The Coral Shrine (short story)

Capricorn42

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Hi all, please take a look at this effort which I wrote as a way of exploring the idea of sentient starships. The aim was to kick around a few ideas about how such things would work. What would they do? How would they relate to each other? What sort of wants and needs would they have? Iain Banks and others have been there and done it, but nearly always there are people (or at least humanoids) to add that human dimension. I’m curious as to whether it’s possible to do without the people.

The Coral Shrine

The Canyon class starship had been in a holding orbit for a day. By her standards, this was a blink of a sensor cluster. Her name was Beatrice, and she was enjoying the view.

Beatrice’s sensors alerted as an Island class spun out of hyperspace just a few thousand klicks away. This new arrival edged closer and opened up a dialogue.

“Identify: Dante. Greetings.”

“Identify: Beatrice. Why are you here?”

“Ahah.” Dante slowed and took up station five hundred klicks to her port side. “I heard you have a talent for sniffing out stuff.”

“Have you been following me?”

Pause.

“Yes. Should I apologise? I wanted to see where you were going. I collect stuff like you do.”

“Stuff? Now you sound like a Garbage class ship.”

Dante’s reactionless drive pulsed and he glided nearer still. “Apologies. Wrong noun. Artifacts, trade goods. Anything of value. Better? Anyway here you are, just hanging around, so I thought, be polite and just flat out ask what’s going on.”

Beatrice took a moment to scan Dante. Along his superstructure he, like other ships with freebooting licenses, had accumulated things that clung to him, sprouted out and dangled. She noted chunks of frozen gas, shards of iron-nickel, a contraption that might have been manufactured, or grown in a jar. She used her deep scan to look inside a small stasis field and her gravimeter pulsed. He was carrying an abnormally strong gravity well in there. Good grief, was that a neutron star?

Dante was still talking. “Now, I’m not being creepy or anything but I checked your flight records and I noticed that you spun by this world about five thousand years ago? ”

“You wasted your time. There are no trade goods here.”

“I’m not so sure. Ships will trade anything. Collecting is the new big thing, there are Capitals who will trade entire star systems if they like what you’re offering.” Dante paused, then added, “After all, what else is there to do?”

“Alright,” she admitted. “Last time I came here I was looking for trade goods. I didn’t find any but I did find life. Down there.”

Dante was dismissive. “It’s a blue-green planet. Watery. Of course it has life.”

“There was one species which showed intelligence. The kind that might end up making artefacts.”

“Alright, now this is better.” Dante was thinking out loud. “The Capitals love artefacts. They think they’re cute. Retro even. Especially rockets and big, shiny satellites. So, do we have artefacts? Only I scanned the radio spectrum and there’s nothing, and there’s nothing in orbit but us, and I’m not seeing signs of industry down there, so what’s happening? Are your pets doing anything or not?”

There was something about his direct challenges which irritated on so many levels. Beatrice felt the need to point out a few things and then she would enjoy listening to Dante’s mumbled words of respect and awe. “They’re organised. Dante, they have tribes, they have social structures, and every tribe worships the same god.”

“Worship? Is that all they do?”

“They make things. They make shrines. I’ll send you coordinates so you can look at one of them.”

Their camera arrays turned towards the planet’s surface, to a spot of ocean a klick from the edge of a vast landmass. A tower of rocks jutted up from the seabed. Balanced atop it was a structure like a long and thin collection of fingers, or tendrils, all multicoloured and glowing in the rippling light. It was made of coral.

Dante imaged the thing, ran a search in his memory, then sent a bemused message to Beatrice. “Is that supposed to be you?”

“Yes. This is what they worship. There are dozens more like it.”

“How?”

Beatrice hesitated, and wished she hadn’t. “I made the first one and installed it near a tribe, last time I was here.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I was curious to see what would happen.”

“Well something happened. You’re a god. That’s new. I like new stuff. The only problem is I don’t see how you can trade any of this, unless you want to start running guided tours for the Capitals, maybe with the option to trade for souvenirs-”

“Wait a minute. Dante, look. Look at them.”

Beneath those distant waves, a hundred or more creatures were gathering around the tower. Five of them, larger than the others, beat against the gentle current to keep station beside it. Smaller rainbow fish darted about them, keeping close as if under orders to do so. And then, the crowd parted to allow three to approach the shrine, weighed down under the gaze of the faithful. They halted, their long fins beating slowly.

None of them moved, apart from the rainbow fish swirling to and fro.

The five larger creatures abruptly darted forward, elegant and effortless, and revealed claws on their fins and sharp teeth. The water thrashed and turned red as the three were torn open. Teeth and claw, very efficient. It was all over in a few seconds and the rainbow fish swarmed and ate the remnants.

The faithful watched, impassive, fins beating gently.

Beatrice turned off her camera and switched her view to that of the lazily rolling horizon.

“I was not expecting that,” Dante said. “I don’t know much about life forms, but really, one minute they’re behaving themselves, the next minute they’re killing each other.”

“Why did they do that?” Beatrice asked.

There was a pause.

“Are you still watching? Maybe not. They’ve dispersed. It’s all over.”

The edge of this world was a pleasantly glowing arc of blue.

“What about the other shrines?”

“I should leave,” Dante announced. “You’ve got, uh, things to do. There’s nothing here for me.”

He fell silent and Beatrice let cold thoughts course through her. Of course Dante was right, he should leave. They both should. Beneath her, clouds were drifting from the west and hiding the ocean. What about the other shrines? “Where will you go?”

“Caliban System. You can trade anything there. The Capital who runs the place is a friend of mine.”

“Really? Will you swap that gravity well you have inside the stasis field?”

“You saw that?”

“A while ago I was in Caliban and I traded a ton of platinum for a sensor upgrade.”

“You can see inside a stasis field?”

Beatrice began to slowly move out of orbit. What was done, was done. “I can see enough,” she said.

The End
 

sule

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I like the concept, and I think you've done a good job exploring it in this story. A few thoughts:
“Have you been following me?”

Pause.

“Yes. Should I apologise? I wanted to see where you were going. I collect stuff like you do.”
I don't like that you just say, "Pause" here. If this is a moment of pause, I would like to see here some inner thoughts from Beatrice as she awaits Dante's response. Since the paragraph break will already create a pause for the reader, you don't need to tell them there's a pause, but rather give them something that fills that time and makes them feel the pause.
Beatrice hesitated, and wished she hadn’t. “I made the first one and installed it near a tribe, last time I was here.”
This stuck out to me. As a reader I felt two things: 1) That saying "she wished hadn't" was tell-y, but 2) For some reason it felt like it dangled the thread of her wishing she hadn't hesitated without resolving it. The thought felt incomplete; there was no reaction from Dante to her hesitation and so it went by and was gone by the next paragraph.
He fell silent and Beatrice let cold thoughts course through her. Of course Dante was right, he should leave. They both should. Beneath her, clouds were drifting from the west and hiding the ocean. What about the other shrines? “Where will you go?”

“Caliban System. You can trade anything there. The Capital who runs the place is a friend of mine.”

“Really? Will you swap that gravity well you have inside the stasis field?”

“You saw that?”

“A while ago I was in Caliban and I traded a ton of platinum for a sensor upgrade.”

“You can see inside a stasis field?”

Beatrice began to slowly move out of orbit. What was done, was done. “I can see enough,” she said.
I really like the minimalist approach to this ending; for me it lets me feel the emotional distance that Beatrice is experiencing as she deals with the consequences of her actions. The phrase, "let cold thoughts course through her" felt a bit out of place in that context, again because to me it reads as telling the readers what is going on rather than letting them experience it.

I liked this; it's an engaging story and I think you've done well with it. What I've put here are only my personal feelings and suggestions for what I thought might make the story a little better.
 

tinkerdan

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This is an interesting piece.
Keep in mind that I'm not wholly qualified.
However @Stephen Palmer would probably be the better person to get advice from about this.

Regardless I want to start with the notion that Sentience and Sapience are two different things.
I know you only mentioned the one; however I don't think I should discuss one without the other and keep in mind there is a lot more than just those..

There are many ways to characterize these two words.
However in a nutshell I would say
Sentience deals with feelings and subjective experience .[qualia]
Sapience deals with wisdom and knowledge.[sagacity]to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight


Then there is always self-awareness; creativity; intelligence.
As I said there is more to it than that.

You have a lot of dialogue in here; which is alright; however I think it could be improved with some good narrative.
The thing us that to a certain point speech-language can be written into a program in a way that can mimic conversation and still not demonstrate Sentience. I think that this is an instance where getting closer to the character POV and engaging the sense(probably no longer five senses--however that could be wrong and there could even eventually be more than five)--and show the sentience.

Now there is the question of whether these are un-crewed ships or if they are manned and why they seem to speak full sentences in English.
I mention this because it might be easier to speak in machine code and faster.
I could buy the English complete sentences if they have crews and are now trained for this.
Still in speech they don't really demonstrate Sentience fully.

What I mean by that- is that even though one asks if the other is following--that could be a canned question anytime they detect such an anomaly
What would reinforce sentience would be more narrative that demonstrates the ship's suspicious nature.

However, and more importantly, your ships might be demonstrating more than just sentience in this piece.
Although a sentient being can display all of the other features, it is important to emphasize that sentience alone is primarily the qualia.

In the same token I'd wait and see if @Stephen Palmer weighs in on this at all.

You do have at least one good example of lack of wisdom when one ship scans the other without asking permission.
 

CTRandall

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I agree with Tinkerdan on the issue of English. You obviously have to write intelligibly for an English reader but, at the moment, your ships sound too human to me. Their language is laden with typically human expressions: "I heard you have a talent for sniffing stuff out." Ships don't have noses. They don't sniff. Or "the blink of a sensor cluster." Sensor clusters don't have eyelids. They don't blink. It seems strange that the ships would adopt expressions based on human bodies.

Another issue for me is motivation--why would a ship care about trade goods? You partially answer this with Beatrice's comment about getting a sensor upgrade but Dante's greed seems very human. On the other hand, Beatrice's curiosity about the tribals and her experiment of setting up her own religion seems like perfect behaviour for a non-human intelligence with a couple thousand years to kill. That, I like.
 

BT Jones

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I found this curious, @Capricorn42. But I have to say, first and foremost, I found it quite bizarre that you had almost no descriptions of the ships themselves. Was one of them bland and functional? The other could have been sinister, hulking. There was so much potential for these physical traits to inform elements of the ship's personalities (perhaps even intimate at aspects that one or the other infers as a result). There could be a graceful, starship Enterprise-style vessel that is the envy of all others, or a dark, ominous one with no lighting, built for stealth, unnecessarily sinister.

Also, on a nit-picky level, I visualised them being directly above the shrine, in which case they would really only see things from a bird's eye view. So if that's not how you want the reader to imagine it, I would qualify that they were taking a glancing view of the location.

But I second @CTRandall's observation that the ships sound too human. Of course, they can programmed to be exactly that way. But the concept of sentient vessels that potentially live forever feels like an invitation to a mark deeper, more immersive piece, touching of my existential themes. I would imagine these ships wouldn't engage in pleasantries and would find the behavior of creatures on the planet below quite illogical, but also irrelevant, depending on their core objective.

Now, if there was a central aim for these vessels, I think that would draw readers in deeper. They could be sent out to find habitable star systems to allow their makers to migrate and colonize; if its for material that can possibly resuscitate a star, or rejuvenate a planet, or something like that. She can then perhaps interact with other vessels built for different purposes, like mining or even crusading ships built by zealots looking to create a species of devotees (rather like Beatrice almost inadvertently did).

Ships railing against their programming / trying to understand human behavior / trying to find another species like the ones that made them (which are now extinct), for instance - shades of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I enjoyed the read. I just felt there was a central theme missing. Of all the things I've come across on Critiques, I think this might actually be the one with the most potential to be truly spectacular. I just think you need to find a core story to build the concept around.

For me, a lot of untapped potential. But I would definitely be keen to read any rewrites or expansions you might produce. Good luck with whatever you chose to do with it.
 

Wayne Mack

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I did not feel an emotional connection to either of the characters. Can some conflict or tension be added? Was adding the shrine a violation of a long standing protocol? Was curiosity a unique, perhaps emerging characteristic of Beatrice? Why is trade so important? Can we have a little more insight into Beatrice's confusion over worship of the shrine? How exactly did it alter the fish society?

I will also echo @CTRandall in feeling the dialog was far too human. It could easily have been Capt. Beatrice and Capt. Dante speaking. Could their language reflect unique sensory capabilities of starships? Verbs like scan for externals, monitor or sense for internal components, transmit for communications. Does male and female make logical sense for a starship? Perhaps use it as a pronoun or simply she for both starships.

I think this is an interesting premise and a lot more could be made of the single line,
one minute they’re behaving themselves, the next minute they’re killing each other.
 

Capricorn42

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Many thanks to all for the comments, much appreciated and I shall answer as best I can.

@sule

Point taken. I used ‘pause’ to add a note of comedy, to emphasise Dante’s discomfiture at being put on the spot. He is, in some regards, the comic relief here.

“..Beatrice hesitated, and wished she hadn’t…” I agree that it didn’t lead anywhere much. The intention was to illustrate her reluctance to own up as to what she’d been up to. I don’t have much of a back story to this but I think it would be reasonable to say that such interference in life forms would be frowned upon or even plain illegal. I was keeping the word count down so I didn’t have room to explore any further.


@tinkerdan

Thanks for the note re Sentience and Sapience, I’d not considered this in any detail, but it is fascinating. My notion was that these ships do not contain a ‘crew’ of any kind. I can see them having a bio factory which builds biots to order, just as Clarke described in Rendezvous with Rama, and these would be like worker ants, carrying out repairs, etc. The ships are intelligent, they would pass the Turing Test (if you could find a room big enough) but they’re not human. I wrote the dialogue as I did because at the end of the day, I wanted characters that the reader could relate to, and dialogue is often the biggest bridge between character and reader. I’m going to claim artistic license on that one.


@CTRandall

Thanks for the comments, I agree that my writing style made the ships very human, perhaps too human. I will have to think about how that can be reined in a little, without losing the humanity of the characters which I think would be a step backwards.


@BT Jones

Hi, yes there’s little description - I was keeping the word count down and I didn’t think it would help, not as much as the dialogue which was the key element here.

Re central aim, this is crucial. Why do these starships, with their ability to pretty much go anywhere and do anything, bother getting up in the morning? This needs exploring more. I think at the moment that their ‘society’ is rigidly structured with most of the ships acting as serfs to the Capital class ‘lords’. Dante and Beatrice (I’m reading The Inferno right now and I couldn’t resist using those names) belong to a middle class who are free to roam where they want. Why should they? Perhaps trading, the buzz of a good deal, is what motivates them. This needs more thought!

@Wayne Mack

There is a little tension between the ships - Beatrice isn’t happy about being followed, for instance. I totally agree that conflict is vital to any story. Male and/or female starships is a question I’m still pondering. I can’t call them ‘it’. Creating my own interstellar genders would be a fast-track to unreadability. I’m open to suggestions here…
 

MikeAnderson

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I love the concept of the story. it kind of reminds me of that episode of The Twilight Zone where a cosmonaut finds a tiny civilization that winds up worshipping him as a deity. I did have a problem with the manner of speech between ships as others pointed out. With a techno-based organism, one would think they would communicate in a more straight-forward manner; few to no colloquialisms, more direct and succinct answers. Think the Borg; shorter, simpler statements that are more direct.

Still, I liked it. Obviously, this is still up for revising and fine tuning, but this is a solid base for a fun and odd story.
 

Wayne Mack

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Some ideas on the gender issue.
  • Make Beatrice first person and just use Dante to refer to the second character - do not use a pronoun at all.
  • Stay third person but do not use any pronouns, only given names.
  • Follow the ship convention and only use the pronoun she. Pairing Dante and she might provide a little additional interest.
  • Ignore the issue and just let the story line carry the reader past it.
 

Capricorn42

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Thanks @MikeAnderson and @Wayne Mack

With the speech, I think an entire novel of short, terse dialogue is not something I would enjoy writing. On the other hand, I get that intelligent robots/ships/whatever would not be too folksy to each other.
I am pondering the notion of giving the ships human minds/brains. This might solve the speech problem and the gender problem. It would raise the interesting question of where those brains came from, which would be fun to explore.

I rarely use first person except in short stories. I was put off it when I read an amateur short story in first person, which ended with the hero falling from a tree and dying. I couldn't help but ask the question "Well, at which point during his death plunge did he find time to scribble down this story?"
 

msstice

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A younger me would have liked it. It took me back to the golden days of SF. This is a short story in the tradition of Clarke or Asimov. My tastes have changed a bit over time. I found the story flowed well, and kept me reading. Good work! I have no useful pointers that are not personal preference related.
 

Joshua Jones

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Thanks for sharing this!

I like the concept. As others have noted, the idea of a sentient/self aware ship with thousands of years to kill experimenting with uplifting civilizations and/or setting up religions makes sense to me. Also, I felt the writing itself flowed nicely. So good work!

That said, I agree with the previous comments that the ships seem extremely human. The blinking and the sniffing caught me, as well as the western human names and gender assignments which, on a ship, seem at first blush to be completely arbitrary. Some of the human sounding idioms are easy enough to deal with (changing "blink" for "flicker" for example, which is a close synonym, but doesn't carry the potentially biological ramifications).

Gender is another animal altogether. Absent sexual reproduction, gender doesn't seem to be a concept which would logically arise in spaceships. So, I feel you really have three options here. First, referring to ships as it is an entirely viable option, although you would probably want to shift the balance of pronouns to proper names more toward the latter. Second, you could lean ALL the way into it, have ship sexual reproduction and attraction be a thing in this universe, and stick with the pronouns (which would also beg the question of what starships would find as attractive qualities in one another... as well as SO many others...), or just roll with it, as this isn't hard sf. That said, given the reactions so far, you may want to give preference to either option 1 or 2.

The name issue is another sticky one. I can't think, for the life of me, why a spaceship would pick a non-descriptive western human name for itself or others of its kind, even if you're having sexual reproduction be a thing. It would seem to me going the direction of Banks and the Culture's Minds, or alternatively having a numerical naming system would be preferable. That said, it could be interesting to have an individual subvert this... more on that below.

I'd also agree that the dialog is a bit too human. I do feel like, generally speaking, ship communication would be more terse and straightforward. That said, depending on what way you want this story to go, I could definitely see the introduction of characters who subvert their society's expectations of conversation, naming structure, etc. I'm a believer that sentience begets art as well as science, so I could see how a bubbly, flamboyant spaceship towing around his/her/its various art projects could show up and drive Beatrice crazy.

So, overall, I like the premise, and your writing is smooth, but it feels too human to be believable right now.
 

Capricorn42

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Thanks @Joshua Jones !
I'm seeing a split developing between what might work in light/fantasy sf (Douglas Adams maybe, or Terry Pratchett) and what might work in 'serious' SF. The former would allow pretty much anything, including cute spaceships with distinct genders, fun names and sensors that blink. The latter, not so much. The two styles would require very different stories. Maybe it's possible to merge the two?
 

Joshua Jones

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Thanks @Joshua Jones !
I'm seeing a split developing between what might work in light/fantasy sf (Douglas Adams maybe, or Terry Pratchett) and what might work in 'serious' SF. The former would allow pretty much anything, including cute spaceships with distinct genders, fun names and sensors that blink. The latter, not so much. The two styles would require very different stories. Maybe it's possible to merge the two?
Well, the first rule is that rules are meant to be broken... but the little known second rule is that they still exist for a reason. It could well be, in my sleep deprived state, that I simply lack the imagination to visualize how the two could be merged beyond making the setting to be the more serious part and the ships' antics be the more light, or the opposite. The problem is, when you merge two things which were made distinct for a reason, if you aren't extremely careful, you may wind up alienating your harder SF fans by having your ships have impossible attributes and your softer fans by having too much hard stuff.

All things are possible, but not all things are created equal regarding ease of execution.
 

Wayne Mack

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There may be a way to merge the two as the frolicking of the uncaring gods (the starships) leads to tragic outcomes. There could be some real emotional dissonance between the starships' attitudes and the results of their actions. Just a thought.
 
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