Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

On the Radiate and the Binary

October 8, 2010

Mary is in a jam. She can’t manage to make a yes/no, either/or, do this/do that decision. A predator is zooming towards her head and yet – nothing, no ability rapidly to choose right or left, hide or flee..

It’s because of the radiates, Mary knows. She’s been spending too much time with radial entities, creatures whose body features five arms and a ring plan rather than the bilateral symmetry of mammals. And this non-binary arrangement affects the radiates’ whole way of thinking, as Mary explains:

“One is so used to a two-sided brain, two eyes, two ears, and so on that one takes the whole thing and all that stems from it for granted. Incorrectly, but inevitably. My radiates had an entirely different outlook…They never thought of terms of either-or. It began to seem to me very peculiar that I should do so myself.”

Gradually, Mary absorbs more and more of the radiates’ way of thinking, until, just like the observer of wild bonobos who comes to think of flagrant sex play before (almost every) dinner as quite normal, she embraces the “five-choiced world” more readily than her old binary one. .

Mary is the lead character in the 1962 novel, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, written by Naomi Mitchison. I received the book as a gift last month from my friend Sarah Franklin, an anthropologist whose work I admire (see Spaceshipping around the galaxy, Mary engages with individuals of various non-human species in her role as inter-species communicator.

The first great thing about this novel is the description of other species’ lifeways. Mitchison is radically untethered to any supposition that nonhuman complexity must be modeled on human complexity. Consider the caterpillars, encountered on a different world than the radiates:

“A great deal of their pleasure consisted in eating and evacuation. There was normally a good deal of waste cellulose in their food, which came out in pellets of several dark and shining colours. These formed the basis of quite elaborate pattern structures, which obviously gave great aesthetic pleasure to those who arranged and those who came to look at them. The caterpillars would caress these pellets with their soft blunted legs, and keep up a continual chorus of pleasure sounds, surrounding the successful artist with touch and apparently praise.”

The interplay, sometimes violent, between the caterpillars and the nearby butterflies is a lengthy and rich part of the book. The caterpillars express sorrow at the butterflies’ cruelty: “Always when we are happy, always they stop us. They stop us making patterns. They break our patterns. Always they hurt us, make us less.”

Mary, and especially her colleague Francoise, feel deep empathy for the caterpillars. But space travel’s primary rule is non-interference with other worlds (devised years before Star Trek’s famous Prime Directive, I’d note); trouble comes to call when that rule is violated.

The second great thing is that the book’s language is the language of animal people: of the many of us right here on Terra who open up to cross-species communication with our domestic companions or with wild animals. In fact there’s a strong animal presence in Memoirs: dogs, jackals, and cows appear, not to mention Martian pseudo-toads. In seeking to communicate with the diverse alien and animal creatures, Mary’s methods fail spectacularly at times. There’s no way, it seems, to get across to the butterflies that they themselves were, at one point in the life cycle, the caterpillars they oppress.

Yet the delight, sometimes even the bliss, that fills Mary when she makes a genuine connection with a creature very different in body or mind is what anchors the narrative.

Have you ever tried to think like another species? Do you relate to Mary? Can you recommend any other science fiction novels that touch on interspecies communication? It’d be fun to get a discussion going here.


  1. October 8, 2010 9:14 AM EDT
    I can recommend James White's Sector General books. He has spaceships containing a wide array of intelligent life forms, their way, illnesses and treatment, as well as communication. In a lighter vein, you might try Keith Laumer's Retief stories; Retief is a galactic diplomat and meets and communicates with various extra-terrestrial life forms, some binary but only vaguely humanoid, some very different. Thanks for this topic and for the recommendation--I look forward to others.
    - Marian Allen
  2. October 8, 2010 9:27 AM EDT
    Dear Barbara,
    many thanks for a fascinating, thought provoking blog that I follow avidly.
    I have recently watched a sci-fi movie called "Phase IV" (Saul Bass, 1974)which I think raises some of the issues you discuss in your entry. I was a bit worried it might just be another example of a "disaster" movie around the theme of an animal species becoming a threat to humanity (like Attack of the killer bees and the likes). But I was happy to see that there was a lot more to it. Even though there are a lot of inaccuracies about ant behaviour, the main theme of the movie is the quest for an understanding and the development of a way of communicating with other species as the only way to overcome conflict.
    And the ending is quite strange, open and intriguing. I think is well worth a watch.
    - Nacho Vinuela
  3. October 8, 2010 11:00 AM EDT
    Years ago, I read a book by Philip Jose Farmer about communication between humans and various intelligent insectoid species on another planet. I don't remember the name of the book. As I recall, the plot made much of the diversity of intelligent life that would evolve from insects. Anyone reading it should bone up on Mullerian/Batesian mimicry, etc. There were some interesting forms of parasitism, including a nasty thing called a "nightlifer," which had evolved an appearance of a drunk bug leaning against a lamppost. There's a few surprises.
    - Joseph McClain
  4. October 8, 2010 3:47 PM EDT
    Beautiful. Except in real life, butterflies lay eggs that turn into caterpillars, and caterpillars make cocoons in which they turn themselves into butterflies, and I see no violence there.
    - Margaret Trawick
  5. October 8, 2010 3:57 PM EDT
    Hi to Marian, Nacho, Joe, and Peggy. Marian, thanks for providing links! Nacho, the film you mentioned I will track down. Have you read EO Wilson's ant fiction? I haven't, yet. Joe, I've just looked up Farmer, and haven't found the insect book, but eventually will. Peggy, the 'Memoir' novel twists Terran biology to strange-world biology which is part of its appeal... though it felt odd to encounter nasty-minded butterflies! Thanks to all and keep the recommendations coming, everyone!
    - Barbara J. King
  6. October 15, 2010 9:25 AM EDT
    Barbara, I believe the Farmer book is called "The Lovers." But it might be another. I think I read it in high school (which was during the Nixon administration).
    - Joseph McClain

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.