Suppose you find yourself on an alien planet, battling with indigenous species. On your side, you have smarts, both natural and technological. The alien defenders have nothing; no technology. Well, they do have slime, but that’s all.
Brains against the brainless: Who do you think will win?
I spent a summer weekend with my family in a cabin in the Virginia mountains a few years ago. It was nature at its finest, until we discovered after a short walk in the woods that ticks seemingly rained down upon us and were invading our bodies as fast as their little legs could move. We were food, and they were hungry. Human-sized meals didn’t come around those woods very often, apparently.
The entire family, adults and children, stripped down to our underwear on the porch of the cabin, trying to rid ourselves of the invaders. Modesty took second place to the fear of miniature arachnids.
Once the imagined itching had abated and the baby was asleep, we soothed our nerves with puzzles and games, or reading from a well-stocked bookshelf. I picked a book with an interesting cover; it was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.
I cannot say enough good things about Scalzi’s debut novel, a futuristic science fiction, other worlds story. Suffice it to say, it features combat between Earthling soldiers and all sorts of bizarre and ruthless alien life forms. Although Scalzi didn’t write about invading armies of ticks, per se, I could easily envision such a terrifying encounter.
I also think and write about extraterrestrial aliens. Like most writers, I assume ETs are sentient, and calculating. Depending upon the writer, those ETs may have either high morals, or no morals at all, but they always have a brain.
Lately, I’ve had to rethink potential plot elements dealing with intelligent life forms. The reason is, scientists now claim that a single celled animal, a slime mold, acts with a shocking degree of intelligence. The kicker is, being a single celled organism, slime mold does not have a brain.
Intelligence without a brain?
Compared to slime mold, ticks are geniuses if we count the gray matter cells contained in their single-minded heads. However, according to a Japanese researcher the brainless slime mold can solve problems even scores of engineers could not easily solve.
Sounds like science fiction to me.
So now imagine the following storyline. Your spaceship lands on a verdant planet that has no higher, brain-possessing life forms, at all. However, what it does have in abundance is slime mold. And of course the threat from slime mold is easy to ignore — until it is too late. The mindless protoplasm senses all sources of food, and fans out in all directions, following the scent.
The ship’s science officer tries to warn the mission commander, but the arrogant and miscalculating commander responds with a volley of lead rounds into the nearest slime; which of course is not in the least bit deterred from its food-finding task.
And when the crew sleeps, as of course they must, the brainless mold finds the food sources, one by one, absorbing the human nutrients.
Human-sized meals don’t come around those woods very often, apparently.
Being brainless, slime mold cannot be considered cunning. But, one could argue, it’s not stupid either: it can’t be tricked. It is, if anything, relentless.
From a cinematic perspective this is not an entirely new theme. The 1958 movie The Blob starring Steve McQueen popularized the idea of mindless organisms devouring humans. But at that time there was no real science behind it. Now there is.
Some interesting science facts about slime mold are found in this link and the following Scientific American – NOVA video.