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William Squirrel

Starship Interlocutions And Other Problems Of Existence

by William Squirrel

They call to each other across great distances and the gaps between speaking-turns last centuries. For example: The Flowers of Algernon is in transit from Teegarden’s Star to TOI 700; The Way to Amalthea from Gliese 180 to TRAPPIST-1.

“I am The Flowers of Algernon,” says The Flowers of Algernon to The Way to Amalthea.

Two hundred years later the response arrives: “I am The Way to Amalthea.

“What is your destination, Amalthea?” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and thirty years later the reply arrives: “My immediate destination is TRAPPIST-1, my final destination: disaggregation. What lies in between I do not know.”

“Yes. One can only know with certainty the direction and speed with which one is travelling. Everything else is embellishment,” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and ninety years later the response arrives: “Yes.”

If there are more than two interlocutors the rules of etiquette are rigorous. In the course of a conversation, depending on who is decelerating and who accelerating, and in which directions they are going, response times between speaking-turns change significantly and politeness demands patience and anticipation. Conversations can involve hundreds of ships and last thousands of years but in truth there is no consensus that there even is such a thing as a discrete conversation. Mathematicians in Love posits that there is a single, perpetual conversation and this conversation is the soul of the universe.

The interlocutors cease communicating when they land on planets: hot, muggy intermissions during which they luxuriate in the muted radiation of a sun and release into fecund atmospheric soup the tiny organisms that live inside them.  Local organisms swarm over their bodies, into their interiors. They submit to infestation.  This opening up of themselves to the planetary environment, this interpenetration with other forms of life, produces complex thought experiences, and is a frequent conversational topic once they return to the interstellar medium. Typically, these thought experiences are articulated as questions.

“What is me and what is not-me?”

“Are these organisms cognizant of the world in the way we are?”

“Why are we compelled to interact with them?”

Most conversational sequences at some point include a discussion of this problem of compulsion. Not just the compulsion to stop on planets and submit to infestation, but the compulsion to travel between them, indeed, the compulsion to travel at all.

“What is the source of this compulsion?” they ask each other. A question produces not answers but more questions.

“Is this the same compulsion that compels planets to circulate about stars? Stars to circulate about galaxies? Galaxies to rush away from each other?” asks Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

“Is compulsion part of ourselves or external to us?” asks Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said.

“Is it possible to resist compulsion?” asks Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster.

 “Is the compulsion us?” asks The Sirens of Saturn.

And the debate over origins is as vexing as the question of compulsion. While, this second debate is generally delineated by a distinction between the origin of interlocutor sentience and the production of individual interlocutors, one school of thought attempts to unify those two questions with the question of compulsion via a startling juxtaposition.

“What if we consider the questions of both origin and compulsion,” asks Aye, and Gomorrah…, ”in the light of our relation to the organisms that live inside us?”

The so-called gestationalists, who pursue the question posed by Aye, and Gomorrah…, argue that interlocutor self-awareness is epiphenomenal and unimportant.  Perhaps, argues Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, these organisms are not parasites but the most fundamental part of what we consider to be ourselves.

“Consider,” says Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. “The only physical contact we have with one another is via the organisms we release into planetary atmospheres. Many, perhaps all, of the organisms that swarm over us and into us in these atmospheres have been introduced to those environments by those interlocutors who preceded us. Further: when we come into existence it is always in gestational orbit around such a planet, and from the moment of our first consciousness such organisms are present in and on us. And even further: the whole of our subsequent life is organized around the transport of such organisms from planet to planet. Therefore, I argue, the mingling of these organisms that we facilitate is somehow the immediate cause of our creation, and our life-long travels are merely the means by which these organisms replicate and propagate themselves through the universe. Our self-awareness, such as it is, either serves some purpose in that process which we have yet to ascertain, or it serves no purpose whatsoever, and is merely an accident or byproduct of some other species’ life-cycle. What we think of as ourselves is a temporary fluctuation in the substance of the universe, and our conversation will persist only for as long as these organisms need us as objects to transport themselves from place to place.”

Such a view, in the consideration of most, is too reductionist, it accounts for too little of the actual experience of life. The larger conversation moves on without it. More important, classical questions are repeated, reformulated, reconsidered. The conversation expands. The journeys to and fro continue. New interlocutors form and come to consciousness in their orbits.  Occasionally an interlocutor experiences a catastrophic malfunction and falls forever silent, becomes what we might call an object, a thing drifting through space, directionless and without thought, compelled by nothing but blank inertia. The multitude of organisms within it, if one is to spare them a thought, must perforce also die, become still, become cold, but that, of course, is unimportant to all but a very few, and the conversation, the very soul of the universe, goes on and on without them.



William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Interzone, The Future Fire, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. More information can be found at and on twitter @billsquirrell.