Thursday, February 02, 2023

Larva Pupa Imago

Yesterday, my favorite SF magazine, Clarkesworld, published another story of mine: "Larva Pupa Imago".

"Larva Pupa Imago" follows the life-cycle of a butterfly with human-like intelligence, from larva through mating journey.  This species of butterfly blurs the boundaries between self and other by swapping "cognitive fluids".  And of course I couldn't resist a reference to Zhuangzi.


Tight, tight. A sharp flex, a crack, a sudden a wash of air, then—the scent of a guru upwind! Guru guru guru! Larva831’s eggy thoughts gushed away, its ejected cognitive fluids mixing confusedly with the ejected fluids of its 100012 hatching sibs. Obsolete embryonic ideas flowed under a dozen dozen dozen cracking shells, swirled through holes in the bottom of the nest, streamed dazzling out into the air above the great tree’s lower branches, hit soil, and dissolved.

Guru guru guru! From dreamy egg-like torpor to exploding urgency in less than two heartbeats. Larva831 surged with energy from the tips of its antennae to the posterior prick of its abdomen. Blind, writhing on belly and twelve tiny legs, it shoved with and over and through its nestful of sibs, chasing the scent. Strong, it bulled others aside. Fast, it squirmed over them, stepping on heads and abdomens. Keen-nosed, it knew the direction to lunge. Guru guru guru was the one drive and compelling thought it knew. Guru guru guru was idea plus command, desperate passion, innate mystical insight. Most of Larva831’s sibs were not so strong or fast or clever. In the rush up the tree branch, they fell behind.

Though blind, Larva831 innately pictured the long, segmented body of the guru whose scent drew it so strongly. Innately, Larva831 already knew the test it faced if it arrived in time: a row of larvae, their frontal thought ports open, awaiting the cognitive fluid that would pick them out as the best of the best or, alternatively, poison and kill them. Images surfaced in Larva831’s mind: leaves and branches, segments and antennae, berries and wings—merging, dissolving, congealing, splitting. Reforming. Improving.

Charging sightlessly guru-ward, Larva831 did not let these thoughts distract it. Urgent passion left no room for doubt. Not to be tested was also death.

* * *

Larva831 nestled between two sibs alongside the guru, lowering its head to one of the guru’s 20012 feet. Larva831 dilated its frontal port, eager for the guru’s touch, its thoughts a vortex of images: acorn grass abdomen eyespots dandelion bark roomhollow cloud branch penis leg wind counselor soldier egg . . .

One of the guru’s many proboscises—thin, firm, cold—nudged itself through the hole in Larva831’s forehead, into the antechamber of Larva831’s brain. Larva831 closed its forehead gently around the proboscis, feeling the pulse as guru sucked cognitive fluids in and expelled new mixtures back out.

Picture me, the guru said—a fluid vibration in Larva831’s mind.

Larva831 imagined the smooth long thin curve of the guru’s silver body, the guru’s twelve dozen elegantly rounded segments, its many thin legs, its large compound eyes full of judgment, its delicate mandibles that needn’t fight. Larva831 trembled in admiration, fear, trust. Guru, judge and keeper of the generations, guardian of innate knowledge!

The tip of the guru’s proboscis bathed in Larva831’s internal cognitive fluids and sympathetic hormones. The guru’s emitters and receptors were open to links with Larva831’s tiny curled cognitive processors. Branching tendrils of the guru’s mind intermingled with those of Larva 831. The guru could taste the larva’s thoughts as they occurred, experiencing a shadow of them.

Sun said guru, and Larva831 pictured a sun, bright over a meadow.

Tree said guru, and Larva831 pictured a huge spreading oak, vibrant, many-branched, with platforms and roomhollows.

Sex said guru, and Larva831 felt its hearts race, felt its abdomen heat up, felt a dizziness of confusion, then pictured glorious colorful wings and a lean black body, flitting and looping, dodging away in a teasing chase. Larva831’s twelve little legs spun in desire and frustration.

Excellent, said guru. You deserve a name and sightI dub you Bo.

Bo felt a rush of fluid into his head. His eyelids unsealed, and his compound lenses bulged out. He beheld guru with his new visual sense, mapping this new type of input onto his innate idea of a long, lithe, many-legged elder. Just as he had imagined! Bo gazed around the room at eleven other sighted sibs, all now looking at each other and at him. They were the twelve who passed. He saw the corpses of the 9012 sibs who had failed the test, killed by the injection of a different, fatal fluid from the guru. He heard late-arriving sibs still thumping on the door of the roomhollow. The larvae still living outside—most of the 100012 who had hatched today—would be rounded up by the adults and offered as a sacrifice to the robins.

By noon, Bo and his eleven surviving sibs were feasting in a homey-scented roomhollow, high up in the oak’s heartwood. They dug ravenous holes through grapes and strawberries, willow leaves and grass, acorns and almonds larger than themselves. Elders lined the chamber walls, commenting into the air as the twelve gorged, sometimes pressing their heads together for more intimate fluidic communication. The sibs were already beginning to diverge morphologically. Two, including Bo, were lightening toward male and bulging in the thorax. Another was darkening toward female and already twisting and jittering more than the others. One large and aggressive sib was on the path to soldier. All would triple in size by nightfall.

* * *

Deep, deep in prehistory, it is sometimes said, our ancestors were simple and foolish. According to one myth, primates ruled the world. Those primates somehow built invisibly tiny spores, capable of communication and self-replication. The spores multiplied beyond the primates’ control, escaping into the wild. The primates died, but other species proved more resilient. Slowly, over many generations, our ancestors grew wiser, incorporating the still-replicating spores into cognitive fluids that interfaced with their ancient and simpler insectile brain structures.

However, there is also a different myth: When the world was new, a guru larger than the sky rained its fluids on all the lands. The first hatchlings raised their heads, welcoming liquid wisdom. Most gurus regard this second myth as the more likely.

[continued here]

My other Clarkesworld stories:

"Fish Dance" (Jul 2016).  An accident victim has a chance to upload millions of imperfect duplicates of himself into a tiny dance-hall paradise.

"Little /^^^\&-" (Sep 2017).  A planet-sized group intelligence decides to befriend Earth, which it conceives of as an immature group intelligence.

"Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird" (Apr 2019).  A terraforming robot aims to populate a planet with living duplicates of its beloved stuffed monkey.


chinaphil said...

ChatGPT has restarted debates about how similar AIs are to us, and I think the opening of this story points up the key difference: us bios are born with urges and wants, pre-thought. The first thing in the caterpillar's mind is a desire, before he's even capable of knowing what it is that he desires.
AIs don't seem to have that, and I think it makes a difference in how they engage with the world.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Chinaphil. Nice connection to GPT, too!