The Curmudgeon


Saturday, April 17, 2004

Planetary Survey No.6: Catapulting Cities of Selsat One

The two warring moons of the planet Sigma Selveti are inhabited by the pale-skinned, spiral-fingered race of the Moids, who abandoned their world for its satellites some forty-three centuries ago. They can hardly be blamed for doing so, for Sigma Selveti bears the scars of their ancestors' rapacity even now, and is likely to bear them always. The oceans which once covered sixty per cent of the planet's surface have been reduced to cracked and desiccated plains, which leak poisonous steam; the only pure water to be found is at the polar ice caps, where life continues in the humble form of the Selvetian zumb, a type of algae which spreads outwards from the edge of the pack ice and gives each pole, when observed from space, a thin purplish halo.

The Moids are highly skilled at astronomy and both moons bristle with telescopes, while the inhabitants boast that a sand-grain cannot shift nor a pebble roll on the Home Planet without their instant knowledge. Of course, the Moids of Selsat One say that the telescopes on Selsat Two cannot distinguish a mountain from a sand dune, while the observers on Selsat Two opine that their counterparts on Selsat One are hard put to tell the Home Planet from a crater in their own lunar surface; but in fact the level of technology on both satellites is virtually the same, though the short-term aims towards which the technology is employed tend to diverge considerably.

The long-term aim has not changed on either moon for four thousand years. The Moids are obsessed, almost to the point of necrophilia, with the planet on which their race originated and which, against all reasonable hope for even millions of years henceforward, they still consider their rightful home. Despite their immense potential for making astronomic progress outside their own system, every lens which is built on either moon is instantly conscripted into the continuous vigil over Sigma Selveti. The original evacuees, the last inhabitants of the planet proper, thoroughly indoctrinated all their offspring with pathological nostalgia, which was passed on meticulously from generation to generation, until within a few hundred years the cult of the Return Home had become an all-embracing religious doctrine, demanding no adherence but the strictest, no faith but the most fervent.

At first the Selvetians colonised only Selsat One, the innermost moon; but only half a millennium later, both moons housed thriving communities dedicated, with equal and increasingly acrimonious determination, to the Return Home. In the beginning, this mutual dislike arose purely from the competitive spirit, as the Moids vied to re-colonise the planet first; but when methods started, as was inevitable, to diverge, the recriminations began in earnest, with each moon accusing the other of having betrayed the faith.

Selsat Two, the outer moon, put its resources into powered flight, in the hope of rediscovering the now forgotten technology which brought the forefathers of all present Moids to their new home; while Selsat One concentrated on an entirely new line of research, namely the building of a vast bridge from the satellite to Selveti itself. To this end, the government of Selsat One has commissioned gigantic skyscrapers to which a floor is added each generation, thus solving simultaneously the problem of potential overcrowding.

During the last few years, the aircraft of Selsat Two have reached the stage of evolution where, though still unable to carry Moids as far as the Home Planet, they are perfectly capable of making the short hop necessary to travel from moon to moon. Accordingly, as soon as the orbit of Selsat One brought it between Selsat Two and Sigma Selveti, causing a planetary eclipse on Selsat Two, the government of Selsat Two accused Selsat One of perpetrating an act of malicious spiritual deprivation upon the people of Selsat Two by blocking the latter’s view of the Home Planet. War was declared, and the space planes of Selsat Two began to embark upon bombing missions.

For the first seven months of the war, these raids were a great success, abbreviating countless buildings on Selsat One, sending tons of masonry crashing onto the Moids in the streets below, and causing disruption to both daily life and the sacred cause of the Return Home. The situation was quite serious, until the scientists of Selsat One had the idea of slinging huge elastic nets between the buildings. These now cover the whole moon like a wrapping of black gauze, and serve to protect the populace from both bombs and falling stone. The enemy retaliated by using ever larger and heavier bombs, whose weight enabled them to break through the netting, but also meant eventually that no spacecraft could take off from Selsat Two with more than one bomb on board. Meanwhile the nets on Selsat One continued to grow in strength and elasticity; and at present, after fifteen months of war, they no longer confine their activities to merely keeping harmful objects away from people in the street. It is becoming increasingly common for the squadrons of Selsat Two to suffer losses owing to rebounding masonry which, dislodged by the explosions, falls into the nets and immediately bounces back up again to cause a hazard to fliers. As the generals on Selsat Two become more infuriated with the war’s lack of progress, and send larger squadrons to do more extensive damage, the hazard only increases, since more falling masonry means more bouncing masonry, and the larger number of bombers merely serves to provide a bigger target.

Recently, Selsat Two has been experimenting with timed devices, set to explode in the nets and rupture them; but this tactic also has its problems. It is by no means easy to gauge precisely when the device should go off once it has left the spacecraft, and most of them tend to explode harmlessly in mid-air when either half-way down or half-way up. A fortnight ago, a timed bomb was catapulted right into the middle of a formation of spacecraft and, thanks to the perfect timing of fate, destroyed every machine; and last week an exceptionally large one bounced right up into a cloud and blew up a bomber which was taking cover there. It rained warm water and spacecraft components for half an hour afterward.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Planetary Survey No.5: Science and Superstition on Pondulon Five

The Tectonicitous Spollingrots of Pondulon Five believe that continental drift on their planet is controlled by the turning of a large crank deep beneath the sea. This crank, which brings Pondulon’s two major land masses three centimetres closer to one another every year, is operated (so they say) by a dwarf on an exercycle located precisely in the middle of the floor of the ocean which at present separates the continents. The rear wheel of the exercycle is connected to a chain, which is connected to a complicated mechanism on the nature of which there are far too many theories to go into at this point; and it is this machine which turns the crank that decreases the ocean’s width by three-hundredths of a metre every year. The furious pedalling of the dwarf, the saying goes, is also the cause of ripples which, by the time they manage to make their way to the water’s surface, have become magnified into the waves familiar to everyone on the planet.

The Spollingrots have always been aware that the dwarf was responsible for the waves, but in ancient times it was thought that he created them simply by jumping up and down on the ocean floor while vigorously flapping his arms. Then it was discovered that the continents, Pondle and Londle, were drifting towards each other; this fact was observed by Professor Ignoglod Frake, of the Tectonicitous Academy, who stretched a piece of string from the most westerly point on Pondle to the most easterly point on Londle one midsummer morning, and Professor Glodinog Frake, his grandson, who did exactly the same thing precisely a hundred years later, with the same piece of string, which had been handed down to him across the generations along with the old man’s categorical instructions, and discovered he had three metres to spare.

The continents, therefore, obviously moved; but, clear though it was that no-one but the dwarf could be responsible, it was not, until recently, understood exactly how he was achieving this. Certain obstinate scholars with a traditional cast of mind maintained in the teeth of all evidence that the jumping up and down and flapping of the arms, provided only that it was sufficiently vigorous, accounted both for the ocean waves and the continental drift, in that these actions created both ripples and an underwater vacuum which gradually sucked the continents closer together. This theory was soon discredited by Professor Glodinog Frake, who took another piece of string and used it to measure the depth of the sea at approximately the point where the dwarf was estimated to reside. He then used this measurement to calculate, on the basis of average wave velocity and presumed weight of the continents, that the dwarf would need to exert, through his jumping and flapping, two simultaneous forces of 200 and 200,000,000 pounds per square inch respectively in order to produce the observed phenomena.

Some diehard traditionalists were unimpressed, claiming that the dwarf might be flapping with a force of two hundred pounds to the square inch and jumping with a force of two hundred million; but the bulk of the scientific community found this reasoning implausible. It was then that the theory of the machine began to gain credence, although until fairly recently it was believed that the dwarf operated it by hand; this hypothesis has been conclusively proved erroneous on the basis of highly specialised data which there is no room to explore here, and the exercycle idea has provided a number of plausible answers as well as several fruitful avenues for new speculation. Indeed, only a few years ago a minor atomic war was fought, ostensibly over the precise make and model of the exercycle, although it was later claimed that a hidden agenda existed concerning the specifications of the machine to which it is connected. This, of course, is a question which international law forbids should be settled by armed conflict (although wars over such comparatively minor problems as the make of the exercycle are well within the bounds of the treaty) on the grounds that the question of the machine is so complex and unanswerable as to turn any war for its solution into a holocaust which the race could not survive.

Some decades ago it was thought that the dwarf was deliberately attempting to destroy the whole planet, including the Spollingrots, by bringing the continents together in a collision of unimaginable violence. During this pessimistic stage of history, large fleets of ships from both Pondle and Londle sailed for the middle of the ocean to drop tactful offers of peaceful negotiation, wrapped around large pieces of rock, into the murky depths which, according to the science of the day, the dwarf was presumed to inhabit. Later, when no response came to these polite solicitations, the lumps of rock were dropped anew, this time without the messages; but, as the now ritualistic measurements, carried out always with the famous Professors' venerable piece of string, continued to show, Pondle and Londle were still destined to meet.

In the present day, however, the racial mind of the Spollingrots has entered a more humane and compassionate phase, and many luminaries of the Tectonicitous Academy of Submarinal Midgetology now believe that the dwarf may intend only to help the Spollingrots to find peace and brotherhood with each other by bringing them closer together. Almost everyone now thinks the pedalling will probably slow down as the continents near one another, though some, of a less optimistic school, are beginning to theorise that the dwarf may be under some kind of compulsion to pedal as he does, and thus (as they observe) to bring upon himself the torment of watching the walls of his prison, in the shape of the two continents, move in to crush him, albeit rather slowly. Perhaps, they say, perhaps when the continents are closer together and we have a smaller area of sea to search; perhaps then we shall be able to find out at last where he is and what he is trying to do; perhaps, if he is truly under restraint by some being or beings as yet unknown, we shall even be able to help him. But whatever happens, it will not happen for some little time yet; the ocean is still three and a half thousand miles wide. The glory of truth must go to a different generation; our own can only speculate. That is what the Spollingrots say.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Planetary Survey No.4: Structure of the Family on Phronk

The pressure of gravity on the surface of the planet Phronk is over a thousand times that at the centre of Jupiter; to call the inhabitants hard-headed would therefore be something of an understatement. In fact, the Phronki are hard all over, having auto-evolved into flattened cones half a mile high and several miles in diameter. The brain and vital organs of each individual reside at the very bottom of this structure, ninety-nine per cent of whch is solid, dead and as hard as concrete, the remaining one per cent being mainly the nervous system and digestive organs. In personal habits as well as physical appearance, the Phronki resemble a cross between a limpet and a nuclear air-raid shelter; from the time of its conception until its death, usually by suicide, the individual spends its entire life rooted to precisely the same spot, unable to move thanks to the tremendous weight of the atmosphere. The air is so thick that the Phronki can even feed on it; if certain types of Earth smog are comparable to pea soup, then the atmosphere of Phronk may justly be likened to a three-course meal.

This fact is due to the vaporised bodies of fourteen billion Phronki who were casualties of the last Phronk-wide war to be fought with weapons of mass physical destruction, and who now permeate every cubic inch of the planet’s air. They are largely responsible both for the nutritional value of the air and for its density. It was after the war in which these Phronki died that the survivors of the race re-made themselves into their present form, partly in order to adapt to the vastly changed conditions of their environment, and partly to remove from the racial consciousness any propensity for the sort of territorial conflict which had led to the disaster in the first place.

Now, a million years later, there are several thousand Phronki scattered across the surface of the planet, all of them in communication with each other through the medium of telepathy, which is also the means of reproduction. Whenever an old Phronki dies and a new one is needed to replace it, the five most eligible parents are chosen by psychic ballot, in which it is also decided what particular sexual role should be played by each candidate, since all Phronki have the potential to play all five. These votes, which take place once every few years, are the nearest thing the Phronki now have to a social event, and passions can be stirred up to a considerable degree, especially when it comes to the delegation of sexual roles. Four of these – the so-called male, female, wemale, and felame – are equally important to the conception of a new being, and thus equally prestigious; but the fifth – known as the lame – is purely symbolic, an anachronism dating from the evolutionary past, when a special gender existed for eating and digesting the old and infirm, and thus creating the necessary space for the newcomers to live in once the other four sexes had produced them.

Once the parents have been chosen, each of them, including the lame, sends out a small armoured vehicle, which carries at its heart a portion of the genetic information required to conceive a new Phronki. When the five vehicles meet, at planetary co-ordinates pre-determined by the community, the tanklike bodies automatically combine to form a temporary protection for the embryo Phronki until it is old enough to grow its own shell. The absence of a lame vehicle, though its role is of no biological importance, is seen as horribly unlucky, and may result in the young Phronki being itself chosen as a lame. In order to try and mitigate the humiliation of being delegated to this post, it is now customary for the lame to provide, in lieu of genetic information, the new citizen’s telepathic call-sign, or in human terms, its name. Nonetheless, a Phronki which is elected a parent, only to be given the lame role, is prone to feel deeply disappointed, and even snubbed; it is sometimes persuaded only with great difficulty to take part in the proceedings at all, and may commit suicide immediately they are completed.