Sunday, September 16, 2007

Eric Frank Russell's "Symbiotica": Symbiosis among large life forms

While symbiosis of many kinds of bacteria with larger animals like humans is familiar, this story introduces symbiosis among large life forms - hominids & trees & small mousy creatures visible with naked eye, etc.

While the entire MMM series except "Jay Score" has a juvenile feel to it, this one felt a little more juvenile than "Mechanistria". But I found this more enjoyable, because of more imaginative adversaries.

This is the only story in the series where hostilities are started by humans rather than aliens. Though aliens prove to be quite competent to defend themselves against human colonists.

Story summary.
Flettner drive powered faster-than-light ship Marathon, introduced in "Mechanistria", will take the adventurers to a planet whose sun is somewhere near "Rigel". Main crew is the same as last story - including the very resourceful & chess crazy martians. Narrator again is the ship's sergeant-at-arms.

This planet's "own sun ... looked a fraction smaller and rather yellower than Old Sol... Two more planets lay farther out and we'd seen another one swinging round the opposite side of the sun. That made four in all, but three were as sterile as a Venusian guppy's mind and only this, the innermost one, seemed interesting... gravity was low, the oxygen content high". Also, this planet is very green.

A small flying boat is sent to explore the area around. In the meantime, a couple of men get out of ship against skipper McNulty's orders. They are amusing themselves jumping around in low gravity & throwing little pebbles around. That is when they make the mistake, & unintentionally start hostilities with the natives.

They throw a pebble at a nearby bush. "The pebble crashed amid the leaves. The entire bush whipped over backwards as if its trunk were a steel spring... The bush whipped forward in a return swipe then stood precisely as before, undisturbed except for a minute quivering in its topmost branches. But the one who'd flung the stone now lay flat on his face."

He will soon die. "That bush made a target of him and filled his area with darts. Long, thin ones, like thorns. All over his head and neck and through his clothes. One made a pinhole through his ear... They had plenty of force ... It must have thrown a hundred or more... Those darts are loaded with a powerful alkaline poison. It's virulent. We've no antidote for it. It clots the blood, like snake venom."

While the skipper has called emergency meeting, someone hears rocks being thrown at spaceship. They will soon discover the throwers: "a small band of six beings startlingly human at first appearance. Same bodily contours, same limbs and digits, similar features. They differed from us mostly in that their skins were coarse and crinkly, a dull, drab green in colour, and they had a peculiar organ like the head of a chrysanthemum protruding from their bare chests. Their eyes were jet black, sharp, and darted about with monkey like alertness."

Chase will lead adventurers to a big tree that one of the natives climbed, & the episode will eventually lead to some more respect for the natives. "It was an imposing tree. Its dark green, fibrous barked trunk, seven or eight feet in diameter, soared up to twenty five feet before it began to throw out strong, lengthy branches each of which terminated in one great spatulate leaf... Jepson sought a better angle of view. With a mighty swoosh! the branch immediately above his head drove down. The spatulate leaf smacked Jepson squarely across his back and a waft of the pineapple-cinnamon smell went all over the place. Just as swiftly the branch swung up to its original position, taking the victim with it... We could see that he was stuck to the underside of that leaf and slowly becoming covered in thick, yellowy- green goo as he writhed madly around."

Well, eventually they will recover him by cutting the leaf with a "needle gun". Getting rid of sticky substance will take a while - eventually dissolving with ammonia.

Kli Yang, a very resourceful martian, will also capture the native who climbed this tree. "He was stuck to the trunk more than forty feet up. His entire front fitted perfectly into an indentation in the bark, and his back matched the fibrous trunk so well that I couldn't see him until he moved uneasily as I got close ... A most remarkable example of natural camouflage." During this process of capture, the adventurers will also be exposed to a local stink bomb whose description sounded similar to the one human prisoner used on aliens in "Next of Kin".

Interrogation will reveal his name is "Kala of the tribe of Ka. All members of his group are named Ka-something... every man has his tree... I don't understand what he means by that, but he satisfied me that in some mysterious manner his life depended upon him being with his tree during darkness. It was imperative. I tried to delay him but his need was pitiful. He preferred to die rather than be away from his tree... We also learned that there are others in the dark, others mightier than the Ka. They have much gamish... anything unusual or surprising or unique is chockful of gamish. Anything merely abnormal has a lesser amount of gamish. Anything ordinary has none whatever."

Soon a full attack will come with biological weapons. Most adventurers will be immobilized & captured; but some heros survive the attack (of course). These hero will eventually rescue the captured. We will also learn that martians are telepathic among their own kind, even at a distance.

During their capture, they will see more magic. Native hominids literally talking to trees! A view of their city: "Its cylindrical buildings were of light green wood, of uniform height and diameter, and each had a big tree growing through its middle. The foliage of each tree extended farther than the radius of each house, thus effectively hiding it from overhead view. Nothing could have been better calculated to conceal the place from the air."

They will also see their other weapons - trees that spew out acid, trees that electrocute you on touch, trees that throw out a powdery substance that is actually a large hive of insects that will slowly eat you, ...

Final conclusions after the crew returned to ship had me scratching my head. "The communal point is that queer chest organ... there are some higher than the Ka, higher than all others, some so high and godlike that they could depart from their trees and travel the globe by day or by night. They could milk their trees, transport the life giving fluids and absorb them from bowls. Of the symbiotic partnership imposed upon them, they had gained the mastery and - in the estimation of the planet - they alone were free." At least the narrative did not provide any evidence to conclude anything about even the existence these highest beings.

Collected in.

  1. Raymond J Healy & J Francis McComas (Eds)' "Adventures in Time and Space".
  2. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 5 (1943)".
Fact sheet.
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, October 1943
Rating: B
Series: Jay Score (A), Mechanistria (B), Symbiotica (B), Mesmerica (B)
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.

See also.
  1. Stanley G Weinbaum's "Parasite Planet" (1935) (B): Another story where plant life on an alien world is very hostile, & varied in its attack strategy.