Another guest article from my extraterrestrial friend Tsish.
I have just returned from a scientific congress, if you can call it a congress. I had received a “call for papers” some time ago and I had noticed I had received the same message several times before. I checked out where these messages where coming from and it turned out that the odd intervals are the time it takes the planet these messages are coming from to go once around its star.
The call for papers was asking for contributions to a congress on “comparative civilizationology”. After ignoring these messages several times, I had now sent my most recent paper, on some aspect of the civilization of earth, since I thought it fitted the topic of the conference. I am orbiting earth as an observer and I had just finished this paper and was now looking for a place to publish it. After some time, I had received a message of approval, announcing my paper had been accepted to be included in the proceedings of the conference. So I programmed the course of my ship and left the solar system.
As you know, my space ship is not a real space ship. It exists “as if” and is a product of my asifomat. The advantage of this is that I can travel much faster than light, so I reached the destination, a planet several thousand light years away from earth, after only a short time. I spent that time proofreading my paper again and preparing a presentation. Suddenly, my ship signaled that I had arrived.
I was already in a low orbit around the planet where the congress had to take place. It was an earth-like planet, but, being on its night side, I noticed a marked difference: while Earth is exhibiting a remarkable display of lights and you can see lots of cities when you look down on it from outer space, there was almost no light coming from anywhere on the surface, with very few exceptions. My computer informed me where my destination of the surface of the planet was and it turned out to be one of a very small number of places emitting light and the only place emitting radio waves on the whole planet. I checked again, and found that all the other places seemed to be forest fires. A high resolution search, however, came up with several thousand small sources of light, the size of a camp fire, and the spectroscopic analysis showed that that was probably what they actually were. There seemed to be life on the surface of the planet, but I could not make out much indicating the existence of a technical civilization. So far, I had not really bothered to check my information on this planet. Well, I thought, let’s see.
Maybe there was only a research station? I programmed my lander and started descending down towards the surface.
When I arrived, the central star was already shining. My lander was standing on a slab of concrete. Some plants where growing between the concrete slabs and out of the cracks. The place looked abandoned, but according to my computer, this was the “Space Field” of the “Interstellar Congress Center (ICC)”. I could not see any other ship or lander on the space field, except for something that looked like an abandoned, rusting one, but maybe it was something else.
A fancy and colorful rotating thing was appearing on the screen of my lander and the speakers produces some strange hissing noises. My translator blared: “Welcome to the Interstellar Congress Center (ICC)”. The translator’s display read: “logo of the ICC, musical jingle” and the additional display for nonverbal information read: “very attractive female voice”. “Please follow the marks on the floor” hissed the very attractive female voice. The atmosphere was OK, so I left the lander. The air was damp and very hot, and filled with noises or chirps, maybe from some animals, something like this planets equivalent of crickets or cicadas.
Indeed I could make out some faded yellow marks on the concrete that seemed to lead to a nearby building. Some small animals where flitting over the space field. Parts of the building, obviously the congress center, seemed to be partially overgrown with some plants. Some parts where covered with some kind of moss or algae. Other parts where still in a more or less good shape, although one coud see signs of abandonment and disrepair. There was something like an empty pond or swimming pool in front of it. But the entrance was clearly visible, so I entered. I found myself in a hall. Most of the windows were covered with plants, so it was quite dark. Nearby, there was something like a desk or a table. Behind it, there was something or someone. It produces a hissing noise. “Welcome again at the ICC” (very attractive female voice), my translator translated. I remember having seen pictures of this species before. “Ah, you must be Tsish, from Earth” (very…). The creature was covered in colorful scales, something like a giant prawn or pangolin, with many appendices that might be arms, hands, mouthparts, antennas, sense organs or whatever. I am no expert in the anatomy of this species. It had obviously just applied some scale polish, in different colors, to some of its scales, producing a nice acetonic scent that was not unlike my favorite drink flrx. Very attractive indeed! My sympathy was growing (“well-groomed appearance, scale polish color pattern according to latest fashion, slightly kinky jewelry patterns” read the interface). The scales where waving in intricate patterns, letting the spots of tinsel scale polish glitter (“scale movement equivalent to a smile”).
“Well, I am not really from Earth, I am only actually stationed there as an observer”.
The pattern of scale waving changed discernably. “I see. Well I am sorry, we assumed you to be human, so we made a name badge with a pin for human clothes I hope you can attach it somehow. I am sorry for the mistake” (very…). I noticed a badge clipped to one of her scales now. I pointed the translator’s camera there. “Untranslatable name. We are here for your great experience!” I read on the display.
On the table there were a couple of little badges, each with a different type of writing and a different fixing mechanism. She handed me one with an earth-type safety pin and an inscription “Tsish – Earth – Solar System”.
“You are the first attendant to arrive.” (very…). I switched off the non-verbal-information indicator on my translator. “We are still waiting for the other participants. The congress will be starting as soon as everybody is here. Your copy of the proceedings will be handed to you as soon as it arrives here.”
I was looking at the other badges. I pointed the camera of my translator at one after the other. It displayed some information on the planets the people where coming from.
There were badges from 9 other planets. I programmed my translator to fetch some information about those planets, as well as the planet I was on. Due to the interstellar distances, getting that information would take some time.
Water was dripping from the ceiling besides us. “Be careful. The janitor is about to come to fix that.” The scale movement pattern had change again. “How do you like the architecture of our congress center?” What a strange question, I thought. “Well, it is interesting”. I tried to remain polite. “Oh yes, it definitely is”, she replied. “This is the most recent style of nature-integration.”
“Hard to translate term” I read on the display of the translator. “Alternative tentative translations: naturalism, renaturation, “Art Decay”, controlled decay, controlled uncontrolledness, back to nature, patinism, eco-wabi-sabism…”
“…The building is designed in such a way that it will, in a natural process of self transformation, integrate elements of the biosphere. Isn’t that an ingenious idea of the architect? It took me some time to understand this, but now I appreciate it. In some cases, the janitor must do some adjustments, but, err, anyway, will you stay in your ship? We do not really have the accommodations for people with different anatomies. So we are using the space-field as hotel system.”
My translator now came up with some information about this planet. According to the latest reports, a technical civilization had once existed on this planet, but had finished collapsing about 15 “years” (cycles around the central star) ago.
So this lady had stayed here for 15 years, pretending to herself that everything was OK? She had continued to send out calls for papers and continued to polish her scales, explaining away the dripping water and the holes in the windows, the creeping plants and the little insect-like animals hushing over the floor as “Art Decay”? A case of extreme denialism, I thought. Obviously, she was totally mad. But what had she been living on. She needed food. Maybe the congress center had food supplies for some big congresses left in its store rooms? I had a very creepy feeling now (my translator suggest that I use the word “shudder” to translate this into your language, although this does not reflect my physiology correctly).
“Let me look around a little bit” I said. “Oh, sure, just feel at home.”
I walked around the building. Paint was flaking from the walls, resulting in interesting patterns. Cracks had formed. In some parts of the building, concrete slabs had come down from the ceiling, exposing the rusting core grid. Where there was enough light, climbing plants had come in through holes in the windows. I could hear a buzzing sound from one room that sounded different from the chirping of the animals outside. It came from a machine in the back of a small room. The entrance door was rotting, but the tag on the door was still readable to my translator. “Emergency backup generator. Keep out”. Inside, the room was still in a relatively good shape. The machine was still noisily working. However, there was a blinking light and a display that read “Fuel low, please refill”. So this was the source of the radio waves and lights, probably the last working piece of technical civilization on this planet.
A beep on my translator indicated that it had finished retrieving information about the home planets of the other participants. I was baffled. These were all planets whose civilizations had recently collapsed.
One had destroyed itself in an atomic war. In one case, an intense stellar storm had wiped out all electronic systems, resulting in a catastrophic collapse. The others had used up the resources of their planets, depleted their biospheres, heated up their atmospheres and oceans and used up their reserves of raw materials and other resources. The normal, sad way of development of the vast majority of technical civilizations. They had collapsed, some of them quickly and catastrophically, others in a more or less extended process of decline (or “crisis”, in terms of the euphemistic and denialistic terminology that usually springs up in such cases) over a couple of decades.
There would be no congress. I would say good bye and leave.
The humming sound of the generator suddenly stopped. A hissing, but somehow buzzing sound came from somewhere. “All unessential systems are shut down. Emergency operation on batteries only” my translator blared. The screen read “artificial voice”.
I was going back to the main hall. The lady in her corner was still there, but then she suddenly vanished. I went around the desk. There was something that looked like a very advanced 3-D projection system. A small cone gave off a last puff of deliciously smelling acetone, to simulate the scent of scale polish. That wonderful scent had obviously dazed my brain. I should have seen she was a projection, a recep-bot. Maybe this system had just been switched on once a year, at the time of the yearly congress, to send and receive messages. Now, my stay here had quickly exhausted the fuel supply. Another hissing sound was translated by my translator in a robotic voice: “Immediate shutdown of all systems, battery is finishing”.
Then there was only the sound of dripping water left, the sound of chirping animals. I had been witnessing the switching off of the last remnants of this civilization that had once managed to produce this very impressive projection technology. And they must have had some rather advanced artificial intelligence, for that bot to come up with the idea of “art decay”. Artificial, creative, automated denialism. A very impressive technology! Maybe a technology developed to calm down people who were increasingly stressed up by scary and alarming events and developments in the time before the collapse.
The space-field outside was very hot, the air flickering over the concrete slabs in the heat of the noon. The chirping animals were silent now. At some distance, a thunderstorm was building up. Time to leave.
I fired up the engines of my lander and returned back to my ship. My sensors picked up all kinds of data about that planet on the way back up to the orbit. I would analyze them later and write a report on it.
On the way back, I was going over my article again. I would have to find another place where to publish it. The problem was that places for publication tended to vanish quickly because civilizations where disappearing. Maybe I would have to publish it on Earth.
I read the title of my paper. “Conflicting trends of decreasing and increasing secondary sexual dimorphism in late civilizations – a case study.” During my research on the civilization of earth, I had observed two conflicting trends. On the one hand, there was a trend towards more equality between males and females. Reduction of inequalities is a typical feature of industrial civilizations in their middle stage, when people tend to become richer and there are still many unexploited opportunities for economic growth. However, the people of earth have a strong sexual dimorphism, i.e. males and females look different. This dimorphism presents opportunities for economic growth. In later stages of development, when easy to exploit growth opportunities are beginning to be hard to find, industries therefore are trying to emphasize differences between the sexes and push products into the market that increase and exploit stereotypes. You get things like fashion, cosmetic products, artificial fingernails and eye lashes, hair modifications etc. At the same time, stereotyped role models and behaviors are promoted again. The “feminist” trends of the middle phase of the technical civilization are replaced by a consumerist “feminization”, while male attitudes and male fantasies are pushed into a complementary direction. In this stage of a civilization, attitudes of individuals are no longer moving into the direction of increased freedom and equality, but are influenced in such a way that consumption of products is maximized.
Thinking back, I wonder why I did not see immediately that this recep-bot was a programmed set of stereotypes, the always scale-polishing and scale-blinking, slightly naïve office girl, with jewelry clipped to her mouth scales, with pierced antennas and additional, artificial, movable pseudo-antennas attached in sexy ways, an artificial sex bomb, the product of late civilization consumerist, stereotyped secondary dimorphism, an example of the secondary sexism typical of late civilizations in sexually dimorphic species. “Very attractive female voice”; my alarm bells should have been ringing when I read that! I am thinking of those little puffs of acetone from the cone of the scent-simulator. For a short time, that must have been fogging my mind. I had even been tempted to dismount them from that desk and take them along before leaving. I think I have to seriously reduce my consumption of flrx.
(The picture is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haludovo_palace_hotel_from_pool_2011-08-12.jpg.)