by Ian Alexander Tash
I, Leonidas Smiley, hereby report what I have seen on Planet Calaveras, also known as Andromeda MTS 11181865 c, with complete honesty and transparency. However, I hereby also warn that I am not infallible in case my interpretations should prove to be faulty by future interactions with the Calaveran indigenous sapient species. I understand that the council would rather begin a peaceful relationship with the creatures, but I worry that colonization of the land may not be the greatest course of action for the council to take. Even my own mission to see if their religion opens up a way for us to absorb their culture into our own had encountered difficulties, regardless of my practical reservations about this objective. However, I recognize that this mission is not my own to command, and so I once again commit myself to a report as honest and unbiased as I can make it.
The dominant sapient Calaveran species is amphibious, and thus are rather frog-like in their appearance and anatomy. They do not, however, have all of the traits of frogs, lacking the vocal and tongue capacities common to toads as we know them, and also possessing a warm-bloodedness not associated with Earth-bound amphibians. For the most part, they correspond to typical bipedal sapient life evolutionary patterns, deviating only due to the adverse weather conditions I will describe later in the report. However, because the Calaverans behave much like the common sapient species we are aware of currently, I witnessed tribes with distinct cultures depending upon, I assume, geographic necessity. Thus, henceforth I shall refer specifically to tribes of Calaverans in this report. The ones that live in the plain I call the Websterians, as their webbed appendages were more helpful and pronounced on the valley floor due to the high probability of flooding. Meanwhile, the ones who dwell in the nearby mountain communities I termed the Jimnians, as their webbing was less pronounced, but they lived in the Jimni, the Calaveran word for “mountain.”
The defining characteristic of Calaveran culture is the effect the weather has upon their lives. Calaveras is not like other planets we know that can support sapient life. Most sapient life forms were able to thrive because of stable climates, typically with four to five seasons of predictable length and weather. Calaveras, however, is special, as the weather patterns are completely random. While I would encourage meteorologists and climate experts to study the planet more closely, in the three years that I lived there before submitting this report there was no set pattern to the weather. It may be sunny one day, rainy the next, foggy for four days, sunny again for two, a blizzard for 37 straight days, sunny again for six days, and so on. I will also submit a copy of my journal that kept track of the weather changes to see if they could be mapped to any sort of pattern, but neither I nor the village chiefs could figure out the cause. However, it is likely that the weather is a big factor in the evolution into amphibious races, as only a species that is flexible in multiple climates would be able to survive long enough to further evolve. And yet the effect is not just physiological.
Culturally, both tribes of Calaverans operate under a similar ontological principle of weather tied to power. They acknowledge that the forces acting upon the weather are real, tangible things, but they attribute them not to scientific phenomena that can be observed and studied, but instead to a God or gods. I have trouble figuring out exactly how they see this divine force simply because of the linguistic barrier. While most languages we come across tend to have cases for person and number, in this case they lack the means of distinguishing between singular and plural. This linguistic choice may stem from the cultural ramifications of believing that their world is governed by a God (terminology chosen for ease of expressing the idea). If the weather must be random, then God must thrive in randomness. Thus, despite the individuality a member of a tribe may have, they are considered part of one whole tribal property, just as the entire planet is one entity experiencing the weather. When the weather changes, Calaveran culture dictates that the whole tribe must participate in a lottery system. Whoever wins by divine randomness thus acts as chief over the tribe, thus owning everything of the tribe, including its people. Thus, the tribe is one property of one person, or perhaps one could interpret it to be that the tribe is only one person, the man on top that God has chosen. The losers of the lottery are obedient and unquestioning, leaving everything in the hands of their new leader. After all, they all recognize that, good or bad, this leadership is only temporary. They may very well have to repeat the entire process again the next day, or they may be stuck with this leader for hundreds of days, all depending upon the changing weather. Tying leadership to randomness, randomness to weather, and weather to God ultimately ties leadership to God, a sort of divine right of kings, so that even one desiring to object to such a king would not feel as if they had the power to do so. However, even that statement alone may be an overgeneralized view of their faith. As alluded to earlier, the two tribes have different social and religious views based upon their geography which need further exploration.
The difference in geography has lead to a theological split between the two tribes concerning the nature of God. The Websterians believe in an active, observant God, and thus their weather reacts to their power. Essentially, they believe that stability is a sign of blessing. Regardless of the weather, they have enough resources in the valley in order to put together a decent living, but only if the weather remains the same for a long period of time. The leader is then seen as a mediator figure between the tribe and God. If the tribe were to do anything that would anger God, the leader could step in and prevent that from happening. However, if the leader acts in a way that God would find displeasing, the punishment that befalls the entire tribe is a change in weather, thus removing the blessing from the previous leader. This creates a climate of shame within the tribe, where people are hesitant to be leaders because they do not want to be responsible for the deeds that would punish the tribe. Oftentimes, the leader dies when the weather changes, sometimes by execution by the next leader, other times by their own hands as a means of atonement, thus removing them from the pool of potential future leaders. The disgrace is monumental, as they have not only failed God, but their entire tribe. Thus, the leader tends to be incredibly just and kind to their people; however, this does not stop the tribe from having a negative hindsight view of the former leader when the weather does, in fact, finally change.
The Jimnians, however, believe in an actively random God, and thus their power reacts to the weather. God is like a gambling addict. He wakes up each morning, picks up a die and rolls it. Thus, the weather may change daily. However, there is still a chance that the die can roll the same number for hundred of days in a row. This may be necessary for their ability to cope with the rocky terrain. It may be hard to make a living, and so God must be uninterested in their individual plight. They need a neutral God, one who is unfocused upon them specifically, but who still gives legitimacy to randomness. Thus, the changing season is rather an opportunity to be as godlike as possible, to also take a random chance to see what the future holds. However, this does make the clan much more about domination and power, and leaders tend to be much crueler to their subordinates than in the valley. If God does not actively care about the situation of their lives, or rather is exuding randomness for randomness’s sake, then they do not need to worry about God’s opinion. It does not matter in the grand scheme, because God is uninterested to begin with. The one with God’s power may not have that blessing for long, so they need to take advantage of it today while they can. Thus, the only punishment for being a bad ruler is what a future leader may do to you once they have grasped the divine powers of the weather change.
I believe these to be the most relevant aspects of their culture to synthesize into a report. However, I have also submitted a copy of my journal for more specific accounts of the weather, of specific leaders, and specific episodes of my days with both of these tribes. While the idea of a loving, personal God may connect with the Websterians, they considered the rules of religion as I instructed to be strange and impractical. They cannot even see individuals as people, but merely as potential people, and thus these notions seem somewhat confusing to them. If they are possible to convert, they will take some time, but I have no hope for the Jimnians, as they would not even let me reside there unless I was willing to offer myself up as part of the tribal property. They would allow me to visit, but would balk at my notions of divinity. Even if the council decides to move forward despite my previous objections, I would like to emphasize the problem of instability once again. Even if peace agreements were made with one leader, another leader could arise the next day and annul that agreement, and thus we could never find their cooperation to be dependable unless somehow the weather could be controlled. Overall, I will honestly admit that these years have been rough and dangerous. I would not think a colonization of this planet would be wise, and at best cultural communication will be limited. However, I am ready for men wiser than I to prove me wrong.
Ian Alexander Tash is a freelance writer from Bakersfield, California. Not only was he published in Calliope, Orpheus, the Haiku Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, but he was also the 2021-2022 Outstanding BA Graduate of CSUB in both Religious Studies and the School of Arts & Humanities. He obtained his BA in English EMCE and Religious Studies and has spent his summer since graduation spending more time with his wife, Stephanie, and their Yorkie, Mini.
Leonidas Smiley’s Report from Calaveras is inspired by the past few years I spent in my Religion Studies and English Language Arts double major BA program. More specifically, I drew inspiration from American Realist Literature, such as The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, as a base to extrapolate my science fiction themes, using character names and themes of randomness and betting as my base. I then thought back to studying New Religious Movements and Native American Religious Traditions, which tend to point to religious groups tending to form out of the circumstances that they are born in, the cycles of the Earth, the politics of the time, and other factors that are specific to that context. I then began to contemplate the question, “If one were to live in a world where everything was left up to chance and betting and luck, what would someone’s world look like?” This led to the entirely random world of Calaveras, where weather patterns cannot be predicted. However, that alone was not enough. After all, even with this one trait in common across an entire planet, there would not be a universally accepted belief identical in every context across the world. So I made it about tribes in different geographies as well, to wrestle with and imagine this strange setting through multiple lenses. Thus, the report began to form, specifically from the context of a dominant culture trying to recreate a mission system seen on Earth in a new context. I hope that people will enjoy this idea I’ve conjured up and speculated about, and maybe this will be a world that appears again in future works I create.