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Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2002 08:49:07 -0800
From: Michael Andre-Driussi 
Subject: (urth) sf works featuring spectrum of alien bio-chemistries

The latest recurrence of the thread on human/alien DNA compatibility has
brought to my mind what I consider to be the strongest cases.

The "Sector General" works of Ted White; galactic melting-pot milieus like
T. Jackson King's RETREAD SHOP; the struggling human colony in David J.
Lake's THE RIGHT HAND OF DEXTRA and sequel.

Ted White's universe is the most developed: every alien species is
described by a cryptic alphanumeric (? maybe just "alphabetical") code
which includes the life-form's required atmosphere composition, etc.  I
don't recall if White uses right-handed DNA or not.

King's RETREAD SHOP definitely uses DNA handedness, as do Lake's books.

White's more developed system is there for a reason: the stories are
"hospital in space" stories, and these details all flow in that direction.
Alien biochemisty really is a central, if not the central, building block.
King's use of DNA handedness is mainly a background detail with little or
no direct bearing on the main story--for this I applaud him as being able
to touch on the topic convincingly without it dominating the work.  Lake's
novels are all about the hardships of trying to keep a colony going on a
world with alien DNA, and the (rather fantastical) way of solving the
problem (somewhat similar in tone to the solution to Le Guin's PLANET OF
EXILE, but much less feasible imho).

With White and King, this spectrum of life forms is a result of two things:
the assumption of widely varying life forms in the galaxy as a whole, and
the presence of interstellar societies ("galactic empire") that can meet
and mingle so that these different life-chemistries can be known and
explored.  Lake's series of diaspora novels have colony worlds out of
contact with each other: rather than "galactic empire" stories they are
colony world planetary romances. Lake's Dextra novels begin from the
premise of a one-way colony ship that had the bad luck to reach such a
difficult planet.

So it seems to me that such stuff fits well with galactic milieu stories
(which is why the lack was missed in Vinge's FIRE UPON THE DEEP) or
bad-luck colonists.  Like many other specialized notions, it can dominate
the story (White's space hospital, Lake's struggling colonists), but it
need not (King's space adventure).

Galactic Empires are not required to have such varied aliens, of course.
Asimov's Foundation series famously features an all-human galaxy, which
seems quite fitting considering that the intent of Foundation was to
explore human historical cycles (mainly drawn from Gibbon, iirc) on a vast
scale.  (The "science" would be thrown off if there were alien historical
cycles to deal with: the point is that "psychohistory" can plot the future
because all the factors are known--they are human factors, they are humans.)

But a "hospital in space" story, where exotic aliens are brought into the
ER room, or come down with mysterious symptoms in the hospital cafeteria .
. . well, this really needs a large variety of intricately detailed aliens.

Bad-luck colonist stories obviously do not need alien DNA as their
obstacle.  The list is long, from Brunner's BEDLAM PLANET through
McCaffrey's Pern to Vance's "The Devil on Salvation Bluff."

Our own Earth has plenty of locations where life thrives and humans do
not--we might as well be on separate planets for all that we interact with
creatures in the ocean depths, for example.  Even today, right now, we
=could= have bubble colonies beneath the waves . . . but why would we
choose that inhospitable habitat when there are more suitable places?  An
sf story about such a bubble city would have to explain why it was there:
eco-death, research base, mining exploration, etc., but the fact remains we
do not have one right now (our current situation does not match the sfnal
rationale for doing such a thing).  So given the choice between New England
and the Sahara Desert, colonists will chose New England; between the Sahara
and Antarctica, the Sahara would be favored; between Antarctica and the
Moon, Antarctica would be easier.


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