Wednesday, October 26, 2011
What Are the Termite People Really Like?
The Shshi evolved from insects just as we evolved from hominids. They still live in termitaria (called fortresses), which are built of stone instead of earth, extend both above and below ground, and have built-in ventilation systems. They have a low-tech culture; they have never tamed fire and they use wood and stone tools to supplement their own mandibles. They haft the mandibles of dead Warriors and use them as cutting tools. They have evolved double-clawed front legs; the claws are jointed and can grip like fingers, but they have no opposable digits. They have the wheel, but they have never taken its use farther than making little wheelbarrows; they have no draft animals. Their mathematics is almost nonexistent; they count on their antennae, each of which has 18 knobs and they have no numbers beyond 36. Anything larger than that becomes "more than the two-antennae count" or "many-many." This lack of math, however, doesn't prevent them from being supreme engineers; the blind Builder Subcaste simply understands instinctively how to construct edifices -- the genetic heritage of their ancestors.
The principal species that I'm writing about in "The Termite Queen" do not eat wood; they lack the proper intestinal flora to digest it. Instead, they are fungivores, cultivating underground fungus gardens, but they also eat soft cellulose products, such as the flowers and leaves of a certain tree that they grow in orchards. And they also garner protein from practicing necrophagy. They are in fact the universe's best recyclers, just like terrestrial termites.
All Shshi lack auditory organs and the Warriors and the Workers have no eyes. Of course, they have other senses -- chemical and electromagnetic -- that compensate. The Warriors and the Workers don't differ so much from terrestrial termites, but the Alates have changed more significantly. Their compound eyes have evolved far beyond the norm for terrestrial insects and they are much more than short-lived reproductives; they live as long as their fellows (20-25 years). Their wings have evolved bioluminescence in order to provide light within the fortress. (I had to find some way to light up that pitchblack interior of the fortress. Another writer I once read used phosphorescence in the walls, and Bernard Werber in "Empire of the Ants" gives some of his ants infrared vision.)
The cultural level of the Shshi could be designated "Heroic Age," a bit like Mycenaean Greece without the metalworking. Each fortress resembles a self-sufficient city-state, with very little contact with other fortresses except for the occasional territorial war or the necessity to exchange reproductives. They have developed human qualities like compassion, loyalty, a sense of self, an eagerness to learn and to attempt to account for their world through myth. Their only art form is literary; they are passionate tale-tellers. It makes sense that a deaf race would have no concept of music and that a mostly blind race that lives in perpetual darkness would have little use for visual art.
Their mythology provides them with an explanation for the existence of Castes: to ensure that the members of the community are interdependent. Because of their physical and sensory limitations, no one Caste can exist without the existence of the others. The Warriors' huge heads and mandibles makes it impossible for them to feed themselves. The Alates are weak in body and need protection from the Warriors and physical labor from the Workers, but their acute vision gives them an edge. They are the most subtle in intellect and so are likely to gain an advantage in the governance of the fortress.
Each community has only one breeding pair, just like terrestrial social insects. The Workers and Warriors may have vestigial sex organs, but they produce no sex pheromones, so they are truly neuter and are referred to by a special pronoun that can only be translated "it." The Alates, from whom the breeders are drawn, retain some sexual characteristics, enough for them to be identified as male of female. fa is the nominative, singular, third-person personal pronoun (used for Warriors and Workers) and fai is the nominative, singular neuter pronoun (used for things, qualities, etc.). Alates are either ta (she) or ma (he).
The Shshi religious beliefs are centered on the female principle -- what else could an ILF worship in a situation where only one individual among a thousand can produce offspring? In effect, they worship the Great Goddess -- the Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name -- who lives in the sky and lays stars and who generally allows her creation to make its own way. But occasionally she interferes, particularly at times when the Shshi Way of Life is threatened or something really significant is about to happen in the world of her offspring (like being invaded by extraplanetary beings). And the Seers can communicate with the Highest Mother through the intermediation of a special hallucinatory fungus (and sometimes through their own inate abilities).
One further remark: In the chapters of "The Termite Queen" that concern the Shshi, I tried to come up with a style that would provide contrast with the human story. I settled on writing it as a dramatic script -- writing a play, as it were. It didn't seem right to put in lots of wordy description when you're dealing with blind creatures whose dwelling consists of mostly unlighted underground chambers and corridors. So we have dialogue supplemented by minimal stage directions. We also have soliloquies. It was very easy to fall into a kind of Shakespearean formality and rhythm. I used a lot of Shakespeare quotations as epigraphs for the termite chapters. The villain Mo'gri'ta'tu is fully comparable to Cassius or Iago -- quite Machiavellian. In fact, as I was writing these parts, I humorously referred to my characters as "my Shakespearean termites"!
Remember to watch for updates on "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder"! I'm beginning to format it in CreateSpace!