The Curmudgeon


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.