J.S. Fields is here today with the final book in the Ardulum series, Ardulum: Third Don. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The planet wakes.
Atalant is torn between two worlds. In uncharted space, head of a sentient planet, the new eld of Ardulum now leads the religion she once rejected. Emn is by her side but the Mmnnuggl war brewing in the Charted Systems, threatening her homeworld of Neek, cannot be ignored. Atalant must return to the planet that exiled her in order to lead the resistance. She must return home a god, a hypocrite, a liar in gold robes, and decide whether to thrust her unwilling people into the truth of Ardulum, or play the role she has been handed and never see her family, or her world, again.
What’s J.S. favorite bit?
I’m a scientist.
And I’m back.
Although I spend a lot of time in real life, and in the ARDULUM series, talking about wood science (or the science of cellulose, specifically), I never really get a chance to talk about the other side of my job, which is…
Wait for it…
Not the kind that grow on your bread, or in your shower, or the black kind that everyone gets super bent out of shape about for no good reason (can someone please make one of those friendly spider memes for mold? Please?). I work with wood-decaying fungi which, as you might imagine, is sort of perfect since all the tech in ARDULUM is cellulose-based. So what better plot device, what better mass-panic-inducing organism, than a fungus that can literally eat the galaxy?
Fungi have always been a part of the Charted Systems and the Alliance, if somewhat subtly. The menagerie of genders presented in the series are each modeled after a species of fungus. Conveniently fungi present practically limitless options for gender and sexual reproduction, and aliens should be at least as diverse as fungi (our closest evolutionary friends, in terms of kingdom). But I didn’t just want to model gender in THIRD DON, I actually wanted to imagine what fungi, as sentient beings (that can communicate with us. I’m not saying current fungi aren’t sentient. Don’t come after me, mycophiles!) would look like, how they might move, and how they might communicate.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of space to get into the minutiae of sentient fungal mechanics, but I’m really pleased with the parts I did get to play with. How do fungi emote? If we give them more ‘understandable’ traits, a big one would be a large spore expulsion. Although not all fungi release spores in such a manner on Earth, it seems like a reasonable evolutionary trait to be able to aggressively shoot spores (especially foul smelling ones) at someone who is bothering you. The spores could be sticky, smelly, or rapidly come to life and continue attacking. What fun! And what a mess to clean up. One can imagine if extended negotiations were needed with sentient fungi, one would try to make sure tempers stayed cool.
Another big issue would be communication. Fungi communicate chemically, as do most living things, and also, in theory, through their extensive hyphal networks. For THIRD DON I tried to combine the two methods, by indicating that the sentient fungi used chemical signals, but in order to communicate in ‘Common’ with Atalant, rubbed their hyphae together to mimic speaking sounds. I assume the chitin content of fungal hyphae would need to be drastically increased to make the kind of noises needed to ‘talk,’ but hey, this is science fiction. You can take some things on spec, surely.
Finally, movement. Fungi capable of running a planet and interacting with bipeds need a way to locomote. And since this is an entire kingdom we’re talking about here, not just a species (like, say, Homo sapien), there needed to be some variation. So I selected across a broad group of fruiting forms, from the very recognizable stinkhorn fungi (specifically the ‘veiled lady,’ Phallus indusiatus), to the ascomycetes cup fungus elf’s cup (Chlorociboria spp.), to a fungus that has no known fruiting body nor common name: Scytalidium cuboideum.
Dragging seemed the easiest way to get around, and most fungi make hyphae, so across the board the fungi pull themselves along with braided hyphae. But to denote species differences, I got into the mechanics of each type. The veiled lady can detach their ‘veil’ and wave it around (or smack other beings with it) in anger, using hyphal ‘hands.’ Scytalidium cuboideum moves both through its mycelium, and through expulsion of pigment from its hyphae (in real life, the fungus makes a beautiful red pigment which is used in textile dyeing). The final fungus, elf’s cup, doesn’t do much unique with their movement, but since this fungus has been used for hundreds of years in Western Europe for dyeing wood intarsia and marquetry pieces, I wanted to make sure there was a nod to its expansive pigment production. Hence, every time the fungus is on something woody in THIRD DON (which is basically all the time), it injects a blue-green color into the wood, as well as leaves a trail of blue-green pigment in its wake. Like a car leaking oil, but prettier.
The sentient fungi of THIRD DON are mostly limited to one chapter, and play a very small role in the overall plot, but in many ways they were the most fun to write. A biped is a biped, especially in sci-fi, and especially if we want people to be able to relate to the character, but fungi…ah, we have such creative freedom with fungi! Genders and digestion and habitat and communication…really it’s a wonder there aren’t more sci-fi stories dedicated to their biology.
And maybe if there were, people wouldn’t be so terrified of the mold in their shower.
J.S Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. Fields enjoys roller derby, woodturning, making chainmail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, and pronoun indifferent. Always up for a Twitter chat.