Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Why do the wess'har think the way they do?
    (Originally posted on my LiveJournal.)

    On to the main question: why do the wess'har behave the way they do? A buddy at Lucas asked me if I actually liked the wess'har in City of Pearl.

    I do like them, but I don't always agree with them. Well, I don't often agree with any of my characters, if at all. They do their own thing, which is why they work as characters and bounce off each other - or collide. The gulf between human logic and wess'har logic becomes even more apparent in The World Before.

    I found I could either think wess'har, and it made sense, or think human, and that made sense, but I couldn't cross between the two at what looked like the same point on the road. Which, I suppose, is what aliens are all about. They're not just funny foreheads and tentacles. They really don't think like us.

    When I built the wess'har, I started from their original niche in their environment and the evolutionary set-up was one where the co-operative and symbiotic species had the survival edge on the competitive ones at a critical point in the history of Eqbas Vorhi. I wanted to look at ways that a species could become intelligent (by our common definition, anyway) and technologically advanced without going through a phase of exploiting other species that didn't want to be exploited.

    The wess'har evolved alongside the ussissi: the ussissi were burrowing animals, and the proto-wess'har lived in their tunnels. While the ussissi unearthed tubers and stuff they couldn't eat, the wess'har could, and in turn they provided the muscle to protect the ussissi from predators. Hence their mindsets – the ussissi are still instinctive companion animals, able to work with other species, and the wess'har are prone to pitching in on someone else's behalf and aren't really sure when to give up and say, "Okay, tosser, you asked for it - you're on your own now."

    The wess'har take on culpability is confusing but it has its own logic. But they don't care what you think, only what you do: something has to happen before they'll act on it. They're reactive in many ways, which is possibly why they've developed two modes of behaviour. As Shan Frankland says in Crossing The Line, they're either "chilled or punching".

    They have elaborate and involuntary scent signals, too, so everyone knows what their neighbour is feeling, so there was never any evolutionary advantage for them in deception, nor any point in warning behaviour to avoid a fight. They always got by on muscle. So, no concept of warning, deception or escalation, but a reliance on force, and you have a species that look rather like human psychopaths by our standards. Even the dominance hormone emitted by the alpha females isn't a warning signal but a practical demonstration that the individual ought to be listened to because they have more of the aggressively protective instinct - jask - to win against external threats.

    And it's also why they're not good at compromise, because they have no real concept of rubbing along: it's either a full partnership or it isn't. They avoid what they can't co-operate with. If the unco-operable insist on advancing, then all that's left is confrontation.

    At each major evolutionary point, wess'har took the opposite path to humans. One key area was how the wess'har pass on their genes. They reproduce sexually, which is one route, but some years back I was taken with the idea of horizontal transmission as practised by some bacteria. Basically, bacteria can swap genes with other individuals by contact. That was a key idea for me: it gave the wess'har a radically different reproductive strategy to humans, and made the wess'har genome much more malleable.

    Wess'har are predisposed to seek to swap genes with each other, hence the scene in Crossing The Line where Mestin is wondering what mates Nevyan will choose and what genetic qualities her line might benefit from. Effectively, they're genetically engineering themselves the whole time through what we would think of as copulation - oursan - except oursan is quite separate from their reproductive system. The more numerous males gestate, so the females need only to be able to conceive and then protect their investment by defending their harem of males and their offspring.

    Sharing their genes during their lifetime emphasises their tendency to co-operation and consensus, because they have a visible genetic stake in their whole community. But when they meet an exploitative species that's built on looking for an individual edge - i.e. the monkey boys from Earth - then it's ai caramba time. It's destined to end in tears.

    © Karen Traviss 2005