Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Guest Post: Hail to the Hindmost

By Ronald G. Pittenger

            Somewhen between the writing of the stories in Neutron Star (published in 1968) and the publication of Ringworld Engineers (1980), the great science fiction writer Larry Niven invented a species of space-faring aliens called Pierson’s Puppeteers.  With bodies shaped rather like an egg and three legs to run on, they had two heads on arm-like appendages that resembled sock-puppets, thus the name (I would’ve called them “Ollies”, which shows why he sells millions of books and I don’t).
            Niven must have invested many hours in thinking about their characteristics and social organization.  Being herd-beasts, exclusive vegetarians, whose only defenses are great intelligence (their brains were located in the body, not in the sock-puppet heads) and a very strong kick from the hoof of their hind foot, the herds organized themselves into political parties.
           Only one party could lead at a time, and was chosen by open acclimation based on the perceived needs of the herd as a whole.  Traditionally, the two parties were the Experimentalists and the Conservatives.  The leader—regardless of party—was always called “the Hindmost,” because being the most important of a cowardly group, of course he would command from the back of the herd.
Important characteristics of Puppeteers include a fine appreciation of multi-harmonic music (they can sing in harmony with themselves, after all), an urge to be surrounded by others of the herd, and a distrust of others that, in a human, would be considered severe paranoia.
While little is known of their music is that it is too complex for merely human ears and brains to understand.  It is known that no sane Puppeteer will ever be alone when he could be in a group.
Their paranoia leads to all sorts of difficulties for the humans they encounter.  Though they seldom lie outright, they never purposely tell the complete, whole, accurate truth.  They tend to avoid direct confrontations (even verbally), most likely have a (space) naval force, but no army or Marines because none are brave enough (or stupid enough) to risk their lives as infantry.  Their preferred methods of waging war are either to strike with overwhelming force from deep cover (untraceable mines or sniping, for example) or a credible false-flag operation (the dog—or some other species—did it).
If there should be a political problem, the Hindmost and his close advisors are almost always able to find a way to use those same techniques against their opposition: either sniping by publicity/leak/government pronouncement from a covered location/position or by finding a way to make the problem look like it’s the other Party’s fault.  It is no wonder the Puppeteers change governments only at long and irregular intervals.
Although I’ve been reading Niven’s stories since the 1960s, I never realized how well he had satirized our political set-up until this week when I read that the president is “leading from the rear.”  Yes, it’s true.  We’re being led by the Hindmost.

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