Bracketverse — I

The planet Kinsoro, in a star system on the edge of the Bracket nebula, had a strange climate marked by long alternating periods of wonderful and terrible climates. Each phase of the climatic cycle (whose origins were mysterious) lasted approximately 120 Earth years. The strange climate had given rise to an equally strange ecology early in the planet’s history: The more complex species were all polymorphic, typically existing in two forms adapted to the two regimes (and occasionally as many as six, adapted to minor climate epicycles). The dominant species, the Kinsorans, existed in two adult forms, which Kinsoran biologists called the S-type and the I-type. The two types had clear but minor physical differences, but more importantly, dramatically different behavioral and cognitive dispositions. While both types could survive both climates, the S-type flourished in the wonderful half-cycles, while the I-types flourished during the terrible half-cycles.

Kinsoran biologists calculated that the environmental variation ought to lead to a slow 240-year limit cycle in the S/I ratio between 80:20 and 20:80, but in practice the ratio showed much more extreme variation: swinging between 99:1 to 1:99. The reason was not hard to discover; during each half-cycle, the dominant type would violent repress and slaughter the subordinate type to near-extinction.

During their dominant eras, the S-types tended to create authoritarian aesthetocracies — beautiful and clever eras remembered for their subtle crafts, mathematical and scientific accomplishments, trenchant literary cultures, and limpid philosophies. S-type eras were liberally equipped with hidden dungeons where the few surviving I-types were left to rot. The I-types, by contrast, tended to create rough high-barbarian societies during their periods of ascendancy, marked by unrefined and courageous living, lofty and virtuous thinking, and daring and poetically inclined, but somewhat murky and confused intellectual cultures. During early eras of I-dominance, S-types were driven to inhospitable wilderness margins. In later eras, they were driven to underground urban subcultures, where they were left to slowly die out.

What enabled this exhausting historical dynamic to sustain itself was that during the sharp climatic transition periods (the history was more square wave than sinusoid) that occurred every 120 years, almost all juvenile and near-adult Kinsorans would begin maturing into adults of the non-dominant type, adapted to the coming age rather than the prevailing one. These advent generations, alienated from their immediate forebears, would establish themselves through bloody youth revolutions, which contemporary adult Kinsorans accepted, and even looked forward to, with a ritual fatalism.

Advent generations enjoyed a place of honor in Kinsoran history, and the polymorphic Kinsoran calendar, which existed in S- and I- forms, was organized around numbered advent eras (the S-calendar was merely the I-calendar with an off-by-half numbering of advents, so the 67th Light Advent on the S-calendar was also the 67th Dark Advent on the I-calendar). In the technologically advanced phase of Kinsoran civilization, advent revolutions tended to be quick and ritually efficient affairs. Mass ritual suicides by the morph in retreat, rather than warfare, accounted for much of the bloodshed. Importantly, little to no destruction of the built environment, or the accumulated knowledge of the waning era, accompanied the advent revolutions, allowing progress to continue, punctuated but uninterrupted.

While Kinosoran history was strongly yoked to its climate cycles, via biology, it was not entirely deterministic. Under conditions of both extreme stress and extreme relaxation, S-Kinsorans tended to exhibit I-traits, and vice versa. And though the basic morph identity tended to remain stable after hardening in late adolescence, anomalous flips to the opposed type in later life were not unheard of, and were even quietly tolerated. Many of the familiar sociocultural patterns we of Earth associate with gender or race relations, manifested as aspects of morph relations among the Kinsorans. But it would be a mistake to read too much into that similarity, for Kinsoran polymorphism was both more biologically complex than these Earthly analogues, and more dramatically consequential for Kinsoro’s history. Literal polymorphism of the sort found on Earth, such as the locust/grasshopper polymorphism, is also a revealing, but unsatisfactory analogy. It is best, perhaps, to think of Kinsoran ethology as its own thing.

Reflecting on the Kinsoran condition, Kinsoran philosophers developed various subtle metaphysics of recursive polymorpshism (in paired S- and I- orthodoxies that viewed each other as heterodoxies naturally) that were all something like evolved hybrids of the I Ching and hermetic philosophies of Earth. But rather curiously, they did not develop a metaphysics of good vs. evil or truth vs. falsehood. Even their use of the light/dark metaphor was a matter of denotative convenience, not metaphysics. The periodic slaughter and oppression they unleashed on each other was considered an impersonal matter of ecological hygiene, a sort of mutually-assured culling equilibrium, not a moral or philosophical imperative.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of their world, Kinsorans tended to the view that there are at least two right answers to any question, but that each individual was bound to one answer as a matter of biological destiny. The Kinsoran word for the opposed morph translates roughly to those of the other answer.

The attitude extended beyond analysis to matters of synthesis. Kinsorans also tended to believe, like human advertisers, that half the solution to any complex problem (which they tended to define as things that were equally the product of I- and S-type eras) was wasted effort, but that you could never tell which half, or attribute it entirely to the opposed morph’s eras. The best you could do was control the world absolutely during your periods of ascendancy, and find and exploit as many new answers and solutions as you could, while you were in charge.

The Kinsoran sense of history can be understood as a sort of detached dialectical fatalism yoked to a curiously humble sense of the future as a fundamentally uncertain outcome of a disputatious natural process. S- and I- types, one might say, lived as tribes of lawyers, alternately arguing their cases in a cosmic courtroom with no judge or jury, and no final judgments.

This peculiar dialectic led to civilizational progress being unusually slow, despite the Kinsorans being a species of above-average intelligence (about 30% smarter than Homo sapiens). But though slow, Kinsoran progress was ferociously steady, and once it locked on to a course, it tend to develop inexorably in search of pairs of answers to questions and half-legible solutions to even the most complex problems. There were no true Dark Ages in Kinsoran history. Though S- and I- types viewed their own periods of ascendancy and subordination with quiet exhilaration and stoic resignation respectively, they tended to view history itself as progressing steadily and indefinitely, and themselves as playing a part in half of it.

It took Kinsoro about 40,000 years of civilized history past its Stone Age — 167 S/I cycles — to reach the space-travel stage of development. But once it did, within two advent cycles (240 years) Kinsorans had figured out how to build very large sub-lightspeed generation starships, capable of handling ship-board advent transitions, complete with artificial environments programmed to mimic their home planet’s climate cycles.

Starting around the 168th S-type Light Advent, Kinsorans began setting out to explore several of the nearest neighboring star systems, in generation ships designed to last at least half a dozen complete advent cycles.

And at the 171st I-type Light Advent, a Kinsoran starship arrived at the boundary of a neighboring star system that appeared to exhibit signs of life on one of its planets.

The Peleyapians themselves would have been the first to agree — the planet Peleyap had a cloying and suffocating culture. Nevertheless it was their culture and they liked it that way. They could not be torn from it without being completely miserable. And Peleyapians did not like misery. They liked to be happy. Blissfully happy. And fortunately for them, they were cognitively and circumstantially equipped for it: willing to say yes to happiness (a rare evolved trait in most ecologies), and inhabiting a planet that offered no real resistance to their claim to apex species status. They reigned easily and unchallenged in a world where the most interesting thing for a Peleyapian was other Peleyapians.

The Peleyapians were close to what Earth science fiction might refer to as empaths, though that idea doesn’t quite get at their essential nature. They were perhaps human-grade in intelligence (though with a narrower distribution), but sheep-like rather than primate-like in their sociality — and to an extreme degree (evidenced by the extreme development of the Peleyapian physiological equivalent of mirror neurons). Peleyapian cognition had a kind of hyper-sheep-like other-obsessed quality to it, and its most salient feature was a kind of preternatural mutual attunement (which was highly empathetic without being particularly sympathetic), bordering on the telepathic. This attunement enabled them to both coordinate and compete in dizzyingly complex ways, even during their early prehistory. Ways that humans, for instance, could barely approximate even a century after the development of the internet. You could almost say Peleyapians invented finishing each other’s sentences before they invented language.

But calling them sheeple or insect-like would be a gross misjudgment, since their thinking, while highly mutually aware and entangled, was also highly imaginative, varied, and acutely sensitive to their environment. In fact, even though Peleyapian sociobiology featured every kind of collective behavior — pack hunting, herd migration, troop foraging, eusocial hive construction, flock-like murmuration — they derived their identity primarily from their acute environmental sensing and sensemaking behaviors. The Peleyapian word for a group of Peleyapians was the same as the one for an individual’s eye: pele (a high degree of polysemy was a characteristic of Peleyapian languages, which were all extraordinarily context-sensitive). Individual Peleyapians (who did, despite contrary appearances, have individual identities and streams of consciousness) thought of themselves as something like individual sensing cells within collective entities that functioned as emergent sense-organs. Their name for their home planet, Peleyap, translated literally to Big Eye, loosely equivalent to the hypothetical human notion of Gaia, but much more literal, and with connotations of an emergent planet-scale sensory modality rather than a whole being.

Powerful collective traits, alloyed with extraordinarily acute pooled senses, turned early Peleyapians into wandering distributed hive minds on the prehistoric plains of Peleyap, where survival was difficult, but not too difficult. As advanced omnivores, prehistoric Peleyapians were simultaneously apex predators, apex foragers, and apex ruminants. As a result, the prehistory was marked by long periods of collective reverie and reflection, punctuated by massive bloody wars among vast maneuvering herds of ancient Peleyapians.

But though they were intellectually capable of it, total war was much too antithetical to the Peleyapian nature, wired for attunement rather than conflict. The bloody prehistory eventually gave way to a coalesced and peaceful planetary civilization with a rich collective memory in the form of a strange, lyrical mythology marked by near-complete erasure of individual lives and authorship of events.

Peleyapian mythology is perhaps best understood as a sort of evolving work of epic music, featuring accurately preserved records of historical vibes and moods, half-ironically construed as the evolving autobiographical emotional memories of extraordinarily long-lived emergent entities known as Yaps (which of course, literally translates to Bigs), which are held to be at once real and imagined; historic and fantastic.

Yaps had many of the qualities we of Earth variously (and confusedly) attribute to nations, corporations, clans, gods, religions, egregores, fictional hive minds, and eusocial insect species. But each of those clumsy concepts conceived and constructed by the fundamentally non-collective Earthly imagination misses the essence in some way.

Perhaps the best way to understand Yaps is as persistent collectively playable emergent characters (but also organs or limbs) in a civilization-scale augmented reality game — except that the Peleyapians were already playing these games in their prehistory, before they had even discovered fire, let alone augmented reality technologies.

Each Yap, whether a full or partial being, required a large fraction of the species (even the smallest required at least a million Peleyapians) to invoke and animate, with the largest (and most rarely invoked) Yaps requiring the participation of the entire species. Yaps constituted the collectively exhaustive, but not mutually exclusive, dramatis personae of Peleyap’s history. Peleyapian prehistory was the story of the wars of schisms, assimilations, fragmentations, and subsumptions of hundreds of thousands of small-scale prehistoric Yaps (each of which was bound to a prehistoric Peleyapian herd). Mature Peleyapian civilization featured no more than a few hundred postmodern Yaps, each of which existed unbound and mostly asleep in the Peleyapian noosphere, ready to invoked, awakened, and animated during particular historical junctures that called for their active presence on the historical stage. At any given time, between one and a dozen Yaps were active in Peleyapian civilization, with irreversible historical thresholds being constructed as specific Yaps awakening or falling asleep.

Peleyapian history then, features a rich collective inner life in the form of overlapping and nebulous autobiographical streams of Yap consciousness, frustratingly sparse plots, and annoyingly ambiguous chronologies. Only with the development of a variety of sensing and connectivity technologies in the Peleyapian technological golden age (which they viewed them as improved incarnation modes for the Yaps) does any sort of reliable chronology emerge, in the form of digital logs and records. The Peleyapian equivalent of the human dictum, the medium is the message, translates roughly to the matter is the body. Beginning with the technological golden age, the organic and artificial materialities of Peleyap begin to blur in ways only the Peleyapian mind could inhabit without chronic nausea.

The civilized history that followed the violent prehistory was peaceful on the surface, but deeply riven by veritable catacombs of carefully preserved collective trauma lurking just below the surface of the collective consciousness (understood, of course, as the mental health histories of individual Yaps). In the incessant cultural performances of their mythologies that dominated Peleyapian life, these shadow landscapes of collective pain found expression as complex and carefully imagined allegorical universes inhabited by the Yaps (which were, naturally, far less benign than the universe — our own — that the Peleyapians physically inhabited). These universes in turn, formed the shared backdrop for all their collective thinking, and spanned the collective Peleyapian emotional gamut. It would not be entirely wrong to say that in some sense, Peleyapians thought of themselves as living not in our universe (though of course they did) but in the Yap multiverse, where their individual actions only made sense as part of emergent Yap behaviors.

It took the enormous emotional range of a Peleyapian mind to find a sentimental comfort in these evolving allegorical universes carved out by accumulating historical traumas. To almost any other species, the experience of Peleyapian collective historical memory would be one of inescapable, unbearable, lived cosmic horror. What humans might experience as a waking Lovecraftian-Jungian nightmare, Peleyapians experienced as the routine ebb and flow of everyday emotions.

It would be a mistake though, to think that the Peleyapians lived entirely in a sentimentally mythologized past of the common Earthly variety. The past merely supplied the peculiar idioms and grammars Peleyapian collective cognition needed to process its present experiences and future prospects. The Yap mythos was not so much a story or allegorical history as it was a programming language and operating system for the distributed organic computer that was the Peleyapian civilization. If the Yaps were Peleyapian gods, they were hardworking, ever-present gods, participating in every banal moment of life rather than merely appearing as agents of miraculous ones. More organic-artificial computer daemon processes than cosmic monsters.

Every Peleyapian technological leap emerged with a rich sense of its own history shaping and constraining it, and was attributed to a contemporary awake Yap cast as the author, rather than to the individual Peleyapians involved. Possibilities for the future could only be entertained at all if swaddled in the inevitabilities of the past, and construed as future adventures of specific living Yaps. As a result, Peleyapian civilization evolved with a kind of intimidating cultural continuity modulating and moderating all developments. Peleyap was like a planet-scale Ship of Theseus made up of a continuous churn of sentient individual parts.

Which is not to say Peleyapian technological developments were necessarily incremental. They merely extended with a preternatural smoothness, a kind of extreme manufactured normalcy, from the past into the future. Even during the periods where the development took the form of vertiginous innovation ramps that in any other culture would result in civilizational discontinuities, it was rare for a Yap to be killed, and unheard of for one to be born. Somehow, Peleyapian progress managed to be technologically radical without ever being culturally revolutionary. No new Yaps had been born since prehistoric times, though many had effectively died (mostly through graceful aging into a state construed as eternal sleep rather than death). The powerfully expressive Yap mythos, it seemed, could absorb anything history could throw at it, while itself suffering barely any significant creative destruction.

In summary, we might say that the Peleyapian willingness — even eagerness — to steward historical memory in a potently alive form, lent to the otherwise varied political philosophies of Peleyapian political life (each held by a Yap of course) a shared disposition — a romantic-nostalgic divergent historicism that somehow managed to also be powerfully forward-looking and exploratory, insistently seeking to expand its horizons.

When the first Peleyapian spaceship landed on the planet’s main moon, Aga, sometime in the fourth millennium of the recorded history, all Peleyapians participated in the event via a rich sentiment-modulated real-time VR experience (which included a chemical modality — the event is associated with a particular historic smell). It is, of course, no accident that Peleyapians perfected high-bandwidth, multi-modal VR before they even invented heavier-than-air flight. The emotional separations entailed by flight were far more traumatic for Peleyapians of the era than the actual physical risks. They are memorialized in the history as a “century of headaches” experienced by the Yaps who authored it.

The name of the first Peleyapian explorer of Aga is not known. The historic event was experienced and memorialized by the entire planet as a minor neighborhood adventure of one of the oldest and wisest of Yaps, the species-scale Agayap (“Big Breath” — the moon’s phases were thought to be a breath-like process by ancient Peleyapians), who had spent much of the previous six millennia asleep, awakening only once every few centuries to serve as the subject of particularly notable historical periods that called for steady, meditative, calming moods. So there was no small step for a Peleyapian Neil Armstrong, and no giant leap for Peleyap-kind. There was only a new chapter in the life of Agayap, containing the story of its sedate journey to Aga and back, during his 70th awakening.

Agayap went back to sleep after that first mission. The planetary space program in the subsequent quarter millenium was the waking work of a handful of lesser Yaps who, as the next dozen Peleyapian generations churned through them, marked out a shell-like perimeter around Peleyap’s sun, just beyond Peleyap’s orbit, comprising thousands of sophisticated sensor-laden space stations, the whole serving as a kind of spherically distributed cosmic observatory. The space stations were a mix of occasionally inhabited and uninhabited as dictated by their function (the distribution of organic presence in the techno-organic body politic was not a matter or much importance for Peleyapians, so the Peleyapian space program did not make the distinction humans make, between crewed and uncrewed), but once they had been established they became a persistent part of the Peleyapians’ collective sense of themselves.

It should come as no surprise that the Peleyapians gave the massive construct the same name they gave their planet: Peleyap (this was not at all confusing in the highly context-sensitive Peleyapian language). With the construction of Peleyap, the Big Eye got much bigger, and Peleyapian consciousness expanded from planet-scale to solar-system scale.

A century after the completion of Peleyap, when the first alien starships appeared in the observatory’s multi-modal field of view, about a light-month away, for perhaps the first time in their history, Peleyapians did not know quite what to think. But unfazed, they turned the full power of their collective attention to the problem. For the first time since their moon landing, Agayap was awakened, and sat watching through the Big Eye, waiting for the strangers to arrive, and for its 71st adventure to begin.

To be continued.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Perhaps the title relates to this?

  2. This had a Le Guin vibe for me. Can’t wait for the next installment 😄

  3. Beverly Singet says

    Time space weaving itself and seems not to matter where it is at any point. Dreaming but mot dreams.

  4. I love the ideas that sprout out. What I don’t like so much is that it’s in the form of a novella, with no dialogue in it.

    If I think about what draws me into a story, it’s growing close to a protagonist of whatever type. The plot only works if I want to know what happens to this person, and the best way to tell this is with lots of dialogue.

    But I know, if one has to follow a protagonist, it’s a bit harder to get so much land covered as you do here.

  5. Sourabh Mahajan says

    Kinsoran 0/1
    Peleyap ε/δ