Alien Ecology as Character?

The One-Eyed Man by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Written by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Novels where the ecology plays a central role in not just the setting, but in the resolution of the plot, are rare. Novels that do this well are even rarer, and novels that do both accurately, in conjunction and in conflict with a functioning society, are even rarer. Accomplishing all those was certainly in my mind when I wrote The One-Eyed Man, in addition, of course, to writing a novel based on John Jude Palencar’s gorgeous cover painting.

Part of the difficulty in creating a workable alien ecology is that everything in an ecosystem interacts with everything else, and that in some fashion or another, there will be a food chain, meaning that there will always be more small creatures and plants than large omnivores or carnivores, another fact often overlooked by more than a few writers for the sake of drama and action. The other problem is that it’s highly unlikely that any ecosystem in which human beings can survive without the use of high technology will be other than carbon-based (a point explained at some length years ago by Isaac Asimov, a writer far more accomplished in biochemistry than me). These factors and others make creating a truly alien but workable carbon-based system a bit of a challenge.

Then comes the question of intelligence in such a system. Even if the parameters an author sets up allow for recognizable intelligence, would the ecological conditions actually allow the evolution of intelligence, and if that intelligence does develop, will it develop in ways that are recognizable to humans. And…even if that is possible, will any sort of meaningful communication be possible? These may seem like obvious questions, and they are, but after more than fifty years of reading science fiction, I’ve found that most authors who create aliens avoid the ecological background of their aliens and the implications of that background, as if the aliens existed in almost a vacuum. Either that, or there is irreconcilable conflict or the aliens are more like humans with different bodies.

In The One-Eyed Man, events take place on Stittara, a world generally hospitable to humans, with the notable exception of an ecologically influenced weather pattern that results in winds that make the most violent earthly tornadoes and hurricanes seem mild by comparison. There are no large animal species and all recognizable animal species rely on burrowing or marine habitats. There are few analogues to terrestrial trees, again for multiple ecological reasons, and, because of the winds, the terrain is, in general, far less overtly rugged. What makes Stittara valuable are derivative anti-aging pharmaceuticals developed from Stittaran plants and animals, possible only because of the unique ecology.

The Stittaran ecology and even the geology are far more stable than they should be, given the position of the planet in its solar system and the planetary composition. These factors have not escaped the human inhabitants, who have also adapted over the generations, although they appear essentially unchanged. They are in many ways as much Stittaran as human, so much so that when Dr. Paulo Verano arrives to conduct an ecological assessment, prompted by concerns of the distant legislature that governs the Ceylesian Arm, he finds far more difference between what has been reported and what exists than he ever anticipated. These differences appear not only in the ecology, but in the local socio-political system as a result of the changes in human biology created by Stittara itself, not to mention potential disasters being created as a result of misapplication of high technology to the planet.

In the end, Verano must find a solution that balances two differing ecologies, multiple levels of political systems, all of which view him as a threat, and his own conscience, a difficult proposition considering that he is a hired ecological consultant with no real power.


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10 thoughts on “Alien Ecology as Character?

  1. Hi Lee.

    For me, the classic tale of alien ecology as character comes not from a novel, but from a video game, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. On your first playthrough (its a strategy game), the story unfolds of the colonization of the planet, and the slow realization that the planet’s ecology is…coordinated.

    When the mind worms swarm and attack you, then you really realize that this is no good thing.

  2. Lee–I will immodestly add my 1987 first novel Pennterra to the list. Doing all the things you mention is a hell of a lot of work, but you are exactly right that they are all necessary.

  3. This whole “alien ecology as character’ reminds me of Stephen Tall’s collection of short stories, _The_Stardust_Voyages_. There was one story in particular – an ecology where the dominant life forms were various colored cubes who fed on the ‘grass’ that covered their planet. All these years later I *still* have those two(2) Stardust books.

  4. Larry Niven’s “Flare Time” is a short story that investigates the effect of environment on the ecology.

  5. “The Subways of Tazoo” by Colin Kapp from his ‘Unorthodox Engineers’ series is a great example of a story based around the ecology and technology of an extinct civilization. It would make a good short film too.

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