Stories for the Tree Beasts

At first, we thought it was most similar to a sequoia tree, which is how the species got its misnomer. Experience had already primed us for the complex ways that evolution could be convergent across planets, the same laws of physics creating similar environments leading to lifeforms which resemble what we have seen on Earth and elsewhere. But just as two languages can have “false friends” — like the French coin meaning “corner” despite how it appears to an English speaker — so too does evolution. We took the creatures (which eventually agreed to be called Rootforms among humans) to be trees because of the hard, wood- or bark-like tissue on the outside of their overground stalks, which also extended downwards as sheathes around a root structure, which they constantly shed and regrow to protect their actual bodies from underground predation, as well as due to the apparent seasonality of what we had at first believed were leaves for catching the rays of the planet’s blue sun.

Like a sequoia, these root systems were the bulk of the specimen’s mass. They extended down nearly to the bedrock, growing over hundreds of years through clay and stone and stopping only where the soil’s nutrients did. From a juvenile Rootform’s first root column, which grows straight down from the final, primary spore, the adult Rootform would spread out, not competing with but rather integrating into its nearby siblings, until what arose, and awoke at last into true consciousness, was a single intelligent being — nigh immortal unless actively killed, [ 1 ] growing and thinking over a hundred square miles on average. In fact, it was not a tree at all. The root tissue protected by the bark-like shell is actually much more similar to the mycorrhizal network of a fungus. The overground stalks, which we humans took to be the “trunks” of the tree-root system, are actually an ingenious waste-disposal mechanism, where what look like leaves spread the nutrients not used by the root system over the surface to feed the nearby plant life, which then eventually die and decompose into food for the Rootform. Their apparent seasonality was actually an effect of the vegetation they evolved to feed. When the plants are dormant during the planet’s biennial winters, [ 2 ] the “leaves” of the Rootform, lacking a purpose, fall off and rot so their nutrients can be recovered. For obvious reasons — and to the confusion of those familiar with the standard terms of biology — we decided to call this waste-disposal process fertilization.

[ 1 ] The root network, and especially the central nodes, are surrounded (some would say engulfed) by colonies of thousands, sometimes over a million, of small and quite ferocious beetle-like creatures that have come to be called Rootmites. The Rootforms and the Rootmites have, we eventually discovered, been in a “red queen effect” cycle of combative evolution for at least seven million years, the Rootforms developing better and more complex tools of chemical warfare and the Rootmites becoming tougher and better coordinated, having evolved from a crab-like species which hunted alone to a colony-based species which preys on the Rootforms. Though mostly surviving on Rootform “bark,” due to its abundance, they crave the inner, living fungus, which the Rootform protects. The living part of a Rootform is incredibly nutritious and acquiring it usually leads to a spike in local Rootmite populations, sometimes resulting in a lethal cascade. The highly toxic and corrosive chemicals which the Rootform releases when attacked by the Rootmites have, on earth, been used as the basis of several highly potent antibiotics and disinfecting agents, or even, in one historical instance, as a safer and more effective replacement for Botox.

[ 2 ] Though the planet, like Earth, orbits a single star and has a single moon, that moon is so large as to nearly qualify as a planet itself, which induces a notable wobble in the planet’s orbit and axial tilt. The wobble is, however, stable and predictable, resulting in a seasonality which varies from year to year according to a regular cycle. The tidal forces created by this orbit, though not strong enough to destroy the planet, have given it a definite, albeit slight, oblong shape.

How do you tell a story to such a creature? It is a surprisingly important question, especially for those xenoneurologists interested in how consciousness differs between intelligent species of different evolutionary lineages. Humans use stories in part to make sense of causality: the basic form of a plot being A happens to B because C. Human thinking is tool-like and oriented around objects and their causal relations, and human narratives serve in part as a way of understanding complex or incompletely known causal networks. If A simply happens to B for no reason, then there’s no story. Students often find this assertion confusing. Aren’t there plenty of stories where “nothing happens”? But those stories all happen in the context of a narrative tradition belonging to a particular species wherein it is normal for something to happen for a reason; the “because,” the most important element of the human plot, is supplied by the pattern that the stories defy. An anticlimax is only an anticlimax if one expects a climax, otherwise it’s just a random event. It’s the “because C” that makes “A happens to B” into a story, at least insofar as humans are concerned.

There is a long road from first contact to the commencement of biological research. Interspecies diplomacy is a staggeringly complex topic which cannot be covered here. It suffices to say that every species capable of scientific research has also recognized that allowing themselves to be studied by other species might be dangerous, despite its rewards, and so a number of treaties and agreements always need to be “signed” [ 3 ] before any species is able to learn anything useful about another. What the Rootforms have learned by studying the human specimens we sent over could fill a whole library. Even just allowing one of them to absorb a human corpse into itself as it would any other dead biomatter seemed to have the effect of an epiphany. (The corpse was a heart attack victim who had donated their body to science. [ 4 ]) In any case, some of the first studies we were allowed to perform involved communicating, [ 5 ] remotely, with a Rootform, exposing it to examples of human art, and gauging its response. These were mainly attempts at calibration, where we showed them something they couldn’t understand so that we could investigate why they didn’t understand it. [ 6 ]

[ 3 ] As many species lack (to list only a few examples) appendages capable of writing, languages with writing systems, names which can be rendered outside their native languages, a sense of names being important or connected to one’s identity, or indeed names whatsoever, a variety of means of indicating assent have been used in place of the traditional signature. Such arrangements are usually one of the first things to be worked out when diplomacy is initiated, and are commonly referred to as “signatures” as a matter of convenience.

[ 4 ] While Rootforms had encountered human corpses before, those had always been damaged by decomposition, scavenging by overland carnivores, or other factors resulting from them having been left behind, so to speak, unwillingly. The corpse we delivered to them was the first time they encountered a fully intact human body deposited in conditions maximally favourable for absorption.

[ 5 ] Human-Rootform communication has a long and involved history, but the most successful methods by far have been chemical-electrical. Rootforms communicate with each other through complex chemical chains stored in the body of some dead creature, which upon decomposition are translated into an often highly complex method of bioelectric signalling over the span of the Rootform’s body-brain. These clusters of molecules, each of which can near the size of human DNA, can convey deeply articulated thoughts, including what can best be compared to literature and philosophy (as tenuous as any such comparison is). Humans learned to decode these chemical signatures and then developed systems to automatically read them and turn them into English words. The human-to-Rootform system works in the opposite direction, feeding written instructions to a chemical synthesizer which then releases the “text” in a globe of cultured biomatter (usually algae). In this way whole books of information can be communicated at once, though the experience of reading is very different between species. While for humans reading happens over a span of time, scanning one word after another, for Rootforms the chemical, under optimal conditions, is absorbed nearly all at once. Though they always had a concept of time and notions of before and after, teaching Rootforms to think of description and narration in a linear fashion was one of the biggest obstacles to teaching them to write stories in a human-like way. Overcoming the tendency to think in temporal terms was likewise the largest obstacle to teaching humans to write stories in a Rootform-like way.

[ 6 ] The Rootforms also conducted experiments like these on selected human volunteers, and the examples of Rootform culture provided to humans were, at first, as baffling to us as our cultural examples were to them. But all culture is an acquired taste, and both species have been at work learning to appreciate each other.

When the findings first reached the media, the common reaction was predictable, vigorous chauvinism. “Tree Beast Hates Ulysses, Loves Fun with Dick and Jane!” wrote the papers, wrongly. It makes no sense whatsoever to say that the Rootform “hated” Ulysses, or any of the other complex narratives we exposed it to — which included the Mahābhārata, The Epic of Sundiata, War and Peace, The Tale of Genji, The Lord of the Rings, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling and 2666. The narratives simply failed to elicit any reaction whatsoever, positive or negative, intellectual or emotional, strong or weak. Several shorter, simpler narratives, which did not include Fun with Dick and Jane, triggered high levels of activity in regions of the Rootform system associated with emotional arousal. [ 7 ]

[ 7 ] One reason why a Rootform system arises from the merger of smaller “sibling” systems is to create multiple “central” nervous systems that can rely on and support each other, somewhat resembling the complex invertebrate nervous system of the octopus. (Though called “centres” in common parlance, they are rather better understood as nodes in a rhizomatic network which has no centre or periphery.) These centres not only create redundancy in case of significant damage, but also act like signal repeaters, taking a received signal and re-transmitting it so that it can better travel across the whole system. When they acquire specialized functions, it is always in a temporary fashion, and only when that function is especially complex or important. As a result, researchers who have placed sensors at each centre can watch a thought unfolding in real time across the Rootform’s entire body, and recent studies have even shown different centres “talking to” each other when the Rootform deliberates a complex question.

One particularly successful early story was this brief flash fiction composed by a human post-doc who was attached to an early pilot study of Rootform narratology:

On the surface was a creature. It walked to the north. It walked to the south. Then there were two creatures. Then there were ten creatures. The creatures walked to the east. The creatures walked to the west. Then one of them died. It was a human!

The original idea was to write a story as a Rootform would experience it, using only information they would be able to directly perceive. Though with increasing knowledge of human physiology and culture several well-educated Rootforms eventually developed a taste for certain human narratives, the distance was at the time far too vast for a more complex text. How do you tell a story about two men walking around the city of Dublin to a species that does not have an experience of walking, cities, binary gender, [ 8 ] or even of being within touching distance of another of its own kind? The answer turned out to be the most thorough act of textual annotation ever conducted in human history, [ 9 ] but that came far later. In the early days, the answer was to write new, extremely simple stories which avoided as much as possible anything which the Rootform had not themselves experienced.

[ 8 ] Rootforms are self-fertilizing and reproduce through spores distributed via the underground insects (Rootmites) that often feed on it. The spores, when ingested, parasitically infect the insects much like the cordyceps fungus on earth and take control of it. The insect flies over a wide area, dispersing spores as it goes, before burrowing into the ground to allow itself to be consumed by a new centre sprout that grows from its body. Every centre in the system has at least three biological genders, with up to fifty-eight different genders being present in the whole system, which we believe evolved to ensure a maximum of genetic diversity despite the fact that the Rootform is essentially always reproducing with itself. Spores for reproduction are released into the system once every century or so, with infected insects fighting to the death below ground so that only one or two survivors (the most ever observed is four) are able to spread themselves — a process seemingly meant to diminish competition among offspring. If no Rootmite survives the conflagration, as often happens, then reproduction fails, and the Rootform has to wait until it can try again. In order to ensure continued genetic diversity, Rootforms undergo a 30–50 year reproductive cycle wherein they periodically produce and ingest chemicals that trigger localized mutations in the DNA of strategically-chosen centres, minimizing the deleterious effects of inbreeding.

[ 9 ] The project — meant to make a highly complex human narrative understandable to a Rootform through annotation alone for the first recorded time — involved researchers at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Oxford University, SUNY Buffalo, the Harry Ransom Center, NASA and the European Space Agency. While previously the most extensive annotation of Ulysses numbered a “mere” 1,400 pages, the version presented to the Rootforms would be, if ever printed, about 3.2×108 pages long, including citations. The project was considered a success, and the annotations have become in many ways more important to Rootform society than the novel they were based on.

The story above, which became known among researchers by the title ‘On the Surface,’ ended up revealing something very important about Rootform psychology. When we experimented with longer, more complex stories, we knew better than to just tell them to the Rootform directly, and instead translated them as best we could into a form that the creature could understand and with any confusing contextual elements removed, resulting in versions of these stories which were pared down to their basest narrative elements. But as research progressed, and as we acquired a better and better understanding of how Rootforms worked, our improved methods of translating complex plots into understandable forms did nothing to change or intensify the response. This result went against the typical trajectory for xenoneurological research, where improvements in translation lead to higher levels of emotional arousal in response to significant plot events, which eventually leads to a greater understanding of how the species in question understands and processes complex networks of causation. It is said, for example, that when a species is able to find Kafka funny, it is ready to experience human culture on its own terms. But most of this research has been done on species which are, or strongly resemble, vertebrates, and who live and think on a similar timescale that humans do. [ 10 ] Rootforms, however, are quite different, and our inability to appreciate this difference led to research on their thought patterns flatlining for many years.

[ 10 ] The current hypothesis for the extent of convergence between species in the speed of thought and action — how, for instance, carbon-based vertebrate species from different planets tend to get bored (or arrive at a comparable agitated state) when deprived of stimulation for similar amounts of time — is that it has to do with the narrow temperature range within which organic compounds are able to form. Temperature is simply the measure of the level of kinetic energy in the molecules that make something up, or how fast those molecules are moving. Extreme heat and coldness kills almost all known life, and all known intelligent life, and so the common temperature range in which these species live may have translated into a common speed of thought and action through a complex evolutionary process which researchers are only beginning to understand.

Eventually, however, a breakthrough occurred: we were able to progress far enough in communicating what a story was to the Rootforms that one of them was able to come up with one on its own. The story, now titled ‘Love Things,’ is as follows:

Love things: A20, Z’5, W56, W58, A’1
Hate things: Rootmites, A’2, E60
Need things: A20, Z’5, W56, W58, A’1, Rootmites, A’2, E60
The only thing: the Rootform

This story was related by Rootform 271, [ 11 ] dubbed Hemmingroot by the media, and requires a little bit of unpacking. The letters and numbers refer to specific centres in 271’s network. Researchers plot these centres on a grid, with numbers on the x-axis and letters on the y-axis, [ 12 ] and 271 had been appraised of this mode of categorization (its own personal names for these nodes being extremely cumbersome to communicate in writing) as well as human names for various other parts of its environment. It was then asked to “make up your own story and tell it to us,” which resulted in the text above.

[ 11 ] Most Rootform names are simply records of their genetic signature, and so are not usable by humans or similar species. A numbering system was agreed on as part of the Second Treaty of Co-Development, and assigns specific Rootforms (sometimes called Rootform systems, or just systems) that wish to engage with vertebrate cultures a number based on the order in which they established relations. Rootforms 20 through 78 have since perished, leaving those numbers permanently retired. The normal procedure for referring to a Rootform by name is to use the phrasing “Rootform [number],” to indicate that the creature is a Rootform and not one of the several other species with numerical naming systems, and to then use just the number thereafter.

[ 12 ] Since there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, yet 52 rows of nodes on 271’s y-axis, the rows north of the zed were simply named by starting the alphabet over again with a small tick, called a prime, beside it. So Z’5 (pronounced zed-prime-five) is the fifth node on the row farthest from the zero point on the graph. 271 is an unusually large Rootform, with a span similar to the surface area of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, with 3,273 central nodes arranged in a rough grid formation. It is possibly the largest single intelligent lifeform ever discovered, as measured by mass, and outclasses the next-largest Rootform, Rootform 8, by a factor of ten.

“Love Things” began an explosion of research into Rootform psychology which eventually answered many questions about why complex plots seemed to have no effect on them. The mental apprehension of causality in humans and similar intelligent vertebrates requires memory, and it is by triggering an unexpected memory or cluster of memories that complex plots elicit delight or fascination in the reader. Take for example the following joke from the 1980 movie Airplane!: at the start of the film the protagonist, a taxi driver, abandons the passengers of his cab so he can chase after his lover, a flight attendant, by buying a ticket on the next flight she will be working on. The film then appears to forget about the passengers in the taxi, focusing instead on various airport-related tomfoolery. Then suddenly the shot cuts back to the customers still in the cab, still waiting after all this time, long after their driver has boarded his flight and taken off. That joke works so well in large part because the audience will have forgotten about the people in the cab soon after the protagonist leaves it, only to then be reminded that it exists and informed that the passengers have been sitting in it for several hours and are still willing to give their driver another twenty minutes. A simple causal relationship — the driver abandoned the car, so it didn’t go anywhere — becomes funny by extending across a wider span of time so that it could be removed from and then reintegrated with the viewer’s working memory.

No Rootform has ever found the movie Airplane! funny, [ 13 ] and the structure of “Love Things” shows us why. Human memory is divided into short- and long-term forms, and their use often has the structure of a tool. A sentence like “a hammer hits the nail” has a structure much like a hammer hitting a nail: there is a thing and then something happens to or with that thing. The activities of prehistoric humans — hunting, talking, foraging, making, loving, decorating — all require some accounting for complex forms of causation and unusual causal timescales so that this knowledge can itself be put to work towards some end. Humans act upon the world over a much smaller timescale and in a much more direct way than a Rootform does, and so the tools of language and thought evolved to make that activity as useful as possible. We tell stories, in part, to understand causal relationships spread over wide geographic or temporal spaces, or to comprehend causal elements (like the mind of another person) which we cannot directly know. Human stories function the way they do because they allow us to act upon the world more effectively, and a good story, like a good joke, arouses the human mind in order to reward it for undertaking this useful mental activity.

[ 13 ] At least some of the problems with translating humour are due to differing cultural expectations which have survived the process of translation. For example, one reason a Rootform might not find the taxi joke in Airplane! funny is that it relies on defying certain expectations — that the passengers would get impatient and leave on their own — which a Rootform would never hold. No Rootform would ever expect to go anywhere, since it is a root system in the ground, nor would it see why waiting a few hours for something would be egregious. It is as difficult for Rootforms to put themselves in the place of us mobile, short-lived, impatient humans as it is for humans to imagine being them.

Rootforms were at first thought to have only one kind of memory, long-term memory, since they lived over such a huge span of time and space and had so few ways to directly affect the world, that the only things that a Rootform could exercise direct agency over were natural processes occurring over the span of a century or more. Being eaten by Rootmites, for example, is not painful to them, [ 14 ] since they have no way to respond to being eaten in the immediate term except by releasing chemicals, a process which usually happens automatically and without conscious awareness. [ 15 ] Pain, after all, is meant to alert the mind to damage so that the damage can be repaired or prevented, and pain that a creature cannot respond to is simply torture without purpose. A centre being overtaken or dying, however, can indicate larger problems which it may be able to resolve by, for instance, releasing new spores [ 16 ] or by allowing itself to grow in a new direction, or by herding the Rootmites away by shedding redundant parts of itself to attract them to a less important place. It does not remember things in terms of chains of causation, then, because local causes are usually either imperceptible or irrelevant given the slow timescale involved. The active and immediate agency over the material world which is the main benefit of intelligence from an evolutionary perspective, and which in humans relies on short-term memory for rapid information sorting and decision-making, in Rootforms occurs almost exclusively through automatic processes. For Rootforms, intelligence is useful for long-term planning and strategizing, keeping track of limited resources (such as important chemicals that are difficult to synthesize or replace) and managing its complex body, not for actively repelling predators or acquiring nutrition. [ 17 ]

[ 14 ] For humans, however, Rootmite stings are excruciating, earning the first ever score of 5 on the previously 4-point Schmidt Sting Pain Scale, meaning it exceeds the painfulness of any Earth insect. The source of the pain is not a venom, but rather a corrosive substance their stingers inject, which is meant to secrete into every pore and crack of the bite area and dissolve it from the inside. A chemical in Rootform sheathes, which humans lack, neutralizes this corrosion, the two species’ millions of years of evolutionary warfare being what caused the Rootmite’s deadliness, as well as the Rootform’s intelligence.

[ 15 ] While Rootforms are highly intelligent and have an extremely well-developed awareness of their own bodies and bodily processes, their size and composition means that intentional actions tend to happen very slowly and deliberately. In addition, many compounds, such as those used to control and direct individual Rootmites, take a long time to synthesize and so must be used intelligently. While Rootforms have a variety of defensive chemicals which they can release at will — some of which are powerful enough to keep Rootmites away from an area for years at a time — the slowness and complexity of these substances, combined with the general usefulness of the Rootmites, means that a Rootform will almost always prefer to rely on the faster and less potent chemicals stored in their “bark” which deploy reflexively.

[ 16 ] Spores released to repair or extend an existing system are chemically distinct from those which create a new system, growing into a clone of the system it came from rather than one which could form a distinct Rootform.

[ 17 ] The evolutionary ancestors of the Rootform were stationary and unintelligent fungal slimes that lived, like the Rootforms, off decomposing plants and animals, and which acted only through chemical reflex. It was only after generations of pressure from the proto-Rootmites that intelligence evolved. The challenge of the well-coordinated and relentless insect colonies would likely have led to the proto-Rootforms’ extinction had they not developed early forms of intelligence as resource-management systems, and likewise evolved their huge size in order to build redundancy into their bodies.

When a Rootform commits something new to memory, then, it is in the form of a categorization. Over the course of its life, a Rootform will be exposed to innumerable stimuli, and will record each stimulus as being an example of one or more types of events, with each type of event requiring a different type of response. The number and division of categories fluctuates wildly over the course of a Rootform’s life, and an adult Rootform will combine and overlap categories to create highly integrated systems of meaning similar to the way human languages develop complex meanings through the combination of simple parts. It is important to remember that in a Rootform’s mind, the relationship between a category and an action is not one of causation (“when A happens I do B”) but rather of identity (“when A happens B happens”). A centre being overtaken by Rootmites is the releasing of clone spores to repair the damage. And while the Rootforms are more than intelligent enough to understand the actual causal process underlying this relationship, it is for them somewhat like the experience of a human learning quantum mechanics — the ideas are contradictory, the assumptions alien to how daily life is experienced, but the theory is believed anyway because of its explanatory power and agreement with experiments.

A reading of “Love Things” which would make it understandable to humans would go something like this: The centres included in the list of Love Things are those associated with a series of subjective impressions that in their function resemble the experience of love, in part because they are most often where the experience of pleasure originates in the system [ 18 ] and in part because they were involved in Rootform 271’s gestation. [ 19 ] The elements included in Hate Things are those areas which are a danger to 271’s system, which includes not only the Rootmites but also centres recently overtaken by Rootmites, which must be chemically purged (as indeed they were) so that the mites do not consume the rest of the system from within its protective shell. Attentive readers will notice that centre A’1 of Love Things would be right next to A’2 of Hate Things, meaning that if the Rootmites were allowed to spread they might well diminish 271’s ability to experience any sort of pleasure at all until it repairs itself.

[ 18 ] Rootforms have a much higher sensory awareness of their own thought processes than most vertebrates do. Even prior to any systematic study of their material bodies, Rootforms often hold accurate, if vague, ideas of what parts of their systems performed which actions simply by paying close attention to their own subjective experiences.

[ 19 ] The coming-into-consciousness of a new Rootform system is usually a cause for celebration for all of the Rootforms in the region, and occasionally across the whole planet, due to the rarity of the event. Nearby systems will often flood the new Rootform with messages containing information on the local geography and wildlife so that its memory would not have to be built up from scratch. Though constantly plagued by Rootmites and other, far worse predators, and though restricted in how they reproduce, the Rootform population is stable and healthy. As the extremely long-lived Rootform 389 once noted, the number of Rootforms currently alive exceeds the number that were alive when it was born. The most recent estimates put the total population in the general vicinity of 11,000, with some 2,000 Rootform systems engaging in regular or semi-regular (<50 years between contacts) engagement with at least one human. Rootforms are more common in areas with stable warm temperatures, minimal seismic activity, heavy plant growth (which when rotting provides sustenance) and a soil ecosystem free of dangerous pathogens.

The category Need Things [ 20 ] combines all of the above nodes, as well as the Rootmites. This combination expresses a certain melancholy on 271’s part as to the state of its own body. On the one hand, the nodes that need to be destroyed and replaced are still part of it — the bits of remaining healthy tissue continue to transmit signals and participate in thoughts right up until they are eaten by Rootmites or dissolved in a chemical purge. They are themselves important. E60, for example, was the node created by the insect that spread the spores from which 271 emerged, and which still retains traces of the Rootmite’s body; the destruction of the originary node is often considered self-evidently tragic by Rootforms, and news of this happening often triggers an expression comparable to mourning among other Rootforms that hear of it. E60 is, and was, loved, and it is and was necessary, and yet it must be hated if the body as a whole is to survive. The Rootmites too are necessary, being not only how Rootforms reproduce, but also how they affect the world outside of them more generally. A spore-infected Rootmite will undertake any action that the spores command it to, including communication with other Rootforms. [ 21 ] Rootforms need to communicate with each other in order to be aware of events beyond their own bodies, including outbreaks of other predatory creatures with which they share a less beneficial relationship, such as the dreaded Bore-fungus. A Rootform’s continued existence thus depends on the insect that destroys even the most precious parts of itself.

[ 20 ] The manner in which Rootforms distinguish needing from loving is covered in the now classic study Rootwords for Rootforms: Towards a System of Affective Categories by Clarissa E. White and Rootform 80 (University of Chicago Press, 2581). 80’s autobiographical preface to the 50th anniversary edition is especially insightful, particularly its remarks on what grief feels like to a Rootform in light of Dr. White’s recent death. “Need is a kind of love when what is needed fills the empty parts of the whole,” it writes, “as well as those occasions, which are nearly all of them, when love is itself a need.”

[ 21 ] Spore-controlled Rootmites are constantly emerging from the ground, flying great distances and then burrowing into the soil and dying so that they can be absorbed by another Rootform which will then decode a message from the chemical signals contained in the dead Rootmite’s body. It is in this way that Rootforms are able to talk to each other — as they do incessantly. It is hypothesized that the Rootmites evolved wings specifically for this purpose: their ability to fly enabling a mutualist, as opposed to merely parasitic, relationship, which prevented the evolutionary ancestors of Rootforms, once they evolved intelligence, from simply eradicating the pests.

The final category, The Only Thing, is what contains itself — the Rootform. This last category, which subsumes the others, resolves the tension by affirming that what matters is not the parts but rather the whole. [ 22 ] 271 will survive, and the loss of E60 and A’2 will be recovered, and the Rootmites will continue eating it and helping it live. The tension of the plot occurs through a process of explanation, where the order in which something is described creates the appearance of a problem which the completion of the description resolves. Some human stories do something similar to this — Borges’ tales provide several examples — though for the Rootforms they are not the stuff of advanced literary fiction, but the basic elements of a plot as such.

[ 22 ] The way Rootform senses work has given them a tendency to view everything that happens to it as a part of itself. So, for example, when a person walks across ground with a Rootform growing under it, the Rootform will usually not say “I felt vibrations above” but rather “I am vibrations above.”

It was two decades after ‘Love Things’ came out that researchers began to analyze ‘On the Surface’ more closely. It had at first been published and then forgotten as a curiosity which went nowhere, especially once the ‘Love Things’ breakthrough occurred and it became commonplace to interpret Rootform narrativization through systems of categories. Yet eventually someone asked a very important question: why did this story elicit an effect if it isn’t a list of categories and doesn’t function the way Rootform stories are supposed to? Further testing showed that ‘On the Surface’ did not trigger a response as a fluke, but rather lead to notable emotional responses in a variety of Rootform systems, including the now famous 271.

What emerged, over many years, was that contrary to what everyone (including several Rootforms) believed, the species did in fact possess a kind of short-term, working memory. For while storing information occurs over a huge space and time and so cannot be attentive to all but the most attenuated causal relationships, categorizing new information needs to involve local immediate conditions, which include causality. It was therefore possible, at least in principle, for them to tell and be told stories as humans understand them.

From this insight, a reading of ‘On the Surface’ is possible. It’s basically a horror story with an unexpectedly happy ending. The Rootform in the story feels an unusual set of footprints on its surface which do not correspond to any existing category. [ 23 ] Suddenly — at least by a Rootform’s standards — they have reproduced, creating several of the mysterious things. They travel over all four cardinal directions, [ 24 ] indicating that they are unusually mobile and possibly intelligent. Finally, one of them dies, is buried, and decomposes, allowing its body to be studied directly by the Rootform for the first time and revealing what it was: a human being! The block of experiences can at last be categorized as having to do with this new creature, and the story can now be told in chemical form to other systems by way of the Rootmites. In this way, the category proliferates through chemical narration, so that in time even Rootforms that have never encountered a human will still be able to recognize one and know what to do.

[ 23 ] Human footprints resemble those of a common surface-dwelling creature known commonly to humans as the Cahoot, due to its loud hooting call and its tendency to be mischievous, or “in cahoots,” when assembled into groups. Cahoots are omnivorous (though their diet is mostly insect-based), about the size of a human twelve-year-old, with a mouth somewhat like an anteater’s, and occupy an ecological niche similar to that of the chimpanzee. They are attracted to areas where Rootforms live by the messenger Rootmites constantly moving to-and-fro, which they hunt as an easy source of protein by waiting for them to land and pouncing on them as they bury into the ground to be absorbed. As a result, Rootforms know the Cahoots as bad omens, and associate their presence, ironically given their name, with silence and isolation.

[ 24 ] Rootforms lack a native concept of left and right. They can, however, detect their planet’s electromagnetic field, and so use it as the basis for their sense of direction.

Though we hardly knew it at the time, the plot of ‘On the Surface’ also repeats the process of first contact from the Rootform’s perspective. It was many years before we humans realized that the Rootforms were intelligent, by which time we had built a research colony on the planet and staffed it with a team of scientists. One of those researchers eventually died in an accident and was buried on the planet, [ 25 ] and years later the Rootform living in that spot made itself known, releasing messenger Rootmites in an attempt at communication which was at the time interpreted as an inexplicable insect swarm. It was the memory of first contact, which all Rootforms on the planet experienced eventually, which triggered the powerful emotional response. It was as if, in telling the story, we had gone up to an old friend and asked them, do you remember how the two of us first met? No wonder the response was so noticeable!

[ 25 ] The researcher was Mark Glendale, aged 39, a botanist with the Canadian Space Agency and professor at the University of Waterloo, who was attached to the first crewed mission to the planet. He was attacked and partially eaten by a medium-sized carnivore which had until that point eluded human observation and which came to be known as Glendale’s Tiger. What was left of his body received a burial near the research base, which happened to be on top of Rootform 1. The burst of surface Rootmite activity — caused by 1 notifying other Rootforms about this new species — was what prompted the close study of the subterranean fungal networks which eventually led to the discovery of their sentience.

Interspecies comparative literature has advanced considerably in the last few decades, and it is now possible to tell stories which both humans and Rootforms can enjoy with minimal revision. The stories all have the form of an explanation, usually of something that both species have some experience of, and often unfold in a step-by-step fashion so that the categories which the different elements of the plot fall into are made more supple and complex by way of iterated chains of causal explanation. The plots are self-similar, in a way, in that they are explanations made of nested explanations, which are often nested further. Indeed, footnotes and other annotative tools are quite common, the apparatus resembling the fungal network strands stretching off from the central node of the main plot.

Their resolution, the sense of wholeness or completeness on which they end, which triggers in both species a sense of satisfaction, is often the same one that resolves the plot of ‘Love Things.’ And that resolution is this: there is but one thing, and that thing is relation. All is one within the Rootform. All is one within the mind. Our bodies become the stories that our bodies tell, and all beginning and all end is merely an illusion created by the shortness of our lives and the limits of our attention. For it is only in a story that one can justly say: The End.

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and scholar who lives in London, ON. His work includes several books, including the story collection Beneath the Statue, as well as stories and poems in such places as EVENT, PRISM International, Geist, The Dalhousie Review and The Puritan.