The People of Pele

Original Post: 1 June 2012
Posted Here: 4 December 2017

swirled quartz crystalThe People of Pele was a fascinating short story by Ken Liu in the February 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. One plot element involved the discovery of a crystalline form of life on a planet, Pele, being colonized by humans.

I am posting the information about these life forms that I gleaned from the story, and some questions that I have about them and their life cycle, because of my interest in a definition of life.

Pele is an Earth-like planet whose atmosphere is 15% oxygen. It is dominated by polar and equatorial highlands with relatively flat plains between them. Oceans do not exist, but large lakes are found in the plains. The crystals, which range in size from several meters across to the size of fingernails, are shaped to be moved by wind or water: tubes, spheres, wheels, bowls. Prevailing winds blow the crystals from west to east in the plains. (Q: Can you imagine the wind that would be required to roll a spherical boulder which is a few meters (9 feet) in diameter?)

The “life cycle” of the crystals, which is dependent on the planet’s geological cycles, is as follows:

Crystals blow from west to east into lakes and sink to the bottom.

Crystals become covered by silt which is then compressed and hardens into porous, soft rock.

A geological period of volcanic activity releases acids (carbonic, sulfuric, hydrochloric) into the air and these get into the water.

Acidic water dissolves the crystals until hollow holes remain where the crystals used to be.

The period of volcanism ends and, as acids are neutralized, minerals in the water crystalize, filling the holes and reforming the crystals. These crystals are not exact replicas of the originals because of impurities, different mineral content, geological deformation, etc. (Q: What chemicals would  co-crystalize and be subject to such a cycle?)

A glacial geological period’s freeze-thaw cycles bring the crystals to the surface to start the cycle again.

As the crystals are moved by the wind, patterns of fine lines are formed on the surface, probably as the result of abrasion and erosion. These change the electrical patterns within the crystal and can serve as a kind of memory. (Q: A memory of what? Would the silt and its change to the soft, porous rock actually preserve any of these lines, especially over geological time periods, and would the filling of the hollow by recrystallization recreate them?)

Other assertions about the crystals:

Each crystal is a highly organized, complex structure. (Q: Since the crystalline structures are not normally complex, and the shape of the hollow would have no affect on the crystalline structure, how does this happen? The organization produces what behavior?)

Crystals grow. (Q: Do they get larger than the hollow or just to refill it?)

Crystals move. (Q: Do they move on their own or are they just blown by the wind?)

Crystals consume and transform energy through piezoelectricity, pyroelectricity and thermoelectricity. (Q: What transformation of energy occurs besides the simple “consumption” of mechanical or thermal energy and its “transformation” to light energy? Does this flow of energy do anything to or for the crystal?)

Crystals reproduce. (Q: Does the process fill the hollow like a geode, or does a seed grow to fill the hollow? What are the odds that a hollow would persist in soft, porous rock through geological time periods? What are the odds that the minerals that fill the hollow would produce a crystal with any of the properties, other than the approximate size and shape, of the previous crystal?)

Composition: Crystals and quasicrystals of silicates, with a mix of various metals like potassium, iron, scandium, and various lanthanides. Specks of metal are found on some of the lines “etched” into the surface. (Q: How soluble would these silicates be in acid. Glass, a silicate, is more soluble in base than acid. Q: How did specks of metal get there and why aren’t they oxidized away?)

The crystals have evolved, as shown by their overall circular body plan. Those that don’t move easily don’t get to participate in their “life cycle.”

Other questions raised by the story:

Jenny Ouyang, a Biologist, is attempting to convince others that the crystals are alive. One demonstration involves her striking a crystal and its response. What is the significance of Jenny’s banging on the crystal a sequence of 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 strokes, and of the linear (I presume) response of 1, 2, 3,…13 flashes? If Jenny had banged out 1, 2, 3, 5 strokes and the crystal responded with 8, 13, 21 flashes (the Fibonacci Series), that would have been significant!

If the crystals are conscious over geological time spans, what are they conscious of? How can they be aware of anything but the tumbling they receive as they blow along?

What, if anything, do crystals communicate to other crystals? Can they “see” the flashes produced by other crystals?

Can they only communicate as they move (or as they absorb thermal energy via their pyroelectric or thermoelectric properties)?

Do they use energy to organize information or themselves or are they just passive recipients?

If the crystals are “alive,” are they analogous to bacteria, sponges, invertebrates, or vertebrates? Where are they on the path to consciousness and intelligence? i.e., Why are they called “The People of Pele”?

Doesn’t Pele have plate tectonics? If it does, what would this do to the crystals’ life cycle?

Doesn’t crystalline structure depend on the temperature, concentration and composition of minerals in the water, as opposed to the size and shape of the hollow in which the crystal “grows”?

How does the attrition rate of the crystals compare with their rate of formation? Nothing was said about how these crystals form or what circumstances prevent their reproduction. Significant barriers to reproduction would include every gully that they can’t get out of and the rivers whose waters feed those spawning ground lakes. Flowing water bashes rock against rock, making smaller rocks from bigger ones (“killing” the crystals) and grinding off the surface (removing those fine lines which are supposed to contain memories.) Wouldn’t the number who successfully navigate the maze of gullies and rivers be likely to be rather small, requiring a large rate of spontaneous generation just to maintain a stable population? However, no crystals other than those already evolved to circular shapes were seen. So the rate of spontaneous generation must be very low. Pele must have had a geological period in the distant past in which spontaneous generation was much higher than now, so that the crystals formed then could evolve to the large numbers seen at the landing site.

Since the rate of spontaneous generation is now low to nonexistent, how long would it take for the crystals to become extinct? Evolution to the current population of circular crystals involves survival of circular crystals and loss of maladapted ones, implying a population shrinking by attrition. Also, since the reproductive cycle of these crystals does not increase their number, every time any crystal fails to be reproduced, the population decreases. The crystals, alive or not, will eventually become extinct until that apparently rare episode of spontaneous generation provides new crystals.

As I said, “The People of Pele” was a fascinating story. It’s given me much food for thought.

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack