Editor's Note: "The Mammoth Steps" was originally published December 02018 in Terraform. This story and others like it can be found in Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn. "Talking to Terrestrials" was originally published July 02021 on WorldWeaverPress.com.
Introduction: Talking to Terrestrials
It’s very clear—from science, from anecdotes, from viral videos on the Internet—that humans share this planet with alien intelligences. I don’t speak of skrulls or reptoids, of course, but of dogs, dolphins, apes, whales, corvids, cats and elephants. And countless others, animals with their own subjective inner lives, with opinions, desires, emotions and even language.
And yet, where is the highly funded, intergovernmental, Arrival-esque research effort to establish meaningful communication with these terrestrial alien minds? Plenty of science is done on animal communication, but nothing on the scale of what’s depicted in blockbuster movies and sci-fi novels as a natural response to encountering beings from outer space. We giddy at the thought of universal translators—they’re in everything from Star Trek to Marvel movies to Barbarella—but we seem disinterested in applying such a device to the non-humans already on our planet.
I don’t want to dwell on why this is—our speciesism, our anthropocentrism, the artificial hierarchies we create to set ourselves apart from other kinds of minds—but rather propose a sci-fi “what-if.” What if our priorities were different? What if, instead of using Big Data to optimize social media ads, we used that enormous computational power to interpret the sounds, signs, and body language of animals? What if, instead of automating weapons of war, DARPA and similar used artificial intelligence to create tools of connection? What if our schools taught us how to listen—with our ears, eyes, nose and touch—to beings who don’t look like us but nonetheless likely have something interesting to say?
Some of this hypothetical backgrounds my story “The Mammoth Steps.” In it, translation technology and norms of interspecies communication make possible a deep friendship between a boy, Kaskil, and a de-extincted mammoth, Roomba. More than that, they create a world in which Roomba is not a pet, not confined or controlled or enslaved, but rather has the agency to pursue his own dreams and desires. He, with Kaskil’s help, journeys across the human world, and he is mostly left alone, allowed to live his own life, go his own way. It is merely science fictional flare to tell this story with a mammoth, rather than a chimp or a beluga or an African elephant.
In our “what-if” scenario, it is not hard to imagine that interspecies communication tech doesn’t just empower humans, but empowers non-humans as well. Imagine visiting a city where everyone speaks a foreign language. You see things that interest you—museums and shops and public transit and restaurants—but you can’t express that interest to the locals, can’t even get them to let you in the buildings. But with our translator, all that is changed! Is it so hard to imagine that with real communication, rather than reward-and-punishment training under regimes of animal captivity and slavery, some non-humans could similarly become flourishing parts of our civilization, perhaps our cities? Could even, with the right technological assistance, do jobs, get paid, rent apartments, participate in the economy, enjoy leisure, express opinions, create art?
We don’t know what’s really possible here. We lack the civilizational priorities to find out. We don’t know how much of any consciousness is instinctive and how much is learned, relational, materially constructed. We can train elephants to paint, and chuckle at their little drawings, feel impressed that an animal could do this, while also feeling safe in knowing that it will never compare to great human art. But we have never let an elephant go to art school, never created the material and social conditions for elephant art to unfold over generations.
In my “Mammoth Steps” what-if of translation apps, visual talking boards, and touchscreen interface balls, humans and animals have started to explore what might be possible. Working together to care for the environment? Yes. Non-human freedom of movement across a whole continent? Within reason. Clothes and healthcare to bring comfort to those with different bodies? Worth trying. Shared politics, economics, communities? Contentious, but we’ll never know until we try.
The Mammoth Steps
In his young days, Kaskil would hide from Roomba in the tall, chilly grass. He crouched down, stifled his laughs, listened for the slight crunches of Roomba’s great feet compressing the ice and soil. Kaskil knew Roomba could track him by scent, but the old mammoth humored him, played along, pretending to be confused, trunk swishing the steppe grasses right over Kaskil’s ducked head. When Roomba looked away, Kaskil would jump up and sprint off to a new spot. On they went for hours, criss-crossing the tundra until the sun got low and the deep cold crept in, and Kaskil would climb up Roomba’s clumped fur and doze there in the musky warmth as the mammoth carried him home.
Kaskil’s family moved with mammoths across the Siberian grasslands, paid by the carbon traders to play doctor and ambassador for these new-old beasts. The mammoths needed Kaskil’s commonage for their nimble hands and rapport with the Yakut towns, where young calves often found trouble raiding sun-swollen vegetable gardens. Humans needed the mammoths to roam, to compact and scrape away the snow that kept the cold of winter from penetrating the deep soil, and to spread the seeds of grasses that would insulate the permafrost from summer thaw. And, more each year, the humans needed the mammoths for their sly humor and bitter milk.
Roomba was the oldest mammoth traveling with the commonage, one of the first born of de-extinction splicing. Unlike the younger generation, which romped and piled together in complex socialities, Roomba had few peers. Humans were his company, and Kaskil, who he’d known since birth, was his favorite. Kaskil, for his part, couldn’t imagine life without the mammoth. Kaskil rode him when the commonage travelled, did chores with him, read his studies aloud sitting in the crook of Roomba’s forelegs. And sometimes he noticed when Roomba stopped and stared south, trunk raised to smell the wind.
Kaskil wanted to ask Roomba what was wrong, but such an abstract question posed a challenge. Roomba knew Kaskil’s body-language, recognized many words and gestures, and likewise could signal his feelings and opinions with a nod or trunk swing, a trumpet or harrumph, or the thrumming infrasonic rumbles that Kaskil’s phone registered as pictographs or emojis. But the syntax of longing was beyond the capacities of their translator app; it would be another generation, Kaskil’s father said, before they had enough language data to train their algorithms to fluency.
So instead they played with a projected talking board, gathering clouds of concepts. Camp and family danced together into home. Where, walk, and want were counterveiled by fear. Finally Roomba’s trunk tapped on a loop of gifs representing mammoths before mammoths.
Kaskil started when he got it; he searched up videos of elephants, played them on the canvas tent. Roomba nodded, waggled his head, dug his tusk into the snow in excitement.
The commonage had no hold on Roomba; the old timer could go where he liked. But Kaskil was only fourteen, with fretful parents. Still, they knew the bond the two shared, and were grateful to Roomba for helping raise their son. After a week of Kaskil’s begging, they relented, and they helped pack saddle bags for the long journey.
At first it was much like one of their camping trips, but the days counted on and the trees grew thicker. Below the arctic circle it was slower going. They wound half-abandoned logging trails connecting the mushroom towns that foraged fungal delicacies for far-off luxe provision houses. Occasionally there was no trail south, and they forced their way through, Roomba pushing aside trees, the ground made soft by permafrost thaw.
In Ulaanbaatar they enquired after the trains that crossed the Gobi south to the industrial wonderlands of Shaanxi and Chengdu. But the trainmasters balked—Roomba was much too big, they said, to fit in the sleek compartments. Kaskil hailed at trucks, but the automated rumblers were always too full to stop for them.
So on they walked, into the desert, begging water from the seeps where the solar painters camped. Winter had turned to spring, and the sun was hot in the sky. Roomba’s wool matted with sweat. His feet dragged in the sand. One day he would not leave the shade of their tent. Kaskil went to the painters, snapping together black tiles, and borrowed shears and an ancient, shaking shaver. All day he cut at Roomba’s fur, tossing the chestnut curls in feathery piles.
The next day Roomba danced and charged with relief, Kaskil laughing at his friend’s ridiculous haircut. They made good time, but by the afternoon they realized their mistake. Under the wool Roomba’s flesh was delicate, unaccustomed to the sun. He pinked and burned, and began to trumpet with discomfort.
Kaskil again begged help from the painters. Taking pity on Roomba, they offered salve, but this was a temporary fix. Then a dusty wind gusted the camp, and Kaskil saw the painters pull robes over their faces. The white sheets, which wrapped the solar tiles, snapped and fluttered. Kaskil had an idea. For a week he attended Roomba as a tailor, measuring with his phone and following patterns projected from a stitching site. When Roomba’s sunburns had peeled, Kaskil dressed him in the white robe, and off again they went.
Walking along the busy Chinese highways, Roomba was a strange sight. In the cities children crowded around him, taking pictures and tugging at his robes. Kaskil and Roomba marveled at the chromey towers and ivy statues. They’d seen pictures, of course, but up close each city seemed grander than the next.
But the alleys were too narrow for Roomba’s bulk, and often they waited hours in bicycle gridlock. More than once officials hassled them out of parks, and old women scowled at the crates of food they took from provision houses. So much of the land was terraced crops, and the farmers did not like Roomba grazing.
They followed the Jinsha River south, both splashing in often to escape the heat. Summer was coming, and the commonage would be roaming north to the grass beaches of the Kara Sea. Kaskil messaged his parents every night, but still he missed them. He wanted to hear Russian and Sakha, not these unfamiliar languages, parsed awkwardly by his translator. The quiet, playful presence of the mammoth was a comfort, but there too was an otherness, a difference bridged by solidarity but not quite by understanding.
And Roomba, Kaskil thought, must have his own doubts and loneliness—the only mammoth for a thousand miles. Why make this trip to see the elephants? Roomba was spliced from elephant genes, born from an elephant womb. But what did that mean for a mammoth? What question could provoke such a journey, here at the sunset of his massive, new-old life?
The subtropics turned to tropics, and on they walked, until they began to pass gilded shrines where monks served milky curry. Everywhere was the image of the elephant: on flags and logos, as statues and painted murals. But, where were the elephants? Missing.
Missing too were the selfie-mobs and rubberneckers they had gathered in the northern cities. Here the humans they passed shied away—furtive glances and upset muttering. Once a nun approached them from a shadowed stall, asked if they bore instructions or news from the front. She fled when Kaskil betrayed their confusion.
Finally they found a bored constable, pestered her to explain. It’s all politics, she said, both nervous and dismissive. Thai elephants demanding money and land, accommodation and autonomy, freedom from electric fences and ear hooks; Thai humans reacting badly, not wanting a change in the order, terrorizing demonstrations with chili sprays and angry bees. Here, not so bad, she said, but they should be careful further south, where the elephants retreated and seized Phuket.
Kaskil told Roomba the news as best he could, and asked his friend if they should stop. Roomba looked north, raised his trunk to smell the wind, but then he shook his massive head, kept walking. To avoid attention they slept by day, travelled by night. They ate at temples, which stayed neutral in the dispute. Miles melted by in eagerness for a destination.
Sarasin Bridge was barricaded by protesters, a blockade of supplies to the occupied island. The crowd shrunk back as they approached—a strange-looking boy atop a huge-tusked, white-clad creature, more massive by half than the elephants they knew. But there was no getting through. Kaskil’s heart dipped with frustration and sorrow, and he knew, in the heavy rumble of his friend beneath him, that Roomba felt the same way.
Then, in a rush, the nuns holding the Phuket side moved forward, surrounded Roomba with linked arms. Smiling at the mob they escorted Kaskil and Roomba across.
The pair could hardly believe it. They thanked the nuns, Roomba bowing low to the earth. They had finally arrived.
Phuket now was different than the mainland. Elephants roamed the streets, lounged in squares. Some worked with allied humans constructing elephant-sized buildings, communicating with script and hieroglyphs, drawn with trunks in the sand or on touchscreen beach balls. When Roomba rumbled at them, they seemed amused.
A procession formed, and the elephants led Roomba to the beach. Kaskil dismounted and sat in the warm sand, watching his friend touch the ocean. It had been worth the journey, he thought, to see this meeting: free elephants and a free mammoth, both new-old in their own ways, at the end of a long life and the start of a new way of living.
The elephants were oddly small next to the mammoth’s bulk. They disrobed Roomba, felt his splotchy, shaven wool with their trunks. Then, as a herd, they plunged into the surf. The old mammoth stepped south, and swam.
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