The Diophel: The Current Situation

Closing out (for now) the series I’ve been doing on the diophel, an alien species

Diophel are a fast-breeding and expansive species, on the whole. They occupy ten core planets, and have bases on another dozen (the diophel impulse for independence seems greater than their desire for ‘natural’ surroundings, so they have created many sealed colonies on otherwise uninhabitable worlds, as well as having hundreds of space habitats). They have another four planets developed in co-operation with the neighbouring thaugomur (the thaugomur provided much of the resources and construction work, while the diophel provided the majority of the settlers), two with the turigd and two with the liwak. They have a ‘domestic’ population of around 100 billion (though ‘diophel-controlled’ planets have a total population of closer to 150 billion, counting other species), and billions more live on alien planets.

Diophel are a gregarious and largely welcoming species, relatively unconvinced by any speciesist or segregationalist doctrines – they are, by and large, happy to allow aliens to live among them in the same way that they have always allowed other diophel species to live among them. Diophel planets have also become home to small numbers of thaugomur, many ieed, many liwak, a fair few trotel (a species with only one homeworld of its own, discovered by diophel and welcomed into their worlds), and large and growing numbers of turigd. This is not to say, of course, that there are not species tensions on the diophel planets, particularly regarding the fractious and ill-disciplined turigd (who have largely sought to live among diophel to escape the disorderly behaviour of their own conspecifics) – species relations (and, for example, the question of segregation vs assimilation) are a major political issue on many diophel planets. But as a whole, diophel disputes are far more likely to pit different diophel polities against one another than they are to pit species against species (or genus against genus).

The diophel are not a unitary species. Combined, their military might would be sizeable – doubtless, they could defeat, say, the thaugomur in a total war. But in practice, while diophel might unite if an existential threat to their genus ever arose, they are mostly fragmented politically; because the diophel are so fragmented, it is difficult to make sweeping generalisations about their culture. It is, however, possible to describe a ‘most common’ prototypical form.

Prototypically, female diophel are arranged in large flocks of between 50 and 200 (sometimes more) adult individuals. Ritualised, free-will exchanges of females help bind each flock to its neighbours, as does a considerable emphasis on female lineages and shared ancestry. Often, the exchanging of females reaches a point where the flock itself, as a genetic entity, is a legal fiction, its membership all but entirely comprising newcomers. The functions of the human ‘corporation’, for instance, are typically fulfilled by a flock, which, if particular skills are required, will recruit its members from outside; each spaceship, likewise, is run as a family. This approach tends to yield inflexible and slow-adapting institutions – ‘sacking’ a worker is tantamount to divorcing a wife or disinheriting a child, and while females do move between flocks repeatedly it is never a casual matter – but on the other hand it tends also to yield a high level of psychological commitment by the individuals concerned. What’s more, the interweaving exchanges of females enmesh the individual in multifaceted concepts of familial identity – a female diophel will owe allegiance to her primary flock, to be sure (which is likely to be her work colleages), but also to the flock from which she came, which is itself likely to be distinct from the flock in which she was born – and her deference to her mother (probably the most important single diophel relationship) not only brings with it allegiances to her mother’s own changing pattern of flock allegiance, but is itself mirrored by the fictive maternal relationships she adopts on entering each new flock. On a larger level, hierarchies are established by physical and mental dominance, by wealth disparities, by mother-daughter dominance, and above all by (legally) inherited status form complex webs of authority and submission. The resulting system is, in theory, highly authoritarian and rigid, with very little scope for elections or accountability (a group may ‘elect’ an individual for a certain task, such as being the foreman, but this is a matter of convenience with little fundamental authority). Above all, it is important to see the primary unit of diophel society as the flock, as fuzzy-edged as that has become, rather than the individual, who takes their identity from their place within the flock (or, at least, from their places at the intersections of a number of flock identities). Diophel are not typically able to point to a single individual who is ‘in charge’ of any situation – although there are more dominant flocks, particularly when it comes to certain matters, and there are certainly more and less dominant individuals within each flock (with, again, that dominance often shifting with the area of governance in question), there is very little sense of the most dominant member of the most dominant flock being in any way ‘the ruler’. On the largest scale, most diophel societies largely can be considered as fractal bodies, families joining in neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods joining in city-states, city-states joining in nations, and where multiple nations share one planet those nations can join together in a planetary society, itself a part of larger groupings. However, these groupings must be seen not as distinct entities, but as, as it were, ‘clumps’ or ‘lumps’ in a continuum of social networks – two neighbouring nations are distinct only in that social connectivity is greater within the nation than between them, but there will still usually be links between the nations, and for individuals at ‘the border’, the idea that they are indeed at the border between two distinct nations may not have occurred to them at all.

Males, meanwhile, are prototypically slaves, each wholly owned by a flock, and subject to sale. Yet they are not regarded as ornamental, but rather as valuable resources, not only for their labour but for their connectivity. The exchange of males is perhaps just as important as the exchange of females – most of the ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’ that a human would recognise among in a diophel society are run entirely by males. It is males, for instance, who write the laws (females would say that they delegate their males to do the boring negotiations that draw up proposed codes of conduct that the females then choose to abide by), and males who conduct trade (females would say that they make the goods, and consume the goods, and delegate males to do the administrative negotiatory business of deciding which goods should be exchanged for what). Male slavery certainly does not result in male deprivation – indeed, females are more likely to go hungry themselves than deprive their males, not only because males are valuable assets (that can in a pinch be sold) but because doing otherwise would be horribly unchivalrous. In any case, a defining feature of prototypical diophel society is liberalism, both toward males and toward low-ranked females. Although society is highly authoritarian in structure – which is believed to be necessary in order to maintain law and order and social harmony – it is considered that actual oppression is both indicative of weakness and liable to cause dissent and instability. Diophel have thus largely come to accept a fairly laissez faire approach to governance, particularly on what might be considered ‘personal’ matters.

Religion perhaps also deserves some mention. Religion among the diophel takes two forms: ancestor worship and cult worship. Cult worship centres around the veneration of deities, typically through symbolic (often unusual geometric shapes or patterns are used) idols and icons. It is unclear what these deities are believed to be, as they are usually spoken of as being beyond comprehension. They may even all be one, though this is a poetic thought-experiment more than a determined doctrine. It seems likely that they may in some way be associated with a sense of place and identity-through-location, as colonising groups often ‘create’ new deities in their new homes, and deities can to some extent come to be used as symbols of national or urban or regional identity. Devotion to the deities typically involves simple but rigid ritualism, and there is often a class of professional priests who combine the performance of rituals with a simple, meditative lifestyle. Devotion is largely considered to be something done for its own sake, to express personal piety – although superstitious notions about the gods taking revenge or bestowing favours can be found, for the most part there is little clear concept of deities as active agents either this world or in any other (diophel typically have little or no concept of an ‘afterlife’ in any metaphysical sense). This sort of cult activity is almost entirely a male practice, at least in its active forms; females, however, are mostly respectful (if sometimes suspicious) of it, and many females, particularly in more crowded areas, like to sometimes take advantage of its products – it is not at all unusual to see the odd female sitting quietly in a temple garden to give herself a few minutes of calm on a busy day. Ancestor worship, on the other hand, is a female practice. Family lineages (both fictive and genetic) are known through female lines back for often two millennia, and most females can recite at least a few centuries. “History” education comes in the form of learning about individual ancestors and their lives – rather than there being any standardised course about the early years of interstellar flight, for instance, individuals will learn from their mothers and aunts about their distant grandmothers and grand-aunts who first came to the colonies. The ancestors are believed to ‘live on’ in a practical sense through their descendents – violating the will of one’s great-grandmother is considered much like doing this afternoon what you swore this morning that you’d never do, with little distinction made between changing one’s mind and disagreeing with one’s mother or grandmother (which is to say that it might make sense now and then, when situations change, but to do it too often or too quickly is a sign of unreliability at best and lunacy at worst). It is common, therefore, for individuals to debate the actions and intentions of diophel who died centuries ago as a way of deciding upon present actions – not only, as some humans do, in the form of nations second-guessing their founders, but on the scale of individual families (and ‘family’-like organisations like companies and militaries and so on). Much of a female diophel’s leisure time is likely to be devoted to memorising life-histories, looking at pictures, and the like. If a particular ancestor (most diophel have favourites) had some or other particular virtue, they are likely to be invoked to act through the living individual when that virtue is required.

It must be stressed again, however, that this is only a ‘prototypical’ modern diophel society. Some societies are more formalised, some less, some more authoritarian, some less, some give more authority to males, some less (though there are very few outright patriarchies surviving). Diophel encountered away from their home space tend to have simpler female social structures, but more individual freedom. Diophel on their homeworld tend to live in more complex and united societies that are also more strictly authoritarian (as is the case for many species, the homeworld is by far the poorest and most overcrowded planet). There are many more variations from place to place – in part because the desire to explore alternative social structures has often been a major reason for colonisation. In general, however, the most extreme deviations from this prototype are found in the smaller societies, whether isolated mountain villages on habitable worlds or enclosed bubble-cities on otherwise unpeopled rocks.


16 thoughts on “The Diophel: The Current Situation

  1. […] 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 i… […]

  2. rottingham says:

    sounds stifling. only a prototype though. could be more dynamic in practice.

  3. rottingham says:

    (basically, i like deviations for their own sake, to some extent.)

  4. rottingham says:

    ((the traditionalist in me is more worried about innovations monopolizing culture at the expense of tradition, but the reverse is a genuine worry as well.))

  5. Anonymous says:

    (((but this could be more dynamic in practice because instantiating these features in a society might require a strong emphasis on tradition, is what i mean.)))

  6. rottingham says:

    ((((no, still seems heavy-handed even after taking all that into account. small changes often require large, systematic alterations in tradition, and these aren’t always situations of strict necessity, eg.))))

  7. rottingham says:

    (((((so yes, rather on the stifling side for a space-age society, unless i misunderstood things. beautifully stifling, though. i really like the diophel.)))))

  8. Respectfully, the idea was not to create a society you would find ideologically satisfying. I don’t think that every space-age society has to end up the same way. [If I did, I wouldn’t have bothered]

    In any case, I don’t think it is necessarily particularly ‘stifling’, as regards innovation. I even said that a defining feature was liberalism. Yes, the greater emphasis on family as the bedrock of society and of identity is constricting in a way – but on the other hand, they don’t feel the need to try to create unified societies by enforcing ideological unanimity, as humans often feel the need to do. So there is more potential for oppression at the domestic level, but rather less at the societal level (and, indeed, it’s much harder to organise any sort of widespread oppression than among humans) – and in general diophel aren’t that mad about enforcing obedience in their families or anything.

    So the average individual diophel may not be quite as ‘free’ as wealthy, single, adult humans in the most liberal Western cities, but they’re still much less unfree than many humans have been in the past, or even are now.

  9. rottingham says:

    I wasn’t saying they had to be ideologically satisfying. I was making a throwaway comment. Like, for zompist’s monkey aliens I might have said something like “Wow, they’re crazy!”, which doesn’t mean all aliens have to appear sane by my standards. Then I thought I’d explain why I thought it was stifling, but maybe I’ll just drop the entirely predictable first reaction from now on.

    It’s not really about freedom. The point is that in order to survive, a space-age civilization might have to change rather faster than the individuals involved are likely to judge as strictly necessary, just as pre-modern civilizations had to adapt to cope faster than hunter-gatherers. Now, small but critical changes often require far-reaching alterations to the entire fabric of tradition in order to maintain coherence and organizational integrity.

    Changes of this sort are liable to turn ancestral exploits into entertaining tales that are largely irrelevant to contemporary reality. That it is not so for the Diophel could imply many things. It could imply that Diophel society is a stifling environment that insists on maintaining outmoded traditions in their institutional frameworks, or at any rate justifying present actions using ancestral anecdotes.

    But other interpretations are also possible. You say that families continue their traditions, and that families are responsible for running enterprises, but it could be that the ancestor game is limited in scope, and that families in mainstream society voluntarily limit family matters to the family and refuse to let it interfere with business or even changing their outlook on the world.

    Maybe they believe these things to belong to separate magisteria, or maybe, because this is a prototype, you meant they love their ancestors just like humans often tend to, but maybe relatively more than we do, etc.

  10. rottingham says:

    (I hope I get over this ideological phase soon. It’s getting on my nerves too.)

  11. rottingham says:

    ((Maybe they follow their ancestors in the sense of, eg, admiring their guts. You know, that level of analysis.))

  12. rottingham says:

    Am I wrong? Don’t pre-space-age civilizations have to change rather faster in order to survive compared to hunter-gatherers, and modern civilizations even faster than pre-modern ones? Is it illegitimate to extend this principle over to where multiple planets and species are involved?

  13. rottingham says:

    (At least where this kind of pervasive change is concerned. In other ways, we have certainly ossified quite a bit.)

  14. First, could you PLEASE not make a new comment for every single sentence!

    I don’t see why you think more technology means society needs to ‘change’ faster (except in by by-definition sense of adopting new technology).

    Hunter-gatherers needed to organise massive society-wide behaviour changes at relatively short notice. You overhunt one area, or there’s flooding or drought, you pack up and move. Settled societies don’t usually have to ‘change’ in anywhere near as drastic a way. Perhaps it might be helpful if instead of the nebulous ‘change’, you specified exactly what problems you think more advanced societies uniquely face, and why the diophel seem less equipped to deal with them?

  15. rottingham says:

    You asked me to be concrete this time, so you should think twice before accusing me of randomness. For one thing, you do realize that memetic changes, necessary for the development of increasingly efficient methods, occur by means of mutation and selection, right? Without some spontaneous mutation in the means by which things get done, there’s nothing to select over. How did the Diophel get to the space age? There are hints, I think, that they behaved differently back then? But hunter-gatherers don’t really have this problem.

    The basic idea was that if biographies of ancestors are to be used as templates guiding our daily activities, then hunter-gatherers may have the freedom (yes, the freedom! don’t accuse me of ideological primitive-bashing prematurely!) to implement such arrangements more effectively in more situations than we do. The lives of hunter-gatherer groups 10,000 years ago are, if I’m right, more immediately relevant to the hunter-gatherer groups of today as compared to the extent to which the lives of the earliest civilized groups, say, have retained the power to direct our lives, and this disparity widens with growth.

    The kind of “changes” I was talking about might be more apparent if you focus on the features of advanced societies that have the ability to confuse potential cargo cultists. I could be wrong about this, but aren’t hunter-gatherer societies more stagnant in the domain of emulable everyday behaviors, almost by definition? Doesn’t civilization necessarily involve the mutation of immediate goals of everyday activities to the point of unrecognizability, thus degrading our chances of emulating ancestral conduct? It’s conceivable that the Diophel work so differently that stuff like this is contextually irrelevant.

    Out of curiosity: These days, we never say, “I challenge you to a duel, as my illustrious ancestors would have!” Does this particular change in social mores have anything to do with advancing Civilization in your opinion, or is it one of those factors that keep oscillating randomly by itself?

    But if Diophel traditionalism is confined to honoring aspects of their cultural inheritance that remain invariant under technological changes, then I don’t think there should be serious problems. Guns leading to equality, and all that. You’re right, business of state and industry would have to be quite stupid to fall for the trap of failing to sufficiently revolutionize its modes of operation, not just in the face of improved techniques, but the natural and artificial perturbations inevitable while trying to maintain coordination across multiple star systems.

    Technological progress based on fundamental scientific laws may slow down eventually, but improved techniques in the most general sense of increasingly efficient arrangements seem rather unlikely in a society that actively pursues new solutions to problems on a large scale. In the middle ages, so many people died in the Black Death, but vaccine technology opens up new possibilities… am I making sense at all, or should I just get a neurologist’s appointment?

    I have thought about this, and what I’m saying so far doesn’t seem crazy to me. Look, we switched from hunting-gathering to agriculture under numerous pressures, and then we developed increasingly advanced agricultural techniques until some parts of the world came up with methods that let us do away with traditional farming entirely. Doesn’t this reflect a great “change” in social organization? We were all hunter-gatherers, and now some of us are still hunter-gatherers. Doesn’t that fall under the definition of stagnation in the strictest sense?

    Wouldn’t such snowballing changes leave marked effects on attitudes towards traditionalism in a strict sense within a culture that has actually managed to reach the space age? After all, doesn’t an innovative culture necessarily produce a million flops on the path to a small handful of successful inroads into novelty? Of course, there are many, many ways to avoid this outcome, and none of this is necessarily a problem. Your conworld may simply not be competitive enough to demand that much innovation from any faction. And even if my “accusations” are accurate, the same qualities can behave as features and not bugs depending on the context.

    I’m interested in what you think about these things mostly because I’m looking for possible sources of dramatic tension in the lives of the Diophel.

  16. Well done nac, you certainly know a lot of long words.

    Do you mean: “if people keep repeating what their ancestors do, how come their material conditions are able to change, and if they do change how are they able to live with those conditions while repeating what was done by their ancestors, given that their ancestors lived under different conditions?”

    If so, the answer should be obvious: I don’t think I ever said that they tried to copy the exact physical actions of their ancestors. Stop reading fundamentalism into everybody! Can you also not understand how modern people are able to seek to emulate those who died hundreds of years ago – the use of saints as role models, for instance? Wait, no, shouldn’t have asked that, we already know what you think about that.

    This objection feels the same as if you said “but how are people able to use “English” on the internet when “English” is the name we give to certain vibrations of the air, and the internet is made of electrons, not made of air?”. The physical substance of things is often less important than their meaning. The diophel aren’t meant to be idiots – they’re perfectly aware that the virtues of the past must be interpreted in light of their context, and translated into new contexts. Otherwise they would be, as you put it, cargo cults of their own identities. Hence why I described this sort of change as ‘trivial’ above. I thought you were talking about the need for actual collective action, not the worry that just because someone cares more about their grandmother than about a pop star or whatever they will necessarily start walking into walls and going ‘does not compute, does not compute’ whenever they discover that there’s a new flavour of bagel available today. Not having your head explode when there’s some technological change can sort of be taken for granted on a species level, I think, or at least taken as read in the absence of statements to the contrary (of course, I’m sure that on a personal level many changes have been met by luddite diophel going ‘this is not what the ancestors intended!’, but there’s no reason to think they’d actually win. If nothing else, the lack of big society-wide ideological institutions makes it virtually impossible to impose ‘orthodoxy’ on anything but the most essential of precepts – even if there are some conservatives, they lack the power to control the lives of the progressives, so the progressives will leave them behind in the long run).

    No, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about with vaccines and stuff.

    Regarding dueling, I’m not an expert, but I’d say it looks very much like a political and economic phenomenon. Dueling is based on there being an honour code with no authoritative observer. In such a situation, slights against honour must be personally defended, but the accusation of slighting honour is itself a slight against one’s honour, just as cowardice in the face of such an accusation would likewise be dishonourable. Hence there is violence – and when the honour code stresses chivalry and gentlemanliness, we get relatively serene dueling (rather than pub brawls, which otherwise work on the same principles). But the honour code existed for two reasons: first, due to the absence of a powerful authority that could enforce order; and, second, due to the need for a certain class – the class that had the luxury of the greatest honour – to defend itself against interlopers without the aid of such an authority. Both those conditions passed: the introduction of more robust institutions of law and order (and, indeed, of certain economic institutions that encouraged orderliness) removed the need for honour as a way of regulating behaviour; and the class that used honour as a shibboleth was made obsolete by economic change, rendering honour largely meaningless – most of its functions have since been usurped by capital.

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