is now available.
Now, to tease you so you will have to check it out, here’s a quick snippet from somewhere in the book. . . Yes, I’m evil. I know. Even more, I enjoy it 😉
* * *
Monday afternoon Gabe had had the anthro hall in the other wing of the building. Two hundred padded seats, burgundy plush and polished plywood, rising like a wave before him. Perhaps a fifth of them were occupied, though not always by attentive students. There were three couples that seemed to have their minds on something else entirely, and several bent heads, closed eyes.
Well, as long as they didn’t snore.
He was talking to the others, anyway, clicking through slides and bulleted lists, using his mouse-wand to point and highlight. “There’s never been much doubt that humans were special. We’re a conceited gang, but it’s clear that there are significant differences between us and the rest of the animal world.
“What are those differences? Language? But many animals communicate with sound. Vervet monkeys even have different alarm calls for different threats–eagle, snake, leopard. Sound and meaning, definite communication.” Click-click-click, vervets watching ground and sky, fleeing high or low. They’d read about this in their text. If they’d done their assignment. “Apes use varied calls and gestures, and chimps and gorillas can learn Ameslan, American Sign Language.” Click-click, Washoe asking for a drink, Koko trying to teach her kitten Sign.
“Tool use? Again, chimps make and use simple tools.” Click, a chimp with the famous termite-fishing twig. Click, another bashing nuts with a stone.
“Laughter? Many animals play, and some look for all the world as if they’re laughing.” Click, click. Baboons doing cartwheels down a desert slope, a baby chimp being tickled. “Chimps even play practical jokes.”
“Intelligence?” Click, a porpoise. Despite concern, despite a worldwide ban on whaling, the big whales were no more and the small ones survived only in Marinelands. People had left too few fish and plankton in the seas to support them in the wild. “Some think we may be outclassed on that.” A few quiet laughs rippled through the hall.
“All of these have been suggested, but at best our uniqueness in these respects is much more a matter of degree than one of kind. We’re not alone, and that has long rankled some of us. Just what is it that makes us unique?”
A hand went up, a smile, almost a smirk. He could guess why.
“Yes, Mr. Clancy?” A serious-looking fellow. Short hair, no beard or mustache, not wearing a suit but easy to imagine in one. Give him a few more years. Maybe a Saucerite mask, too. Would he be one of the few who believed his abductors had planted a mental eavesdropping device in his brain?
“Is there even such a thing? I know many people believe there is, but I suspect the concept was invented to provide an answer to my question. If there is such a thing… Well, consider this, when did we acquire it? The very idea of evolution requires continuity, change by modification. We don’t gain features all at once, presto-shazam!” A scatter of laughs. These were upper-level undergrads. They’d had that course. “So, did our ancestors have them? How far back? Homo erectus? Australopithecus? The pre-hominid apes? Early primates? Snakes and fish and worms? How do you know your dog or cat does not have one? Certainly some religions hold that they do–and other animals, and even plants, as well.” Click-click-click–he was ready with a Buddha, a mandala, a wheel of reincarnation. “Either we don’t have them, or everything does.”
He shook his head. Souls were not an answer. “What is it, then, that makes us special? Or is it all just a matter of degree?” Click, back to the chimp licking termites off its twig. “Look at that. As far as we can tell, chimps have been picking twigs, stripping off the leaves, and poking them into termite hills just like that for thousands of years. Some chimp genius had to think it up in the first place, but it hasn’t changed since then. It works, and to a chimp that’s enough.”
A skinny brunette, glasses, braces, not much makeup, cute, raised her hand. “Yes, Ms. Worth?”
“And humans would have changed it?” The slightly nasal voice actually sounded excited. He grinned at her encouragingly as she added: “Improved it? Decorated it, maybe. Or given it a handle. A fringe so more termites could bite it and you could catch more.”
He turned his grin on the rest of the class and noticed for the first time the bulky figure in the shadows of the back row. A Placoderm, humanoid like most of the aliens but so massive and solid that it looked like it belonged on the wrestling circuit. Its blocky head jutted from a colorful, tent-like dashiki. It hadn’t been there the class before; indeed, even though the aliens were famous for auditing a wide variety of courses, he had never had one sit in on one of his. The students were ignoring it, just as they would have on the street, where the sheer quantity of imitation aliens, the Saucerites, diluted the impact of the few genuine aliens.
“You see?” he said. “We can’t help ourselves, can we? Show us something, and we have to improve on it. At least change it. Make it more complicated, even quite rococo. A tool like this, a story, a religion, a language. We never stop, and that’s something new.
“And we don’t really seem to be driven by necessity. Sure, there are plenty of times when the changes we make seem to have a purpose. To solve problems. But there are plenty when they don’t, when we seem to be pursuing change for change’s sake.” Click–a classic car meet, rows of antique cars with elaborate grills and fins. “And the result is human culture, civilization, technology.”
Gabe hesitated before musing aloud, “Human only?” He eyed the Placoderm in the back row thoughtfully. Would it take offense at being brought into the discussion? For all the peaceful intentions the alien species had loudly declared when they had appeared a few years before, they were surely quite capable of showing their displeasure. Their embassies could not be broken into by stealth or force. Why would the aliens be so good at defense if they had never had anyone to defend against? And these would be the winners, the ones who had prevailed against the defenses of others. Or their descendants. Evolution in action for societies and technologies.
The next step was in the syllabus. So don’t worry about it, he told himself. “There are profound differences between humans and our alien visitors.” Several heads twitched to peek at the back of the hall. Click-click, click-click, click-click, a Placoderm, an Ent, a Spider, a Burd, a Furry, a Helf.
“Major differences,” Gabe repeated. Similarities too, of course. It had actually shocked some biologists to see them eat our food. Earthly proteins have a left-hand twist, sugars and starches a right-hand twist, all due to a flip of the coin at the dawn of life, and lefties cannot digest righties, and vice versa. Surely the coins must flip the other way on other worlds, and we should–sometimes, anyway–be toxic to each other, or at least non-nutritious. Other biologists, who had insisted that biochemistry was just the way the parts went together, were delighted. So were chefs, who very quickly noticed that some of the aliens tended to think of human dishes–even those heavy on chili peppers and wasabi–as rather bland. Unfortunately, the aliens would not provide samples of their own herbs and spices.
Anatomy had raised similarly mixed feelings. The aliens were all roughly humanoid, with heads and arms and legs and hands, and their voices worked in the human range. Some had wished for slugs and insects, telepaths and color flashers. Others had said, hey, it works, and besides the really weird aliens probably didn’t want to look at us anyway.
“They evolved from different stock,” he went on. “They had to suit different environments. For instance, we think the Helfs come from a high-gravity world. Their broad base offers exceptional stability, which must be to protect the more fragile upper portion.
“The Furries–the chitinous caps may reflect a shelled ancestor, something like a crab, just as the pen of a cuttlefish is the vestigial remnant of a mollusk’s shell. The fur does not suggest an aquatic ancestry, but there are Earthly crabs that live on land.
“These differences, these adaptations, these very different backgrounds or contexts in which the patterns of their thoughts were formed, must be reflected in their cultures. Do Burds lay eggs? Then perhaps, where we associate the opening up of potentials with emergence, as of a baby emerging from the womb, they associate it with breakage, with shattering.”
He noticed a few skeptical looks, but he went on anyway. “Do Helfs think of intelligence–that delicate upper body, head and brain–as in some sense a passenger on the solid, animal base? That might affect attitudes toward the natural world, and such a species might never face the sort of environmental crises we have had to deal with.
“I’m guessing, of course. They haven’t shared that much about themselves. But of some things we can be sure: They’re all intelligent, they plan, they speak, perhaps they laugh. And of course they are just as much technological beings as humans are. Just as much the creators of advanced civilizations. They couldn’t be on Earth otherwise.”
A hand: “Mr. Gortley?” A chubby fellow, hairline already receding.
“How can you say such things?” He seemed genuinely puzzled. “Aren’t they far too superior to us to be compared that way?”
Gabe hoped his smile did not seem condescending. “You feel I’m guilty of lesé majesté.” Gortley nodded tentatively, not sure of the phrase. “But we compare ourselves to apes and monkeys and dogs and cats.”
A girl to the side of the room spoke up: “That’s okay. It wouldn’t be if the cat was doing the comparing.”
“A matter of direction?”
Several nods, yes, only the high can have the privilege of comparing themselves to the low. Then Gortley was leaning forward. “It’s more fundamental than that. Your whole thrust is that humans thought up their own advancements, but it’s obvious that we had help.”
“Ancient astronauts? The Shining Ones who taught primitive humanity how to weave and farm and build?”
More nods, yes, this was what they had heard all their lives from Sunday supplements and tabloid feeds, TV and film, even in novels. Not, he hoped, in school. And the flourishing of Saucerites that had followed the aliens’ arrival had only strengthened the tide of rumor.
“Of course!” Gortley obligingly took the bait. “How could mere humans build such mighty things so long ago?”
Cynthia Worth flipped the pages of her textbook and called out, “Page 217.”
Someone laughed. Several more joined in as they got the joke. Gortley flushed.
Gabe grinned at the class, and especially at Ms. Worth. Yes, the reproduction of the tomb paintings showing how the pyramids were assembled. Time was what it had taken, time and the effort of ten thousand strong backs and pairs of hands, not the machines of alien construction crews who could erect an impregnable Embassy almost overnight. Not to mention all the trial and error, visible in the oldest pyramids of all, half-finished and collapsed, that it had taken the Pharaohs’ architects to get it right.
“A great many other ancient construction projects have also baffled modern understanding,” he said. “Temporarily, anyway. For instance, the statues of Easter Island, and they make a nice assignment for Friday. A bit of research and a small report on how they were quarried, moved, and erected. Please notice that our forebears right here on Earth were not dummies.”
He glanced at the back row, but the Plac was no longer there. He wished he had noticed when it rose and sidled between the seats toward the door. Perhaps it had just been beating the rush, the mob of students gathering their books and bags. Those with another class or a work assignment next period moved faster, even sprinting toward the exit. The rest seemed quite content to clot the aisles, drift toward the door, pausing, moving, always chattering. As far as Gabe could tell, not a word of the chatter dealt with his lecture.
He had no idea why the Plac had shown up for this class and none of those before, or what it had hoped to learn, although his syllabus was posted on the Net. It could have seen what he planned to talk about today, could have thought it might be interesting. Or amusing, more likely, a provincial ape pretending that it shared its essential apeness with the gods themselves. Was it lesé majesté to do so? Perhaps, but he could hardly refrain, ape that he was. . . .
* * *
The Great Flying Saucer Conspiracy by Thomas A. Easton is now available at the NRP website. Look for it in coming days at Amazon.com and B&N.com and other e-book retailers.