Monthly Archives: August 2011
Death would come in the form of a thousand screaming Kalsaari slave-soldiers. They were close enough now that Ortega could see them through the clouds of dust kicked up by their march–short men, wiry like cats, their brass helmets and brass shields made dull and orange by the dirt and grime of a hundred league march.
They charged at the open gate with a kind of breathless urgency that meant they expected archers to be manning the walls. There had been, but they had all fled that night when they saw the cookfires of the enemy, counted the columns on their fingers and toes, and then eyed the flimsy arrows in their quivers. Ortega had not been surprised to find them gone. Levies were seldom reliable. Had Ortega a mind for irony or politics, he might have snorted at the idea that men would fight less fiercely to keep their freedom than those who had never tasted it.
Ortega, though, was born for war. It was all that occupied his thoughts as he waited for his killers, standing calmly in the open gate of Porto Nessum, his mageglass longsword point down, his gauntleted hands resting on the pommel. Feather light and sharp as broken glass, he knew the sword would serve him well today. He would not die alone.
The shields were what would do it, eventually. The leather jerkins they wore would barely slow down Ortega’s sword; their sabers were not equal to the plate-and-mail he wore as easily as a tunic and hose. The shields, though–it only took for his blade to get stuck once, and it would be over. Then he would be knocked off his feet, tackled to the earth, and their blades would find the places where he could be cut–his groin, his armpits, his face, his elbows, his knees. It would be a grisly death, slow and bloody. Part of Ortega relished it, wanted it to come. He knew suddenly that he had been waiting for this day for a long time, though it was seldom spoken of among the paladins of Rhond. He thanked the Great Shepherd, Hann, for bringing him to this place, this time. For bringing him this death.
Ortega did not know how many remained in the little town behind him. Many or most had fled with the levies the night before, despite his warnings. They would soon be run down by Kalsaari outriders, trussed up like cattle, and dragged back as slaves for market. None of them would get more than five leagues and the nearest fort was twenty distant. The Kalsaaris would not want word to spread of their attack, and they would see to it that it would not.
Not long now–perhaps two hundred yards. Ortega could hear them, shrieking in their foreign tongue. They could see him now for certain, and no arrows were falling from the wall. Some of the slave-soldiers slowed their pace, perhaps expecting a trap, perhaps willing to let their fellows get the first crack at the knight in the gleaming mail that stood blocking their way. The gate, barely wide enough to admit two carts side-by-side, would mean Ortega would face them no more than four or five at a time, anyway. There was no rush; they had all day to wear him down.
One hundred yards. Ortega took several long, deep breaths. The world narrowed into a sliver–himself, the gate, his sword, his enemies. The hot, dry air and the slow, idling breeze was like a balm to his racing heart. Was this fear? He had expected to be afriad at this moment. Most men would be afraid.
Fifty yards. It was not fear, it was excitement. Ortega assumed a ready position, his legs spread just beyond shoulder width, sinking into a half-couch. The sharply-tapered blade of his sword snapped up, pointing towards the first of the slave-soldiers. His hands wrapped around the hilt, holding it loosely enough to give him flexibility, but tightly enough that it could not be slapped from his hand. He took another breath.
Ten yards. The first man he would kill was no more than seventeen, a whispy beard clinging to his cheeks like moss. His dark eyes were wide; he saw his freedom in Ortega’s death. Such was the reward for good soldiers in the Kalsaari army. Ortega let the thought of it fill him with hate. A cold, dark feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach. He was ready.
A cut in fourth position, the boy’s saber held out too far, his shield away from his body–sloppy. Step left a half pace, beat the blade away, return stroke up along the same line as the boy’s arm to his neck. Ortega barely felt his sword pass through the boy’s neck. He heard the head hit the flagstones beneath his feet with a ‘clop’.
There are two of them now. Efficiency of movement–this is not a sprint. Ortega lets the one on the left strike down at his sword arm and merely pivots to let the blade glance off his shoulder pauldron. The second strikes low, a cut in eighth position, aimed at the shin. Ortega pulls his leg back, retreating a half pace. The second man is over-extended, but the first is ready to take another strike. A half-lunge and a short kick to man number two, right in the knee; he stumbles back. Hard cut at number one in sixth position. The shield comes up to block–the mageglass cuts through it like a down pillow. Severs the man’s arm–more blood. Ortega doesn’t hear the scream. Man number two holds his shield up as Ortega feints a high cut, but then swings low. His stomach is cut open, practically to the spine. His innards spill out.
Neither man dead, but neither left fighting. They fall back, dying in the dirt just before the gate. Three more replace them. How many seconds has it been? Five? Eight? Two? The three men advance as one, shields out (the damned shields!), sabers held at the ready. Ortega’s move, or he is boxed in. He advances, throws his shoulder into one shield–the man tries to meet him, but falls back. The other two strike at him–one, two, three blows. All hit his pauldron or breastplate. Their flurry of blows makes them sloppy with the shield again–it’s held out too low or too high. Step within the first man’s reach, bring the hilt into his face. The quillion takes him in the cheek, breaking bone and shattering teeth. Bring the sword down through the shield arm, backswing towards the second man–he retreats, but collides with his fellows. Men fall, swear, curse.
Ortega whirls, slashing out at another man, cutting his throat through, but not taking his whole head. Blood in his eyes. The world smells like blood.
They are on him now, too many to count. Ortega is a machine, every step and every cut an extension of his years of training. He hears his old master, Bolto, known as ‘Molto Bolto’, barking in his ear. Advance, cut, retreat, pivot, guard, again! Blade up! Watch the shields! Watch the damned shields, boy!
It is difficult work, slaughtering men. Ortega is sweating beneath his armor, his heart pounds like a marching drum. He hears the horns of the troopmasters now. The whip is cracking at his enemy’s rear. Step within guard, strike to instep with forward foot, cut in four, guard in six, pivot, retreat, beat in eight, return in five. The shields, boy!
Molto Bolto had one eye, lost in a crusade in some war Ortega could not now remember. It did not seem to have dulled his senses, though–he sparred without reserve or remose. The heavy wooden practice blades rained on Ortega’s hands and head and body for hours on end. Pain is the path to greatness, boy. No one ever became great in comfort.
Another head cut free from its moorings. The bodies have become and obstacle to his foes. They trip over the dead, they are clutched at by the wounded and dying. Some try to flee from him, and Ortega lets them. It is chaos at the gate. He keeps them to his front and flanks as much as possible, but still men get behind him. He whirls and cuts, keeping himself in control, but he is frantic. The bloody shields! His grip in the hilt is sticky with blood and sweat. His armor is dented, spattered crimson. Not long now. Guard in four, short kick, pommel to brow, pivot, advance, cut to three, watch behind you!
Would they build a statue to him? Ortega didn’t know. These things were decided by priests and merchants, not paladins. Anyway, he wouldn’t be there to see it. Watch behind! Your cape, boy! Keep it on! It guards your back, makes the enemy uncertain where to strike. Drop it now and it will tangle your legs. Guard in six, riposte to four, pivot, pommel to brow, repeat! Again!
The first wound is to his calf–a weak cut, not deep enough to sever tendons, but painful. The hot blood runs down into his boot. Footing is already slick. The man who struck it dies with Ortega’s sword thrust through his spine. A man from behind siezes his cape–Ortega slips the clasp and lets it go. The man who took it lost his shield–he dies easily. More blows rain on him; they are pressed in close now, corps-a-corps. Not long now.
The slave who tackles him is a giant of a man, a full foot and at least sixty pounds heavier than Ortega. The paladin’s helmet strikes the flagstones hard enough to make his teeth sing. The big slave, though, is already dead–Ortega’s sword thrust through him to the hilt. Stuck. Gone. It was almost over.
Ortega rolled, remembering the wrestling lessons Molto Bolto had given him. He had hated wrestling. Bite, gouge, spit, pinch, twist–there is no honor in wrestling, so have none. No, boy! Make it hurt! THIS is how you bite! THIS is how you gouge!
The helmet spared the slaves his bites, but his gauntleted thumbs gouged the eyes out of some as he rolled and kicked. He did not scream or swear–he hadn’t the breath. He needed to fight, to keep fighting. He reached for his dagger–his arm was pinned. A blade cut into his elbow, slipped beneath his ribs. The pain was weirdly dull beneath the pounding of blood in his head and the stampede of his heart.
He thought of his sister. He hadn’t expected to, and it stunned him. Would she be married to a good man? Who would pay her dowry now? Would his death ruin her? He had never thought of that. The last moments of his life, and these were his thoughts? He tried to think of Hann as a snarling Kalsaari slave shoved a dagger through his helmet, cutting his cheek open. Blood filled his mouth–he put his fingers in the slave’s eyes and squeezed. They screamed together.
Hann’s face did not appear. There was only his sister, sitting beneath the olive tree in the garden, smiling at him beneath a wide, white hat. He could hear her laughing, see her opening her arms to embrace him, but there was Molto Bolto, hissing in his ear. Bite, gouge, roll, kick, spit, use the blood in your mouth to blind them boy! Make a name for yourself! Growl your last breath!
Ortega pushed him away. He instead spread his arms for his sister’s embrace. “I’m sorry.” he said through bloodstained teeth. ”This was selfish of me.”
The Death came, in the form of a dagger through the eye.
Most of the guys I know who grew up in the 80s love Voltron. To be honest, I don’t really get it. For me, the deal breaker has always been that he is made out of five robot lions and that, at the end of pretty much every episode, he destroys the robeast with the blazing sword, which always begs the question ‘why didn’t he just immediately become Voltron and draw the blazing sword? What isn’t that his go-to strategy?’ I really hate it when characters are stupid exclusively to create conflict. I don’t mind if a character is naturally stupid all the time, I just hate when anybody’s asked to hold the ‘idiot ball’ just so the opposition can make things interesting. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of what this blog is about. Maybe I should change the title…
But I digress…
There’s a bigger problem with Voltron, of course. Indeed, there is a problem with all giant robot/mech stories, and it’s simply this: Why would anybody bother building a fifty or one-hundred foot, bipedal robot?
Granted, they’re pretty cool. That’s about all, though – they afford no significant advantage over other, already existing forms of transportation. That is, furthermore, what they are – a form of transportation for weapons, a delivery system for various lasers, missiles and, I suppose, blazing swords (as asinine as that idea is). Usually, the stories that rely heavily upon mechs (Battletech, Robotech, Voltron, Macross, and even Warhammer 40K to some extent) invent various rationales as to why the mechs are the pinnacle of military technology and all of us, collectively, have seemed to buy into it. I’m here to tell you that it’s ridiculous, and I’m going to debunk these ideas one-by-one.
Mech Myth #1: Legs Make You All-Terrain
No, they don’t. Walking upright, or even walking at all, isn’t all that superior to any other kind of locomotion in most circumstances. The supposition among mech-enthusiasts is that, somehow, by having feet you are better able to move about on rough terrain. This may be true, but only occasionally and, furthermore, the lengths one would need to go to to make a robot walk around on two legs far outweighs the benefits contained therein.
What is important to remember is just how difficult it is to walk around while upright. It’s hard, folks – there is a reason that we are one of only a handful of species who can manage it. Our inner ear (which provides us with the balance necessary to pull this off) is an enormously complex organ, and we humans only top out at a few hundred pounds and stand no more than seven feet tall in most cases. We also fall down a lot – usually in rough terrain, incidentally – and have the capacity to adapt our center of gravity by crouching or crawling if need be.
A giant robot is going to stand, what, two stories tall, at minimum? How much does a thing like that weigh? Well, if Battletech is to be believed, it’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 100 metric tons, maybe even more. That is a huge amount of mass to be balanced on two feet or even four (though at least then it would be far easier) and would require a gyroscope of incredible sophistication (and probably size) to get the thing to stand and walk around on even terrain, let alone the rough stuff. Furthermore, the odds of being able to give it the flexibility and agility to do things like crouch or catch its balance if it stumbles and so on are pretty small, and even if you can do that, it’s going to be enormously expensive.
And what does the mech gain from this bipedal nature? Well, I suppose they get better at climbing, negotiating forests, and wading through rivers. Of course, given the massive size of these vehicles, one must ask (1) what it is they need to climb, (2) what forests are going to have trees far enough apart for them to pass anyway, and (3) why didn’t you spend all that money just making a hovercraft or a helicopter or, hell, an amphibious tank?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you have now built an extremely expensive and sophisticated vehicle that can fall over. Do you think a forty-ton, three story robot falls over and just gets back up again? If you think so then you, my friend, don’t know much about inertia. The sheer amount of energy required to get the robot to sit back up would be enormous. You’d need a giant robot with titanic abs, essentially; you would take up enormous quantities of power and space aboard the mech on abs that would really only be used if it fell down. To compensate, you probably end up putting huge amounts of weight in the thing’s feet, and need correspondingly huge engines just to move around, making it ponderous, slow, and erasing whatever advantages were gained by having legs in the first place. What a waste of resources! Just put the damn thing on tracks and have done with it!
Mech Myth #2: Being a Mech Provides a Superior Platform for Weapons
Honestly, there is something to be said for this one. Being high-up gives one a good view of the battlefield and, theoretically, would provide a pretty good platform for long-range weaponry. There are, unfortunately, a couple major problems with this. Firstly, if you can see the whole battlefield, this also means the whole battlefield can see you. The giant robot becomes a giant target and, since all you need to do is knock it down, it’s easier to destroy than you think. Nothing likes getting pelted with antitank missiles, even mechs. The second problem is this: why don’t you just use an airplane or a helicopter? They also have a great view of the battlefield, but they have the added benefit of being fast, maneuverable, relatively small, and way, waaaay cheaper to manufacture.
“Ah,” sayeth the mech enthusiast, “what about the arms and shoulders full of weapons?” Actually, to be honest, I would hope no mech enthusiast would say this, since it’s self-evidently ridiculous. You don’t need arms to carry weapons. Tanks and planes and ships have been mounting all kinds of weapons for ages and haven’t been putting them on arms or shoulders. You don’t need arms or hands to aim, you just need some kind of mount that can swivel or pivot as needed. They have these things – they’re called turrets and they work just fine. Furthermore, with the advent of advanced weapons technology, why can’t you simply use guided, fire-and-forget munitions. Then you don’t really have to worry about aiming the weapon at all, just the little targeting laser you stick somewhere it can spin around. Problem solved, and for a lot less money.
Mech Myth #3: Being a Mech Allows You To Carry More Weapons/Armor
I have no goddamned idea where anyone got this one, but I’ve seen it in Battletech, Warhammer, and other sources. Mechs are usually depicted as carrying the largest, most devastating weapons on the battlefield, while the tanks roll around with popguns. Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.
Every tank and, indeed, every military vehicle in the universe is a balance of three factors: mobility, weaponry, and armor. You can never quite have all three in spades, so you need to balance. Heavy tanks, for instance, trade mobility for superior weapons and armor. Airplanes trade armor for superior mobility and weapons. Things like helicopters and light tanks and so on try to find a balance of the three. There is only so much space inside one vehicle to fit all this stuff, and it just isn’t physically possible to do all three perfectly at once.
Enter the mech: because so much of its internal space must be devoted to getting it to stand upright and walk around, it must sacrifice in terms of armor and weaponry. Too much armor and the thing can barely walk (or bend, which is important for a walking thing). Weaponry has to be carefully mounted and built to handle recoil, or your mech will fall over as soon as it fires a gun (I would suggest bypassing the recoil problem altogether by mounting rockets, missiles, and possibly lasers, as those don’t have recoil, though they do present other problems we needn’t go into here). Even though it’s gigantic, it isn’t going to be able to carry a proportional amount of weapons and armor when compared to, say, a big tank. The tank is going to be about as mobile, too, and will have the advantage of being harder to spot, whereas the mech is going to be visible for kilometers in every direction. Considering that you should be able to afford 3-4 tanks to each mech, and that the weapons carried by the tanks are going to be similarly as good, what could the advantage to the giant mech possibly be?
Mech Myth #4: Mechs are Psychological Weapons
Like #2, the mechs have something here. A giant robot full of weapons is pretty scary, granted. I’m not so sure, however, they are significantly scarier than a bombing campaign or airstrike. I think an Apache helicopter blazing towards my position while it chews up all my buddies with its ridiculous main gun would be sufficient to scare the bejeezus out of me. You really don’t need a giant robot to do this, you just need something that can lay down tons of destruction.
In the end, there are very few actual advantages to a giant, fifty-foot tall mech, especially when you consider that other, already existing technologies are or will be able to match it in every category or, in combination, exceed it. Airpower already threatens to make armored battle tanks obsolete, and those you can hide much more easily. A giant robot walking down the street is going to get an air-to-surface missile in its face so quickly, it will barely be able to get off a shot. Then the thing is going to fall over, flail around a bit on the ground, and it’s going to be embarrassing for everybody. Especially if it then pulls out a sword or something or breaks apart into several lions and tries running down the…jet. God.
I would point out, however, that smaller mech-suits (more like powered armor), much like were seen in Avatar or District 9, do have a reasonable military future as far as I’m concerned. That, however, is a topic for another day.
My daughter is almost two years old, and I’ve found myself watching a lot of old animated Disney movies. As usual, I’ve found myself dissecting them. I can’t help it–besides being a writer, I’m also a literature professor. Putting aside all the psychological and social interpretations of those films (which are numerous and often disturbing), I also find myself asking the question: What do the faries get out of all this?
In particular, I have to wonder about the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. The scene is wonderfully done (as is, ultimately, the whole movie; it’s practically the definition of movie magic), but the sheer kindness of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother makes me suspicious. For one thing, the faries of legend are not all butterflies and happiness. They are frequently fickle, cruel, selfish, and even monstrous, appearing kindly at first only to change at a moments notice and turn somebody’s lady love into stone for all eternity due to some minor oversight in etiquette. I sometimes, while watching Cinderella entertain the idea that the Fairy Godmother is cut from the same cloth. If so, then what’s her angle?
One theory I’ve entertained is that it is actually the wicked stepmother the Fairy Godmother is out to screw over. It does seem unlikely that such an odious woman could score the kind of man that Cinderella’s father apparently was, so perhaps there was some kind of deal struck between the stepmother and the fairy, and then the stepmother–selfish, megalomaniac that she is–broke the deal. Or maybe was just plain rude, who knows.
The more interesting story, though, I think is this one: Cinderella’s bill is in the mail, so to speak. The fairy godmother basically saves Cinderella from a lifetime of domestic slavery and, after granting her (say) twelve years of marital bliss with the Prince, she shows up again. Time to pay the piper, girlie, and with interest. What does she take, I wonder? Cinderella first born, perhaps (a bit cliche, but there is precedent, anyway, and mortal babies are clearly useful to faries). Maybe she comes to steal Cinderella’s beauty? Maybe her capacity to love? Maybe simply the Prince himself?
Ooh! What about this: the Stepmother did make a deal with the Fairy Godmother once upon a time–it was the same deal that Cinderella made. The Fairy Godmother scored her a husband, but then cursed her with widowhood and ungrateful children. Same for Cinderella; the Fairy Godmother kills off the Prince, makes her children terrible and spoiled (or perhaps Cinderella does that herself–who knows?) and then we’re stuck with a woman who finds herself sliding down the same pit her stepmother did. For the first time in her life, she gets some perspective on that awful woman who almost ruined her forever. Horrified, she realizes that she now understands; she might even think she owes the woman an apology.
Of course, she’s dead now, so it’s too late. Cinderella is all alone again, except this time she dreams of the past, not the future, and there is no fairy godmother waiting in the wings to make it all better. As Heinlein once said: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
Excerpted from the diary of Mr. George Banks, 17 Cherrytree Lane
June 8th, 1910
I had the most extraordinary encounter today that it would seem prudent to relate it here, despite my objections to anecdotes on principle, as they are by nature frivolous affair and any overindulgence in their practice leads, unerringly, towards moral degradation and an intolerable erosion of one’s natural dignity. Nevertheless, as I say, this particular encounter was noteworthy enough to be recorded for posterity, as I should like to recall it perhaps at some date in the distant future, and do not find it prudent to rely exclusively upon memory. Therefore, I have decided to forego the usual financial narratives that hitherto have occupied these pages in favor of a tale somewhat more dramatic in nature.
I was in to work at precisely eight-oh-two, as per usual. As a manager at the bank, it is occasionally my duty to keep appointments with notable investors who rate somewhat more expert service than can be commonly accomodated by our tellers, as skilled as they may be. It is therefore my habit (as has been recorded herein before) to check these appointments first thing. I saw that I had one, at quarter-past eight, with a Mr. Michael Tibbs. I did not immediately recognize the name, but upon retrieving the account in question, I noticed that the account itself was in the name of one Admiral Arthur Bume (Ret.). This gentleman is my neighbor of some years now at number 15 Cherrytree Lane, and has the peculiar habit of firing off a cannon at various hours of the day to mark the time. I have, on several occasions in the past, complained at this eccentricity, as it has done some quantity of damage to my property in the form of falling vases, broken windows, and a piano that is perpetually out of tune. Up until this time, no complaint has had any effect; the local constabulary has spoken with the Admiral on several occasions and has informed me that the honorable gentlemen refuses, upon any account, to cease his ritual, nor will his consent to dismantling the ridiculous edifice of a naval ship built upon his roof.
As a man who appreciates the service of His Majesty’s Navy, I have never pressed the issue much beyond this. However, at the prospect of having Mr. Tibbs in my office, I thought perhaps I might make a more diplomatic attempt to restore a certain degree of peace to my home and regain the capacity to possess a piano capable of hitting the proper notes in the proper combinations. I realize I do not play, but a man has standards one must maintain in my position, and a properly functioning insturment is one of them. Of course, I digress.
Mr. Tibbs came, much to my surprise, dressed in a fine jacket and waistcoat, a gold pocket watch, and wore a hat every bit as well made as my own. Were it not for his mutton-chop sideburns and swarthy complexion, I would never have recognized the chap. I had rather expected the fawning, simpering idiot in a boatswain’s uniform, a tin signal whistle dangling from his neck. He had a serious expression, a sharp eye, and he shook my hand with the firm grip of a naval officer. “Mr. Banks, I am very pleased to see you, sir. The Admiral sends his thanks.”
“Of course, of course–won’t you sit down.” I offered him a chair, and he took it. We got straight to business. The Admiral has a substantial account through his pension from the navy, in addition to various parcels of land owned by himself in both Britain and India. Mr. Tibbs was seeking to move some funds about from account to account, liquify some assets, and see about securing a small loan. None of this was terribly complex work, and we finished the lion’s share of the effort in a matter of minutes. Soon we found ourselves sipping tea as we waited for the clerks to finish drawing up the papers. This was to be my opportunity.
“I take it, sir, that you live with Admiral Bume?”
Tibbs nodded. “Indeed, sir.”
“Is he your benefactor? Are you some relation?”
Tibbs frowned. “No, sir.”
Noting his frown, I smiled. “My apologies if I pry into private business, sir. It’s just that…”
“No need, Mr. Banks.” Tibbs waved away my apology. “I imagine it is a challenge living next door to the Admiral. You’re bound to be curious.”
I sighed. “Well, surely sir you can see my confusion. You have the look of a gentleman of means and, if the Admiral is neither benefactor or relation, then…”
“Then why would I live with him, eh?” Tibbs stiffened. “Why would I act as a man before the mast, when I retired from Her Majesty’s Navy as a Lieutenant? Why would I swab the deck, wash his windows from a longboat, and load an old cannon for him each hour?”
I shrugged. “I…of course I mean no offense, but…”
Tibbs shook his head. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Banks.”
“I should say not. Forgive me, Mr. Tibbs, but he appears, by all accounts, to be quite mad.”
Tibbs’ face darkened like a thundercloud. “I’ll not have you say that of the Admiral.”
“I…” I found myself quite at a loss for words. I could see what, to my mind, seemed to be an irrational storm of anger brewing atop Mr. Tibbs bristling eyebrows. I could only stand and prepare for it to break upon me, as I imagined I had likely deserved for my violation of good manners.
The storm did not break so much as rumble in the distance, echoed behind Tibbs every word. “I joined the navy in ’65. I was fifteen years old, sailing before the mast on Reliant, under the Admiral, then Captain Bume. You never knew him then, sir, so you don’t really know what he was like–a giant of a man, voice like a lion, chest and shoulders broad as two men. Strode the deck like a God, like the sea itself rolled beneath him at his wish, and the wind blew on his command. We were off the coast of Africa, hunting pirates. Thing was that the pirates found us–four ships to our one, outgunned us, faster than us, more men. I don’t mind telling you sir that I was terrified, but there was Bume, fire blazing from his lips sharper and fiercer than anything they were throwing. Still, odds were against us. When the mast came down, it landed on my legs, sir. The pirates were swarming aboard a moment later–hotentots and savages all, kinves in their teeth, come to murder us. Thought I was a dead man–I was, or should have been. Saw my killer in his black eyes, crouched over me, mean little smile on his thin lips, his dirk pointed at my eye.”
Tibbs paused, and I found myself leaning forward, mouth hangning open. “Yes? What happened?”
“Close your mouth, Banks–we are not codfish.”
I snapped it closed. “Mr. Tibbs, go on–the pirate was over you. What happened?”
“Captain Bume struck his head from the his shoulders in one swipe of his saber. A second later he was rolling the mast off of me and fighting pirates at the same time, striking them down left and right. He was like Samson himself, sir, knocking men down like they were bowling pins. Threw me over his shoulder and took the time to slap me in the face and yell ‘Mr Tibbs, I’ll have you awake if you please!’ as we leapt from our ship to the pirates’ vessel. Bume had them beat, and left our crippled ship to sieze theirs, and then used their ship to sink the others with all the tenacity of a bulldog. Gave him the Victoria Cross for that; the Queen herself pinned it to his chest.”
I sat staring, breathless from the tale. “And, so you care for him…”
“The man saved my life, Banks. Saved all our lives, and that wasn’t the last time. I went on to a respectable career, retired in good standing, and then I found the Admiral–alone, drifting into his dotage, a sad little sunken shell of the great man I remembered.” Tibbs fixed me in the eye. “I knew what he needed–he needed a ship, a crew, to feel like a man again. I swore him I’d be that crew–I built that ship up there with these two hands. I’ve lived with him ever since, and while he may not quite know where he is or what’s going on anymore, I’ll be damned if I leave him in some bed somewhere to rot. He gave me a wonderful life; I’ll see to it that he has a wonderful death, his crew at his side, and a cannon shot over the bow as the sun sets.”
Tibbs shook his head and took up his hat. “No, you don’t. But you’re a good sort, Banks, or at least the Admiral seems to think so. Just next time you send a policeman round, remember what I’ve told you about him.”
He left at that, saying he’d come to sign the documents another time. I think the story took a sort of toll on him; I daresay his eyes looked a trifle glassy.
In any event, in light of Admiral Bume’s fine service to the Empire, I am resolved not to complain about his artillery exercises ever again. There are some discomforts one should bear for those who have done the rest of us such honor. It is, I daresay, the British way.
There’s a lot of stories of alien invasion out there, from HG Wells on up to Battle for LA and probably a whole heap-load of cable TV shows and specials that I haven’t seen piled atop the dozens and dozens of ones I have. There was even a special on the Discovery Channel’s show ‘Curiosity’ that had experts discussing the ins and outs of what a likely alien invasion would look like.
All of it is a colossal bunch of nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong–I think those movies and books and such are great fun, it’s just they usually don’t make a whole lot of sense. The aliens are almost always caught holding the idiot ball and certain humans are perfectly defended by Plot Armor to the point where one really has to ask yourself: What were the aliens thinking?
Points in Case:
War of the Worlds
The Plan: Use Tripods and chemical weapons to gas/kill all humans before attempting to alter earth into a more suitable habitat.
Well, seeing how it was written around the turn of the 20th century, we have to cut HG Wells a little slack. We don’t have to cut the remakes as much, however, and the alien plan here is monstrously inefficient. Tripods are great weapons, but as tools of planetary conquest they are rather inefficient. How long, exactly, to those things expect to be wandering around the Earth before they kill every human? It’s going to take a damned long time, if it’s even possible at all. Also, they get wiped out by the flu? Guys, c’mon–it’s an alien planet. Seal up them tripods, will ya? Use Purell or something.
The Plan: Use massive flying saucers and overwhelming air power to obliterate all major human power centers, then (presumably) invade with ground forces en masse.
You know, not actually such a terrible plan. Of course, it is going to be massively costly for the aliens themselves (as every air war we’ve ever fought has told us, air power only goes so far), but they’d probably win.
Oh, wait–I forgot that Jeff Goldblum has a Macbook Pro. Shit. They’re screwed. (how is it that the Macs are compatible with the alien mothership again? They weren’t compatible with anything here on Earth at the time, soooo…)
The Plan: Sneak around naked and scare children. Then, when everybody’s freaked out, use short-range nerve gas dispensers to kill the people. Avoid squirt guns, lakes, pools, sprinkler systems, human tears, blood, etc….
Three words for this plan: What. The. Fuck.
Stupidest alien invasion ever. Seriously, what were they thinking? Was the alien high command sitting around and saying ‘Hey, Bill, that planet over there–you know, the one comprised almost entirely of deadly poison–what say we invade while naked. Sounds fun, no?’
Also, aliens who can traverse the void of space didn’t think to bring a power drill to remove cellar doors? Seriously? Did they do any recon at all, or did they just jump in blind? Gallipoli was better planned than this nonsense.
The Plan: Act all friendly to human kind and gradually draw them into a fascist regime with you guys as leaders. Kill off rebels slowly and quietly to avoid fuss.
Pretty good plan, actually, and it mostly worked. Of course, it went the way all fascist dictatorships go–down the tubes. There’s only so long lizard people in masks can rule a place before everybody hates them enough to overthrow them. Look at Lybia.
Don’t get me started on the reboot of V. That show made so little sense that I’m still trying to figure out if their plan was only dumb or both dumb and logically inconsistent.
How to do it Right
If you are a super-advanced alien species who’s eyeing Earth, there is probably a much more efficient way to handle humanity than depicted in the movies. The challenges of taking on the whole human race sprawled across the entire planet are pretty significant. Conventional warfare–attacking with tripods, flying saucers, raygun-infantry, etc.., is going to be really costly and take a long, long time, no matter how awesome your technology is. There are easier ways, folks. Mostly, how you go about handling things is largely dependent upon what you’re there to do. I think all purposes for invasion fall under a couple basic categories: Resources, Colonization, Conquest, and Genocide.
Ah, the Earth is a beautiful jewel in the vastness of space, filled with plentiful resources your species needs to survive and/or get rich. But how to get them? Here are some simple, practical ideas:
1) Buy Them: Granted it doesn’t make a precisely riveting movie, but why not just buy the stuff you want from unscrupulous human businessmen? Surely you have something they need and, chances are, the stupid humans aren’t going to realize the value of their algae/seawater/topsoil/bacteria anyway. Make a deal. Dump a thousand tons of gold in their backyard that you harvested off some airless rock somewhere and make a killing. Give them the formula for transparent aluminum, for crying out loud–does it really matter? The idiots are going to blow themselves up in a few decades anyway.
2) Steal it: This may come as a shock to you, Alien High Command, but most of planet Earth isn’t watching the stars for invaders. You could probably sneak on down to somewhere in Siberia, build a mine, suck whatever you need out of the ground, and be gone before anybody knew any better. You could probably do this over and over again, actually, and never get nabbed.
Yeah, the Earth looks like a pretty good place to live. Beats the depths of the void, at any rate, and you need somewhere to flop. Contrary to popular alien belief, however, you really don’t need to kill all the humans to do this. It’s pretty simple, really. Just do the following:
Step 1: Blow up something big and important. Cut Italy in half. Blow up New York…the state, not the city. Cover Africa in darkness for a week. Make it rain in the Sahara.
Step 2: Announce your demands to the UN. You plan on moving into central Australia and staying there as long as you damn well please. Anybody have a problem with that, and threaten to make Pangea a reality again.
Step 3: Set up shop and play the diplomacy game like everybody else, except this time you are the only folks with rayguns and orbital bombardment capabilities.
How do we know this works? Well, the Romans did it–over and over and over and over. Worked every time. Soon as you start giving the earthlings your firewater, universal vaccines, and hyperspace viaducts, why are they going to complain? If they do, you blow up their holy sites–simple, see?
A little more intensive than Colonization. You don’t so much want to live on Earth as subjugate it to your will. Whether or not you stay really depends on how many slaves the humans can provide you with. Now, the above method for colonization should probably work fine in this instance. Barring that, however, you can try this:
1) Wholesale kidnapping: You’ve got spaceships, teleporters, tractor beams, etc.–how hard is it, really, to get yourself some human slaves? Beam them up, Scotty, then take off.
2) Genetic tampering: Some clever nanotechnology, perhaps some unique biological compounds intoduced into public drinking supplies, and bam–a very suggestible human race. You just need a little patience.
Say you just don’t plain old like human beings. You want the bastards dead. Well, stop futzing around and just do it, already. You don’t need to use flying saucers (well, at least not in the atmosphere), and you probably don’t even need nukes (though you probably have access to them or their equivalents in spades). Divert an asteroid, watch Bruce Willis and his buddies screw up royally in their ham-handed attempt to stop it, and watch the fireworks. Done and done.
If that fails, try controlling the weather.
See, conquering the Earth isn’t that hard. What’s your excuse, Ming the Merciless? Flash? They guy doesn’t even wear a shirt! C’mon!
I was joking around with a friend of mine recently, discussing world politics, and we concluded the following:
The first country, state, entity, or person to figure out how to control the weather will automatically conquer the Earth.
There’s just no other way to slice it. Humanity is completely at the mercy of the elements, despite milennia of trying to combat them. Right now, as I write this, a gigantic storm named Irene is bearing down on my neck of the woods, and people are scurrying about like rats on a sinking ship. It’s gonna mess us up–knock down trees, cut power, do tons of damage, probably kill a few people–and it’s only a 2/5 on the scale of hurricanes.
Give a person or group of people that power and it’s all over, folks. Start paying them taxes, cause they got you over a barrel. If they can drop a tornado anywhere, send hurricanes like messenger boys, give one place rain and another place drought, there is no other power at our disposal that can compete. No fleet on earth could invade them, no airforce could make an approach, and no economy could withstand their assault or be immune to their influence.
To control the weather is to have the power of God.
Good thing it is essentially impossible to do.
Seeing how I touched on this with the ‘My Favorite Dungeon’ post, and seeing how I’m doing my absolute best to procrastinate today, I figured I’d talk a little bit about what I think equipment should be for in an RPG.
For starters, let me vent a little bit about what it isn’t for (or at least shouldn’t be). Equipment should not be seen as something integral to the character’s being. If your idea for a character is ‘a guy who uses two pump shotguns’, I think your idea is lame. The reason is because the shotguns are not and should not be the defining characteristic of your character. I don’t have a problem with a character having or owning a signature weapon, I just want the character to be more than the stuff on their back. I don’t see equipment as deserved stat-boosts for a character so he/she can compete with the bigger monsters (this is one of my primary problems with D&D as it exists today and, indeed, with most video game RPGs). I think a dagger should be able to kill a guy just as well as a broadsword, no matter how experienced he is. Getting stabbed by a bladed weapon hurts, no matter what that weapon is originally designed to do. Furthermore, and related to this, I don’t see there being a compelling reason outside of simple economics that a just-starting-out character can’t be allowed to use whatever piece of equipment they want, no matter how advanced. Naturally, there might be some stuff that is hard to get a hold of simply because of its expense or rarity, but any self-respecting weaponsmith is going to have as many swords as he’ll have hatchets, woodsplitters, and knives. Likewise, if you go to a black market arms dealer, he should be able to sell you all the top-of-the-line assault rifles right then and there, just so long as you’ve got the cash. I don’t care if the PCs are ‘first level’–you want a super weapon, you should be able to get it if you can afford the price.
This brings me to what equipment should be for in an RPG and, furthermore, in any given adventure story in any genre. Pieces of equipment are plot devices, plain and simple. They exist to make the story more interesting, introduce conflicts, and complicate dilemmas. You want a giant, fancy, super-robot? Done–you’ve got a giant fancy super robot. I will let you blow up fools, sure–that’s a given. You know what else I’m going to do, though? I’m going to have somebody try to steal your robot. I’m going to put you in situations where you need your robot but it isn’t nearby. I’m going to beat your robot up so it’s about to explode and you have to make a choice–do I stick here and fix it, risking being caught in the blast if I fail, or do I run and let it go. The toys are not the character, the character are not the toys–the toys exist to make things more interesting.
I’m currently running a game that I’ve designed myself (tentatively titled Frontier 2280). This game is sort of a Mission:Impossible style game, in which the players are given a dangerous mission, a pile of ‘mission assets’ (i.e. equipment), and sent off to do their best. They usually have an assortment of weapons, sensor equipment, vehicles, and sundry supplies that they can use in any combination they like to solve their problem. Will this stuff be useful? Hell if I know–I give them what it seems like their employers would be willing to provide. They can use it or not and it can become a focus of interest or never really feature. I have no compuction about blowing their stuff up, having it stolen, corrupted, or turned against them. To me, doing that just adds a level of complexity to the mission and makes things more dangerous and fun. Nobody complains if their pistol jams (heck, given the system, you are rewarded if you volunteer your pistol for jamming!), because the pistol jamming at the wrong moment is a problem. Problems create conflict, conflict creates fun.
Point in case, a few missions ago the team was sent to intercept a messenger pod coming from a distant planet with sensitive information the company wanted stolen. So, they went. When marching aboard, they brought a flamethrower, just in case they needed to roast anything. In the end (and due to a series of mishaps I won’t bother going through), said flamethrower wound up exploding in a room without gravity, resulting in the whole party being adrift in a room filled with (1) nerve gas, (2) concentrated acid (which caused the explosion in the first place), (3) napalm (from the flamethrower), and, oh yes, the air was being sucked out the back of the pod. Easily the most deadly room in the history of my GM-ing, and endlessly hilarious, tense, and fun. Nobody died (miraculously), but one guy had his leg dissolved away and several were badly burned. If they want another flamethrower, they can have one–they just need to afford it, is all, and they aren’t that expensive–but my players understand that the flamethrower is just a tool, and that tool can (and will) be used to make the game more fun. Not easier.
In all my years of playing RPGs (about twenty, at this point), I’ve had a lot of memorable moments. I won’t list them here–it would take a long time (it’s been two decades, after all)–but I will say this: very few of those moments took place in dungeons.
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
Yeah, we all like getting treasure. Treasure is neat, it makes your character ‘better’ (a silly concept in an RPG, but I’ll touch on that later), but does it really make the game more fun? I personally don’t think so. Imaginary stuff isn’t ‘fun’, and I don’t think an intelligently designed pen-and-paper RPG should hinge upon the acquisition of imaginary stuff with few exceptions. That’s for video games, which need those things and can do them better, since it is adjudicated by a computer and not a person (the GM) and doesn’t have the benefit of being played while sitting in a room with your buddies. In short, video games are not a social endeavor (not even MMORPGs), and must rely on other things to provide entertainment value. You want your character to look cool, make cool noises when she/he swooshes a sword, and kill the larger baddies that hitherto have banished your character to the last save point (something lacking in pen/paper RPGs, and rightly so).
The thing that separates pen-and-paper RPGs from video games is the potential for real, actual conflict. Conflict is only had between people or thinking beings. You can’t be in conflict with a Gelatinous Cube–it’s an obstacle, not a conflict. It only does one thing, it doesn’t think, and you beating it is more of a logic problem than a conflict. Good GMs try to make the NPC monsters or baddies in dungeons into sources of conflict–they have needs, wants, assumptions, and goals that are subject to change and enable them to react flexibly to the assault by the PCs. They can be outwitted just as they can outwit the opposition, they can be bargained with, intimidated, charmed, or even simply avoided by the clever and the resourceful just as easily (or perhaps more easily) as they can be attacked and smashed by the belligerent. Well realized monsters in a dungeon make things much more fun, more interesting, and more challenging. They only go so far, however.
For my money, the absolute best kind of conflict to be had in a dungeon is between the players themselves. I want players to doubt their abilities, I want them to debate the proper plan of action, and I want them to be worried that one or the other of their party aren’t going to hold up their end of the bargain. You need a special group of players to do this well–you need players who like the ‘Role-playing’ part as much or more than the ‘game’ part. These players are able to separate their own emotions from the emotions their characters are feeling. They are in it for the story, not the reward at the end. When I introduce a conflict that forces their character to make a horrible decision (e.g. “You can hold on to your sword and be possessed by the daemon, but kill your enemy OR you can release the sword and watch your enemy escape with your lady love”), I want them to smile and say ‘that’s awesome’. Obviously it sucks for the character, but it makes for some fabulous fun for the player. These kinds of players don’t care so much about their character getting ‘better,’ though it is nice; they much prefer having fun with the character, even if they wind up begging for food in some alley somewhere, with only the memory of glory in their past (which is, of course, when the desperate young princess seeks them out and asks them to swing into the saddle one last time…but at a price).
If you can find a group of players like this, you can build a dungeon like the following. It is, for my money, my favorite dungeon of all the dungeons I’ve ever designed:
This campaign was set in the world of Talislanta (http://talislanta.com/). I titled it The Amazing Race: Talislanta and the premise was two competing parties (Team Love and Team Money) racing across the continent to some unknown land to find a fabulous artifact which, if transported back to the city of Cymril, would earn them a stupendous amount of wealth.
Obviously speed was very important in this campaign, as was choice of route, as were maps (they didn’t really know where the place they were going was, and the only maps I let the players look at were incomplete ones I fashioned myself). I furthermore made a rule that stated if a team wanted to find some treasure, they could let me know and I’d find a way to work in a dungeon of some kind for the next session. Team Money, feeling as though they were falling behind, decided to do so. They wanted to find some kind of treasure that would speed up their overland route, and I obliged them.
The Puzzle Vault of Sharahad
In the mountains of Arim is built a vault near the headwaters of a great river. It was fashioned upon the orders of the ancient Arimite Exarch, Sharahad the Miser, who wished that his riches never fall into the hands of another. He commissioned a master Kasmiran Trapsmith to construct the vault, and it is designed so that, even if someone is exceptionally skilled, they could never manage to steal more than a few coins of the Miser’s wealth, as the danger was far too high and it would require the thieves to have unerring trust in one another to do so. Accordingly, the vault has remained relatively unplundered for all these years.
The basic trap is fiendishly simple. The vault is built beneath a waterfall, and all of its workings are powered by the running water above. The top chamber is the main trap: In order to release the stone over the stairway that leads to the vaults below, someone must put their arm inside a stone lion’s mouth and pull the release switch (a complex device that requires a five-fingered human-sized hand to operate). When this is done, the lion’s mouth locks around the unfortunate’s hand and the switch locks around his fingers, pinning him in place. Then, a massive blade begins to slowly drop towards the pinned individual.
It is then that I, the GM, start the stopwatch. I tell them they have ten real-world minutes to get through one of the vaults, pull the release switch, and get back with the treasure. Beneath were four vaults, each built similarly. There would be a long hallway from which water had been drained, followed by a room with a complex trap (checkerboard floor with drop-away segments, a complicated blade trap, a series of mirrored doors in a maze, etc.), followed by a room filled with treasure in which would be hidden the release switch. Once the switch was pulled (provided it could be found), the players had 1 minute (again with the stopwatch) to grab what they wanted and get out before the hallway they used to get here filled with water and they’d be trapped and soon suffocate.
If the 10 minutes elapsed before they could solve the puzzle, the PC who put his arm in the activator would die (as severing a brachial artery is likely to do without modern medicine) or, at the very least, be one-armed for the rest of the campaign (provided a healer was present, where there wasn’t). Furthermore, the PCs who solved the puzzle couldn’t sit around and do the boring, slow, safe way to solve all dungeon traps–they had to move, and they didn’t have time to be careful. Finally, they couldn’t sit there and assess and weigh each piece of treasure before heading back up–they had to run.
Also (and my players never knew this, since it never came up) the deactivator switch would reset to a different location each time the vault was activated, meaning doing the same vault over and over again was just as dangerous as the first time. The whole thing was fiendishly evil and ridiculous fun.
Team Money was made up of characters who were, essentially, mercenaries brought together by the promise of gold. They didn’t trust each other or even really like each other, and this dungeon was designed to put them at each other’s throats. It worked beautifully, too. When I started the stopwatch the first time, all of my players went white with terror. “Seriously?” They asked.
“Seriously. Better get moving.”
The guy who put his arm in the trap first (Blake), started freaking out immediately. “Go! Go! Go!” he started yelling.
What followed was the most intense run through a trap I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Everybody, including me, was on the edge of their seat. The guy who volunteered to brave the blade trap and find the first activation switch (RJ) only pulled it off by 5 seconds. He had to pocket the first couple things he saw and ran up for all he was worth before his character was drowned or suffocated. Everybody let loose a sigh of relief, examined the treasure, and saw that it was all very very valuable.
I then popped the question: “Want to do it again?”
The debate exploded as to who was going to stick their hand in the trap next. Nobody wanted to, but the lure of the treasure and the possibility of something that might get them ahead of Team Love was too great, and they finally strongarmed another character into it. This time they solved the task by only 2 seconds, and they guy who did it almost died from the series of traps he had to face. They escaped with just a few more items of interest. They risked a third time, but only after making deals and arguing for about half an hour. The third time, two of the three who went down were knocked unconsious by poison darts, and the last one had to drag them out, barely alive, after finding the switch. They escaped with almost nothing that time.
They didn’t want to do it again after that.
The Puzzle Vault was tense, exciting, conflict inducing, and I gave them a flying carpet and a magic, teleporting tent out of the deal (which wound up being major McGuffins for the rest of the campaign). There were no monsters, no slow dungeon crawl nonsense, and no remote-control obstacles that mattered. The real challenge was getting somebody to put themselves in harm’s way so another PC could find treasure. It worked fabulously, and has become my gold standard for all dungeons I design from now on.
The idea of parallel evolution always irks me. I think it irks scientists, too, but I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know for sure. The supposition that an intelligent alien species would follow the same path as us–physiologically, socially, and scientifically–strikes me as hopelessly arrogant. It makes the obviously incorrect assumption that there is only one way to do things, and that way is to become humanoid, speak a language based on sound, and make your way up the ‘tech-tree’ (to borrow a RTS game term) from fire to the wheel and so on.
Let’s entertain a different idea, however. I’ve been turning this over in my head for the past few weeks, actually, and here’s what I got so far. Again, I stress that I am not a scientist, but know just enough basic science to get myself in trouble. I would be delighted, actually, if I had my science critiqued by folks who know better–it usually makes things more interesting as opposed to less so.
Take a planet sort of like ours–watery, geologically active, a healthy magnetic field, orbiting in the habitable zone of a main sequence star of some kind. This time, however, let’s knock it just a few pegs off the mark, specifically so there is no significant evolutionary advantage to being able to crawl around on land. Say the gravity is a bit too strong, making it very difficult for any large creature to survive and walk around up there. Or suppose, instead, that the planet is subject to baths of radiation from the star that make long-term survival impractical. Hell, perhaps it’s just too hot up there, or too cold–the planet’s oceans are forever coated in a sheet of ice, creating a significant physical barrier to anything crawling out of the deep and becoming an amphibian.
What happens if you wind up with a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species on such a planet? What is it like? How do they look at the world? Admittedly, the exercise is legitimately impossible–we have a hard enough time sticking ourselves in the shoes of other humans, let alone an alien species on an alien planet trillions of kilometers away. Let’s give it a whirl, anyway, and see what happens.
Going off a combination of what we’ve needed to get where we are and what creatures in our own oceans have the same potential, I’ve decided the following:
1) The aliens need some kind of prehensile appendages with which to manipulate their environment and make tools. Dolphins can be as intelligent as you like, but they’ll never manage to make a toaster without thumbs.
2) The aliens must have evolved in a particular niche where intelligence would have been useful. This is more-or-less restricted to carnivorous or omnivorous species–herbivores really don’t need to be smart, since they don’t need to hunt or plan or anything beyond just eating that kelp over there. Carnivores, furthermore, only need to be intelligent enough to chase down or ambush prey, and the rest of their job is done by substantial physical strength. Omnivorous, scavenging types, however, are neither as strong as predators nor as dumb as herbivores. They are adaptable by necessity, and live by being clever. Watch crows operate sometimes–very clever little birds–not to mention various kinds of monkeys and baboons and such.
3) The species needs to be curious. Curiosity is the only way you become a tool-using, problem-solving intelligent species in the ‘sapient’ sense. If we lacked this, we’d still be hunter-gatherers, no matter how smart we were. It took some real curiostity to harness fire, folks.
Okay, so, given all that stuff, I’ve decided that cephalopods seem the most likely candidates, specifically those akin to octopi and squids. They have large brains, tentacles with which to manipulate things, show curiosity, and, while not omnivorous per se, are scavengers and it is not beyond the bounds of imagination to see a cephalopodic species developing the capacity to ingest vegetable matter in a pinch.
This leaves us with squid-aliens, living in the depths of a planet, developing society and technology and art and commerce, but in a way wholly alien to ourselves.
Our squiddies are social creatures (real-life squids and octopi can actually get lonely, and will hang around with fish if isolated from others of their kind), and so it is reasonable to expect them to develop a kind of society. Indeed, and I probably should have placed this above, the social aspect of a species is probably essential to developing the kind of ‘intelligence’ I’m suggesting here (and, of course, there are many ways to measure intelligence–I’m picking one similar to ours simply because it makes it much, much easier to talk about. It needn’t be the case, though).
What kind of a society would they have? Heirarchical, I suppose–the bigger guy is higher on the food chain than the smaller guy and so on. This is the law of the oceans, and it only makes sense that it would be mirrored by the society spawned out of it (not altogether unlike ours). The family unit, as we understand it, might not be the same. Depending on the species in question, cephalopods lay eggs which are then fertilized by a male and left to their own devices. Alternatively, the males impregnates the eggs, which are then carried around by the female until they hatch. In the second place, we could see extended (and very large) family groups developing. I prefer the first case, though, just to be different. Eggs would be carefully hidden and probably protected, but they wouldn’t be carried around. Indeed, it might even be that the female dies immediately after laying these eggs. Yeah, let’s go with that one: females lay their eggs once in their lives, then die. Males fertilize them and leave them be, then wait for the eggs that make it to arise.
What effect does this have on their society? Well, I would expect a couple things to come of this:
1) Females, and the prospect of mating with one, would be an extremely sacred aspect of society. Most males wouldn’t get the opportunity, I would imagine, and they would be forced to treat females with deference and reverence. Females would have the pick of the litter, so to speak, on whom to mate with. Mating itself would be a very sacred ritual, almost like a mix of wedding and funeral, wherein the male, after perhaps decades of courting, is deigned worthy of producing children by the female. We can reasonably suppose the female’s attitudes towards life and death would be unusual, to say the least. The idea of ‘motherhood’ wouldn’t exist, really. Young would be raised collectively by the group, probably by the males, actually, who would have an idea of fatherhood and attachment to their own young that the females lacked.
2) The best places to plant such eggs would be, likewise, very important and sacred locations. Therefore, while the squids themselves might be nomadic, they would orient their travel around certain sites, and, indeed, eventually develop and interest in defending these places against other groups of their own kinds. These places would, naturally, become places of commerce and probably turn into repositories for wealth and large populations which would, of course, be attractive places to control. Bingo–they have wars.
3) Population growth, while not increasing at the same steady rate as ours (since they have their children all at once, rather than over the course of their lives), would probably be similar, depending on how many eggs they lay and how many fertilize and how many actually succeed in developing. As their technology increased to improve the odds, they would develop ever increasing population problems (imagine if a human woman got 75% of *all* her eggs to become children? She’d have how many thousands/tens of thousands of kids? Wow.). Even though they would live in a three-dimensional world, the sheer number of squids would eventually push them beyond the boundaries of their most comfortable environment, whatever that would be.
This last point, particularly the bit about living in a three-dimensional world, would be also important to understand and consider. Most sea creatures are restricted not only to certain latitudes on the earth, but also certain depths. Fish that live in the shallows can’t survive in the abyss and vice versa. For a very long time (milennia), we could expect the squids to happily (or unhappily) live in their particular strata of the oceans and, besides for the purposes of exploration, stick to those areas. As resources became scarce, they would adapt themselves to different depths and different latitutdes, or perhaps a combination of both. These offshoots of the original squids would create their own little gene pools in their own little corners of the ocean, and now we have ethnic groups, variations in culture/cuisine/art, and the stage for centuries of international warfare, just like us. The main difference would be that there would be exponentially more such cultures, since there are many, many more environments for them to call home. The physiological differences between the groups could be more severe, as well, possibly making their version of racism even more extreme (what–they only got seven tentacles? Gross–what primitives!).
Furthermore, given the fact that physical barriers to travel would be much reduced (rivers, mountains, canyons–all either non-existent or easily traversed underwater), once ways of suriving in deeper or shallower water were developed, it is very possible that the idea of commerce and trade would be even more pervasive. It would be difficult for cultures to be completely isolated from one another, and while they might retain their separation (due to racism, climate, etc.), they would probably remain in some kind of contact with the others. Of course, now that I’m thinking of it, this might serve to homogenize the gene pools somewhat, as well, cutting down on the number of subspecies. In any event, I think we can assume that no culture would develop completely isolated from the rest of the world in the way that we have–there would be no primitive aboriginal tribes hiding from the world, no China with its closed borders, etc. Everybody would have to deal with one another at some point.
This might have interesting effects on art and language, as well. A universal language might be expected; as cephalopods are very visual creatures with the capacity to change the color and pattern of their skin, their language would probably be visual and supported by whatever sounds their beaks/mouths might make, much like we support our verbal language with whatever gestures our hands provide. Those cultures living in the deeper regions of the ocean might have slightly different dialects, given the dim lighting, but one might presume that, before any culture so visually oriented would decide to live in the darkness, they would have developed a reliable method of lighting or chosen areas rife with bioluminescent organisms.
Anyway, this brings us to a discussion of technology.
Evolving underwater would have an enormous effect on the whys and hows of technological development. Technology is, of course, driven by necessity, and what you need when you live in the sea is quite different from what you need while on land. To begin at the beginning, we could easily see that the technologies we commonly associate with being among the simplest–the wheel, the incline plane, fire, the lever–might not be so simple for underwater creatures. Why would they develop the wheel, for instance? Certainly they’d figure it out sooner or later, but certainly not first, since you hardly need it in the ocean. Likewise, fire and combustion in general would be a very difficult concept for them to grasp, since it would be so difficult to achieve in the deep.
What they would almost certainly master first would be the idea of bouancy and jet propulsion. These are things inherent to their own physiology (its how they move around the water, after all) just how levers and incline planes are how we do things on land. The use of baloons and bladders to raise or lower things would probably be mastered quickly and developed beyond our own capacity to imagine. Likewise, the idea of a system by which one could propel oneself through the use of bellows or similar things would also be quick to develop. Pumps, tubes, and hydrodynamics would be second nature and essential for travel. Agriculture and the domestication of their fellow sea creatures would be a given, since no society with a burgeoning population would manage without it.
Presuming they developed electricity (very likely), their power plants would probably be run by wave-action, currents, and geothermal energy (they are right near the cracks in the crust of their planet, after all). Weapons would mostly be poison and camouflage based, again in keeping with their natural inclinations, though the development of torpedoes and explosives would be probable. No swords, obviously–spears, spear guns, and things that could deliver a deadly blow through the thick medium of ocean water would be expected. Armor would be designed to deflect piercing attacks over slashing or blunt-force trauma. The use of fire as a weapon wouldn’t probably occur to them, at least not for a long while.
Eventually, we might expect one of these fine squids, the Sir Edmund Hillary of his people, to crawl out of the water and sit on dry land, some kind of shallow-water guide at his side, and gaze up at the unimagined spectacle of the night sky. When he saw the stars, resting there on a black velvet field, twinkling like gems in the deep, what would he think?
What would he dream?