Appendix A: Biology of Psyche Aliens

Appendix A. The Eye of the Beholder 

A1. Aliens in Science Fiction 

Aliens are a staple of science fiction. They come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes. They fascinate us. Of all NASA's programs, the Kepler mission to find Earth-like planets (perhaps with signs of alien life) continues to inspire the public the most (given that human space flight on the Shuttle has ended). 

As astrophysicist and author Gregory Benford has noted, inventing an original alien is a special challenge for SF writers. For hard SF, aliens are attractive, because they introduce mystery and drama that doesn't violate known laws of physics. 

Benford classifies SF aliens as either anthropocentric or unknowable. Anthropocentric aliens have various human traits; they are "more or less than human, but human nonetheless." He adds: "Encounters with these aliens make us think about our society in a new light and "explore what it means to be human." 

On the other hand, Benford says, "Unknowable aliens have an 'essential strangeness,' and optimally, we are not meant to identify with them or understand them at all. If one is committed to rendering an alien alien, how then does one go about it? The author must somehow encode an irreducible degree of mystery, something that radically defies comprehension or intelligibility." This makes aliens almost mystical. 

Science fiction author Jack McDevitt has a similar take on SF aliens. He believes, like Benford, that most aliens are merely humans in rubber suits, as in Star Trek. "I personally avoid the problem by default by not allowing aliens onstage unless absolutely demanded by the plot. If they do make it out in front of the footlights, their appearance is so fleeting, or so circumscribed that the audience never has much of a chance to catch a name or say hello." 

In contrast, Vernor Vinge, mathematician and science fiction author, classifies SF aliens as either huggable (ET, Yoda) or scary-repulsive (as in Aliens, the James Cameron classic). ET and Yoda are more or less human. But, as Cameron demonstrated, the alien facehuggers are comprehensible parasites, knowable but not human.  

I feel a special fondness for some of Niven & Pournelle's aliens. These include the Moties (The Mote in God's Eye) who, while humanoid in body plan (albeit with 3 arms and a caste system based on morphology), are locked into a reproductive cycle that results in disastrous population explosions. Also, the 3-legged Puppeteers in the Known Space novels, who are not at all humanoid, live with a curious cowardly logic that insures long-term survival. Finally, there are the crocodilian grendels (The Legacy of Heorot) that confound colonists with hidden endocannibalism that leads to an overwhelming population of predatory adults. All these aliens are interesting and make for good storytelling. 

In my view, humanoid aliens usually demonstrate a failure of imagination on the part of the author – it's unlikely that an independently evolved sentient alien will look like us. Also, I think that unknowable or almost invisible aliens are a bit of a cheat, a way to dodge the hard work of conceptualization. Aliens that are original, believable and interesting are difficult to invent. The keys, I think, are reproduction and evolution — what is the alien life cycle and how does natural selection generate variation? 

The Psyche aliens presented in The Eye of the Beholder are intended to biologically truthful, but not at all human. Their peculiar value system depends on unique reproductive biology and high-bandwidth biological radio. They are physically scary-repulsive but have survival challenges that are common to all living creatures. The Psyches are smart and ambitious (to make them interesting), are air breathers and use tools, but otherwise are completely alien. In short, the Psyches are an "other" which may kill or enslave us; or we may kill or enslave them; or both species may be forced to learn to live together. 


A2. Origins of the Psyche Aliens 

As backstory, the Psyches come from Capella in the constellation Auriga, the third brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere. Capella is a star system with four stars in two binary pairs, 42 light years distant from Earth. Galacia is the fictional home world planet of the Psyches. 

Life arrived on Glacia from elsewhere in the galaxy. In the novel, panspermia, the theory that life in the galaxy spread across space from a common source, is assumed to be true. Many important biological molecules (including purine, pyrimidine, adenine and guanine) have been extracted from asteroid or comet fragments, for example the Murchison and Tagish Lake meteorites. Life may have left Earth on fragments from from asteroid impacts (e.g. from the Chicxulub crater), or arrived in the ice of exocomets from outside the Solar System.

The Psyche home world of Glacia (a made-to-order name for a glacier-covered world) orbits the G-type giant Capella near the outer edge of the habitable zone. It has no obliquity (axial tilt), no seasons, large polar ice caps and a narrow strip of tropics at the equator where biological life is concentrated. Glacia is a water world in a "snowball Earth" ice age, due to natural climate cycles, reduced volcanism (low atmospheric carbon dioxide), and a spaceborne molecular cloud that partially shields sunlight. Cold overwhelmed the Psyche civilization and they were forced to leave Glacia. 

The Psyches are adapted to cold, but evolved in a now vanished tropical region. The carnivorous Psyches were aquatic but moved onto land to live and hunt food. The non-sentient adult stage must still spawn in the ocean (which on Glacia is largely covered with ice) or in special heated pools. 


A3. Inventing Psyche Aliens 

The alien Psyches are modeled on terrestrial crabs. Arthropod aliens aren't unique (Vinge has spiders) but crabs are both grotesque and beautiful. Their movements are mechanical, robot-like, with hinged joints. The alien's spiked carapace is up to a meter in diameter and has six walking legs (Earth crabs have eight). The Psyches have two massive arms with multi-jointed pincers capable of both power grips and dexterous manipulation of tools. 

The Psyches originated in the ocean but are air-breathing land creatures. Living on land allows fire use and metal smelting, necessary to build a technological civilization. The Psyches breathe through two lateral spiracle tubes (one intake and one exhaust), using a bellows motion of the carapace. They require oxygen, but would prefer a greater concentration than Earth air provides. Airflow is unidirectional and efficient (not tidal – in an out of the same orifice – like mammals) and is regulated by flap-valves that make a slight puffing sound. When disturbed, Psyches can force air out of the exhaust spiracle with whistling, honking or screeching noises. They cannot make sophisticated musical audio sounds or speech. 

Psyche eyes are modeled on the marvelous vision system of the jumping spider. Two hemispherical domes at the front of the carapace act as corneal lenses. Cylindrical tubes inside the head-body accommodate the telephoto focal lengths. The eyes are aimed by moving retinas at the back of the tubes. The Psyches have excellent binocular vision that gives depth perception; the eyes can "verge" (cross) to focus on nearby objects, as human eyes (and jumping spider eyes) do. 

Psyches can see in both the visible and ultraviolet. They see whole images, as we do — instead of pixilated regions of contrast and motion, like the compound eyes of insects. Two eyes give the Psyches a "face," but without the ability to show expressions; the protective brow ridges make them look fierce and angry. 

Below the eyes is the mouth of a predator. Outer mandibles move horizontally, like the jaws of a beetle, and are used to grab and hold food. The mandibles cover a vertical hawk-like beak with sharp cutting edges that slice and butcher food. Inside the beak is an extensible, tubular tongue that is used to suck the fluids and flesh of live prey. 

The Psyche aliens have intimidating physiognomy and buggy appendages. The size of a large dog, they move with quick, jerky motions. They're not cute and cuddly — but also not face-sucking horrors. They're an apex predator from a remote world. 


A4. Electric Organs and Radio Communications 

So far, the Psyche aliens are creepy and maybe a bit scary, but nothing special — no worse than giant scorpions or big, hairy tarantulas. But there's more. 

The big arms of the Psyches have electric organs, similar to those of an electric eel. [N.B. The electric eel (a type of knifefish) is the top predator in the Amazon. It can deliver over half a kilowatt at five hundred volts, enough power to kill a human.] In the story, the Psyches can electrocute prey grabbed by the pincers on the arms. They can shock each other in arm-to-arm combat. 

Like the electric eel, the Psyche electric organs are used to communicate. Eels signal underwater with electric fields but the Psyches raise their arms out of the water. When a Psyche touches its arms together in air, short-circuiting the electric power organs, electric sparks jump between the tips. These arcs produce radio waves (in the same manner as a spark-gap transmitter used by Marconi for the first transatlantic radio signals). By moving their arms, the Psyches vary the electric arcs to modulate the radio signals, producing radio speech. This means that the aliens cannot hold objects or use tools and talk at the same time. 

Reception of radio signals is by means of two retractable hair antennas behind the brow ridges (antenna diversity). The signals are detected using naturally evolved point-contact diodes and neural voltage sensors (similar to the organs in the platypus bill that sense electric fields). 

The evolution of biological radio needs an explanation, since it hasn't occurred on Earth. Local plants and animals respond to the "visual" spectrum of light; no organism can detect X-rays or radio waves (which are at opposite ends of the electromagnetic spectrum). Unlike light, radio waves are not abundant, have little energy, and have wavelengths too long to resolve small objects; thus radio is not good for seeing. The Psyches don’t use radio to sense the environment (except indirectly) but instead use radio to communicate with each other. 

On the Psyches' fictional home planet Glacia, there is little radio noise from its sun. The Psyches spawn in saltwater, which is opaque to most radio frequencies. The floating eggs (of wild Psyches) are dispersed in the ocean, isolating individual hatchlings. Even as vulnerable babies, the Psyches can generate electricity to stun prey. However, the Psyches are poor swimmers and are more effective as social predators. Pack hunting demands communications over a distance. 

The Psyches generate and sense electric fields, useful over short distances underwater. They can see and hear, and can make simple sounds. Although sound waves travel well in water, the audio alerts the prey that a predator is nearby, and may attract larger predators that prey upon Psyches. The Psyches try to maintain acoustic silence, like submarines. 

Early in their evolutionary history, the Psyches started lifting their arms out of the water to make sparks to signal with visible flashes and popping noises. With arms out of the water, the sparks also generated radio waves. Antennae and sensors used for sensing electric fields evolved to also detect the radio waves, and thus enabled spark-gap signaling over long distances. Radio waves became a private communications channel for the Psyches. 

As the Psyches evolved to use radio communications, sound was relegated to show simple emotions. A unique characteristic of radio language is high bandwidth (compared to audio spectrum that we use). Biological "meat radio" evolved to become the primary means of Psyche speech (more on this later). 

Radio language drove the evolution of Psyche intelligence. Many Psyches can join a radio network and communicate as a communal or group mind, giving the appearance of telepathy. Due to the advantages of radio communication (and the possibility of hunting prey on land), the Psyches evolved to become air breathing and terrestrial (like the gigantic coconut crab — Birgus latro — of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the largest land-living arthropod, which can grow to one meter in length from leg to leg). 


A5. Psyche Alien Growth and Nutrition 

Psyches do not shed their exoskeletons during a molt, as crabs on Earth do. Hydraulic pressure forces the hard carapace to fracture into hundreds of small islands; the shell expands and body fluids ooze between the islands and harden into a new shell surface. [Wounds heal in the same fashion.] The appearance of the carapace shows pointillist dots, a record of the number of molt stages of growth. 

Like Earth crabs, the Psyches are vulnerable during a molt, but for less time; the cracking and expansion is efficient since the old carapace is not discarded. Psyche individuals go through five (or, rarely, six) molts from their juvenile "instar" developmental stages to the final stages, which are fictionally called "penstar" or "hexstar," before final metamorphosis (see below). The clear demarcation of growth stages defines Psyche status in communal life, the eldest being more respected. "Mature juveniles" (penstars and hexstars) maintain Psyche culture. 

The Psyche juveniles (instars) are carnivorous and eat only live prey. On their ancestral home world, they hunted in clan groups in both the ocean and on land. As their home planet became frozen, their population contracted and they commenced raising captive prey species. This resulted in industrial farming. On the interstellar mothership, no captive prey animals were eaten; instead, the Horde fed on eggs from sessile adults. 

Psyche instar juveniles live for the equivalent of fifty to one hundred years, which allows them time to accumulate knowledge and specialized expertise. They can aestivate (hibernate) by slowing metabolism, which allows deep sleep during space flight of thousands of years. Since aestivation is natural, it does not require special technology. 

When the Psyches set off on their interstellar colonization voyage to Earth, they used sessile adults (see below) to produce food eggs. Artificial light from fusion energy enabled algae to grow in tanks, using recycled nutrients. The sessile adults ate the algae and produced food eggs, which sustained the Psyche colony aboard the interstellar spaceship during the thousand-year voyage to Earth. 

On Earth, the Psyches found that local food was inedible, due to incompatible amino acids. Alien amino acids have a right-handed chirality bias, whereas Earth's amino acids are left-handed isomers. Also, Pysche DNA has a chiral twist opposite to Earth life. However, adult Psyches (non-sentient sessile bags that live in the ocean) can synthesize alien amino acids from Earth algae and bacteria. 

The Psyche Earth colonies are thus constrained to eat only eggs from sessile adults. [As the Psyche population on Earth grows, they will need large amounts of farmed algae to feed adults to make food eggs.] 


A6. Psyche Alien Reproduction 

In Psyche society, juvenile instars — large, mobile and intelligent "mature juveniles" — carry the culture and maintain civilization. Although juveniles cannot lay eggs, they mate frequently and promiscuously. 

Psyches are hermaphroditic but often act as either male or female. Janus-like, a Psyche individual can switch gender orientation in an instant, depending on available sexual partners. Male behavior is opportunistic, using status to mate with as many others as possible; female behavior involves choosing the highest-status individuals. Kin recognition is accomplished through carapace color spotting using a kind of dot code that indicates genetic makeup; this allows Psyches to avoid inbreeding and find supportive relatives. 

Reproduction starts with matings by juvenile instars, which may be mutual double copulation — or a single male-to-female sperm transfer. Sperm is transferred via a special sac on an arm to the vaginal opening of another individual; each mating fertilizes a single egg. Only sexually immature juveniles are able to mate; they retain many fertilized ova inside their bodies but cannot reproduce until they metamorphose into non-sentient adults. 

Although juveniles mate promiscuously, they do form loyal and loving relationships with protectors. The role of a protector is to assist her companion through metamorphosis and into non-sentient adulthood. The protector also guards the eggs produced by the brainless, sessile adult. The clan watches the actions of the protector; if she is loyal, she will secure her own protector when her time comes for metamorphosis to adulthood. 

When a fifth instar (penstar) Psyche is ready to molt, a state that is triggered by internal hydraulic pressure, s/he must go through metamorphosis in the ocean. During metamorphosis, the adult digests its juvenile brain and loses all memory. This terrifying transformation is the end of individualism and sentience (the death of thought). Metamorphosis is the physical and intellectual apotheosis of Psyche life; all intelligence and free will vanish. 

Penstars are conflicted since they want to maintain consciousness but also feel compelled to achieve reproductive adulthood (when they become non-sentient egg-laying sacs). Like ancient Egyptian kings, mature juveniles (penstars) make elaborate preparations for metamorphosis and afterlife, including securing protectors to insure that some of their eggs are allowed to hatch. From a life of guile and deceit as part of the Horde, they must surrender to loyalty and trust. Few succeed. 

The sexually mature adult Psyche is a brainless egg sac anchored to the bottom of the ocean, an aquatic filter feeder living on algae and plankton. [N.B. This is also the fate of the adult sea squirt, the most primitive chordate — which metamorphoses from a tadpole, digests its brain, and becomes a sessile filter feeder.] 

Sessile, non-sentient adult Psyches continuously lay eggs, which were fertilized during their long years as sentient juveniles. Thousands of different matings with other juveniles have produced tens of thousands of fertilized eggs, which grow according to the algae nutrition available to the sessile adult. Long-lived non-sentient adult Psyches are helpless and depend on protection from genetically related sentient juveniles. Since the Psyches live among cannibals, an individual needs a trusted friend (clan protector) to reproduce successfully. Adult Psyches continue to spawn (several eggs per day) until their fertilized egg supply is exhausted. Then they are eaten or abandoned by their kin protectors. 

The DNA of Psyche eggs contain fifty percent of the genes from each parent. In addition, significant "life memories" and "racial memories" are stored in a separate area of the Psyche DNA (not part of the DNA that codes for body phenotype, growth and metabolism; i.e. there is no Lamarkian evolution). The storage of life memories in DNA gives Psyches a kind of cultural continuity, but does not transfer identity or personality. This "racial memory" is diluted with the most salient memories of previous ancestors, and influences the new identity of the hatchling. 

The eggs produced by spawning sessile adults float to the surface of the ocean and either drift away or are collected by the juvenile protectors. On the Psyche home world, a small percentage of eggs that were dispersed in the wild would hatch and survive as feral individuals, without high culture. 

A few of the eggs that are collected by juvenile protectors may be raised as cultured individuals that belong to a Psyche clan. However, the sentient juveniles cannibalistically eat most of the eggs spawned by the sessile adults — and also many of the small hatchlings. This endocannibalism allows the mature juveniles to harvest otherwise unavailable food and energy (gathered by the sessile adults eating algae). Cannibalism is one way for Psyches to keep their populations from exploding beyond the food supply. [On Earth there are hundreds of endocannibalistic species, including African frogs that eat their tadpoles and crabs that indiscriminately consume their own spawn. Sand tiger sharks are intrauterine cannibals, a way for the parent to provide extra nourishment to the most aggressive pup.]

© G.B. Immega 2014