Planetary intelligences and surprise twist endings

Just once, I'd like to see a story in which there's a planet-wide network of interlinked computational elements and/or life forms, and yet it turns out that the thing isn't sentient.

There's a trope, or maybe I mean a plot, so common in sf as to be practically a subgenre: humans land on a heretofore-unexplored planet; they encounter plant life that's disturbingly similar across the whole face of the planet, or a mysterious crystalline lattice structure that extends through the entire planet's structure; they think "Good thing there's no sentient life here" or "Too bad there's no sentient life here"; in the end it turns out, to everyone's (except the reader's) vast surprise, that the planetary interlinked whatsis is in fact sentient.

I'm pretty sure I've read stories from the '30s or '40s with more or less that premise and plot, so I'm pretty sure that it was already familiar to me and unsurprising by the time I read the relevant 1971 Ursula Le Guin story (link is to Fictionwise version in case you want to buy it—it was a Hugo nominee, after all, though it's not among my favorites of her stories).

At any rate, even if the idea was new in 1971, it's not new now. And yet at least three stories featuring basically this plot have appeared in the last three of Gardner's Year's Best SF series, written by major well-known authors. (To be fair, I haven't yet finished the relevant story in the latest YBSF, so it might surprise me yet. But the author's been laying on the hints pretty thick so far.)

So the idea clearly continues to have tremendous appeal to sf readers and writers and editors. But it has very little remaining appeal for me. More specifically, I don't mind the idea of planet-sized intelligences at all; what bugs me is that this idea continues to be used as (more or less) a surprise twist ending. It's gotten to the point that as soon as characters in a science fiction story encounter some mysterious phenomenon that everyone thinks is the nonsentient product of natural forces, I assume that it's going to turn out to be sentient, and I usually turn out to be right in that assumption. (Which I suppose is gratifying, given how often my other assumptions about life turn out to be wrong.)

Isn't it possible that there are mysterious natural phenomena out there that don't indicate sentience? I suppose we can never be certain that a given phenomenon isn't sentient—for all I know, the atmosphere of Earth is sentient, but in a way that's so incomprehensible to us that we'll never know it—so I suppose another factor in the kind of story I'm complaining about is that the humans nigh-inevitably figure out that the aliens are sentient and make contact with them (or vice versa) at or near the end of the story.

So anyway, I'd love to see a story where the whatsit turns out not to be sentient, but I'd also be happy with one where the discovery of sentience isn't the point of the story.

More generally, I have this recommendation for authors who've come up with a cool idea that they want to use as a surprise twist ending for an sf story: think about what kind of story you could write if you instead made the surprise discovery the middle of the story (or even the beginning of the story!), and continued on after that. In many cases, the resulting story will have a lot more emotional depth and will result in much more interesting character arcs; the point of the story becomes not the surprise at the end, but the effect that a change has on a character (or on a civilization or an alien life-form). Think about how you could use your story to say something interesting about people or about a person, rather than as a way to try to fool the reader.

You may end up deciding to go back to the surprise twist ending; clearly there's still plenty of life in the notion of surprise twist endings, even if they're rarely to my own personal taste. But I think it's a useful exercise anyway, and it may, in a small way, change how you think about stories.

One caveat: if you do take this approach, you generally shouldn't build up the twist as if it's going to be a surprise twist ending. If the editor or the reader becomes too convinced that this is yet another story with the same surprise twist ending they've seen a hundred times before, they may stop reading before they find out that's not where you're going at all.

11 Responses to “Planetary intelligences and surprise twist endings”

  1. Dan Percival

    Funny, I have a vague memory of enjoying “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” — but then again, given how early I glommed onto Le Guin, it’s likely that I read her version of that trope before anyone else’s.

    Tepper’s After Long Silence follows some of what you ask for — it’s pretty clear at the beginning of the story that the crystal formations embody some sort of intelligence. The story might take a little while to get all the characters to that realization, but I think it’s probably a necessary journey, and there’s plenty of “what next” afterward.

    I’m not saying it’s a terrific book — it strikes a few clunky notes here and there that distract from the good stuff. And besides, it’s not technically a planetary intelligence story, since the different formations are distinct from each other (though not as distinct as people).

  2. Dan

    Er, sorry. Inadvertently speciesist bit in my last parenthetical should have read “not as distinct as humans“.

  3. Anonymous

    Michael Swanwick’s Nebula-winning “The Very Pulse of the Machine” does just what you’re asking for, Jed. The revelation that Io(?) has sentience, and that it has been initiated by the main character, is established around the middle of the story, but is by no means the story’s crux.

  4. Jason Erik Lundberg

    That unintentional anonymous post was by me, btw.

  5. Rachel

    Ah, memories of reading Solaris in my college SF/F literature class.

    Yeah, I like the idea of taking a “surprise twist” and either extrapolating further ramifications or, even better, treating it as something perfectly ordinary and just another element of the story.

  6. metasilk

    Love the idea of putting the “twist” in the middle and going on from there. What about the humans *not* figuring it out? Know of any of those? (Remember all the debates in the past couple centuries about who and what actually *is* intelligent/sentient?) What about the writer making sure ta’s been researching communication with entities that don’t speak one’s language: luckily other humans at least have more or less the same information processing units…

    Who’s got the surfing colorful blob aliens.. Forward? In Rocheworld? And I would beg that the writers actually consult with some ecologists before writing about ecology. (Long rambling grumble deleted).

    Babble babble babble….

  7. David Moles

    My favorite SF take on the whole intelligence thing is still Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm”, in which it becomes clear that intelligence isn’t really necessary, may be a liability, and in any case is probably better used in a temporary, subordinate role than when put in charge of the whole shebang.

  8. Karen

    I haven’t read “Swarm”. But it sounds like he’s drawn the same conclusion as American voters.

  9. David Moles

    Yeah, except the Swarm in the story had the sense to pull the brains out of its genetic back pocket and use them when circumstances warranted.

    Which actually was pretty much the platform Bush ran on (“Q: What would you do in the event of a major foreign policy crisis?” “A: Take Colin Powell’s advice.” “Q: What would you do in the event of a major economic crisis?” “A: Take Alan Greenspan’s advice.”) — he just hasn’t followed through on it.

  10. David D. Levine

    I don’t know if anyone is still reading this old thread, but I thought I’d mention that I did something like this (have the expected SF thing *not* happen) in one of my published stories: “Legacy” in _Imagination Fully Dilated: Science Fiction_.

    In this story, humans land on a planet that’s about to be destroyed by a supernova. On the planet are primitive aliens whose legends indicate they have been there for a *long* time — implying they might be a long-lost super race, or the degenerate descendants thereof. One of the human characters tries to stay on the planet through the supernova, in the belief that the aliens will reveal their advanced technology in the crisis. But it turns out the legends are just legends, there is no advanced tech, and when the sun goes supernova the aliens all just die. The silly human character is saved, but another human dies saving him and he learns an important lesson about the difference between science and science fiction.

    I think the story worked well (Rich Horton called it “affecting” in his Locus review) but a lot of readers complained that they didn’t understand what happened in the end. I believe their expectation that “something wonderful” was going to happen (matching the silly character’s expectation) was so strong that the story had to fight hard to overcome it, and for some readers was unable to overcome it.

    I guess the lesson is that you mess with tropes at your peril. Falling into cliches is easy and often unsatisfying, but fighting cliches is very hard and, unless done spectacularly well, can also be unsatisfying.

  11. Jed

    Dan: Yeah, I probably liked “Vaster than Empires” too—been a long time, don’t remember it so well at this point. Re After Long Silence: good example, though I wasn’t too fond of the book in general.

    Jason: I knew someone would mention that Swanwick story. That was one of the ones I was talking about—regardless of when in the story the revelation came, it seemed to me that the whole point of the story was “Hey! Cool! This apparently nonsentient crystal formation is actually sentient!” I’m also getting sick of stories in which it turns out (much to the characters’, but not the readers’, extreme surprise) that there’s life on Titan or Io or Europa or some other moon of Jupiter or Saturn—as soon as I see that a story is set on one of those moons, I start expecting “surprise” alien life forms to show up. (And their appearance to be the whole point of the story—I certainly don’t object to stories in which the interactions between the humans and the aliens are the point.)

    metasilk: you may be interested in a long discussion from last year about Fermi’s Paradox and Wittgenstein’s Lion, started by Ben Rosenbaum in his author topic at the Rumor Mill. That link is to Ben’s first posting on the topic; click the “Newer” link and then scroll down to the bottom of the page and read upwards to see subsequent discussion.

    David L: Cool! But yeah, messing with tropes tends to confuse readers. And if you make it look enough like your story is going to do something standard and cliched, editors may not even read to the end of it to find your surprise twist. I keep being reminded of Trent W’s comments about the need to teach readers (within the story) how to read a story that doesn’t conform to certain genre expectations….

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