Letter from a Strange Planet

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This text is © the estate of the late David Godfrey Stephenson and is reproduced here with permission. Do not reproduce this text in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright holder.

Letter from a Strange Planet

To: Dorm Waarth

Principal Sociologist

No. 20 Survey Mission


This letter will be rushed back to Mission headquarters to catch the next available transmission schedule. Leave your survey work and come as soon as you can, on the Second Mission if possible. It will take you a dozen objective years to get here, but you will find it worthwhile. I have just found out why this is such a strange planet. I am writing this not only to encourage you to come, but also to put my thoughts in order for the report I must write.

I don’t know what you will find in the official report. I was away arranging my trucks while the Mission nested down to write it. As it is her first time as Head of Mission, and a First Mission at that, I am sure Bolga will want to minimise heat transfer, though it was natural. When you have a planet that has civilised itself fast enough to produce an electromagnetic radiation signature between one sky survey and the next, with the result that they have learnt to harness nuclear reactions for weapons, but are still a man of quarrelsome notions, what advice can you offer but ‘give up all slavery and caste distinctions and live as equals’? Yet it offended everyone. Our hosts were deeply upset. They had fought in a bitter civil war over freedom for slaves. (Our real hosts, that is. Officially, we are guests of the assembly of representatives of quarrelling nations to whom Bolga spoke. But they are the guests of the richest and most powerful nation here, who have discreetly taken charge of us.) Their principal rivals have reached a crisis in their politics and those of their client states, something to do with their solidarity, which caused Bolga’s speech to be denounced as blatant provocation and interference in their internal affairs. And so on, and so forth through a long list.

Our linguists got the blame first, naturally. But they were able to convince us that they had learnt to speak the principal language correctly, and taught us properly. They did admit that if they had started learning to read and write earlier, they would have discovered that it was government policy that everyone should be literate, and would have been able to tell Bolga that this was not a caste society. On the other hand, they pointed out that though this language had spread, mainly by sea, as a language of conquest and trade, it also had an extraordinary ability, to spread overland as a language of settlement, without breaking up into sub-languages. This was all wrong as they understood the sociology of language. The sociologists agreed instead of answering back. In fact Haun Frij was in despair; none of the sociometric equations balanced. Whatever model they tried, there was a missing factor somewhere.

Settlement spread too fast overland, industry developed at rates which implied that there was more labour than the population figures would support, and the climate model agreed so badly with the actual distribution of climate that it seemed as though they could grow far beyond the limits of cultivation. Then there were all sorts of little anomalies. Their principal cultures were monogamous, with such a tremendous emphasis on the importance of paternity that names are actually inherited from the father. And our meals puzzled everyone; we ate meat at practically every one, yet the style and technology with which they were served did not go with a hunting culture, nor, apparently, are we being fed the diet of a retired warrior caste. I had done the edibility tests, and noticed how few kinds of meat there were, but when the size of the animals and the season were taken into account, I could only consider that they were depleting their game packs in our honour. Zauquir scoffed at this; their technology should allow them enough means of preserving food.

He was the least distracted of any of us. They had achieved the conventional first step in space travel by making a piloted landing on their moon two dozen years ago, and the rest of their technology was concordant with this. Admittedly, they seem keen on systems of land transport, but every civilisation has its speciality. My report was very different; their biology is superb, so good that I am prepared to accept their claim that they evolved in place and are not from a seeded stock! (I don’t know what the politicians will do with that for the official report!)

As the dispute died down, there came Bolga’s invitation. One of the lesser governments considered that their traditions would allow them to overlook the notorious speech and had asked the Mission for a formal visit. They spoke the principal language, which would ease problems of interpretation. (It was probably also the reason for the invitation, allowing them to score off their confederates, who had their own languages.) The demands of the schedule meant that not all the Mission could go, but she accepted, and proposed to take a delegation from the Mission.

Haun Frij was very upset; we did not understand their society, and would be sure to make terrible blunders and end in disaster. Look what happened to Talague and his Mission because they ignored sociometric indicators. We must stay put until she has recalculated the equations and located the missing factor. Zauquir was for going ahead; the answer would turn up somehow. The Mission talked itself into deadlock. To break it, I pointed out that we needed more data, not more calculations, and proposed that I go ahead incognito. This is, after all, a standard survey procedure, and our hosts could be given the reason that there was a scientist there I needed to interview. Also, I might talk to those who would police the visit.

The proposal was accepted surprisingly easily. It helped that I was already wearing native covers, though I did it for the same reason that Zauquir insists on wearing his engineer’s overalls; any trousers are safer and more convenient in a laboratory than our official robes. Everybody knew enough of the variety of physical types and languages to accept that I would pass for a foreigner anywhere.

Our hosts accepted it, too, when I explained how important the interview was. That was not all flattery; there is much new and interesting in their ideas. I began by the book, talking to surgeons and physicians to assess their biology by their knowledge of their own anatomy and physiology. They were as keen to find out about me, so we were soon deep in comparisons. I told them of the seeding theory, to find them sceptical. It was not even because of their own account of their origins that they rejected it, but simply because of small differences under our general resemblances. My twenty-eight teeth were a particular difficulty; they have thirty-two,

However, they explained their techniques for using differences in proteins as a measure of evolutionary differences, and I gave a large blood sample for a set of experiments which would settle the matter. I will never forget the moment when I heard the first results. I had just finished a long interview with one of their scientists, who had been explaining their latest version of evolutionary theory. This is based on mathematical models that would delight Haun Frij. As far as I could make out, these justified regarding much of the diversity of life as the effect of chance. We were relaxing with one of their favourite beverages, an infusion of seeds, while he told me how old his room was and how long the distinguished predecessors had occupied it. When a note was handed in with the results. He read it to me, and the implications were clear to both of us at once. If the immunological distances between our races were too large to be estimated, we had no common ancestor.

I sat there looking back over my contacts with this species. They are the complete opposite of the Hapana, who even now I have no doubt are of the seeded Stock, yet have developed ways of thought incomprehensible to anyone else. Here, even when the ideas were new, we shared a common logic, which even problems of language did not hide. I was already looking forward to friendship with the scientists I had met. Yet here was proof that we are separate species evolved on different worlds.

My companion was still thinking of science. He pointed out that if we had come to be alike by chance, it was an impossible coincidence, which put in doubt much of what he had been telling me. As an alternative, there is an older school of thought based on something very like Dhil Warresca’s principle of differential survival which we have been hearing so much about recently. They call it ‘natural selection’, which has teleological overtones to me. I am assured, however, that it is not developed from religious ideas; quite the contrary. By now my host was hunting through the set of yellow volumes with red titles in which were many of the diagrams which matched stochastic models to their fossil record. In it, someone had taken this other argument to a logical conclusion; there are many possible basic structural plans for animals, but of those that are practicable, some are more efficient than others. The ultimate result of evolution by differential survival, therefore, will be large numbers of variations on the few most efficient body plans. For a zoology based on the fauna of a single planet, this could only be a small and insignificant conjecture. But like many small and insignificant creatures, it had a powerful sting in its tail, in the form of a jocular suggestion that the many fantasies in which intelligent life is encountered in hominid form might be an unconscious recognition that this was the ideal form for intelligent life.

The ostensible reason for my secret journey was to interview the author of this, but I will admit privately that I was after a chance to get away from the Mission. One soon tires of being an honoured guest, who must meet everyone, but see only the best of everything wherever you go. Also, there was the atmosphere in the Mission. We were a small group hastily assembled to investigate an unexpected discovery. Even on a planet far less strange, we would be squabbling by now.

I finally got away yesterday, spending the night in the luxury quarters of a flying machine. It was a tedious start to freedom. We were fed well, but then my neighbour took a soporific, and slept throughout the journey. A programme of recorded entertainments was provided, but it began with one of the fantasies about space travel that our arrival has brought to the height of fashion. This one was preposterous nonsense about a space-ship crew, which included an ‘alien’ distinguished by pointed ears (of all things!). Eventually, I turned it off, and, except for the drug, followed my neighbour’s example until we were woken for another meal and landing.

I was met by a discreet young diplomat, who conducted me through the landing formalities, and to a terminal of their rail-borne transport system. We had to wait until the vehicle for my destination was due to leave, so, as seems the invariable custom, I was offered a drink. For some legal reason, it could not be one of the alcoholic liquors they produce by fermentation. Instead, we drank an infusion of plant leaves, with slices from a sour fruit. This is a national characteristic; elsewhere the drink is prepared from roast and ground seeds, but here they use the dried leaves of the plant instead.

On the train, I had been provided with a seat with a good view, so I was free to observe the planet for myself. The transport system looked commonplace enough, but I expect Zauquir would have been delighted by subtleties of both trains and track that escaped me. The town was not quite so simple, though the number of separate houses fitted in with what I knew of their family structure. Some of the houses are in long rows and others in pairs, but I suspect that that is simply a quirk of architecture, with no significance as a sign of social structure.

When we left the town, the landscape became the open one typical of mechanical cultivation. The country was gently rolling, neither hilly nor flat. While it was practical for machine cultivation, I was surprised that nowhere were any plots cultivated by hand left. The tremendous social upheaval the change meant must have come and gone very quickly. Even the houses had gone, so that the landscape seems virtually deserted to us. Nevertheless, the abundance of game was still a surprise; it was not that empty. The herds were sometimes smaller white animals, but more usually large pied ones. These were variously marked, quite unique in my experience, with no two alike, and the pattern so irregular that I could not be sure whether it was black on white or white on black. They seemed to wander at random over the countryside, as there was nothing I could recognise as a game pack. This set me looking more carefully at the vegetation. There were occasional tiny patches of forest, but considerable scrub, very oddly distributed in long lines, forming a network over the countryside. The herbage was of very few kinds, even though in the growing season it would be harder to distinguish the different crops. And the more I looked, the more I became convinced that much of it was not crops, but a close-growing cover of natural herbage.

For fear of arousing suspicion, I could not question my fellow-passengers, so when the train stopped at my destination, I got out trying to think of ways I could question the scientist I had come to meet, not about evolution but about the landscape.

As the train left and the passengers dispersed, my host found me, and led me outside the building. There, something was wrong. His question used a confusing idiom. Eventually I made out that he was asking, in a deferential way, if I objected to travel on a public vehicle, as none were available for private hire. Of course, I agreed; the more I know the better.

When we were settled on the vehicle, my host asked, in the same idiom as before, if I objected to animals. This, to one of the finest zoologists in the League of All the Worlds! I am afraid I said so with more vehemence than tact. He explained that he meant animals kept about the house, and added a new word to my vocabulary, for animals kept for pleasure. Remembering my experiences on Lunbada II, where the Kallatz tame all sorts of wild creatures, and allow them free run of their longhouses, I showed I had no objection. Whatever the merit of my host’s conjectures, he was clearly a capable practised zoologist. To turn the conversation, I asked about the vehicle we were travelling in. It was of two storeys, driven by electricity taken from overhead cables. I was told the type had been revived a few years before because of the increasing price and scarcity of the mineral oil generally used as a fuel for road vehicles. By the time we had reached the end of this explanation, we had reached the end of the journey, too.

As we came to my host’s house, my excitement grew. I had never been inside an ordinary house before, and this one looked ordinary enough; it was one of a pair of a style I had become used to on the journey. As we approached the door, loud animal cries resounded within. The door was opened by my host’s wife, and the animals making the noise bounded around us, and forced us inside. There were three of them, of the common roaming predator pattern, though smaller than most. They had long muzzles, abundant pelages, sandy-brown with some black hairs, and long plumed tails which they waved vigorously. My host greeted them, caressing them and reassuring them about me. They were very tame, and quite unafraid, so I sat down and tentatively patted them, too.

My hostess was going to propose refreshment, but, seeing my interest in the animals, she invited me to come and see the babies. I followed her into an obvious kitchen. A large box stood against one wall. When the lid was lifted, I was faced with something I had only seen twice before, and then only after infinite care and patience: a female predatory mammal suckling her young. The mother, of the same species as the three prowling around, lay placidly stretched out along the wall of the box. Four plump cubs lay in a line, heads butted into her stomach, tails stretched out behind, and paws working heavily. I gaped at them, too astonished to comment, while I tried to recall what I had learnt of the breeding of predators in captivity. Privacy, I knew, was essential. Just as I remembered that handling the young was strictly to be avoided, the wife bent over the box, and, without a murmur from its mother, picked up a cub. She held it up for me to admire, saying, “This is our favourite; look at that curve of neck.” The little animal yawned, showing a pink tongue curling between toothless jaws. As the mouth shut, I saw that its eyes were still firmly closed. My comment on this brought the reply that they were only six days old, and the cub was passed to me. As it squirmed in my hands, I was able to check Fulver’s generalisations on the post-embryonic stage; square head, broad chest and weak hind-quarters, and it occurred to me to wonder whether he had ever verified them on a live specimen.

When the cub began to squeak, it was taken away, and put back with its mother. It was accepted with sniffings and lickings but no hostility. I stood gazing, fascinated. The three of us stood silent for so long that, simply for something to say, I asked where they were born. I was told that they had been born there, in that box, as had their mother, and her mother before her.

To tame such a species was an achievement. To persuade it to breed for generation after generation, without special facilities, in the kitchen of an ordinary house was an outstanding zoological achievement. Remembering and regretting my hasty words on the journey, I composed a little speech of apology and congratulation. It was my host’s turn to be astonished.

But these are domestic animals, Dr. Navony.” That is a literal translation; I had heard the word for ‘domestic’ applied to equipment like that round us in the kitchen.

[Editor-transcriber’s note: the text ends here; the handwritten original has a further, incomplete paragraph which has been crossed out.]


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