12.7.05

February 21, 2245

After class today, I met with Henri DeGaulle, who is supervising my research for the Académie and may be the only reasonable man left in academia. It was a very illuminating meeting.

Henri looks like an academic rather than a bureaucrat, with throwback thick German glasses and a frumpy British tweed jacket that I can just imagine his wife trying to mend because he insists on not throwing it out. I don’t think the glasses are an affectation, as with certain of my older colleagues, because he doesn’t do anything to call attention to them. All that notwithstanding, he is clearly French: we met in a small café and he insisted on treating me to a glass of wine as we talked.

He started out by congratulating me on my proposal and telling me how much he was looking forward to working with me and apologizing for not arranging to meet sooner—the usual. Then he went on to ask if I had any questions, and I think I caught him off guard when I asked how many proposals had been submitted. I wanted to see who I’d beaten out, or at least how many.

He told me: five others.

I thought that was a little odd. Only six people wanted to go study a brand new culture on an alien world? Well, no, he told me, only six anthropologists. They wanted a woman to go because that was part of the deal they’ve finally struck with the Roux to allow a human to live in one of their cities. And the Académie wanted a social anthropologist. Henri said they got plenty of applications from so-called xeno-biologists and animal behavior researchers, but “the first want only to cut them open, and the second, well, that is just insulting.” So why not more anthropologists? I asked, and he asked me if I ever surfed the fundies’ web. I said I didn’t have time to waste on that, and he replied that it is never a waste of time finding out what other people think.

I accepted this premise, though I still believe there are certain groups of people who aren’t worth one’s time, and as a scientist, people who are actively trying to tear down science come pretty high on that list, just below marketers and above career politicians. But Henri reads JesusWeb (I know, I know, but I can’t resist calling it that) and he explained their theory to me, that the probability that an alien race would so closely resemble Earth creatures is beyond random chance and is therefore proof of intelligent design. Of course, their math is a little funny. First of all, calculating the probability that one specific alien race would resemble one specific Earth animal is pointless, as there are millions of Earth animals and probably as many creatures on every alien world. So when you reduce it to the chance that an intelligent alien race would resemble any Earth animal, it looks a lot more reasonable. More important, of course, is the fact that you can’t prove it’s not random chance. You just can’t.

Crackpots, I said, but Henri seems worried about that whole movement. He’d spoken to two or three University administrators in France and Japan who didn’t want their anthropology departments involved in this research. Their concern seems to be that because anthropology is the study of human societies, if we send anthropologists to study the Roux, it lends more credence to the people who want to see them as part of a grand design.

Then why even offer the study in the first place? He’d obviously heard that question a lot. It took him five years of endless negotiating and struggling to get the Académie to offer the proposal, he said. He feels the research is valuable and worthwhile no matter who performs it, and I cannot believe that more people don’t agree with him.

He advised me to read more of JesusWeb, and when I reiterated what a waste of time I felt that was, he said I would need to be prepared for the questions I would face when my study was published. I didn’t think publication would be that big a deal. I must have started to look worried about it because Henri reminded me that publication is a non-negotiable requirement of this study. If I don’t publish something within three years of the conclusion of my fieldwork, I have to pay all the money back. That would suck. Interstellar flight is not exactly a skycab ride to dinner. That and the bio-mod are three quarters of the grant money.

If I didn’t mention the bio-mod before, it’s a pretty involved one, not like the alcohol metabolizers that were all the rage a few years back. The Roux planet is pretty arid and water is scarce; the Roux survive on maybe a glass a day average, and most of that, if not all, is extracted from what they eat. So I need to be able to survive without drinking. There’s a bio-mod package that allows this, and it’s not unheard of; Tien-Min had it done for her study of the Upper Mongolian culture wars, and I’m sure people in the Sahara and Texas deserts have had it done too. But it is expensive because it’s so involved. And on top of that there’s a bio-mod that has to be done so I don’t get poisoned by some of the naturally occurring chemicals in Roux food, or something. Not getting poisoned sounds good. I’m all for that.

Henri said they’ve arranged for me to have the procedure right before the flight, so that I can use the flight time to acclimate to the bio-mod’s requirements. Like not drinking. I said that was a bummer because I had heard that all interstellar flights have free drinks, and he laughed.

Reflecting on that meeting tonight, I’m a little bit worried. I always think of my research as existing in some kind of pure state, in a vacuum, as it were. Inevitably when other people get hold of my studies, they misinterpret them and screw them up, but usually it’s not serious. Just fodder for arguments at conventions. But what if some fundies take my study and use it to get curricula changed at some college or high school? What if, instead of advancing the cause of science, I actually set it back ten years? What if I can’t get another research job after this one because my community sees me as a traitor? What if, what if, what if?

The glass of wine I took before bed only reminded me that in three months, I’ll have to get to sleep without it.

19.6.05

February 19, 2245

Today our lessons began in earnest. We started with counting, of course, and it’s a relief to know that they use the same basic principles that we do. Their system is based on eights, which makes sense given that they have four fingers on each hand (three and an opposed thumb-like digit; his seem longer than thumbs). It brought up a hurdle in the lesson immediately, though, as Alexandre could not get into his head that there was no number to correspond to eight or nine. Au, rha, zhé, mshé, aé, esh, zhesh, gia. Gia is ten, kind of, at least it’s easier to remember it that way. It’s really eight. But nine is “augia,” and ten is “rhagia,” so it’s like “one-and-eight” and “two-and-eight,” so I just think of them as eleven and twelve. M. Unishé says that’s how he does it too, since he never has to translate exact numbers. Laurent finally explained something to Alexandre that had to do with “base 8” numbers, which sounds like something my brother would know about.

We took our turns practicing some of the postures we’d seen in the video, and he told us cheerfully that we looked like blind cubs having seizures. When he does it, it looks so graceful and fluid, and our bodies just aren’t capable of that. We don’t have ears like he does, for one thing, nor a tail, and his explanations of how we make up for that are not yet helping.

What is helping is that after only two days, the alien-ness of him is already starting to wear off. I still drift into thinking of him in an animal context, but he has spent the greater part of the sixteen hours talking, so my mind has accepted him as an equal. Amazing how quickly we adapt.

We talked about that after class. Laurent insisted we all go out to dinner. Kim joined us for one glass of wine and then left, mumbling an excuse that we all heard differently. The boys and I had a nice dinner of salade verte and soy fish, and progressed from talking about why we were taking the class to our backgrounds and histories. Laurent was hitting on me the whole night (don’t worry, Jerome, I didn’t have that much to drink), while Alexandre often got distracted and lost the thread of the conversation. He reminds me of a couple professors I’ve met who were touted as geniuses despite the fact that they had absolutely no idea how to fit into society. Alexandre, at least, has some social skills, but it is plain that the world of his ideas is much more appealing to him than the outside world.

As for Laurent, well, I would not have said that someone would study Xenology to meet women, but that appears to have been his motivation. I asked if he were hoping for some alien action, and he said he prefers exotic women (if you can imagine that with a raised eyebrow and a slight lean-in, you have his delivery perfectly). Of course, I affected not to understand, despite the fact that his body language would have been crystal clear even to a blind epileptic Roux cub.

We exchanged IMs, but I didn’t tell them about this journal. I have a feeling I will be writing about them a lot.

5.6.05

February 18, 2245

First class was held today! I was fifteen minutes early, but still the last student to arrive. There are three other people taking the class, and we talked while waiting for the instructor. Two of them, Laurent and Alexandre, are from a relatively new branch at the Université called Xenology. It might be more accurate to say that two of them are the new branch, from what they tell me. It’s a unifying discipline between biology, sociology, anthropology, and some philosophy—which makes it a hard sell because all of those departments have their own ‘alien studies’ curricula, leaving Xenology to be something like study of the aliens for their own sake. Laurent seemed to imply that it was a romantic pursuit, but I don’t really get that either.

The third student is a linguistics graduate student named Kim. She’s of Korean descent, I think, but she’s very quiet and only said enough words to introduce herself.

And then there’s our teacher.

The moment he stepped into the room, we all fell silent. None of us had seen an alien in the flesh before.

He stands about five feet high, and really looks like a dog walking on its hind legs. I’m sorry, but that’s the first thing I thought of. You know those stupid cines with the dogs walking around? Kind of like that, except real, and he wears clothes—today a tie (no shirt) and a kind of skirt. His face is not very different from a dog’s or a fox’s. He has a slender, long muzzle, sharp teeth, and yellow eyes, and large triangular ears that rise several inches above his head. And his body and his long, bushy tail are covered in reddish-orange fur—roux, as it were. I would have included a picture, but he wears a camera-blocker all the time, he told us. He hates having pictures of himself taken and distributed.

We were all holding our breath as he walked up to the head of the classroom. When he looked at us, he looked each of us in the eyes, and smiled. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but it was a real smile. You could see it in his eyes. He introduced himself as Unishé Taban, Unishé being his family name, in perfect but accented French. Then he asked us to excuse him for his dress. He said he can never find pants that fit, but at least he can follow the university’s dress code and wear a tie.

We all hesitated a moment until he told us he was trying to be funny, and then we laughed, because it was funny. Then he told us that if we’d been able to read his posture, which includes the angle of his ears and head and the degree at which his back is bent, we would have known right away that he was joking. That’s the bad news: much of the Roux language is based on body language, so much so that they have very little use for writing. They write down numbers, tallies, facts, and figures, but they do not write love poems, novels, plays, or news. In fact, they call words on paper “dead words.”

He gave a small speech that he said was part of a famous play in his home town and then pretended to read the same lines from a display screen. The difference was striking; like watching an actor perform Richard III’s “A horse! A horse!” monologue and then watching a student read it in an English class. There are marks to indicate some inflection, he said, but the only way to really know what a person meant was to watch them speak. If you sent someone a love poem written on a clay tablet, he said, they would be insulted.

What if you couldn’t get to them to deliver the poem in person? Laurent asked. M. Unishé said that you had no business courting someone you couldn’t meet in person.

Most of the lesson was spent like that. He knew we would have a natural curiosity about his people and he said he’d set aside the first lesson to give us a context in which to place the language.

Some other things I learned:

  • Family is very important—the family you’re in determines in part how you speak to others, which appeals to my Japanese side, and made me more optimistic for my research.
  • The males go on a hunt when they reach a certain age. It sounds like a rite of passage or something.
  • They have a big game event that he said was like our Olympics. I suppose that any culture has some kind of venue for the athletically inclined to show off. Hopefully it’s not a big part of family life so I won’t have to spend too much time on it. The idea of watching a bunch of sports excites me only when they’re human men. I have colleagues who love that kind of thing, one who’s written a series of books on the importance of sports in culture, and I’m happy to leave it to him. What will be interesting is how it fits into the culture if the society is indeed matriarchal, since it sounds like a male-only event.

Finally, he gave us a disc he made himself with videos for our home study. Posture would be more important than words in many cases, he said, and showed us several examples: how he would greet one of the mothers in his family (I missed the next one because after he said that, about thirty questions flew into my head and I had to stop myself from asking them all), how he would greet a fellow male at the hunt, and how he would greet anyone at the games if he were competing versus if he were greeting a competitor.

So much information! It is a full day of class, and I took about five pages of notes for my study. If all the Roux are this forthcoming (and speak French as well), then my study will be a breeze. I wish that were the case. I’m not terribly excited at the prospect of learning to contort myself into knots to express an idea. What’s wrong with words?

22.5.05

February 17, 2245

Jerome points out in an e-mail that some people reading this journal may not know about the Roux, and that I should provide a short introduction. I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who don’t know about the aliens discovered fifty years ago by the EUAA. Probably these are the same people who talk behind me in the cine, asking their neighbors or nobody in particular what the man on the screen just said, and whether the fellow with the long knife fighting him is a good guy or a bad guy. While I don’t feel particularly inclined to aid them in any way, I do realize that we discovered the Roux over fifty years ago, and that in the meantime there have been all kinds of other important events to steal away the public consciousness, like Madrigal Dumont’s reshaping surgery to resemble one of the twentieth century’s long-dead cine stars.

So here you go. If you don’t understand something, ask your neighbor.

Presumably you know about Crowell’s Drive, which allows vehicles to travel faster than light. If not, let’s just take it as a basic premise that we can travel to distant stars in generally about four months. In 2190, one of the EUAA’s automated probes returned pictures from a system around 20 Leo Minoris that showed not only life, but life capable of constructing buildings. We put together a mission and sent a team to the planet, arriving two years later.

For another two years, we studied the aliens to determine their level of intelligence. They look like dogs or foxes walking upright on their hind legs: their bodies are covered in short reddish-brown fur, and their anatomy indicates they were recently four-legged; in fact, there are several smaller species of four-legged animal who resemble them and turned out to be genetically as close to them as we were to the extinct chimpanzee. They range from four to five and a half feet tall, generally, and their society is currently at a Bronze Age level. We don’t know much more about it, which is why I want to go study it.

After two years of debates and discussions, we decided to approach them with extreme caution. We’ve established a base on the planet called Plymouth, but the Roux aren’t allowed inside except under special circumstances, and usually if they come in they have to stay inside. I think there are a couple dozen who work there now. Humans aren’t allowed out except, again, under special circumstances. There are about a dozen people conducting studies there on one topic or another, but only one conducting an actual field study, a zoologist trying to catalog all the different life forms.

Some of the Roux chose to leave their people and help the humans establish Plymouth, and when the first wave of humans came back from Plymouth, they brought three Roux back with them. (The name, by the way, comes from the French for “reddish brown.” Seems a little rude to name a species by the color of their fur, but then again, considering human history, entirely consistent.) All three Roux were male—apparently their genders match ours—and none of them particularly liked the spotlight. They were interviewed a few times, and then, as I mentioned, disappeared from the public eye.

If you search diligently, you can find public records that show that fifteen Roux have come to Earth in the past fifty years, and none returned to 20 Leo. At least, that’s what my source says. To be honest, I haven’t done the search myself. But tomorrow, I’ll meet at least one of them when my class starts.

15.5.05

February 16, 2245

It’s funny how you can make a series of decisions, each of which seems rational at the time, and end up at some completely strange place you never envisioned. Like this public journal. When I got the grant, Jerome and I stayed up late celebrating, and he said I should write down and publish my experiences. I said that was the whole point of the grant, and he said he meant more like a memoir. When I protested that I hadn’t written since that awful poetry back in college, he pointed out that a lot of people would be interested in knowing more about the Roux and about space flight, for that matter. Didn’t I wish there were more accounts to refer to?

When he put it like that, it made perfect sense. So before I know it, I’ve got this public journal, an oddly personal thing for a woman who never writes more words about herself than are needed on a bio sheet.

The grant was another odd result of rational decisions. From a perfectly logical bar bet in Marseilles six months ago, I am now newly arrived in Paris, ready for an intensive four-month course of study preparing me to visit another world after a three month journey—just over one year from bar bet to walking on an alien planet. One might almost say “the” alien planet, as there’s only the one for now. Only one with intelligent life, anyway, which is the only thing of interest to a sociologist. Rocks are pretty, but they don’t form very good families.

The bar bet: I was out with a few of my grad students, and one of them (hi, Antoine) started an argument about the physical traits of women affecting their roles in society. Rather than “start,” I should say he resurrected an argument, because he was just quoting an article he’d read by DuChamp, who was just repackaging ideas presented twenty years ago by Kinchin, etcetera. What the bet came down to was that DuChamp had said that there haven’t even been five matriarchal societies in all of history, and none of them have lasted long enough to be notable. I said that was rubbish, Antoine challenged me to prove it, and I came up with a list that included the Roux. He said they weren’t human and anyway, there was no proof they were matriarchal. I said I would find him a reference.

That proved trickier than I would have thought. I couldn’t even find the original article where I’d read they are matriarchal. The expatriate Roux on this planet are very closed-mouthed about their society, especially since the first ones to arrive, some thirty years ago, were not met very kindly.

Damn, that was going to be a link, but I can’t find that article any more, either. I read about it when I was a kid. Basically, there were three of them, and all the questions focused on how they were going to acclimate to Earth, as though they were some kind of primitive savages. No real interest in the worlds they came from. I think they were overwhelmed by the attention and ignorance. Think about it. If we were given the chance to visit the home world of some superior advanced alien, wouldn’t we expect them to be a bit more insightful than “Are you bewildered by all of our advanced technology?”?

I promised Jerome I wouldn’t let this degenerate into philosophical proselytizing too often, so I’d better stop there.

At any rate, without going into too much detail, I wasn’t able to back up my claim with any substantial research, but as it happened, the Académie had put out a call for proposals to do just that. I’d already sent out three proposals to other groups, as my current grant was about to expire, but I didn’t think any of them would get accepted. This proposed study was right up my alley—family structure in changing societies—and I was desperate for anything. Jerome thought it would be a kick if I ended up flying off to another planet. He said he’d come along and be my sherpa.

I had to hurry, but I managed to repackage my Antarctic families proposal (formerly the Mongolian families proposal) in time to meet the deadline. The Académie said my proposal was unique and “a breath of fresh air.” Mind you, these are the same people who approve a grant every five years for Dr. Genet in Mineralogy to do essentially the same research. But I’ll take what I can get, even if the most unique thing about it was their approval letter.

I’ve just arrived in Paris and am staying in the old students’ quarter, half a mile from the Seine and Notre Dame de Paris. I’m glad the university is back in Paris proper after its hundred years in the suburbs. Every other person I’ve met in the area comments on it. This being Paris, of course, the university has moved back into the same buildings it vacated in 2124. Nothing new is built in Paris proper; buildings are only renovated. Outside the suburbs continue to grow and change, 2050’s glass monoliths replaced by 2150’s open-space complexes and 2200’s “au naturel” styles, but the stones in the walls here in Paris are the same stones that Deculier walked past in 2131, that DeGaulle passed in 1964 and Bonaparte in 1804 and Marie Antoinette on a dark night in 1789.

I’ve not been to Paris since I was twelve, but everything I remember is still where I remember it, down to the crêpe vendor who sold me a chocolate crêpe eighteen years ago (remember, Mom?). By contrast, Marseilles, where I’ve lived for the past eight years, changes from month to month. Paris is also one of the few cities that doesn’t allow aircars in its boundaries, so people mostly use public transportation or walk.

Speaking of walking, I walked all around today, and I’m exhausted. My classes start Tuesday, so I’ll post then if not before.