The Appearance of the Diophel (an alien race)

These are one of the many alien species inhabiting the SF setting I’ve been going on about recently. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with this – whether I might introduce more species in this way, or go on to talk about diophel culture and whatnot. But I thought I’d share it, in case anyone was interested…


Natural Appearance and Faculties

Diophel do not all represent a single species. There are in fact eight species of diophel, which may be called A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H. Species B comprises two distinct subspecies, B1 and B2, and Species F comprises three subspecies, F1, F2 and F3 – although in modern times, interbreeding between the subspecies has blurred these distinctions, creating intervening populations of B1/2, F1/2, F1/3, F2/3, and F1/2/3. In general, species cannot interbreed, although some combinations can produce infertile offspring; the exception is the B/E pairing, which frequently (though still not commonly) can produce offspring capable of reproducing with other B/E hybrids or with E. Finally, A, B1 and D all have long-established extensive distributions, with marked ‘racial’ differences in phenotype, which in the case of D can be more striking that the differences between some species.

As a result of this genetic diversity, it is not possible to give a simple account of many of the details of diophel appearance. Nonetheless, a basic form is common to (almost) all diophel (the species all being closely related). It is also worth noting that the species are not all equally numerous – around half of all diophel are A, with B1, C and D comprising most of the remainder. E, F (1, 2 and 3), B2 and G are all far less common, and H are particularly rare.

Diophel are bipedal. Heights generally range between seven and nine foot, although G diophel can be as short as six foot (and of course unusually short or unusually tall individuals do exist with specific medical conditions). General diophel physique is broad-bodied but somewhat gaunt, and not particularly muscular. Diophel arms, unlike those of humans, are longer than their legs; diophel legs have both a ‘normal’ knee and a lower knee that bends in the opposite direction (effectively they are digitigrade, and this additional ‘knee’ is in fact an ankle; diophel feet are small and padded, and the four functional toes have hoof-like nails, though these are not actually used for locomotion; two purposeless but enervated residual toes can be found between the foot and the ankle). The diophel neck is also unusual to a human observer, being both a little long and very muscular.

The diophel head and face are broadly familiar. The snout is short, but longer than that of a human, and the face is ‘long’, with a low chin (though at the front of the snout the chin itself slopes back rather than pointing out). There is no distinct nose, though there are nostrils at the front of the snout (forming the most protruding part of the face) and a second set along the snout. At the top of the snout (though there is no abrupt stop) are the two large, yellow, brown or green eyes. These eyes appear to be in deep orbits, ‘eyesockets’, that are too wide for them – the centre-ward side of the eyeball is against the edge of the socket, but the outer side is instead protected only by cartilage, with about an inch of empty socket before the bony edge of the orbit. Female diophel have ears on the sides of their heads, quite high up, which take the form of bevelled horizontal grooves.

The most striking feature of the diophel head, however, is what’s on top of it. For males, that’s the crown. The crown has two parts – the pedestal and the horns. The base is a large bony mass covering much of the top of the head, down below where the ears would be on a female (in fact, the ears are still there on the males, but their entrance is blocked up by the downward growth of the pedestal). The horns are extremely impressive. Their number and exact arrangement varies with race, subspecies and species, as well as to a lesser extent with individual – the basic prototype is for ten horns, arranged more or less in two lines of five near the top of the head, one to the right and one to the left, from fore to aft, but in some one or more of these horns may be forked near the base, or may have joined together, or may be vestigial. In any case, the horns typically have a ‘heart’, ‘kite’ or ‘brilliant-cut’ outline when seen from the front – the horns rise almost vertically but sloping slightly outward for most of their length, before curving inward near the top. The same is broadly true when seen from the side – the horns splay outward but curve inward again nearer the top – though this profile is much more variable. Each horn is generally narrow, and does not twist, and has a sharp point. The horns are smooth, and show alternating white and black bands. In all forms of male diophel, the horns typically add at least a foot in height, usually two, and in the A, D and H subspecies they add three to four feet (sometimes more for H). In the (most numerous) A species, the horns are quite close together fore-to-aft and quite vertical; the second horn (from the front) forks into two at the base, the third and fourth are conjoined at the base by a connecting ridge of horn, and the fifth horn is very short, and usually blunt.

Females do not have a full crown, but they do have a substitute ‘coronet’ – the same horn arrangement as the male (though in A females the second horn does not fork), but the horns are only inches long, and typically blunt, and the pedestal is much smaller than for the male, and does not obstruct the ears.

Diophel skin is largely white-grey and slightly waxy in appearance, with darker spots and patterns. The details vary considerably – in many races, the darker patches are almost indiscernable in colouration, merely a slight shading effect, while for others the dark patches may be entirely black. Likewise, for some the dark colouring is in small spots, and for others it is in large patches – in the case of H and some ‘pure’ B2, it may even cover the majority of the skin. In all races, the paler parts of the skin may have slight blue or purple flushes in places where the skin is thinner and better-served by blood vessels – around the genitals, the hands, or on the face. The skin inside the ‘eye-sockets’ is black, as are the lips, and the genitals are also black, or dappled white-grey and black. The other colour found on diophel is red, or sometimes red-orange. This is found on a tougher type of skin, with a velvety texture, which can be found on the backs of the hands, the feet, the shins and around the knees, the elbows, shoulderblades, the base of the spine, the nape of the neck, the pedestal, and in thin strips along the ‘cheekbones’ at at the tip of the snout around the nostrils. The exact distribution can vary with race.

Reproductive anatomy in diophel is conventional – males possess a penis that is inserted into the vagina of the female, located more or less between the legs. The penis is rigid at all times, containing a bone, but when unaroused is held flat to the abdomen; it is protected inside a sort of natural codpiece of the tougher red-velvet skin, which splits into two parts along its length and opens when the male is aroused to allow the penis to exit. Females give birth, after a long gestation, to young with fully-formed digestive systems, so there is no need for any specialised feeding apparatus.

Tool use among the diophel is primarily by means of the hands, which are broad, strong, and long-fingered. There is a long thumb also. Manual dexterity, however, is far from excellent, due both to lack of flexibility and in liberties of motion of the digits and in their broad nature and relative lack of enervation (compared to those of humans). A secondary manipulator is the tongue – a magenta colour, it is able to protrude between five and ten inches from the mouth, and is prehensile. However, the tongue is also fairly thick, and has even more limited dexterity than the hands. It is commonly used for grabbing and orienting food, for providing an additional grasp when completing tricky tasks, and for exploration by touch due to its superior enervation (and taste receptors – the taste receptors on the tongue can respond to particularly noxious stimuli without even needing to touch them, which together with the length of the tongue helps prevent inedible substances from even reaching the mouth).

The primary sense used by diophel is sight, and the eyes are sizeable, and functional even in low light conditions. Diophel have a sensitive faculty of taste, but a poor faculty of smell, at least in terms of its acuity, and so they use their tongues to investigate things that a human might sniff. They of course have a faculty of touch, although their relatively thick skin makes this somewhat insensitive. Females have good hearing – less acute than a human’s, but with more precise locational awareness. Males unfortunately are more or less deaf, due to the excessive growth of their crowns cutting off the entrance to their ears – which before modern medicine also lead to many dangerous, even fatal, infections of the sealed ear cavities, and in particular to a widespread syndrome of chronic head pain with auditory hallucinations. However, males are not wholly deaf – they can hear particularly loud noises, and some low-pitched sounds (indeed, resonance in the crown leaves them able to hear many low-pitched sounds that are inaudible to females), and can sometimes hear by touching their horns to a vibration-transmitting object (the ground, for instance). Some have even bored holes through the crown to allow sound in – but with the evolution of deafness has come the atrophy of their auditory apparatus, and even with boreholes the male sense of hearing is limited.

Broadly speaking, diophel are not strong for their size – although their size inevitably does lend them strength, and in particular the strength of their seemingly wiry arms should not be underestimated, thanks to their unusual length. They are not particularly fast either, and have poor acceleration. Their physique is oriented more toward long-term stamina and health (they are not, however, equipped for extended intensive effort – they would do very poorly in a marathon – but rather for long-term repeated low-intensity exertion).

Females are on average slightly taller and noticeably more muscular than males – though they appear far less imposing, thanks to the lack of long horns, which for some males may be an entire third of their total apparent height. The weight of these horns (which is less than might be imagined, as they are almost entirely for display and surprisingly fragile) leads to males having rather more muscular necks than females.


Modifications to Appearance

Diophel have a long tradition of ornamental body modification, particularly for males. The details, however, vary widly between different cultures. The one near-constant is the practice of fenestration, in which the genital pouch is cut through. It is not entirely clear why this is so deeply ingrained: one theory is that it is simply for sexual display, and certainly the ornamentation of this area does seem designed to attract attention (although the more flamboyant early-space-age fashions of coloured strobing lights are now rarely followed); alternatively, as with genital mutilations in many cultures in many species, it has frequently been seen as a rite of passage demonstrating bravery and maturity; or it may simply, as modern doctors suggest, be a matter of hygeine, increasing airflow to prevent infections. In any case, the practice is almost a universal, although the details vary widely – often highly elaborate patterns are cut, leaving only a delicate ‘lacework’ of skin remaining.

More controversial but still widespread is the practice of polling – cutting the horns of males. This can be partial – sawing off the tips of the horns – or complete, removing the horns altogether, sawing down to the base of the crown. These have traditionally had very different connotations. Partial polling has been most associated with some of the more warlike cultures, as it increases the practicality of many activities for males and mimics battle-injuries. A minority of cultures practice partial polling of all horns, while others practice partial polling of only one or two horns. Certain types of partial polling correctly performed may also encourage greater horn growth. Complete polling can symbolise either feminisation or infantilisation; it has primarily been associated with authoritarian social structures, both matriarchal and patriarchal, in which young males are reduced to a sub-person state through ritual polling (in the case of patriarchies, often through castration also), but it has also been practiced in some matriarchal cultures to allow males to adopt female (i.e. military and authoritative) roles. Complete polling is rare at present.

Most adult males practice some form of orbital piercing, where the outer bone of the orbit (the over-large eyesocket) is drilled through. In some cultures this creates one or more large fenestrae, while in others it merely creates a thin hole. These piercings are often used to anchor rings, plugs, or other ornaments. This can sometimes be seen on females also, but less commonly. This is the only common place for piercings, other than the genitals (of both sexes, but particularly of the male), where it is uncommon but not abnormal, and the ear-covering pedestal area in males, where it is currently abnormal but not unknown, and has a considerable history. More widespread is the practice of transdermal implantation, in which small studs with their faces exposed have their tails anchored under the skin, generally to create some geometric pattern. Some degree of implantation is the norm for males, and not rare among females, with a few cultures practicing more extensive implantation covering much of the body. Finally, scarification was historically popular for females in more militaristic cultures, and sometimes even for males, but extensive scarification is now rarely seen. Small, symbolic scars are still often given to females as coming-of-age markers.

Outside of a few historical cultures in the coldest extremes of their homeworld, diophel have no extensive cultural tradition of clothing. Clothing has of course been worn for particular occupations for safety or convenience; in particular, protective armour of various kinds has been worn, and in some cultures this military dress has even been found outside of combat itself – but even there, this clothing was more a ritual display for formal occasions than a custom of daily life.

Four items of clothing are common, however: hats, belts, bracers, and shoes. Shoes are a matter of practicality – the pads of diophel feet are well suited to a variety of terrains and walking speeds, but shoes help prevent cuts and infections. They typically take the form of sandals. Belts likewise caught on for reasons of practicality, allowing goods to be carried easily – they tend to be thin and lightweight. Diophel do not generally like covering up skin if they can help it, as they are prone to overheating, and to sweat-fed skin infections, if they do. Bracers are a ceremonial item of clothing traditionally worn only by females, though in some cultures males have also adopted them – they tend to be worn only in relatively formal circumstances. They are the last vestige of old military garb, the protective sheath over the forearm that prevents self-injury among archers.

Hats are the one item of clothing where fashion has been allowed free reign. Hats were traditionally a male item, designed to fit over the horns (they often came in multiple pieces, slipped over horns individually, so should be seen more as systems or assemblages than as individual items). At times, they have even been designed to exaggerate the size and number of horns – though this design is now rare, being seen as ‘over-compensating’. Other designs leave the horns themselves bare, but cover the base of the crown, while others may cover some horns but not others. Some hats may cover some horns in such a way as to obscure their shape and number. In some cultures, females have taken to wearing hats over their short horns as well. In addition to the hats, or combined with them, a variety of ornaments have been designed to draw attention to horns – rings, hoops, chimes, bells, small figurines, and so forth. These days, tastes tend to tend toward the minimal, though there is still wide variation between cultures.

Finally, males in many cultures practice horn-shaping and horn-sculpting, where the shape of the horn is modified artificially. Shaping involves encouraging the horns to grow in particular patterns, and may involve encouraging them to grow to unnatural lengths, as well as encouraging forking of horns. Extreme horn shaping is no longer seen, though adolescent males may sleep with shaping gear on their heads to ensure their horns grow as close to symmetrically as possible. Sculpting involves cutting into the outer surface of the horn, to create a pattern or image. This is widespread, and can vary from incising a few geometrical shapes at one point on the horn to covering the entire horn with representational statuery.


8 thoughts on “The Appearance of the Diophel (an alien race)

  1. rottingham says:

    lol Now that’s what I call realistic xenobiology. Do you have an opinion on alternate pragmatic paths in the formation of alien intelligences? Like, aliens who appear fundamentally crazy, but there are reasons they act that way which are totally understandable under the laws of physics? A real world analogy would be stoats hunting rabbits:

    Now, I think we call the ability that humans have “intelligence” because what it does is literally construct simplified models of reality inside our minds and tweaks them to make predictions, and since mathematical physics is the same everywhere, a properly constructed model that approximately implements the physically relevant distinctions in a given situation coincides in its outcomes with external reality.

    The question is, can that reality be correctly analyzed in a way that’s totally counter-intuitive to us because of our contingent biological construction that’s more or less pragmatically viable, but which would make communication between intelligent species extremely difficult?

    How does it work in your world?

  2. rottingham says:

    Of course, nothing will surprise us once we chart all paths, but how much and what kinds of such divergence are we practically likely to see according to the design philosophy of this particular world?

  3. rottingham says:

    Eg. In Anathem, Neal Stephenson is a stickler for perfect optimality, even to the point of ideal anthropomorphism.

  4. Glad you like them.

    I tend to approach things from a vaguely Wittgensteinian direction. Wittgenstein said: ‘If a lion could speak, we would not understand it’. If you treat the meanings of words as reflections of the use of those words within human linguistic behaviour – which is in turn a part of human social and biological behaviour – then it becomes problematic trying to apply human words to behaviour that cannot be analysed in terms of human behaviour. A sufficiently alien ‘intelligence’ would no longer be something we could call ‘intelligent’ – not just because we wouldn’t be able to tell it was intelligent, but because there ceases to be a meaning for words like ‘intelligent’ once we try to use them regarding things that act in too alien a way: once a thing is sufficiently alien, behaves in a way so different from what we consider an ‘intelligent’ way, what does it really mean to try to call it ‘intelligent’? And if a species is so alien that, as you suggest, we have serious difficulty communicating with it, it becomes very hard – both ontologically and epistemologically – for us to call it ‘intelligent’ in anything like the normal sense of that word.

    I tend to think that alien ‘intelligence’ is like human language: because languages all deal with fundamentally the same problems with fundamentally the same or very similar resources, they end up broadly functionally equivalent, and hence broadly functionally translatable. Likewise with ‘intelligence’ – assuming that we’re talking about relatively human-like beings, their intelligence should be understandable to us. And if we’re not talking about human-like beings (and I’m setting the bounds of that very broadly – biological organisms, tool-using, social to some extent, lifespans on the same order of magnitude, wandering around on vaguely terrestrial planets – i.e. not abstract patterns of plasma fluctuations inside a star, or whatever) then I don’t think it’s necessarily meaningful to ask whether they’re intelligent.

    That doesn’t mean that all intelligent things will think in exactly the same ways. The diophel aren’t the best example of this really, but one of the main things I’m interested in with alien species is how differently they can think – in particular, to ask how much of human psychology and society issues from our physical natures and our evolutionary dispositions. But to me, that’s like how different languages differ. Sometimes a language is really good and efficient at talking about one thing, but it’s hard to use it to talk about something else – sometimes a language forces you to make decisions about something, other times it lets you ignore things. But you can still, broadly and perhaps not perfectly in all the details, translate from one language to another. In the same way, I think I generally want my aliens to think in ways that humans CAN think, and probably in ways that human sometimes DO think… but not necessarily in ways that humans NORMALLY think. In the same way that human cultures differ from one another, only more so. And contrariwise, to the aliens, humans should be understandable, but not necessarily normal.

  5. rottingham says:

    Lions are mammalian hunters whose infants like to cuddle with humans, and we understand a certain species of hunter-gatherer primates just fine. I get it, sort of, that lions have a differently constructed experience, but aren’t predicting the future, acting on this information, communicating such ideas, etc, more reasonable criteria for the determination of bare “intelligence”?

    And isn’t it the borderline cases that are genuinely interesting? I mean, what happens if gas or plasma patterns or whatever build spaceships and try to take over the world for more resources?

    You don’t think they can? Maybe they’re in a nebula and they assemble automata using their unreusable feelers to gather rocks and dust over aeons and make contraptions to carry them elsewhere? If they react slowly, maybe they try to predict more information in advance for their interactions with more responsive species. Suppose they threaten to chuck asteroids at earth till humans agree to let them harness the sun and power their nebula generators or something.

    Extremely unlikely, but impossible in principle? Why is such a species not “intelligent” even though their lives are so much more alien than our own? Your game-centric view seems mostly sensible, if a bit constricted as to who is allowed to play the same game, such as sun-harvesting. That’s my only criticism.

    My other suggestion is that intelligences might think about the same things at different levels of abstraction. Eg. We can work with shapes like this: but our ability to model such shapes is limited, so our minds are forced to use extremely abstract levels of simulation featuring little to no direct visualization.

    This is somewhat similar to having to use devices to see infrared, with the crucial difference that we CAN nevertheless think about them without imagining them the usual way. I’m not sure how much we actually need to rely on external supports, though pencil and paper can be replaced with memory and calculators with smaller steps. The effect is the same. But I’m not necessarily thinking about such abstract functions. More mundane abilities may also differ in similar ways.

    With the dazzling variety human cognitive abilities already display, aliens could be qualitatively different at the normative level in ways that appear distinctly inhuman or crazy, like largely genetic blindness to patterns obvious to us and extreme sensitivity to ones we’re oblivious to, which would make them extremely frustrating to talk to, like with the rain man.

    Yes, this could be said to be a more extreme version of the variation that already exists between human cultures. Philip K Dick actually seems to have believed, at times, that non-Western cultures are literally insane.

  6. rottingham says:

    (Curiosity would be a better game than sun-harvesting, of course, but idealism tends to make people nervous these days.)

  7. rottingham says:

    Still, I do think that if creatures are attuned to even slightly different goals for evolutionary reasons, then there’s a potential for these to be subjectively interpreted in very divergent terms.

  8. […] Here is a description of their appearance, and some other aspects of their physicality. Here is a description of their primitive social structure. Here is a brief history of their social development from that primitive structure through to being interstellar colonists. Finally, here is a brief overview of their current (well, compared to us right now a few centuries into the future, actually) society. […]

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