For Art's Sake

or, A Preliminary Record of Certain Events Related to the True Strangers' Advent, Together With Various and Divers Related Observations & Facts, Provided in the Form of a Convenient and Inexpensive Pamphlet

by Quentin 'Cubist' Long


And in the fullness of time, the True Strangers came to Zaradua. The sky-savants had, for some few years, been satisfied that many of the stars in the night were accompanied by circling rocks, even as our world circles our Sun; for their part, a growing number of life-savants were of the opinion that these other circling rocks might be home to creatures of some sort. A few had even held that any such worlds' life would necessarily be formed around the same structural patterns as that of Zaradua. But after the life-savant Karsoon demonstrated his Concept of Progressive Unfolding, it was only shamen and postulators who ever did continue clinging to the notion of 'strangers, yet only in mind'.

Yet for all the conceptualizing and postulating on the topic, none were they who ever did properly conceive just how truly strange the True Strangers might be. It would be discourteous to forget that the postulant Syenti had recorded a speculation which turned out to be of uncanny accuracy in his Dialogues of Rare Import, but in the same turning we must also remember that the Dialogues were an open satire; Syenti himself would have been the first to derogate anyone who might have mistaken his fancy for a serious proposal. As for the life-savants, it was their consensual view that animal life must be incapable of sentience, for the energetic expense of obligate mobility and active acquisition of nutrients was deemed so great that no living metabolism could conceivably support the requisite brain-structures of sentience in addition thereto.

Nevertheless, for all the seeming impossibility of the thing, did the True Strangers prove themselves to be animal life. Their first attempt at making contact was sorely misfortuned, leaving two ranking diplomatists senseless and rooted for the greater part of a season, and yet out of that ill event did come the greater good of comprehension. That all life on our world is ultimately dependent on Solar emanations as its source of energy, and that animal life, which subsists upon but that meager portion thereof which lies captured and unused in the other life on which it feeds, is greatly constrained by that fundamental lack of energy, are both confirmed truisms of long standing; what in those truisms lies fallow, implicit and unsuspected, is the notion that should a world's level of Solar emanations be sufficiently high, even the intrinsic inefficiency of animal life would not be an effective barrier to the attainment of sentience in animals. Thus, both direct experience and conceptualizing from empirical principles indicate that the True Strangers' home be a world far better-lit than is Zaradua. It is as yet uncertain whether the True Strangers' Sun burns more brightly than does ours, or whether, instead, their world circles their star at a closer distance; doubtless the True Strangers themselves could settle the question in the snap of a twig, but the sky-savants are resolved to ask for this information solely as confirmation of their own deductions, rather than as languid students lazily demanding facts before foundation.

As stated above, the True Strangers are very similar indeed to the seeming-monsters of a speculation in Syenti's Dialogues of Rare Import. Their body plan, overall, is quite close to ours: They have four limbs, the two uppermost specialized towards manipulatory capacity while the two bottom-most serve largely as a means of locomotion; each of their hands is marked by versatile digitry, one more per hand than in ours, and an opposable thumb; the organs of long-distance sensing are clustered in the head at the body's apex; their heads possess a sort of fibrous covering which, at a hasty glance, might well be taken for the semi-stiff vinery which decorates our own heads; and their outer integument, their 'hull' if you will, is of a single hue and consistency throughout, albeit not a hue which is utterly foreign to any Zaraduan life. All of the description just previous will of course be familiar to Syenti's readers, but do not allow yourself to be deceived. The True Strangers are not the creatures of Syenti's postulating, and to regard them as such is to commit a classifying error of the utmost severity. Unlike Syenti's creatures, the True Strangers are as variable as are we ourselves, be it in height or in mass or in finger-length or, indeed, in any other measurable quality. Likewise, any one True Stranger's hull is of one hue, but it is rather uncertain that any other True Stranger's hull will match it at all closely. And while the True Strangers are of two genders, these genders are outwardly evident, even as are ours, rather than being an external mystery, as were those of Syenti's creatures. Over and all, the anatomical similarities between ourselves and the True Strangers are truly remarkable, all the more so that they, unlike us, are animal life; Moalik, premiere student of the life-savant Karsoon, is working on a Concept of Similitudinous Unfolding to deploy alongsidewith his mentor's Concept of Progressive Unfolding.

Having set forth much that is relevant and of interest as regards the True Strangers' bodies, it would be well to shift our focus towards their minds. Those who were alive at the time will of course be aware of the controversy that surrounded the appointment of the fem Annexir, who was then but a youthful and obscure diplomatist, to the task of charting the complexities of the True Strangers' thought-patterns. Recalling that the principality of Selk is where the True Strangers did first appear, on which grounds primacy of authority in all matters related to the True Strangers had been ceded to the ruling Council of Selk, it may, perhaps, prove edifying to re-examine the factors which led to that Council's decision, whose wisdom has been amply revealed in the light of later retrospection. Indeed, Annexir was unusual among diplomatists for her youth; but we must not forget that she was also unusual in her ability to forge congenial relationships with all but the most strictly insane persons, an ability whose utility for diplomatism ought not require any elaboration. Likewise, we must also not forget that at the time we speak of, the community of mind-savants was all a-twitter with glitterful Concepts that were, in point of strict fact, not then confirmable. Thus, it becomes perfectly logical that the Selkite Annexir, with a number of practical successes in the field of understanding foreign minds, would be selected to unriddle the True Strangers in preference to any instance of the impractical and overly-academic mind-savants. And, though it be a digression, it is also logical that Annexir would have grafted herself to a new career as a mind-savant in the aftermath of her work with the True Strangers, and that she would come to be known as the Root of Contemporaneous Mind-Savantry, in which guise her earlier efforts as a diplomatist would be largely forgotten.

By Annexir's own multiply-redundant testimony, we know that she was of the view that works of art offer insight to the basal thought-patterns of their makers, an view which was, at the time of which we speak, unsupported and controversial. Nowadays, of course, Annexir's view is not exceptional in any way, and, indeed, is regarded as one of the foundational aspects of her success as a diplomatist. So did Annexir immerse herself in the True Strangers' culture, in their plays and jokes, in their auditory and visual arts, all in the cause of understanding their ways of thinking. We have learned much from the observations Annexir made during that period; the study of how thought and culture may be shaped by the mode of reproduction, to name but one example, did not even exist before Buruntin's justly famous re-interpretation of Annexir's Third Book of Observations Amid the True Strangers. But notwithstanding all the insights and concepts which Annexir is justly famous for, there is one aspect of the True Strangers' mentalities which she never did manage to comprehend. Which, having been said, we must not take as a derogation of Annexir's intellect nor ability, because nobody else has yet succeeded where she failed.

Sadly, the limited space available does not allow us to do full justice to all thirty-seven volumes of Annexir's Observations Amid the True Strangers. But after some consultation, with both True Strangers and our own savants, we have selected one incident which, we believe, offers a reasonably representative sampling of the puzzles which the True Strangers' minds present to Zaraduan comprehension. This incident occurred two years and a season after Annexir first presented herself to the True Strangers, by which time an extensive common linguistic root had been cultivated. In all truth, it would be fair to say that for each party, the ones most skilled at the others' language were, in fact, more fluent than some native speakers of the language in question. Even so, there were occasional moments of confusion, for two years is little enough time for any sentient being to learn the entirety of a language that had been developing over the course of centuries. And, on our side at least, a notably high proportion of these confused moments were occasioned by the term 'god', for which word no wholly satisfactory equivalent nor analog has yet been found in any tongue spoken natively upon our world.

Annexir had at first conceived 'god' to be the name of one of the True Strangers' cultural hero-figures, on the grounds that the True Strangers exhibited a range of differing opinions with regard to this 'god', to whom or to which were ascribed powers and abilities of more than legendary scope; this concept, while entirely justified in the light of such information as she actually did possess at that time, was the root of some few mutual misinterpretations until such time as it was made clear that 'god' is considered, by those of the True Strangers who affirm its reality, to truly exist and work its wonders, not merely deep in the archaic and disremembered past, but here and now. Those of our readers who are aware that this 'god' is held by the True Strangers to not be present in a strictly corporeal sense, and, in fact, to exist in some unique and inexplicable modus that is not susceptible to detection by any empirical investigations whatsoever, will doubtless comprehend and sympathize with the befuddlement Annexir surely suffered whenever she confronted this paradox of the True Strangers' thought-patterns. With that befuddlement kept firmly in mind, we can better understand why Annexir chose the course of action she did, and we can see that those critics who deemed it 'senseless' are, at best, missing the point; faced with a puzzle that cannot be solved by conventional methods, it is no more than simple logic to explore those solutions which are anything but conventional, and it is to her credit that Annexir's mind was sufficiently flexible to hit upon the solution she tried. While it is true that her solution did prove to be invalid, it must contemporaneously be acknowledged, first, that Annexir could not have known that her solution would fail before she tried it, and, second, that had any of Annexir's latter-day critics been there, employing any of the conventional solutions they would prefer her to have used, they would not have achieved any greater degree of success than did Annexir herself. Lastly, one must acknowledge that while she may have failed in her primary goal, in the same turning did Annexir succeed in another goal, even more significant albeit unrelated, for she was the first Zaraduan whose mental fortitude was sufficiently great to allow her to overcome our innate instincts regarding deliberately interposing opaque matter between one's hull and life-giving light.

Having conducted some few discussions with various of the True Strangers, Annexir was pleased to discover that those True Strangers who did affirm the reality of 'god' were of one mind with her as regards the possibility of extending Zaraduan comprehension to encompass the 'god' concept, and were amply willing to cooperate in whatever such wise as might be physically possible. Thus did Annexir attempt to re-create, as a tableau in three-directioned space, a specific painted portrait of a True Stranger who was a fem bearing the name of 'madonna'. The requisite decorative cloth wrappings were provided by the True Strangers, whose experience with such things allowed them to easily accomodate the relatively minor anatomical divergences between their own bodies and Annexir's; as well, the True Strangers granted the use of one of their youthful sprigs for this experiment. She succeeded most admirably in the superficial goal of embodying a specific portrait, as has since been attested by a large plurality of those True Strangers and Zaraduans who have viewed records of the event, but the deeper goal of attaining comprehension of 'god' was, regrettably, not achieved.

We repeat, for it bears repeating, it is no slur on Annexir's ability nor achievements to observe that she failed to fully comprehend the True Strangers' minds. Rather, it is quite simply a statement of fact that no Zaraduan sentient truly understands the concept to which the True Strangers refer when they use the word 'religion', nor yet by any of the myriad words the True Strangers have for any of numerous concepts apparently subordinate thereto. However, we may be reasonably confident that this 'religion' is in some way related to another ill-comprehended aspect of the True Stranger mind; to wit, their ability to wholeheartedly accept and believe in postulations without empirical support.

It is this ability that will be the central focus of our next pamphlet, which shall be available for a most reasonable sum after the 3rd day of Season of Greening in the year 759 PSZ.

Raven's Comments:

I appreciate the dry sense of humor and deep irony that are evident throughout this story. A lot about the way it is written is a reflection on the Zaraduan psyche: verbose, even rambling; clearly intelligent; and obviously very patient while still being inquisitive. I loved the way you coined new figures of speech derived from plant physiology; the expression "grafted herself to a new career" was particularly satisfying. One could argue, of course, that it is difficult to imagine why plants would ever need to become sentient ... but then again, the Zaraduan's own comments about the unlikely nature of sentience in animals show us that our perpective is probably more than a little prejudiced.

While the writing is extremely well-executed from a technical standpoint, the Zaraduan's lengthy prose makes for laborious reading for us impatient humans. There also isn't much in the way of an actual plot here, and it reads like a textbook or scientific paper. This was, of course, the point -- but while I'll give you top marks for creativity, the end result isn't as exciting or engaging as we might have hoped. I had to take off a couple of points in Applicability, as well, since there's not much chance that the reader could successfully visualize the Zaraduans' appearance without seeing the picture first. (I also haven't quite figured out what a sentient plant is doing with a pair of breasts; apparently the Zaraduans do have some capacity for heterotrophy, at least at the infant stage, but this isn't really explained in the story.)

My own preconceptions make it hard for me to envision a society evolving with no concept at all of a god or Creator; to me, this seems far more implausible than the idea of talking plants. If we accept this premise, however, it's easy to see how it would lead to the misinterpretations shown here. Humans have a wide variety of reasons for believing in God, and not all of the evidence we depend on is "empirical" -- but we can't really fault the Zaraduans for failing to understand that.

You told me, Cubist, that this would probably be the most unusual entry I received for the contest. You were right. :) On the whole, you succeeded marvelously at what you set out to do. As a story, though, it's just not quite as much fun as some of the other entries. Still, nicely done.

Spelling/Grammar: A
Technique: A
Creativity: A
Applicability: C

Final Score: 43.5 out of 50

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