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SciFi Round Fourteen: Biotech Problems

After I put up the description of the ursians and their technology from my Fermi Problems setting and discussed alien psychology in the context of religion/lack thereof, it was suggested that I should read John Brunner’s Crucible of Time, which I had somehow missed reading before.  So, here we go:

Crucible of Time describes various episodes in the history of an alien race called the folk.  The folk evolve intelligence just before their planet and the star it orbits passes through the center of a starforming region that contains, among other things, an object that is described in terms consistent with either a Type-II supernova remnant or a luminous blue variable that just had a big outburst.  They escape the obvious problems with that by developing interstellar spaceflight and a lot of biotech.

Artist's concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner's initial vision (too much like Earth insects).  This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

Artist’s concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner’s initial vision (too much like Earth insects). This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

What Brunner Did Right

First, the positives.  The folk are physically very much unlike us.  Although they are bilaterally symmetric, they are not vertebrates.  They have no bones at all, and support themselves by pressured tubules full of fluid (convenient when they do eventually get to space).  To assert dominance, they inflate the tubules to maximum and stand up straight.  To indicate deference or to better resist a shock, they go limp and hug the ground.  They have a single eye; mandibles rather than teeth; claws rather than hands; and navigate on spongy pads rather than feet.  Their bodies are covered by articulated mantles, the relict of a distant aquatic past via ancestors who lived in the equivalent of forests.  Those are used to speak, and as an outer layer of armor.  Reproduction is sexual, with sexes describable as male and female, by budding rather than by internal pregnancy.

They are also biochemically and psychologically unlike us.  Folk excrete airborne pheromones which have powerful effects on each other, ranging from triggering aggression and confrontation to conveying emotional emphasis to inducing dream-like hallucinations accompanied by destructive mania.  They also have a different cognitive structure, with physically different parts of their brains that perform functions like what we would call memory, dreaming, and abstract reasoning.

And the folk are dramatically affected by the supernova / outburst, even though their star and planet were still relatively far away from it at the time.  The high-energy photon flash caused a round of mutations and some climatic changes.  One of the mutations caused low fertility, but in some folk it was masked by another that offset it in some environments.  Those folk spread both mutations; but eventually the environment changes and most of the folk have low fertility.  Exogamy and less in-group favoritism than humans have keeps the population up for a while; but in the long term there is a population crunch.  The folk manage to do sufficient genetic engineering on themselves to correct the imbalance, but that leads to a population explosion in advance of the food supply and a temporary collapse of society.

But given all of that, things get a bit worrisome.  How would such aliens have a person like Jing?  Jing is a folk who is the equivalent of Galileo – complete with getting the feudal lord of a city as his patron and then offending the religious sensibilities of much of the population with his discoveries with the newly-invented telescope.  But since I haven’t spent the time to work through the sociology of a species like the folk in detail, let’s focus on some simpler problems.  Brunner’s first mistake was misunderstanding what goes on inside a starforming region / supernova remnant.

What Would Actually Happen If A Star Runs Through A Nebula?

Not that many impacts.  In Crucible, there are always meteors in the sky and the dark side of the folks’ planet’s moon constantly sparkles from impact flashes.  Where are all these objects coming from?  Brunner was inspired by early (and now disproved) claims of periodicity in mass extinctions, in this version supposedly caused by the Sun’s passage through the galactic plane.  He proposed something similar to happen as the folks’ star ran through the dust cloud around the supernova remnant, and most of those impactors were debris flying in to the system from outside.  Up to and including a rogue planet.  That doesn’t work.

Even in a relatively dense interstellar dust cloud, there are very few large solid objects and even the interstellar gas and dust density is too low to matter much.  Unless you run right through a protoplanetary disc, in which case you have the more immediate problem of the planet you are standing on being scattered onto an unlivable trajectory by the star that you almost hit.  The comet showers invoked to explain mass extinctions on Earth, which again aren’t actually necessary to explain the fossil record, were supposedly caused by gravitational perturbations to the Oort Cloud dropping a lot of comets onto low-perihelion orbits.  But that doesn’t cause mass extinctions on as short a timescale as in Crucible: it takes hundreds of thousands of years for those comets to fall down, and they aren’t likely to hit on the first flyby.

The real problem for the planets around the folk’s star is the supernova remnant / massive star they’re flying past.  Consider Eta Carinae, which I mentioned before.  It hasn’t exploded yet and is putting out 5,000,000 solar luminosities, with a lot of high-energy photons coming out at any moment.  The high energy dose at 0.15 lightyear is greater than that from the Sun on the Earth; and the nebula around Eta Car is thick enough to cause problems.  Up until the folk run into that, they would be relatively safe, but for the several hundred years around closest approach they would be thoroughly cooked.  Good time to leave.  So Brunner made some mistakes on the details of astronomy, but that part of the plot can be handwaved fairly easily.  On to other problems.

Does the Folk’s Biology Make Sense?

As I said above, some of aspects of the folk’s biology, and the psychology and sociology that develop from that, don’t really work.  It is an important and often-emphasized theme in the book that when folk are starving, or even marginally malnourished, they become unable to distinguish reality from dreaming, or to think logically as effectively.  Malnutrition causes hallucinations that a folk will often interpret as religious visions.  The pheromones from other folk can trigger the same thing.  Malnutrition does induce cognitive changes in humans and other real animals, but only in extreme starvation or in the case of particular long-term dietary deficiencies.  Short-term lack of food doesn’t lead to cognitive impairment, because that impairs the ability of the animal concerned to find more food.  Why haven’t the folk been out-competed by mutants who remain entirely aware of their surroundings when they don’t eat?

One of the episodes related in Crucible is how the folk discover uranium and other radioactive elements.  They find a pond that has been heated to near boiling by uranium oxide that has somehow been concentrated until it looks like yellowcake (that’s more concentrated than anything natural on Earth, but let that pass).  Ingestion of a saturated uranium solution has been poisoning the local wildlife; they figure out that it is radiation because it causes streaks on their analog of a film camera.  Folk that have consumed too much uranium and other radioactive elements too quickly go mad from radiation poisoning.  Note the go mad, as opposed to Earth life, which merely has a higher incidence of cancers at that level of exposure.  We can excuse the folk for having different reactions to radiation dosage than an entirely different evolutionary progression, but the going mad is a strange one.  Radiation exposure causes biological effects by scrambling chemicals.  In that sense, it is no different than being exposed to many reactive chemical toxins.  Biological systems have to evolve defenses to those and, again, the folk should have been out-competed by people who didn’t lose their cognitive edge so easily.

At one point in their history, the folk genetically engineer themselves to cure infertility.  That causes a population explosion, followed by a crash as the food supply can’t keep up and the starving population goes mad.  There is a brief social collapse, followed by rebuilding.  That’s a theme in Crucible, and one of the reasons for the folk’s focus on getting off-planet (they know how society can be nearly destroyed).  But they don’t attempt to engineer away the tendency to hunger-induced madness, even when they have later engineered away their need to sleep.  The folk aren’t consistent in their use of their biotechnology skills.

And that leads into the biggest problem with Crucible.

Biotech Does Not Work That Way

Starting very early in their history, the folk use biotechnology rather than readily available and easier mechanical substitutes.  Rather than building boats, they tame and later domesticate several species of large ocean-dwelling animals that only swim on the surface.  Wouldn’t someone have figured out how to make a hull and oars in short order, followed by sails?  Rather than building houses, they grow them out of special varieties of tree-like lifeforms.  Where the trees cannot grow, or have not grown yet, they live in caves or do not live at all.  Why are there not buildings of brick or dead and cured wood?  This extends to a lot of barely-mentioned techniques that are included to flesh out the worldbuilding rather than to advance the plot.  Why print books using a specially-bred plant that extrudes ink in the pattern of the text you scratched into its surface, when you could simply have carved out a block print (or movable type) and used ink from less specific sources to coat it?  Why breed a plant specifically to be stable living supports for telescope mirrors, when you could just use adjustable screws?

I appreciate Brunner’s commitment to having the folk use biotech as much as possible, but that doesn’t make much sense.  Specific techniques are used for specific tasks because they are optimized for the purpose.  One way to keep the alien feel without such outrageously inefficient technology would have been for them to discover technologies by very different ways than humans did.  Instead of discovering radioactivity by seeing gamma-ray hits on film, how about by somebody seeing Cherenkov in an otherwise dark cave pool?

The biotech outrageousness is even greater at the book’s climax.

To escape the impending destruction, the folk have begun a massive space program.  Their first launches into orbit are chemical rockets (made of metal, not bombardier beetles), lit after being lofted to high altitude by specially cultured balloon plants.  Why not carry a bigger rocket by making a balloon far too thin to be alive and pumping it full of hydrogen from something else?

Then they launch shells of carefully-selected spores to their moon and the other terrestrial planets of their star, attempting geoengineering without having sent any other spacecraft to any of them – let alone having been there in person.  Apparently a good fraction of the spores take.  That’s doesn’t work: you can only learn so much about a place from remote sensing, and how can you engineer a plant that would be able to grow on Mars (or worse, an airless moon) without knowing the soil that the plant would be growing on?  No mention is made of meteorite samples, but even those would not have been sufficient.

Finally, the folk start assembling a space station on-orbit, sufficient to support scores of folk, done all remotely without a single folk on-site until the first one launches up on a chemical rocket lofted by a very long railgun built out of biological superconductor.  Even with some manner of biological computer artificial intelligence on-station, and granting that growing the plant with superconducting fibers is cheaper than bulk synthesis of just the superconductor, that is pushing things too far.

Convergent evolution says that animals that evolve into similar ecological niches will acquire similar forms, although those can be similar only in the sense that bony fish and squid are similar.  But technological convergence is stronger still, and straight up biotech – and especially as it is laid out in Crucible – is so far from an optimum solution that it doesn’t make any sense.  That’s why I designed the ursians to have jet aircraft, aerogel islands, and electronics made from metals sucked out of galane and arsane: they outperformed strictly biological alternatives.