The Curmudgeon


Sunday, May 23, 2004

Planetary Survey No.9: In the Sarlaningan Deserts

The ghobes of Sarlaninga are scaly, lizard-like beings with two powerful legs and great muscular tails which make up half the total length of their bodies. Their usual mode of travel is a rapid trot across the fine black sands of Sarlaninga, during which they lift their long, flexible feet high in the air and bring them down hard on the ground, at the same time swishing their tails from side to side to aid themselves in balancing. This method of locomotion stirs up vast dense clouds of Sarlaningan dust, within which the herds of ghobes appear to move as though inside some shapeless ghostly ship; it is no doubt these dust-clouds which are responsible for the planet’s ancient legend that the ghobes were originally born from sandstorms.

The ghobes have no forelimbs; all grasping, manipulating and self-defence is performed with the mouth which, when tightly closed against the dust, is a thin vertical line extending around half the entire circumference of the creature’s spherical head. A ghobe’s head is not made up, like an Earth vertebrate’s, of an upper section comprising cranium, face and upper jaw and a lower section comprising only the lower jaw; instead, it consists of two equal portions, joined at the neck by a complex triple ball-and-socket mechanism which allows movement of either jaw separately or of the entire head.

Ghobe herds travel continuously between sunrise and sunset, relying on the dust-clouds and their own speed to confuse and deter predators. While in motion, the ghobes drop folds of thick skin over their eyes and nostrils, in order to protect them from the dust; consequently, during the daytime they are invariably quite blind, and have to breathe using special air sacs which run down the sides of their bodies, from their necks to the base of their tails. These sacs, which perform a function similar to that of the camel’s hump, are refilled every night, when the ghobes come to rest. When this happens, the entire herd stands in a circle, each member no more than a few feet away from the next, and all facing outwards so that their excellent night vision may catch the first sign of danger from any direction.

The process by which the ghobes determine where to go during their daily migrations has never been satisfactorily explained. Each night, besides panting heavily to refill their flaccid air sacs, they use their feet to dig beneath the sand for scrockles. These mysterious creatures nest in underground warrens which the ghobes excavate from the perimeter inwards, thus cutting off all possible exits from the very beginning of the enterprise and ensuring that few if any of the residents escape. As scrockle-warrens are extremely hard to find even with sophisticated man-made equipment, and as the successes of the ghobes in discovering them tend to outnumber their failures by a ratio of approimately five to one, it seems that the ghobes have some form of intenal radar for the detection, at considerable distances, of some non-visual phenomenon produced by the scrockles, perhaps a chemical used by them for communication purposes. We are unlikely to find out much more on the subject until the scrockles themselves can be studied in detail; unfortunately, as has already been noted, the only reliable indicators of the whereabouts of their warrens are the ghobe herds, which rarely leave anything behind to study apart from a neatly piled pyramid of sand surrounded by their own characteristically long, thin footprints.

The ghobes’ only predator is the Cazibuan rectula, a tailless quadruped which in size and basic outline bears some resemblance to a hyena, except of course that its large, blunt head, like the ghobe’s, possesses a vertical mouth. The ghobe is far from being its only prey; indeed, the rectula subsists almost entirely on carrion and such smaller animals as the spufts, yarkles and blifferits with which the desert abounds. Somewhat inferior in size, and unable to protect itself adequately against either the ghobe’s dust-clouds or its formidable teeth, a rectula will tackle a ghobe only during the singular ritual which every herd enacts at regular intervals for a purpose as yet unknown.

On an average of two out of every hunded and nineteen nights, the herd will come to a halt more or less as usual, forming at sunset the customary outward-facing circle while its members replenish their air supplies. There is, however, no digging, and even if a potential threat appears on the horizon it is as likely to elicit no reaction at all as either of the usual defences, namely flight or the kicking up of a stationary sandstorm.

After about an hour, which is the maximum time a ghobe’s air sac takes to fill up, every member of the herd, taking great care not to break the circle, slowly turns through a hundred and eighty degrees to face the inside of the ring instead of the outside. The first to begin the turn are the oldest and slowest, and the motion gradually permeates its way through the entire gathering of fifty to seventy ghobes, the youngest and most agile being the very last to start, so that the whole herd comes simultaneously face to face. With a similar, dreamlike stateliness, each ghobe, from the oldest to the youngest, then raises its left foot to balance itself on its right foot and the tip of its tail. The grace and precision of each of these collective manoeuvres is all the more remarkable for being performed with closed eyes by all concerned.

A herd of ghobes will remain spread out in a perfect circle, every one of its members in this frozen, vulnerable posture, until sunrise, when the normal routine is taken up again as if nothing had happened. Occasionally one of the creatures will overbalance during the night; as a ghobe under these circumstances is never capable of righting itself, the others will leave it behind for the rectulas. More often, though, the rectulas will actually come and drag victims away by the tail during the ritual itself. These victims are not necessarily selected from among the old, the very young, and the sick, as it seems that not even being caught in the powerful jaws of a predator can break the trance-like state of a ghobe at these times; the gutted corpses of young and old, of weak and strong alike have been observed at rectula dens with the left leg raised and the tail stuck straight out behind, just as if the creature were still standing in place in the circle.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Planetary Survey No.8: Soul Musicians of Rempulus Nineteen

The Poggles of Rempulus XIX are small rotund creatures with two mouths each. One mouth, equipped with jaws, teeth, and strong muscles to operate them, is used for eating; the other leads via a long and flexible trachea, lined with an intricate array of folds and filters over which the Poggle has extremely sensitive muscular control, to the powerful lungs, and is used for breathing and, almost as important, for vocalising.

The Poggles believe that the soul resides in the voice, and that all the sounds made by an individual during his lifetime, from birth-yell to death-scream, are stages in the soul’s gradual escape from the body. Silence is a sin on Rempulus XIX, and writing has been unknown for many centuries; not through any form of forced censorship, but because every Poggle finds the implications of the act genuinely horrifying. Verbal communication without the use of sound means, after all, that the soul, or a part of it, can be mechanically transcribed and permanently preserved in a form which will leave it completely unchanged and unchanging, in other words frozen and dead, potentially for all eternity. This appalling concept is one which the Poggle mind can scarcely encompass, let alone bear to meditate upon.

A thousand years ago it was customary, prior to executions, for the criminal’s confession to be transcribed, before his own eyes, onto tablets of stone, in order that the part of his soul which had urged him to the crime should spend forever in that dreaded silence, and never escape. The transcribing was performed by members of a sect known as the Penitential Mutes, which consisted of those who had lost through accident, or been born without, their voices, and who were thus regarded as no more than bodies without souls, miserably walking the world in the pink cowls which on Rempulus XIX signify mourning, utterly without hope of redemption. They alone, among the whole race of the Poggles, possessed the frightful secret of orthography; and when the order died out some six hundred years ago, the secret perished with it.

Between the demise of the Mutes (which came about largely thanks to the good works of St Grolgulus the Laryngologist) and the advent about a century ago of electronic recordings, there emerged another peculiar sect, the so-called Repeaters or Immortalisers. They offered, for a fee, to learn by heart various mannerisms, intonation patterns, and idiosyncratic turns of phrase belonging to their customers, which they then guaranteed to repeat at certain intervals after the customer’s physical death, thus ensuring the continuation of his soul. How frequently, and over what period of time, these repetitions were carried out was a matter for negotiation, and depended mainly on the size of the fee involved; a Poggle of great wealth could conceivably hire several generations of Repeaters to keep his voice alive across two or three centuries. The fees tended to be rather beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen, since the taking over of someone else’s soul, with or without that individual’s consent, was a risky business. Indeed, under some statutes a Repeater could be punished by having his throats cut, with the result that a proper death-scream (considered vital to the soul’s escape if the body died young) became impossible, so that the soul was left trapped in the body and compelled to rot away with it.

Sacred above all else to the Poggles is, as may well be imagined, music. They have no use for instruments, regarding them as grotesque and perverse attempts to imitate the workings of the true soul. All Poggle music is produced with the voice (which has an astonishing range and subtlety thanks to the huge variety and flexibility of the filters within the windpipe); but usually does not involve the use of words. Lyrics are not unknown, but they are used only in solo performances by their own authors, since if anyone else sang them it would of course count as Repetition, which is almost as grievous an offence today as half a millennium ago.

The peak of Poggle culture is the choir. Choral singing on Rempulus XIX, though, is not the exclusive province of a small specialised group of singers assembled on specific occasions to perform in front of a silent audience, but a necessary social event in which every single individual participates at least once a day, and often far more. Indeed, an individual who participates less than twice a day on average is generally thought to be "song-starved", and recommended for psychiatric treatment.

It is as yet unknown what peculiar balance of conscious and unconscious forces lies behind this odd and haunting phenomenon; the Poggles themselves believe that it represents the urge of all souls for mutual communion. What appears to happen is that groups of Poggles, not necessarily intimates or even previously acquainted, begin simultaneously and spontaneously to sing. There is no pre-arranged score and no single Poggle who leads all the others; the notes emerge from anything between two and a thousand throats in perfect harmony. This can happen without warning at any time of day and in any location where Poggles exist. On several exceptional occasions, such songs have lasted whole weeks and involved the populations of entire cities; until quite recently it was thought that events of this magnitude were purely apocryphal, until Lolglot, second city of the Claftish land mass, proved the sceptics wrong a decade ago by remaining in song for six days on end and causing the earth to shake for miles around. At the peak of their recital, on the fourth evening, the citizens of Lolglot could be heard halfway round the planet, and the event is still commemorated by the whole race of Poggles on every anniversary of its occurrence.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Planetary Survey No.7: God is No Vod

The desert planet Vultis B is peopled entirely by the Vods, which to the naked eye resemble smoothed-out pieces of transparent cellophane about twelve inches square. Through a microscope it is possible to discern an intricate pattern of veins, as fine as those in a fly’s wing, through which a thin fluid continually courses, throughout the Vod’s entire body. This fluid has never yet been analysed in satisfactory detail, but it is obviously versatile stuff. since the veins are the only structures observable, by microscope or otherwise, in the entirety of the Vod anatomy. No Vod possesses anything resembling respiratory organs, digestive organs, a nervous system, or a brain. They do not even have hearts, although this is one of the more explicable omissions as their own paper-thinness, together with the relentless heat from the Vultic sun, means that the mysterious fluid is kept at boiling point, and thus in constant motion, for the duration of its owners’ lifespan. The Vods' lack of pores does not entirely prevent evaporation, but their shrinkwrap-like skin is so closely knit that a Vod can survive for up to ten Vultic years before succumbing to fluid loss.

The Vods travel on the wind, which blows them like some ethereal litter across the endless deserts of Vultis. They appear highly sensitive to the strength and distribution of weather systems, and are capable of changing the speed and course of a journey by burying themselves in the sand during calm periods and then simply waiting for a convenient wind to come along. The weather on Vultis B is highly cyclical, so that even with this passive method it does not usually take too long for a Vod to get where it wishes to go.

It is not known how the Vods nourish themselves, although given their habit of burying themselves at night, as though to avoid the wind while the sun is unavailable, some form of photosynthesis, may play a role. They reproduce by gravitating annually towards the spiky mountain ranges with which Vultis B is dotted, and which the Vods generally avoid for the rest of the year. Here they do nothing for a week except allow the winds to fling them hard and frequently against the sharp rocks. In the weeks leading up to the reproducing season, the Vods will have become increasingly brittle in the area around the middle of their bodies, a process accelerated by the gradual sealing-off of all the veins in that area. This prevents fluid loss if reproduction is successful; otherwise, the blockages will dissolve in a matter of days once the season has ended. If reproduction is successful and an appropriately sharp rock outcropping impacts in just the right place, the Vod will split into two equal rectangles, which immediately become as independent from one another as the original Vod was independent from its fellows. It takes about one and a half Vultic years for each of these rectangles to grow back into the perfectly square shape which constitutes a fully mature Vod, and only at the end of this time, when all its four sides are of precisely equal length, will a new Vod attempt to reproduce itself.

The Vods' evolutionary history has been a matter of extensive, if hardly fruitful, speculation. The theoretical possibility that the entire species could have sprung from a single Vod has led to many pseudo-scientific imaginings, the most outrageous being that this first Vod must have been the first creature ever to inhabit the universe; that the fluid in its veins, and consequently in the veins of all its descendants, is the alchemists' Elixir of Life; and that therefore, in the words of the popular fundamentalist slogan, "God is a Vod". It is thanks to this kind of irresponsibility that the natural habitat of the Vods is now being disrupted by a constant influx of half-baked tourists. Not only do these people cause immeasurable disturbance when they land and disembark; they have also taken to bringing along small electric fans with which to create an artificial breeze and lure the frightened Vods out of hiding. Worse still, few of these tourists feel able to leave without their very own Vod, or possibly several, carefully cured and dried, to hang on the wall at home.

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. If God were indeed a Vod, this foolish multitude would have found itself well smitten long before now.