to be dirty or inferior sullying your perfect, first-world existence. Then you’ve got the asteroids and giant monsters of the world, which are really just the manifestation of our insecurities as a culture (wait, what if we really don’t control the world? AHHHH!).
Most of our fears of apocalypse are exaggerated or simply baseless. Even our made-up ones don’t hold water under casual investigation even under their own rules. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the season, let’s just put together the craziest, meanest compilation of apocalyptic scenarios in one big lump and see what we get, huh?
Phase One: Aliens and Meteors, Oh My!
We start with Aliens. Aliens on meteors. The earth is pummeled by a non-stop barrage of asteroids, crushing cities and causing tidal waves. The world panics, global leaders marshal their armies to fight the alien threat, but while the fight eventually turns in favor of the plucky US Marines holed up in a school in LA, the war is far from over.
Phase Two: Zombies with the Flu
The aliens, you see, tested a new bio-weapon – a weapon designed to rid themselves of these pesky humans. It turned all the infected into mindless, human-brain-eating machines. Soon, hordes of zombies were seen marching across the land. Of course, the aliens are gone by that time, having all been killed by the flu. Since they were the commanders of the zombies, they gave the flu to the zombies. Now we have zombies with the flu.
Zombies with mutant alien flu.
Phase Three: The Robots Will Save Us…oh…
What kills zombies but can’t get the flu? Robots, of course! The remaining scientists of the Earth pool their remaining resources to create a super zombie-killing robot army run by a central artificial intelligence. All the conspiracy theorists, long since retreated to their underground bunkers, are not present to sound the alarm, and so it occurs to no one that once the zombies are all dead, who will the robots kill? Do we honestly think they’re going to happily hop into the slag pile when it’s all over?
Next thing you know, zombies and humans alike are rounded up by the Earth’s new metallic overlords and herded into death-camps. The funeral pyres burn all day and all night, leading to…
Phase Four: Carbon’s Revenge!
Ha, you silicate fools! Think you could incinerate the biological matter of the Earth without cost? The Death Camp Greenhouse effect takes hold. The ice caps evaporate. Cities flood. Drought is rampant. Hurricanes are devastating. The air has become a toxic fume. The robots, bereft of the existential joy they once derived from watching butterflies frolic in the meadow, decide they don’t want to live any more. Ctrl-Alt-Delete, my sweet adamantium princes.
Phase Five: But Wait, Who’s This?
As humanity slowly crawls its way out of the death camps and into the blighted landscape of their once fertile Earth, who do they find but Jesus, sternly waiting at the top of a hill with a desk, a pen, and a really big file cabinet. To his right, a pearly staircase ascending to heaven; to his left, a pack of mutated demonic flu-ridden zombie robots. At the front of the line, a starving young man approaches, hat in hand.
“Name?” quoth the Lamb of God.
Names are given; Jesus consults the file cabinet. “Sorry Mr. Johnson, you’re name isn’t on the list.”
And so it goes.
Centuries later, after the Earth is recovered and the apes rule the world in a benevolent utopia, Charlton Heston is cussing us all out on a beach somewhere. This is how it ends. This is always how it all ends.
(Assuming you don’t watch the sequels)
Children of Vengeful Fathers
I’ve been thinking a lot about vengeance lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor 8-year-old boy who was killed in Boston in the Marathon Bombing. More accurately, I’ve been thinking a lot about his father. The family are neighbors of mine and, while I don’t really know them at all (met them once or twice, seen them around the neighborhood, etc.), their loss has weighed heavily on me. You see, I, too, attend the Marathon sometimes. I, too, have small children.
It is cliché, but having children changes you. It changes you in surprisingly odd ways, sometimes – things you just don’t anticipate. Prior to becoming a father, I could not imagine a circumstance that would lead me to such a passionate state where I might kill in a fit of rage. Now, I know it is a very real possibility for me. After Sandy Hook, I was a walking raw nerve if I was with my daughter. Not so much for her safety, per se, but I knew that I was not in complete control of my own rational faculties. I love her so much that, should some fiend harm her in even the slightest way, there would be no power on this earth that could prevent me from destroying them. This is a harrowing self-realization, and not one that I am especially proud of.
I have felt this surge of anger and anguish now in places I never knew it could exist before. I now find watching Aliens almost unbearable, as Newt looks a *lot* like my little girl, and the thought of her frightened and alone in a dark facility full of monsters is the literal stuff of my nightmares. I encountered it again in a movie I’d seen before but never been struck by. The movie is Minority Report, which tells the story of cops that can tell the future, but more importantly tells the story of John Anderton, a cop whose little boy was kidnapped right out from under his nose and who he never saw again. That scene in the public pool hurts even to think about. I empathize with the character on a deep emotional level.
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man is a fine actor. For evidence, I give you this scene, in which Anderton finally catches up with the man who kidnapped his son (don’t worry–I’m not spoiling anything major here. Still, spoilers nevertheless):
This moment, ladies in gentlemen, is a heroic one. A heroic one on a scale I cannot wholly fathom – something that makes Liam Neeson’s murderous rampage in Taken pale in comparison. It’s a pity the clip cuts off where it does, because to watch Anderton Mirandize the killer of his son is magnificent – the moment where reason and civility overcomes emotion and barbarism. The triumph of human decency over all in us that is indecent. My God, is that hard. That is so, so hard. I cannot say that I would be able to do as Anderton does. I hope that I could, though I even more fervently hope that I never have cause to find out.
Minority Report is a lot about free will and about predestination. Science Fiction is, by its nature, awash in such stuff – we writers of SF/F are in the business of imagining humanity’s future and depicting what we believe humans will become (or are). We are usually wrong, thank God, as the world is a better place than we think. This, in the wake of last week’s bombing, is important to remember, so I will repeat it: the world is a better place than we think. We can prove it, too. We can choose.
How Many People Do the Aliens Need, Anyway?
I have been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently (great game, by the way – and damn you, Will, for addicting me to it!). It features your standard UFOs and bulbous-headed aliens invading Earth and abducting people willy-nilly from all over the globe, and it got me thinking about the whole ‘UFO’ thing again, specifically the idea of alien abduction.
First off, let’s get one thing straight:
- I find it unlikely that we have actually been visited by aliens from another planet.
- I find it extraordinarily unlikely that, even if we have been visited, that said visitors have actually abducted much of anyone.
- I find it even more extraordinarily unlikely that, even if we have been visited by aliens and even if they have abducted people, that the government knows anything about it, has anything to do with it, and has any plans to combat it. At all.
I have made these determinations with the liberal application of Occam’s Razor and my knowledge of how government works.
Just for the hell of it, though, let’s pretend that alien abductions are a real thing. If so, I’ve got a question:
What the Hell is Up With This?
Okay, so you’re your average, run-of-the-mill bobble-headed alien. You’ve got yourself this spiffy spaceship, complete with light-tractor-beam thingy and a whole suite of stealth technology. You find yourself in orbit around planet Earth and you figure to yourself “what the hell, let’s steal me a human.” Now, to my mind, there can only be three plausible reasons to do this:
#1: The Safari Theorem
The aliens are studying us in the same way as we are wont to study elephants and dolphins. Capture a few, perform some tests, observe, tag-and-release, dissect a couple here and there, etc. This, to some extent, makes perfect sense – I very much doubt there’s so much intelligent life out there in the vastness of space that a whole planet chock full of it wouldn’t be damned interesting to study. Hell, if our positions were reversed, I could see humans capturing and studying a whole range of little green men if the opportunity arises.
The thing is, though, that if this theory is true, then it doesn’t jive with the MO of our average alien abduction. For one thing, how many damned humans do you actually need to abduct, anyway? If Wikipedia is any guide (and I would think UFO enthusiasts would be keen on editing Wikipedia – just a hunch), then anywhere from 1400 to 5% of the total population have been abducted. That is an absolute shitload of specimens. Way more, actually, than they’d ever plausibly need in order to make a full study of humans. Hell, that’s more than enough to start your own little human community in your very own space-zoo. Seems excessive to me.
Plus, if they are performing a responsible study of the human race, then why are the vast majority of abductions purported to occur in English speaking countries? What, does their universal translator only work on English? Do they really need to talk to you, anyway, if all they want to do is pull out your digestive system and give it a good mapping? How will they know if the brown ones work the same as the pink ones if they don’t catch both in equal quantities?
Furthermore, a lot of reports insist that aliens have been kidnapping us since ancient times (flip on the History channel – I’m sure they’re showing a ‘documentary’ about it right now). How long does it really take to get a good idea of how humans work? Do you really need to nab hicks out of their pickup trucks on a regular basis to get a finger on the pulse of humanity. Hell, we beam half our culture into space, anyway. They could just watch cable like the rest of us.
The other possibility is that the aliens are prepping us for invasion somehow, and that these abductions are part of their plan. If so, then I really have to question the sanity of the alien plan. Presumably the idea would be to kidnap people and either replace them with aliens or somehow mess with them so that, when the aliens arrive, these people welcome them with open arms or otherwise inhibit their fellow humans’ ability to resist. If this were so, then, it would seem that they aren’t kidnapping enough people. Granted, 5% of the population ain’t hay, but it also isn’t exactly overwhelming numbers. Furthermore, consider who they’re kidnapping. It isn’t exactly a who’s who list of the influential, powerful, and competent. It reads more like a list of the disaffected, the run-of-the-mill, and the unstable. These are not really the allies you want or need during any kind of invasion.
I suppose we could say ‘but those are only the ones you know about!’, but, well, that sounds a bit crazy. Besides, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to kidnap a quarter of a billion people or more, aren’t you getting to the point where you should just invade already. You’re putting a lot of man-hours into this thing, Martians – shit or get off the pot.
#3: It’s a Cookbook!
Maybe, though, they aren’t here to study us or invade us or anything – maybe they just think it’s fun. Maybe some part of us is a delicacy. Maybe capturing us is a sport! Maybe they have these cyclical tournaments where one flying saucer sees how may goofballs they can suck up inside their ship and mess with within a certain timespan. They probably show it on alien pay-per-view. Hell, I’d watch that show. Of all the theories, this one sounds the most likely. Assuming, you know, that any of this is likely at all. Which it isn’t.
Personally, I think our first contact with an alien species is going to be a much more straightforward and much more confusing affair than a series of sneaky UFOs snatching cows and terrorizing rural truck stops. It’s going to be something large and loud and incomprehensible, something that makes the world stand still with wonder and no government on this Earth is going to be able to cover it up with some weather balloon story. Besides, we’re assuming that they’ll find us before we’ll find them – a bit pessimistic, don’t you think? I prefer to imagine it will be us beaming down, not being beamed up. That, however, is just me; I’m an optimist like that.
Humans’ Special Power
So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.
The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.
Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:
The Human Spirit
Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!
In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.
Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.
This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.
One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).
Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).
So What if We Aren’t That Special…
Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.
The Invasion is Coming, and It Is Cuddly
Why are our alien invaders always so disgusting? They are usually somehow insectoid, covered in slime, weirdly eyeless or many-eyed, and reminiscent of the ugliest termite hive you ever saw. I mean, I understand humanity’s collective distaste for insects from a cultural and psychological standpoint, but there is no real correlation with that disgust and actual danger. Insects kill people directly very rarely. Granted, they are significant vector for disease transmission but, then again, so are other humans and cuddly little rodents, and we tend not to kill them on sight.
Why, then, must our alien invaders always be some version of insectoid, monstrous, and disgusting? Insects aren’t even all that ugly, much of the time. People gush over the beauty of butterflies or coo over ladybugs, and they are just as ‘insect-y’ when viewed up close as your average earwig or cockroach. Can’t we admit to ourselves that ‘alien’ doesn’t mean ‘hideous’ automatically. Can’t the aliens be pretty?
Here’s an exercise for the speculative mind: Say Earth is invaded by an alien species, but they are the cutest little fuzzy balls of adorableness ever seen. Think, like, high-tech, militant puppies. When their Grand Vizier takes over our communications satellites and beams his demands to humanity, everybody’s first reaction is a head-tilt and a drawn-out ‘Awwwwww!’ Then, you know, he/she/it starts talking capitulation and threats of military violence unless demands are met. By the end of his otherwise terrifying speech, what percentage of humanity turns the television off and as says ‘if they sold those in the pet store, I’d totally buy one.’
I know, I know – some of you are saying ‘they totally did that in V.’ No, you aren’t getting it – they are cute. Actually cute. Like, if you rip off their head, they aren’t evil demonspawn underneath. They are every bit as cute as any other large, furry mammal in existence. Make them pretty like tigers, if you like. Tigers are scary; tigers are dangerous; lots of people want to hug and cuddle with tigers. Furthermore, in the case of V, they appeared to be humans and were trying to appear likable – humanity should know better than to trust itself when it’s being so nice. I’m thinking overtly hostile but physically adorable aliens.
Given this scenario, what happens? Do we surrender to our kitten overlords? Can we manage to muster up the proper racial hatred to smite our foes? Are we more willing to negotiate? Are we less willing to negotiate (you’d have us barter with Teddy Ruxpin? What the hell is wrong with you, man?). Do we not take them seriously, despite their invasion fleet of city-flattening strato-fortresses? What the heck happens to us when our aesthetic sensibilities are so colossally tweaked that we find ourselves in a state of internal struggle?
I can’t say for certain, obviously – this is all strictly hypothetical. In general, I’d wager on the side of the human race being bloodthirsty killers – there’s a lot of track record there. Cuteness hasn’t stopped us from waging wars before (even genocidal ones). Still, the after-effects would be interesting. Would furry things no longer hold the same appeal anymore? Would our aesthetic sensibilities change?
I can, of course, see the movie already. It’s a CGI comedy, probably by Dreamworks, and it’s tremendously stupid. It doesn’t have to be, though. You could get some serious mileage out of cute and dangerous aliens. Just sayin…
So you wanna conquer the Earth?
There’s a lot of stories of alien invasion out there, from HG Wells on up to Battle for LA and probably a whole heap-load of cable TV shows and specials that I haven’t seen piled atop the dozens and dozens of ones I have. There was even a special on the Discovery Channel’s show ‘Curiosity’ that had experts discussing the ins and outs of what a likely alien invasion would look like.
All of it is a colossal bunch of nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong–I think those movies and books and such are great fun, it’s just they usually don’t make a whole lot of sense. The aliens are almost always caught holding the idiot ball and certain humans are perfectly defended by Plot Armor to the point where one really has to ask yourself: What were the aliens thinking?
Points in Case:
War of the Worlds
The Plan: Use Tripods and chemical weapons to gas/kill all humans before attempting to alter earth into a more suitable habitat.
Well, seeing how it was written around the turn of the 20th century, we have to cut HG Wells a little slack. We don’t have to cut the remakes as much, however, and the alien plan here is monstrously inefficient. Tripods are great weapons, but as tools of planetary conquest they are rather inefficient. How long, exactly, to those things expect to be wandering around the Earth before they kill every human? It’s going to take a damned long time, if it’s even possible at all. Also, they get wiped out by the flu? Guys, c’mon–it’s an alien planet. Seal up them tripods, will ya? Use Purell or something.
The Plan: Use massive flying saucers and overwhelming air power to obliterate all major human power centers, then (presumably) invade with ground forces en masse.
You know, not actually such a terrible plan. Of course, it is going to be massively costly for the aliens themselves (as every air war we’ve ever fought has told us, air power only goes so far), but they’d probably win.
Oh, wait–I forgot that Jeff Goldblum has a Macbook Pro. Shit. They’re screwed. (how is it that the Macs are compatible with the alien mothership again? They weren’t compatible with anything here on Earth at the time, soooo…)
The Plan: Sneak around naked and scare children. Then, when everybody’s freaked out, use short-range nerve gas dispensers to kill the people. Avoid squirt guns, lakes, pools, sprinkler systems, human tears, blood, etc….
Three words for this plan: What. The. Fuck.
Stupidest alien invasion ever. Seriously, what were they thinking? Was the alien high command sitting around and saying ‘Hey, Bill, that planet over there–you know, the one comprised almost entirely of deadly poison–what say we invade while naked. Sounds fun, no?’
Also, aliens who can traverse the void of space didn’t think to bring a power drill to remove cellar doors? Seriously? Did they do any recon at all, or did they just jump in blind? Gallipoli was better planned than this nonsense.
The Plan: Act all friendly to human kind and gradually draw them into a fascist regime with you guys as leaders. Kill off rebels slowly and quietly to avoid fuss.
Pretty good plan, actually, and it mostly worked. Of course, it went the way all fascist dictatorships go–down the tubes. There’s only so long lizard people in masks can rule a place before everybody hates them enough to overthrow them. Look at Lybia.
Don’t get me started on the reboot of V. That show made so little sense that I’m still trying to figure out if their plan was only dumb or both dumb and logically inconsistent.
How to do it Right
If you are a super-advanced alien species who’s eyeing Earth, there is probably a much more efficient way to handle humanity than depicted in the movies. The challenges of taking on the whole human race sprawled across the entire planet are pretty significant. Conventional warfare–attacking with tripods, flying saucers, raygun-infantry, etc.., is going to be really costly and take a long, long time, no matter how awesome your technology is. There are easier ways, folks. Mostly, how you go about handling things is largely dependent upon what you’re there to do. I think all purposes for invasion fall under a couple basic categories: Resources, Colonization, Conquest, and Genocide.
Ah, the Earth is a beautiful jewel in the vastness of space, filled with plentiful resources your species needs to survive and/or get rich. But how to get them? Here are some simple, practical ideas:
1) Buy Them: Granted it doesn’t make a precisely riveting movie, but why not just buy the stuff you want from unscrupulous human businessmen? Surely you have something they need and, chances are, the stupid humans aren’t going to realize the value of their algae/seawater/topsoil/bacteria anyway. Make a deal. Dump a thousand tons of gold in their backyard that you harvested off some airless rock somewhere and make a killing. Give them the formula for transparent aluminum, for crying out loud–does it really matter? The idiots are going to blow themselves up in a few decades anyway.
2) Steal it: This may come as a shock to you, Alien High Command, but most of planet Earth isn’t watching the stars for invaders. You could probably sneak on down to somewhere in Siberia, build a mine, suck whatever you need out of the ground, and be gone before anybody knew any better. You could probably do this over and over again, actually, and never get nabbed.
Yeah, the Earth looks like a pretty good place to live. Beats the depths of the void, at any rate, and you need somewhere to flop. Contrary to popular alien belief, however, you really don’t need to kill all the humans to do this. It’s pretty simple, really. Just do the following:
Step 1: Blow up something big and important. Cut Italy in half. Blow up New York…the state, not the city. Cover Africa in darkness for a week. Make it rain in the Sahara.
Step 2: Announce your demands to the UN. You plan on moving into central Australia and staying there as long as you damn well please. Anybody have a problem with that, and threaten to make Pangea a reality again.
Step 3: Set up shop and play the diplomacy game like everybody else, except this time you are the only folks with rayguns and orbital bombardment capabilities.
How do we know this works? Well, the Romans did it–over and over and over and over. Worked every time. Soon as you start giving the earthlings your firewater, universal vaccines, and hyperspace viaducts, why are they going to complain? If they do, you blow up their holy sites–simple, see?
A little more intensive than Colonization. You don’t so much want to live on Earth as subjugate it to your will. Whether or not you stay really depends on how many slaves the humans can provide you with. Now, the above method for colonization should probably work fine in this instance. Barring that, however, you can try this:
1) Wholesale kidnapping: You’ve got spaceships, teleporters, tractor beams, etc.–how hard is it, really, to get yourself some human slaves? Beam them up, Scotty, then take off.
2) Genetic tampering: Some clever nanotechnology, perhaps some unique biological compounds intoduced into public drinking supplies, and bam–a very suggestible human race. You just need a little patience.
Say you just don’t plain old like human beings. You want the bastards dead. Well, stop futzing around and just do it, already. You don’t need to use flying saucers (well, at least not in the atmosphere), and you probably don’t even need nukes (though you probably have access to them or their equivalents in spades). Divert an asteroid, watch Bruce Willis and his buddies screw up royally in their ham-handed attempt to stop it, and watch the fireworks. Done and done.
If that fails, try controlling the weather.
See, conquering the Earth isn’t that hard. What’s your excuse, Ming the Merciless? Flash? They guy doesn’t even wear a shirt! C’mon!
People from the Deep
The idea of parallel evolution always irks me. I think it irks scientists, too, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure. The supposition that an intelligent alien species would follow the same path as us–physiologically, socially, and scientifically–strikes me as hopelessly arrogant. It makes the obviously incorrect assumption that there is only one way to do things, and that way is to become humanoid, speak a language based on sound, and make your way up the ‘tech-tree’ (to borrow a RTS game term) from fire to the wheel and so on.
Let’s entertain a different idea, however. I’ve been turning this over in my head for the past few weeks, actually, and here’s what I got so far. Again, I stress that I am not a scientist, but know just enough basic science to get myself in trouble. I would be delighted, actually, if I had my science critiqued by folks who know better–it usually makes things more interesting as opposed to less so.
Take a planet sort of like ours–watery, geologically active, a healthy magnetic field, orbiting in the habitable zone of a main sequence star of some kind. This time, however, let’s knock it just a few pegs off the mark, specifically so there is no significant evolutionary advantage to being able to crawl around on land. Say the gravity is a bit too strong, making it very difficult for any large creature to survive and walk around up there. Or suppose, instead, that the planet is subject to baths of radiation from the star that make long-term survival impractical. Hell, perhaps it’s just too hot up there, or too cold–the planet’s oceans are forever coated in a sheet of ice, creating a significant physical barrier to anything crawling out of the deep and becoming an amphibian.
What happens if you wind up with a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species on such a planet? What is it like? How do they look at the world? Admittedly, the exercise is legitimately impossible–we have a hard enough time sticking ourselves in the shoes of other humans, let alone an alien species on an alien planet trillions of kilometers away. Let’s give it a whirl, anyway, and see what happens.
Going off a combination of what we’ve needed to get where we are and what creatures in our own oceans have the same potential, I’ve decided the following:
1) The aliens need some kind of prehensile appendages with which to manipulate their environment and make tools. Dolphins can be as intelligent as you like, but they’ll never manage to make a toaster without thumbs.
2) The aliens must have evolved in a particular niche where intelligence would have been useful. This is more-or-less restricted to carnivorous or omnivorous species–herbivores really don’t need to be smart, since they don’t need to hunt or plan or anything beyond just eating that kelp over there. Carnivores, furthermore, only need to be intelligent enough to chase down or ambush prey, and the rest of their job is done by substantial physical strength. Omnivorous, scavenging types, however, are neither as strong as predators nor as dumb as herbivores. They are adaptable by necessity, and live by being clever. Watch crows operate sometimes–very clever little birds–not to mention various kinds of monkeys and baboons and such.
3) The species needs to be curious. Curiosity is the only way you become a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species in the ‘sapient’ sense. If we lacked this, we’d still be hunter-gatherers, no matter how smart we were. It took some real curiostity to harness fire, folks.
Okay, so, given all that stuff, I’ve decided that cephalopods seem the most likely candidates, specifically those akin to octopi and squids. They have large brains, tentacles with which to manipulate things, show curiosity, and, while not omnivorous per se, are scavengers and it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see a cephalopodic species developing the capacity to ingest vegetable matter in a pinch.
This leaves us with squid-aliens, living in the depths of a planet, developing society and technology and art and commerce, but in a way wholly alien to ourselves.
Our squiddies are social creatures (real-life squids and octopi can actually get lonely, and will hang around with fish if isolated from others of their kind), and so it is reasonable to expect them to develop a kind of society. Indeed, and I probably should have placed this above, the social aspect of a species is probably essential to developing the kind of ‘intelligence’ I’m suggesting here (and, of course, there are many ways to measure intelligence–I’m picking one similar to ours simply because it makes it much, much easier to talk about. It needn’t be the case, though).
What kind of a society would they have? Heirarchical, I suppose–the bigger guy is higher on the food chain than the smaller guy and so on. This is the law of the oceans, and it only makes sense that it would be mirrored by the society spawned out of it (not altogether unlike ours). The family unit, as we understand it, might not be the same. Depending on the species in question, cephalopods lay eggs which are then fertilized by a male and left to their own devices. Alternatively, the males impregnates the eggs, which are then carried around by the female until they hatch. In the second place, we could see extended (and very large) family groups developing. I prefer the first case, though, just to be different. Eggs would be carefully hidden and probably protected, but they wouldn’t be carried around. Indeed, it might even be that the female dies immediately after laying these eggs. Yeah, let’s go with that one: females lay their eggs once in their lives, then die. Males fertilize them and leave them be, then wait for the eggs that make it to arise.
What effect does this have on their society? Well, I would expect a couple things to come of this:
1) Females, and the prospect of mating with one, would be an extremely sacred aspect of society. Most males wouldn’t get the opportunity, I would imagine, and they would be forced to treat females with deference and reverence. Females would have the pick of the litter, so to speak, on whom to mate with. Mating itself would be a very sacred ritual, almost like a mix of wedding and funeral, wherein the male, after perhaps decades of courting, is deigned worthy of producing children by the female. We can reasonably suppose the female’s attitudes towards life and death would be unusual, to say the least. The idea of ‘motherhood’ wouldn’t exist, really. Young would be raised collectively by the group, probably by the males, actually, who would have an idea of fatherhood and attachment to their own young that the females lacked.
2) The best places to plant such eggs would be, likewise, very important and sacred locations. Therefore, while the squids themselves might be nomadic, they would orient their travel around certain sites, and, indeed, eventually develop and interest in defending these places against other groups of their own kinds. These places would, naturally, become places of commerce and probably turn into repositories for wealth and large populations which would, of course, be attractive places to control. Bingo–they have wars.
3) Population growth, while not increasing at the same steady rate as ours (since they have their children all at once, rather than over the course of their lives), would probably be similar, depending on how many eggs they lay and how many fertilize and how many actually succeed in developing. As their technology increased to improve the odds, they would develop ever increasing population problems (imagine if a human woman got 75% of *all* her eggs to become children? She’d have how many thousands/tens of thousands of kids? Wow.). Even though they would live in a three-dimensional world, the sheer number of squids would eventually push them beyond the boundaries of their most comfortable environment, whatever that would be.
This last point, particularly the bit about living in a three-dimensional world, would be also important to understand and consider. Most sea creatures are restricted not only to certain latitudes on the earth, but also certain depths. Fish that live in the shallows can’t survive in the abyss and vice versa. For a very long time (milennia), we could expect the squids to happily (or unhappily) live in their particular strata of the oceans and, besides for the purposes of exploration, stick to those areas. As resources became scarce, they would adapt themselves to different depths and different latitutdes, or perhaps a combination of both. These offshoots of the original squids would create their own little gene pools in their own little corners of the ocean, and now we have ethnic groups, variations in culture/cuisine/art, and the stage for centuries of international warfare, just like us. The main difference would be that there would be exponentially more such cultures, since there are many, many more environments for them to call home. The physiological differences between the groups could be more severe, as well, possibly making their version of racism even more extreme (what–they only got seven tentacles? Gross–what primitives!).
Furthermore, given the fact that physical barriers to travel would be much reduced (rivers, mountains, canyons–all either non-existent or easily traversed underwater), once ways of suriving in deeper or shallower water were developed, it is very possible that the idea of commerce and trade would be even more pervasive. It would be difficult for cultures to be completely isolated from one another, and while they might retain their separation (due to racism, climate, etc.), they would probably remain in some kind of contact with the others. Of course, now that I’m thinking of it, this might serve to homogenize the gene pools somewhat, as well, cutting down on the number of subspecies. In any event, I think we can assume that no culture would develop completely isolated from the rest of the world in the way that we have–there would be no primitive aboriginal tribes hiding from the world, no China with its closed borders, etc. Everybody would have to deal with one another at some point.
This might have interesting effects on art and language, as well. A universal language might be expected; as cephalopods are very visual creatures with the capacity to change the color and pattern of their skin, their language would probably be visual and supported by whatever sounds their beaks/mouths might make, much like we support our verbal language with whatever gestures our hands provide. Those cultures living in the deeper regions of the ocean might have slightly different dialects, given the dim lighting, but one might presume that, before any culture so visually oriented would decide to live in the darkness, they would have developed a reliable method of lighting or chosen areas rife with bioluminescent organisms.
Anyway, this brings us to a discussion of technology.
Evolving underwater would have an enormous effect on the whys and hows of technological development. Technology is, of course, driven by necessity, and what you need when you live in the sea is quite different from what you need while on land. To begin at the beginning, we could easily see that the technologies we commonly associate with being among the simplest–the wheel, the incline plane, fire, the lever–might not be so simple for underwater creatures. Why would they develop the wheel, for instance? Certainly they’d figure it out sooner or later, but certainly not first, since you hardly need it in the ocean. Likewise, fire and combustion in general would be a very difficult concept for them to grasp, since it would be so difficult to achieve in the deep.
What they would almost certainly master first would be the idea of bouancy and jet propulsion. These are things inherent to their own physiology (its how they move around the water, after all) just how levers and incline planes are how we do things on land. The use of baloons and bladders to raise or lower things would probably be mastered quickly and developed beyond our own capacity to imagine. Likewise, the idea of a system by which one could propel oneself through the use of bellows or similar things would also be quick to develop. Pumps, tubes, and hydrodynamics would be second nature and essential for travel. Agriculture and the domestication of their fellow sea creatures would be a given, since no society with a burgeoning population would manage without it.
Presuming they developed electricity (very likely), their power plants would probably be run by wave-action, currents, and geothermal energy (they are right near the cracks in the crust of their planet, after all). Weapons would mostly be poison and camouflage based, again in keeping with their natural inclinations, though the development of torpedoes and explosives would be probable. No swords, obviously–spears, spear guns, and things that could deliver a deadly blow through the thick medium of ocean water would be expected. Armor would be designed to deflect piercing attacks over slashing or blunt-force trauma. The use of fire as a weapon wouldn’t probably occur to them, at least not for a long while.
Eventually, we might expect one of these fine squids, the Sir Edmund Hillary of his people, to crawl out of the water and sit on dry land, some kind of shallow-water guide at his side, and gaze up at the unimagined spectacle of the night sky. When he saw the stars, resting there on a black velvet field, twinkling like gems in the deep, what would he think?
What would he dream?