Life on Other Worlds | Varyer

Life on Other Worlds

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Part I

Unfamiliar at
First Glance

Brushing away sand, I uncovered the hooked claw of some long-deceased creature. It sat heavy and restless in my palm, a deadly comma, eager to get back to tearing and slicing after its long sleep. I imagined the animal. I pictured a sleek, capable hunter. I was a child. This was my passion at the time; imagining animals. Back home I had stacks of dog-eared dinosaur books with names I had memorized and illustrations I looked at every day.

The claw wasn’t genuine. It had been molded and cast by my kind, by humans, and buried in a sandbox in a museum in Oklahoma. This had been its exact purpose: to key children into the experience of finding an artifact from the past. It had worked splendidly on me. Though a fake, the claw wasn't a total deception. Our understanding of the history of life on earth, after all, is largely imagined.

Our dinosaurs are rough approximations based on sparse clues. Fossils are rare, with the process being a delicate and unlikely thing. Jungles, which today house the widest variety of species, rarely yield fossils at all. When an animal dies in a jungle, scavengers and fungus are quick to pounce and leave nothing behind. We are missing vast annals of life from sites where life was at its most colorful and varied.

Even the ancient animals that did leave clues rarely give us the full picture. We can luck into an entire skeleton and still not know a thing about the texture of the creature’s skin, what it ate, what it looked like while playing, while sleeping. An elephant’s skeleton, for example, betrays no evidence of its signature trunk made of softer, fleshier stuff.

In dreaming up an animal attached to this claw, I was, for all intents and purposes, a paleontologist.

Dinosaurs—“dinosaurs” in the colloquial sense, “dinosaurs” as a catch-all for “prehistoric life”—lie at the intersection of the fantastic and the scientific. Monsters and dragons hold their appeal, but in the case of dinosaurs, they actually existed. The realism is the draw. Dinosaurs tell us there are an untold number of giants beneath our feet, puzzles waiting to be pieced together, discoverable.

They are at once familiar and foreign, some of them supersized versions of animals at the local zoo. Crocodiles, but bigger. Dragonflies, but bigger. Together they ask, wasn’t life magnificent? It’s no wonder a love of dinosaurs is associated with childhood, with a time when the world teems with possibility, when the ground beneath our feet whispers to us about titans and treasures, before we think we know better, and it goes quiet.

I held the claw up to the sky and made slashing motions through the air—I am Deinonychus. I am a child. Life in all its iterations fascinates me. I tell myself I’ll spend the rest of my life digging, discovering, looking.

Part II

Windows Into
Fictional Worlds

On a planet orbiting a middle aged sun, a complex organism sits to operate high-tech machinery. He does this with dextrous appendages adapted for life in the trees, though the grappling claws have long since receded as his species climbed in sophistication. He, like the rest of his kind, is of a hunter’s lineage—eyes that face forward to fix on prey, a high-powered brain to better navigate three-dimensional space.

He has a YouTube channel.

A homosapien, The Archivist has a unique job. He curates a menagerie of alien worlds, suspended terrariums in digital space that he guides other humans through. Each video is a portal into a planet where the unlikely phenomenon of life has taken root and arranged itself into dazzling, unfamiliar shapes.

Or, at least they’re unfamiliar at first glance.

“My channel tries to create windows into fictional worlds that somehow feel real,” The Archivist told me over the phone. “I try to translate those worlds into mini docs. It can feel downright magical, looking into another world like that.”

This is speculative biology, a chimera that straddles the line between science experiment and science fiction. Its participants (artists, scientists?) make predictions on the evolution of theoretical life forms under a wide variety of external pressures, rules set by the world’s creators but based on what we know about evolution on our own planet and biophysics in general.

On earth, all life is a family. All life descends from a single common ancestor. That ancestor branched out into many forms, dramatically shifting itself to meet evolutionary challenges. Sedentary sea sponges, sunflowers, hummingbirds, human beings, everything, all the result of a series of responses to prompts from our environment over deep time.

In toggling those pressures in a fictional landscape—the gravity, the climate, the geography—we can realistically arrive at imagined life forms suited to them.

The resulting creatures are marvelous to behold, creatures that have reached different conclusions to the tests of natural selection than we animals of earth. Mouths, eyes, limbs, reimagined and unbound by the criteria of our home planet. Some, like the waddling pengwings of Subnautica,1 resemble life on earth, in this case, penguins. Others, like the colossal Emperor Sea Strider that walks the oceans of Darwin IV,2 feeding on algae through its feet, are truly and utterly alien, resembling living, surrealist architecture.

“Speculative biology allows us to think about fictional organisms from far off worlds in a very particular set of rules and lets us think of them like they’re real,” The Archivist said. “Even though you know it’s fiction, it feels like reading a science textbook or watching something on Animal Planet, because there’s a certain officialness to these rules. There’s a sense that maybe it could happen. It could be happening right now.”

Of the many visitable worlds in The Archivist’s collection is Serina: A Natural History of the World of Birds.3 It’s a good entry point for the uninitiated, as it starts with a familiar creature—canaries.

Dreamt up by Dylan Bajda, Serina is both an art project and a worldbuilding exercise based in science. In this saga, advanced humans (or an advanced alien race) have dropped a population of canaries on a lush, habitable planet free of predators. Crickets, ants, and guppies are brought as food. The birds rapidly fan out to fill all available niches, developing serrated beaks for carnivory and flightlessness for energy conservation. They shrink down to the size of insects. They reach the gargantuan size of whales. They do what life does.

Their prey, too, enter the evolutionary arms race, branching out into new species, some of which transcend their status as a mere food source and rival the birds’ offshoots in sophistication. This is a core principle of speculative biology and, indeed, of earth biology, of nature—where there is flesh, a fang will reliably develop to pierce it.

So goes the brutal hum of life, be it here or on distant and imagined worlds where alien cells morph into a stunning array of organisms, some far beyond anything we’d recognize, some that echo lifeforms on earth.

Among those echos are humans themselves. On Serina, intelligent life develops both in the bird and fish lineages. This is a regular, albeit not required, beat in speculative biology projects—the slow, labored birth of sapience, the moment a beast wakes up and declares, “I.”

“Whenever a creature stops to chop out a stone tool, whenever their face starts looking more expressive, more human, I get so excited,” The Archivist said. “Maybe that’s small-minded and human-centric of me. But it’s like seeing yourself through a strange mirror.”

“To see something like yourself arising on another planet, in another place and time, it can make you hopeful in a lonely universe. It can give you a sense of cosmic belonging, even if you’re separated by lightyears.”

I am the amoeba. I do not act. I only react. I am not aware of anything outside of my immediate environment. Only physical stimuli prompt a response. I am the amoeba, I think to myself again and again before bed. I do not act. I only react.

Where I got this mantra I don’t know. It’s not terribly uplifting. But it gets me by when the semiregular dread creeps in, when I am divorced from all the necessary human fictions—divorced from purpose, divorced from routine, divorced from desire, until all that remains is the biological machine, unhypnotized.

I get hungry. I get thirsty. I get sleepy. I get pushed along by the stubborn pulse of an ancestral appetite for life, written into every cell in the womb, every cell in my body, live, live, live. I neither want to live nor want to die.

I don’t know what I want. Here is a place where want disappears. Here is the amoeba, which says, It doesn’t matter. The amoeba, whose solution is not to think about it, to go along with it, to embrace primitive instinct.

I don’t know why I’m alive. I think about it often. Sometimes the thought makes me temperamental. I feel I have landed on an unfortunate island of sentience. I am aware enough to know I don’t matter, animal enough to keep going until I can’t anymore. The limits of my condition frustrate me. I can’t comprehend the nature of my existence, or of the existence of anything outside myself.

I am alone, charged with persisting.

To what end?

Where am I going?

Existential dread. Fatalism. Nihilism. Whatever it’s called, there is little to do in these situations but embrace the machine, embrace the automatic instincts of survival, embrace the amoeba, which does not consider anything and abides by an assigned logic; biopolicy; God.

Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread. Existential dread.

Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism. Fatalism.

Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism. Nihilism.

Given time, I reliably rehypnotize myself. My altars are filled again with flowers and candles, and I return to human affairs, the dramas and the magic tricks. I forget the amoeba. But sometimes the amoeba is stubborn. Sometimes I get stuck. The most prominent feeling isn’t anxiety, but boredom. We weren’t meant to live so unillustrated, so bereft of distraction.

YouTube is critical in times like these. I absorb the width and breadth of entire channels when I am the amoeba, hours and hours of distraction, a glut of information. It was during one of these dull, hungry periods that I came across The Archivist and, in turn, the entire genre of speculative biology, which seemed to synthesize my passion for animal life with my condition of existentialism. I was obsessed.

Perhaps no piece scratched this peculiar itch like C.M. Kosemon’s All Tomorrows.

Part III

Seize All

Like the tree of life, speculative biology has branches and common ancestors. While on the phone with The Archivist, I was delighted to find we’d both been profoundly impacted by The Future Is Wild, a 2002 docufiction series that imagined life on earth after humans. Flying fish go all the way and become birds, “flisch.” Tortoises grow into lumbering titans, the new elephants. The promise of intelligent life begins anew in the descendants of the squid.

The series, which aired on the BBC, Animal Planet, and the Discovery Channel, was wildly successful, and is no doubt many a child’s entry point into speculative biology. It took its inspiration from After Man: A Zoology of the Future, a 1981 speculative evolution book by Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon and featuring several illustrations, not unlike one of my beloved dinosaur books from childhood. It is considered a founding text of the genre.

Though touted as a post-apocalyptic text about the fall of man at the time, Dixon said the extinction of humans was merely an excuse to discuss the evolution of animals on earth. One review called his creatures “variously amusing or appalling” but “perfectly logical,” getting to the gist of what would attract so many people to the genre in the future.

Before Dixon, there was Olaf Stapledon, whose 1930 novel Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future depicts humanity’s elliptical highs and lows and evolutionary changes into different species. Stapledon’s later work, Star Maker, crystallizes the themes of nihilism and the relationship between creator and creation.

It is from Stapledon that C.M. Kosemon claims his inspiration. All Tomorrows: The Billion Year Chronicle of the Myriad Species and Mixed Fortunes of Man, is both an opera and a glorified Wikipedia page. Chartering the speculative evolution of humans, it circulated as a free PDF in 2006 under Kosemon’s pen name, Nemo Ramjet. Though it has yet to be published in physical form, the book has enjoyed niche popularity online for many years, recently coming into new prominence following a viral recap video4 from Alt Shift X, a channel previously known for its explorations into the world of Game of Thrones.

The story sees humanity successfully colonize mars, only to fall into a cataclysmic civil war between the new Martians and the Earthlings. After nearly wiping themselves from existence, the humans decide to work together to engineer a race better than themselves, the Star People, genetically designed to navigate the harsh conditions of space and settle the cosmos. This the Star People do with tremendous success, until they have their first encounter with an intelligent alien race.

The Qu are the closest thing to villains in All Tomorrows. Zealous, insane, and masters of bioengineering, the Qu believe they alone have been charged with overseeing life in the universe. Offended by humanity’s forays into their sacred purview, a one-sided conflict ensues, ending with the Qu taking the Star People and twisting them into new and horrifying lifeforms. If All Tomorrows hews closest to any tradition, it’s body horror.

The “posthumans” are unrecognizable as humans at all. One race looks closer to worms. Some species reflect the Qu’s more heinous and emotional side with revenge baked into the genetic code. The Mantelope are particularly frightening. These humans have had their minds and memories transplanted into animals resembling antelopes with no ability to manipulate the world around them. All they can do is sing of humanity’s glory days. Over time, they lose intelligence (and their songs) altogether, with natural selection opting to make them dumber and more efficient for their herbivorous grazer niche.

But other races aren’t so hopeless. After millions of years, many of the posthumans redevelop sentience and appendages to operate technology, stoking the dwindling embers of their humanity and relighting the torch. Indeed, some surpass the Star People and journey to new heights.

Like the strange humans it depicts, All Tomorrows is an experiment testing the boundaries of taxonomy. It’s a story with no protagonists or antagonists, told entirely through worldbuilding and communicated with the dispassion of a textbook. This is intentional, and, indeed, we learn in the end that the narrator is a non-human alien delivering something akin to a geeky, enthusiastic history report for school.

“The paper book is a great medium for the novel, because you turn the pages and the information comes to you line by line by line by line,” Kosemon said in a podcast interview5 with Alt Shift X. And then the online Wiki, the new narrative form, this medium a new narrative form could be worldbuilding and just lore reading in itself.”

Wars, golden ages, pinnacle scientific achievements, and savage lows are all painted with the same brief strokes. Entire races of posthumans are invented, struggle, adapt, overcome, and go extinct in a matter of a few sentences. But at the end, to my pleasure, All Tomorrows doesn’t resist the distinctly human urge to convey a meaning of some kind. Against all odds, it ends up one of the most optimistic submissions to its genre.

“Love today,” the alien says, punctuating a saga that spans millions upon millions of years. “And seize all tomorrows.”

As a human, I was raised a liar, by liars—creation myths and deities that looked like me, my parents, and their parents. I can’t help but carve my own face onto things, look for myself in places I’m not. It’s nothing I can help.

Even the grand scope of evolution is a slate to draw on. I find peaks and valleys, I find narrative, I find music in the unfolding drama of life on earth, a process that would happen with or without me, was happening before me and will happen after me, never needing humans in the first place. The earth is not my mother. It won’t miss me.

I know this. But I can’t resist the urge to pretend otherwise. Animal that I am, I find God in everything. I find God in birds, in wings, in the miracle of wings. I can’t help it. I can’t help but think that prayers are eventually answered if repeated and repeated and repeated over millions of years, after eons of determined falling with eyes fixed on the sky.

I watch every video on speculative biology I can. It’s like watching a master ceramicist, the clay spinning and being shaped by the hands of time; biological sculpture. What is it about this genre that appeals to me so much? To ask the question at the center of speculative biology, at the center of humanity, at the center of myself: Why?

In “Contact,” a piece by speculative biology artist Alex Ries, humans have apparently perfected themselves and merged with technology to become massive, angelic beings. The internet being what it is, it became something of a meme, of course, but the subject matter remains profound. Humanity has reached the Birrin, themselves an intelligent race, and the image depicts two societies meeting for the first time.

It’s a favorite of Ries’, who has made speculative biology his profession, working to dream up creatures for games like Subnautica. It’s also a favorite of mine. It showcases everything I love about this wild genre: the imagining of alien creatures, yes, but also the reimagining of ourselves, the acknowledgment that we, too, are made of malleable things, part of a real or imagined conversation stretching across galaxies.

That’s the other big draw for speculative biology. It’s something akin to having imaginary friends in a quiet, lonely universe, backed up by a degree of the scientific.

“We don’t know what conditions are required for life to begin, or how frequently it does,” Ries told me. “Since we have found no solid evidence for life beyond earth, I suspend my opinion on it. I certainly hope we’re not alone.”

I certainly hope we’re not alone. I certainly hope we’re not alone.

Speculative biology, meanwhile, tells us life is neither sacred nor unique, tells us what we think of as mountains are grains of sand. It allows us to seek refuge in deep time, to escape our prickly minutes for the smooth expanse of unfeeling eons. Our problems aren’t so huge. In the grand scheme of things, they barely mean anything at all.

Or perhaps it’s the child in me, the one who found a claw in the sand, who loves life, is hungry for life, that compels me to so greedily seek out these alien worlds. It could be I’m not as numb as I believe, that I carry with me an enduring optimism, despite everything.

No matter the cause, the only thing I’m certain of is that it’s a profoundly human urge. For all its alien trappings, speculative biology itself is a sapien endeavor, a product of our insatiable curiosity and our frustrations with our lack of answers. In those blanks, we draw, we dream, we carve our own face; alone.

Alone. It could be the case that we are utterly alone, that the torch of intelligence begins and ends with us, unlikely as it may seem. It’s an unsettling idea, more frightening than any of the beasts with however many limbs and eyes that speculative biologists have drawn up. It can be unpleasant to think about it, and so we think about other things.

But even if this were the truth, it wouldn’t be a truth without appreciable beauty. It’s gorgeous, in its own way, to think that for a brief moment in the grand scope of time, a rare and singular phenomenon flashed across a lonely blue pearl suspended in space, and for what to us felt like any number of eternities but in truth was little more than the blink of an eye, life stepped out from the sea, and briefly dreamt.