In Jandrax, I was happy to use modified mammals and birds. That was all the story needed. When I wrote Cyan, I faced a different situation. My crew was set down on an alien planet for one year, with the task of coming to understand its weather, geology, and ecology in order to prepare for colonization. They were all scientists, so their actions and conversations called for a deeper understanding of their new world than any other kind of science fiction novel would have required. That challenge was half the fun.
When I began Cyan, I had been studying ecology for about twenty years, starting back when I had to explain what the word meant. I later came to understand the essence of Earth’s taxonomy in the most rigorous possible way — I had had to condense it to a level which middle school students could understand without dying of boredom.
Drop a salmon egg on the gunwale of your canoe and it will dry out in minutes. A chicken or turtle egg would survive the same treatment. This is the meaning of amniote egg (although there are other, competing meanings). Creatures who lack them, must lay their eggs in water. The rest of the chart should be clear, although simplified. For example, birds have scales on their legs as well as feathers elsewhere, and I skipped Dinosauria altogether.
I built up Cyan from the taxonomic level. If I had hadn’t been showing the planet through the eyes of a team of scientists, I would never have started out there.
It had to be weird but recognizable — that’s the key to all science fiction invention. It also required restraint. You can only explain so much to your reader without losing them, and beyond a certain point, your backstory is wasted effort.
I took grasses and weeds for granted. I gave my trees multiple trunks bound together, like a strangler fig without its victim. For something like insects, I made Chitropods – chitro sounds like chitin, and pod means foot, so the reader can be expected to infer an exoskeleton. Continuing the idea of inference, if we call the flying creatures who eat the chitropods pouchbats, the reader will draw a better picture in his mind that we could on paper.
The number of legs is important to Terrestrial arthropods, but I bypassed that by giving all chitropods many legs, but with only one joint each where each meets the body. This gave them a rolling gait “like caterpillars on crutches”.
These are throw-away inventions. They could have been applied to any ecosystem and they are not systemically related to each other. They alone would be good enough for most science fiction novels, but not for one about scientists teasing out the essence of their planet.
Here we need a key differentiation, from early in evolution, from which a thousand lesser differences can be derived. I decided that on Cyan, early in the development of chordate life, the vertebral column doubled at the posterior, giving Cyanian sea life twin tails. That changed everything. Earth fishes evolved legs from their fins. Cyanian “fishes” evolved legs from their split tails, so every Cyanian land creature is a tail-less hopper, fundamentally different from anything on Earth.
On Cyan, the classes are Pseudo-pisces, Amphibia, and Inturbia. No reptiles, no birds, no mammals, no dinosaurs. The Amphibia are cold blooded. Inturbia are inefficiently warm blooded. The term Inturbia should imply “internal body temperature un-perturbed by external changes”. Not every reader will get that, but writers should reward their best readers by not spelling everything out.
There are a thousand other details, but for that, you will just have to download Cyan.
All this is not to say that I didn’t invent interesting alien creatures. Kavines are incredibly fierce. Dropels, especially after they became domesticated, are cute and tasty. In the southern part of the upper continent, the Cyl developed something close to sapience, leading Viki to . . . nope, sorry, that’s a spoiler. I just started with taxonomy so they would all fit together.
Of course, too much consistency without outliers would be boring, so I added the globe wombs. The explorers see them shining in the treetops from their first minutes on the planet, and it takes a while for them to figure out what they mean.
Inturbia have live birth. Cyanian amphibs have to return to water to lay their eggs, except for one group, the Sphaeralvids, who produce globewombs. When a Sphaeralvid mother comes to term, she moves to a sunny spot in the treetops and exudes a transparent, leathery sac filled with a clear fluid like seawater. Into this she deposits fertile ova, then defecates. Algae from the Sphaeralvid mother’s bowels convert the feces into biomass and the Sphaeralvid nymphs fed off the algae. When the feces are gone, the globewomb walls break down, leaving the now sizable nymphs free to face Cyan on their own.
Neat, huh? That is entirely too much detail for most books, but Cyan was written to show, realistically, what exploration of a new world might be like. This is just the kind of detail a crew of scientists would be recording.
Aside: Shortly after posting this, I received a digital copy of the print-on-demand version of Cyan to proof. I spent May 29 and 30 in close reading of all 315 pages. The taxonomy and ecology of Cyan are backstory, dribbled out in bits here and there, but what the reader sees up front and in their faces are the individual alien beings. I realized that I need a fifth Alien Autopsy post to devote to the Cyl (the cover critter), but there is no space for it here. You will find it next Thursday over on the A Writing Life side of this website.
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I began Cyan a few years after I wrote Jandrax, and set it in the same universe but hundreds of years earlier.
I also have in mind a third novel set in the same universe, but very different. It will take place on Stormking, a prison planet with a Uranian inclination to the ecliptic. The people who make up its population are not scientists, but outcasts. They have no interest in taxonomy. They meet the creatures native to their world one by one, and all they care about are which ones can they eat and which ones want to eat them. This time I’ll stop worrying about how these alien creatures make up a logical system, and just weird them up big time. That ought to be fun, too.