The Most Alien (Excerpt from a longer work)

I’ve recently been planning a longer series of related posts that have required a comprehensive bit of reading, and have therefore delayed my (already quite irregular) schedule for posting. I wanted to make sure I produced something, so here is an introductory piece that I wrote in connection to a novella-in-progress.


“The Most Alien: Introducing the Xixi”
(From Dr. Fezeka Mbeki’s Unearthly Tongues: the quest for intergalactic communication)

While the Daulickt and Qeng languages have shocked Terran linguists with their similarities to the Germanic and Sino-Tibetan languages respectively, one cannot expect all intergalactic communication to be so homogenous. To better understand the variety of intergalactic life, and the difficulties that may ensue from this variety, we must not shy away from life forms that may seem, to mankind, too alien to understand. One of the first and most formidable of these challenging encounters was the Xixi. In 7775, after thirty years of passive observance in Flora’s orbit, humanity made contact with the Xixi people and encountered a whole new set of obstacles on the path to universal interaction.

This, of course, suggests that the Xixi people were approached, somehow, as a collective, which could not be further from the truth. While no species may be contacted in its entirety during the first stages of outreach, the Xixi stand out as a remarkably individualistic and solitary people. Indeed, the Xixi have a number of distinctive cultural and biological traits that make them particularly vital to xeno-centric studies on Earth.

Firstly, the Xixi were the first case of sentient fungal life that humanity encountered. This alone reveals the depth of difference that exists between the Xixi and Terrans. The life cycle of a Xixi alone is almost unimaginably alien to a human. Xixi are capable of both asexual and sexual reproduction through spores, spending their lives without any sexual characteristics and only developing a sex under particular circumstances triggered by the environment or the presence of a desired mate.

Their early years are spent as growths, only developing independent movements and neural growths by the end of their first year[1]. By the age of two, a Xixi child will begin to develop limbs and consciousness. By the age of four, a Xixi will leave its parent(s) to live alone. Their steadfast, individual, independence is credited, in part, to a remarkable natural instinct akin to genetic memory.  The exact nature of this phenomenon is still unknown, but it is clear that a Xixi is capable of learning the skills of their parent(s) naturally with barely any instruction and can even identify dangerous flora and fauna instinctively through the experiences of their parent(s) without ever having encountered them themselves.

A related phenomenon occurs within the Xixi language, whereby the Xixi communicate through a combination of oral noises (a variety of “clicks,” “crackles,” and “trills”) as well as chemical interaction – often referred to as “volatiles.” To humans, these volatiles produce a scent; comparable to the scent released by mowed grass, but to a Xixi the volatiles serve as a sensory component to their language. An intonation. These volatiles can communicate whether a sentence is angry, happy, frustrated, confused, or any other emotion; it is also capable of directing statements. A Xixi can verbally state something vague such as “I met them the other day” and, through their chemical communication, convey who “them” is and their opinion of “them.” Xixi have described the experience of volatile communication as something akin to passive telepathy: a brief moment of sharing thoughts and feelings with one another.

While some more Freudian scientists suspect that the Xixi live in solitude due to their early adulthood and lack of traditional parents, I suspect that the experience of constantly sharing volatiles must be an overwhelming one. A Xixi living with hundreds of other Xixi would be subject to perhaps thousands of external feelings and thoughts on a daily basis.

Before interacting with humanity the Xixi had almost no communities larger than a few dozen individuals, most living in solitude or in pairs. Nonetheless, due to their hereditary instincts, the Xixi were capable of developing scientific processes and new technology independently, with the knowledge disseminating through their population with each new generation (and through the rare interactions between individuals or tribes). The independent spirit of the Xixi has also resulted in a unique culture of dueling that is upheld by all individuals. Upon first encountering another Xixi, it is common practice for both individuals to participate in a duel with the traditional hunting knife – or Cl’ith – that all Xixi make in their adolescence. These duels are not intended to be lethal or debilitating, the Xixi’s fungal biology makes them resilient (but not immune) to blows and cuts. Instead, the duel is seen as a form of sportsmanship – a way to recognize the independence and survivalism of the opponent.

It can be no surprise, then, that the Xixi highly value their independence as individuals. The unique structure of the Xixi language, coupled with their spirited (though not necessarily aggressive) independence, makes human communication with them particularly challenging. The human mouth is unable to create the sounds that comprise the Xixi language. Nor are the human ears well attuned to their sounds, even today humans and Xixi are cooperating to develop a thorough auditory catalog of Xixi words and phrases. Likewise, the Xixi cannot speak any auditory human language, nor do they possess a standardized written form of communication – their ancestral memories make such archives redundant for individuals, with bardic traditions forming in larger communities.

Before outreach had begun, the small group chosen to first contact the Xixi were all taught how to communicate in American Sign Language. It was determined that, in the absence of any verbal or written communication, signing would be the most effective means to speak with the Xixi. Despite initial difficulties – specifically, separating ASL words and letters from mimed actions – the choice proved to be successful. Even today, and with the recent invention of universal translators – or ansibles – over 70% of the known Xixi population will use signs when talking. In some ways, the signs have become just as much a part of their language as the volatiles.

In 7813, Doctor Zachary Hunter created what is now known as the “Standard Xixi Alphabet,” sometimes referred to as the “Hunter’s Alphabet,” or (less affectionately) “Hunter’s Scat.” This alphabet gives us the written forms used in this book: Cl’ith, Til’kah, and, yes, the word Xixi. Hunter attempted to produce an alphabet that he believed could effectively convey the Xixi language, drawing upon (and heavily modifying) the Latin alphabet’s representation of the Xhosa language (of the Bantu branch of Terran languages). The Standard Xixi alphabet was proposed amidst heavy criticism, with many linguists and xenopologists claiming that Hunter’s alphabet only superficially represented the Xixi and was overly anthrocentric.

As a scientist, and as an individual of Xhosa heritage, I share many of the criticisms leveled at Hunter’s Alphabet. Nevertheless, as a representation in written form, intended to introduce a language to an audience that cannot pronounce it, I cannot disregard its many benefits as the standard written lexicon for this book. Other attempts have been made to represent the Xixi in writing (most notably Dr. Jin Guan’s logographic interpretation), but few are currently as comprehensive as the Standard Xixi Alphabet.

I feel it necessary, however, to give you, the reader, a warning as we continue to explore the Xixi in the chapters ahead: with any language, be it terrestrial or intergalactic, the act of translation (for better or for worse) transforms and distorts. It is the same with the mind – to project human perceptions onto the Xixi is a dangerous game, one that can undermine the strong bonds that have grown between our two species over the past centuries. To live with a mind and body so different from ours surely produces experiences, and beliefs so unique to their form that we can never understand without being Xixi ourselves. It is our duty as humans, and a part of this vast galaxy, to embrace these differences, these experiences, and these beliefs, knowing full well that we can never truly understand them. In this vast universe imagination is the great unifier, it is a habit amongst all known creatures of the universe to imagine that which we do not understand. To imagine in fear, or to imagine in ignorance – this is the game of the fool. To imagine wisely, that is the game of the prophet (or, perhaps, the game of the scientist).


[1] As is customary I am using Earth measurements for distinguishing age and time. One Earth year is equivalent to 500 days on Flora, one day is 72 Earth hours.

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