I learn something every day in searching for material for this blog. Today, I shall feature a strange fictional animal called the Pierson’s Puppeteers. I don’t know who Pierson is yet, but the Puppeteers are a creation of author Larry Niven.
From the website Larryniven.org:
Appearance and Physiology
Pierson’s Puppeteers have a triangular body layout, wider in front than at the rear. Their three legs end in small, clawed hooves set in an isosceles triangle; one large leg at the rear and two smaller ones at the front. From the shoulders above their front legs arise two snake-like necks. The upper front of a Puppeteer’s body, between its two necks, is a thick, bony skull which protects its large brain. This hump is covered with a mane of coarse hair, resembling a horse’s mane in texture. Their hide is covered in fur, creamy-white with tan spots, soft and pleasant to the touch.
Atop each neck is an independently-working, python-like but silly-looking expressionless head, with one eye set deep in a protective socket, one ear, and dry, thick lips which extend inches beyond the mouth, ending in finger-like knobs, and a snake-like forked tongue. The Puppeteer uses its heads like hands, but with far more dexterity than any human, which helps make Puppeteers superior toolmakers.
Because the heads are able to turn in any direction, a Puppeteer can have a nearly 360° view of its surroundings, with one head facing forward and the other back. The Puppeteer processes this varied visual information with a highly developed visual cortex. A running Puppeteer will often hold one head high and the other low to obtain a panoramic perception and to see around obstacles. The two heads also provide outstanding facility for precision work, since a Puppeteer can have both a close-up view and an overall view of its work, simultaneously.
The hind leg has a complex hip joint, providing a wide range of motions. When a Puppeteer feels threatened, it defends itself by turning its back, facing both heads back towards the enemy, and kicking out with the powerful hind leg. This is instinctive; Puppeteers are rarely threatened and so are unaware of this behavior. Using its small sharp hoof, a kick from a Puppeteer can easily penetrate a human rib cage, killing a man instantly.
Despite their strange appearance, most humans find Puppeteers beautiful to behold. A sane Puppeteer’s mane is always well groomed, to indicate social status and personal preference. Even low ranked Puppeteers keep their manes combed and be-ribboned. High status Puppeteers have their manes braided and/or coifed; perhaps fluffed or curled into ringlets, sometimes dyed, and decorated with jewels or braided with bright metallic strands. Natural mane colors resemble those of terrestrial horses, ranging from browns to auburn and yellows. Unkempt manes usually indicate insanity, or at least long-term emotional distress.
One of the ideas underlying the Known Space series is that when a species begins to dominate its environment, it stops evolving. Kzinti, being more formidable and aggressive than humans, stopped evolving earlier, and hence on average are not as intelligent as humans. Contrariwise, the Puppeteers’ ancestors were herd animals fleeing from every danger. It was only after Puppeteers evolved supra-human intelligence that they were able to out-think the dangers of their homeworld, and eventually became the dominant life-form.
Voice and Language
The beautiful, complex musical voice of the Puppeteers cannot be imitated by any other species in Known Space. Two throats, each with three larynxes, plus an eighteen note octave scale, gives
Puppeteers verbal communication densely packed with complex meaning. Each throat can produce intonations ranging from pure single notes, to dissonant harmonies, to orchestral music. In communicating with humans, Puppeteers use a throaty contralto which men find distractingly sexy. A Puppeteer scream of fright has been described variously as an exploding steam calliope and as a church choir being burnt alive.
The Puppeteer’s large brain allows them to carry on two independent conversations at the same time, in two separate languages. They are outstanding linguists, a feature of both their superior intelligence and their need to protect themselves diplomatically. When interacting with humans, they speak the human language of Interworld.
Psychology and Behavior
The Puppeteers’ herd-beast ancestors were prey to many different carnivores, and for protection developed a disproportionate instinct for survival. This survival instinct causes them to avoid or flee from danger in any form, no matter how insignificant. Puppeteers go to great lengths to avoid and minimize any possible danger to themselves and their civilization. This highly developed instinct for self-preservation is often seen as over-cautiousness by humans, and sheer cowardice by the Kzinti.
Puppeteers are pragmatic to a fault. Human traits such as wishful thinking and superstition are nonexistent. They are willing to go to any lengths to protect themselves from perceived danger and provide a safer environment for themselves. In human terms, they are arrogant and amoral. This is not seen as negative behavior; to a Puppeteer, safety is the only thing that truly matters.
As herd animals, Puppeteers have a strong need to socialize with each other. Large public squares between their enormous buildings give them a place to gather frequently in large groups. Puppeteers artificially add the odor of their herds to their breathing air and objects in their environment; even flowers emit the smell of Puppeteers. Their individual living spaces are filled with virtual images of Puppeteer herds.
Puppeteers demonstrate their fitness and compete for mates in formal dances attended by large numbers, perhaps something like the grand balls of human high society, termed simply “The Dance.” When courting, Puppeteers rub their necks together and intertwine them.
On rare occasions, a Puppeteer’s two heads will stare at each other; this has been described as an ironic laugh.
Every Puppeteer is trained at a young age to respond to danger from which it cannot flee by tucking both necks beneath its forelegs and folding its legs beneath itself, to resemble a furry footstool. Assuming this position is called the “explosion reflex.” A fearful Puppeteer may remain in this fetal position for hours or possibly days, quivering with fear, withdrawn from a hostile universe. However, the presence of preventable danger will bring the Puppeteer out from hiding in its own belly.
Puppeteer civilization rose during the human stone age. They are very long lived, rarely dying from accident or disease. The population of their home planet, Hearth, long ago reached one trillion. As herd animals, Puppeteers strive for consensus and conformity. The Japanese saying “The nail that sticks up will get hammered down” applies very well to Puppeteer culture. The politics of their monolithic world culture, which they call the Concordance, are quite simple. They have two political parties: The majority Conservatives, and the minority Experimentalists. In peaceful times, when nothing needs to change, the Conservatives rule. In times of trouble, when change is needed, the Experimentalists are voted in — but only for the duration of the emergency. It should be noted that the Experimentalists are only slightly less conservative than the Conservatives. After all, they are still Puppeteers!
The vast majority of Puppeteers live in miles-high apartment buildings and arcologies. Their stepping disc technology is used ubiquitously; the buildings contain no hallways or air ducts. Everyone and everything, even fresh air, is brought in by stepping disc.
Puppeteers are vegetarians, and eat a variety of grains, grasses, and leafy vegetables. They also eat bread. Like all vegetarians, Puppeteers eliminate (pass excrement) where they eat, and their dining halls are equipped with rows of stepping discs in the proper position to whisk the manure away.
Puppeteers normally wear no clothing, but do wear sashes. A sash may be practical, containing pockets, or ornamental, with the color indicating, for instance, alliance with a political party.
For technological and scientific research, Puppeteers employ careful observation and safe investigation, ensuring no personal or social risk is taken by anyone. Their advancement is aided by unmatched powers of deductive reasoning and logic. They view humanity’s discovery of scientific principles and new worlds through trial-and-error, exploration, and serendipity to be hazardous and irrational.
Relations with Other Species
Puppeteers’ fear of danger has lead them to strive for subtle, behind-the-scenes dominance in the affairs of other species. They do not hesitate to resort to blackmail, bribery, or any other form of influence. They prefer to avoid using even carefully applied violence, but if necessary they will employ an outside agency for such unpleasantness. The Puppeteers’ drive to minimize danger, coupled with their pragmatism, gives them a ruthlessness beyond that of even the Kzinti, only falling short of the Pak. To ensure their own safety, they might go so far as to utterly destroy another species.
With the exception of the Outsiders, Puppeteers possess technology far in advance of any species in Known Space. Selling their GP hulls and other products of their advanced technologies gives them enormous wealth, which is used to influence other species, both on a cultural and an individual basis. For instance, it is said that a Kzin who attacks a Puppeteer will soon find himself financially ruined.
Puppeteers distrust aliens and their motives, often conducting their business through agents. In dealing with the paranoid Trinocs, they use robotic intermediaries. The Puppeteer business empire influences civilizations unheard of in Known Space.
Reproduction and Sex
Puppeteers do not discuss their sex life with aliens.
Puppeteer reproduction requires the use of a non-sentient host animal of a different but related species, called a “Companion,” about half the size of a Puppeteer. A male and a female Puppeteer deposit sperm and egg inside the Companion, the female using an ovipositor. The foetus grows inside the Companion’s body in a parasitic fashion, apparently like a digger wasp larva. When the baby is mature it “hatches” of out of the host’s body and is cared for by its Puppeteer parents. The host animal is invariably killed in the “birth” process. Companions are bred to each other by Puppeteers to provide hosts for Puppeteer reproduction.
Culturally, the Companion is considered part of the family. Confusingly, Puppeteers claim they have two male genders, preferring to be addressed as “he,” and they refer to Companions as “females.” However, this is a cultural bias, and does not reflect actual Puppeteer or Companion biology.
No forms of contraception except abstinence and major surgery — neutering — will work for Puppeteers.
An Alternate View of Puppeteer Sex Life
Fellow Larry Niven Mailing List members Carol Phillips and Ted Scribner wrote a story featuring Puppeteers and Beowulf Shaeffer, entitled “Many Kinds of Loving.” While the story is “fan fiction” and the authors do not want it displayed publically, individuals over the age of 21 can usually obtain a copy by emailing either of the authors, stating clearly in the letter that they are over 21. The story contains a great deal of explicit sex, and is considered unsuitable for minors.
The story in part explores the sexuality of puppeteers in a way that Niven had not considered, and some interesting theories about Puppeteer reproduction were developed by Carol. The Puppeteers are vegetarians, so the concept of having the puppeteer embryo feeding on the host animal and then breaking out of the body of the “female” seems inconsistent. In the story, Carol suggested that the Puppeteers breed, not by Larry’s “Digger Wasp” scenario, but that the host, often kept as a “pet” by the Puppeteers, is impregnated (perhaps using the mouths as orifices) by mating Puppeteers following “The Dance.”
The gestating embryo is held in one of the Puppeteer’s multiple stomachs. The Puppeteer parents strictly supervise the diet of the host while the embryo is developing (ensuring a vegetarian diet, for in this story the hosts are omnivorous), and when the Puppeteer foetus grows large enough, or uncomfortable to the host, it is regurgitated (or “born”), to be cared for by its true Puppeteer parents.
Ringworld and “The Soft Weapon,” by Larry Niven, Fleet of Worlds and Destroyer of Worlds by Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner, The Guide to Larry Niven’s Ringworld by Kevin Stine, and “Many Kinds of Loving,” a Niven-inspired story written by Carol Phillips and Ted Scribner.