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The Martian Civilization

The Martian Civilization
By Richard Knelling
Saturday Evening Post, August 1943

The Martians are exactly the ancient and cold race described by Wells. Where he went wrong was ascribing to them a 'vast intelligence'. In actual fact, individually, Martians are not much more intelligent than an Earth wolf. The comparison is apt in other ways; we know from deciphering their electronic records that the Martians are descended from semi-aquatic pack hunters who once ranged across the long lost shallow Martian seas and the great stretches of marshland surrounding them.

Working in packs, ruled by a 'Queen' (an alpha-female with somewhat higher intelligence than average), these proto-Martians survived the great drying because they were able to work together for survival, using a kind of inter-pack communication based on their sonar senses. To outward appearances this was a kind of telepathy and, rather than words or symbols, what was exchanged was very nearly raw thought. It knit the pack together and made it something like a single individual, albeit one far from the human experience.

Eventually the Martians developed speech (of a kind) to communicate between packs and learned to band together into greater and greater groups. They established their first cities (as they would think of places we might find to be simply great earthworks thrown up around a swamp) more than a hundred million years ago. They progressed from there, far slower than we more clever humans, but inexorably.

Over time, as the great drying progressed and the waters of their planet became more and more locked up in permafrost or polar ice, the Martians were forced to band together into greater and greater groupings, with the result that they fought many wars. As they developed technology these wars became more and more devastating. More than once they nearly wiped themselves out, dropping back to barbarism for millions of years at a time.

Each time their recovery from a once high state took longer than before. This was something the smartest among the Martians knew would eventually lead to their extinction; at some point they would fight another great war and reduce the already stressed Martian landscape past the point of survivability. They had to do something!

The problem lay in the Martian primal nature; these were pack hunters with something that might be described as a slightly disorganized 'hive mind'. Organizing small bands into larger groupings was possible, but there were limits to the number of individuals in a pack before the pack started to exhibit certain kinds of instabilities. Basically the maximum stable pack size was a function of the abilities and intelligence of the queen and if she died or let her guard lapse for a moment there were others in the pack waiting, and wanting, to take charge.

Packs could be organized into hierarchies, but these groupings themselves were unstable for much the same reason: Lower-level queens still ached for advancement. Packs could specialize in particular kinds of work, but some kinds of work gave a pack advantages over others. As a result there was much competition and constant feuding. Even when great nations emerged under a particularly strong leader the fabric of their society remained rotten and tore asunder at the slightest strain.

The answer was to change and redirect the Martian psyche. To find a way to force packs to work together without the territoriality of their ancestors. Yet another global war gave a small number of packs a chance to set certain plans in motion: Nearly thirty million years ago they took over a hidden underground fortress, which they had supposedly been building for the leader packs of their nation, and waited out the holocaust above.

There in the catacombs they captured lower status packs and performed surgery on their queens. Wires were inserted into the sonar centers of their brains and transceivers were attached to their heads. These wired up queens could be constantly spied upon and forced into submission easily.

Of course, being Martians, this only meant that the once-cooperating unwired packs eventually turned on each other. In the end none remained unwired. Even low-level queens were given control over their own pack members. Above them was a rigid hierarchy of packs and queens, and the ancient kind of communication once restricted to between the members of a pack could now occur at a higher level by making groups of queens into 'meta-packs' ruled by a yet greater queen, able to communicate in a nearly telepathic manner via the technology implanted in their skulls.

Furthermore this technology meant that the Martians could inhabit and work in imaginary spaces revealed to their sonar senses by the wires, but with no actual existence. There the packs could strive against each other in the old ways, releasing their aggressions without causing actual harm to other packs.

Eventually the descendants of this Martian culture, who called themselves something we humans might translate as 'The Overnetting', left their caverns and proceeded to conquer the rest of the planet, everywhere repeating the same pattern of capture and surgery, killing only those who resisted.

It was drastic, but it worked. Martian society became rigidly stratified and problem queens could be controlled, redirected, or, at the least, identified and killed before they caused harm. Thus the Martians embarked on the longest period of peace they had ever known.

They remained at peace for twenty-eight million years, even as they struggled to survive. For that last war had been one too many: Mars was irretrievably harmed. Over time they had to retreat to their caverns and their strongholds as the great drying accelerated and the land could no longer support them.

Their culture became ever more Byzantine; packs continued striving against each other in status games and social bickering too complex for human understanding. The games were as important to them as their ancient wars, but they no longer resulted in mass deaths. The games became non-lethal, perhaps, but they remained games with rules structured by the same old drives of pack versus pack and queen versus queen. We humans might imagine the Martians packs as courtiers in a kind of court even more conspiratorial than the worst in ancient China or the Roman Empire or France’s Sun King (such as in the recently popular novels and movies). But, such imaginings are only working approximations of the reality (or lack thereof) experienced by the Martians themselves.

We can only imagine a rough outline of their lives and their motivations, but it is useful to do so in order to understand what they might be doing in their caverns or their great cylinders rushing towards the Earth. The danger lies in thinking our imaginings give us too great an insight into the Martians themselves. For they are truly alien and, even if our imaginings help us to understand the what, we will never grasp the why. The gulf between us too great to cross without us giving up what it means to be human or they giving up what it means to be Martian.

In the end we must not forget that we are to them, at best, a source of food and a counter in their games...

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3/20/2007, Jack William Bell. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

kelson.philo's picture

I like the fleshing out of

I like the fleshing out of Martian evolution. SOmething I think Wells hiself would have approved of!

"Their culture became ever

"Their culture became ever more Byzantine; packs continued striving against each other in status games and social bickering too complex for human understanding."

That line set some fantastic imagery, well done. I can see the strange underground world very well. This was a really enjoyable read. I'll have my contribution up sooner or later, its been a busy few weeks. Cheers!