Sunday, April 8, 2007

"The Next Tenants" (short story): Obsolating humans!

This is actually a rather well written doomsday story in the backdrop of World War II & atom bomb.

Story summary (spoiler).
On a lonely island somewhere in Pacific, a lone scientist is engaged in what could pass as a National Geographic story on social behavior of termites - only the real story goes a bit deeper.

Thinking on the lines that a human is essentially a colony of dumb cells, this man wants to make a smart termite colony out of dumb individual termites! Feeling hopeless about the future of humans, he wants someone to inherit our legacy - & super-termites fit his bill.

He breeds termite colonies, figures out ways of listening to their conversations, ordering them about, & teaching them. This teaching takes a form similar in spirit to that used by ETs against pre-humans in first story of Clarke's "2001 A Space Odyssey". He has also set up periscope type instruments that let him visually see what the individual termites are doing inside a colony - in infrared spectrum, of course, for termites don't like the light colors that we find interesting.

By the time the story unfolds, he has already taught them the use of certain tools - including a sledge for moving things around. He teaches to one colony, & other colonies learn via their mysterious communications. And they improve on these devices. He is about to teach them the use of fire; wheel is still a while away.

Will his super-termites ever stand a chance against humans - for a fight is inevitable in future: "what use would man's weapons be against an intelligent enemy who could lay waste all the wheat fields and all the rice crops in the world?"

There are many termite facts, at least some of which I know to be true - because I had done some research on termite behavior a couple of years back when they ate up some of my furniture; I am not sure about others. Here are some samples from this story:

  1. "They're among the most highly evolved of the social insects, & live in vast colonies throughout tropics. They cannot stand cold weather, nor, oddly enough, can they endure direct sunlight. When they have to get from one place to another, they construct little covered roadways. They seem to have some unknown and almost instantaneous means of communication, and though the individual termites are pretty helpless & dumb, a whole colony behaves like an intelligent animal."
  2. "they not only cultivate gardens but also keep cows - inset cows, of course - and milk them".
  3. "We went out into the open, and walked past the avenues of tall, cement hard mounds. They were not all of the same architectural designs, for there are many different kinds of termites - some, indeed, don't build mounds at all."
Interesting reading.

Fact sheet.
The Next Tenants, short story, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
Genre: Science fiction
First published: 1956
Rating: A

See also.
  1. Stephen Baxter's "Sheena 5": Humans genetically enhance squid for a certain use, & end up in a situation where they will probably be replaced with squid as dominant species!
  2. A minor sub-plot towards the end of "The Light of Other Days" claims that all organic life on earth is the result of benign push delivered by sulfur-based intelligent beings that existed on earth billions of years ago.
The story appears in the following collections.
  1. "Tales from the White Hart"
  2. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  3. "Across the Sea of Stars"

1 comment:

john_m_burt said...

"Tonight, I am going to give them fire."

A line which still gives me delicious chills.