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Non-human senses

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I have some thoughts on senses of elves, dwarves, etc. It's long enough that I chose to post it at my Altearth website, but I'd appreciate comments and questions.

Senses and Sensibilities - Altearth

I don't intend this as self-promotion; it's about feedback. Where would you want more details? Where do you seen problems and contradictions? I'd like to get the thing in presentable shape before I include it in my newsletter.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
I recently read 'The Crippled King,' an indie work with an all-dwarf cast, apart from a few marauding goblins. Elves and humans get mentioned once or twice, but the MC, his aides, and the antagonists are all dwarves. The author did a marvelous job of working the infodumps into the characterization.

That said, well...

What was supposed to be the seventh book of my 'Empire' series but is probably going to be a series in its own right is set on the 'Strand,' - a long skinny ribbon of land that wraps clear around a planet - 25,000 miles long, but seldom more than 50-60 miles wide, on a rough NW/SE axis. The 'western strand,' well there be quite a few humans. The eastern strand, though...humans are scarce. Really scarce. The one character travels through most of six thousand miles and encounters a grand total of maybe four human settlements. She does encounter other races...

Skrea - 'bird men.' Wings instead of arms, feathers instead of hair, beaks for faces. Fine manipulation is difficult for them, as the 'hands' on their wings are rather stubby. Marvelous singers. They do allow travelers to pass through their realms, but don't let them forage for food - instead they forcible trade food for shiny objects. They dwell in cliffside caves or in nest-like tree houses.

Slith - 'Lizardmen.' Two legs, four arms, scales ranging from brown to brilliant green. Semi-amphibious. Civilized - well, most of them, anyhow, even technologically advanced long, long ago. Fond of carving intricate statues, more than willing to trade...'exotic swamp substances' for metal goods.

Goblins and Hobgoblins. I've talked about these runts elsewhere. The goblins are mercantile sorts, bouncing along the Pilgrim Road in carts laden with what other people want. The Hobs are getting more advanced technologically, and dwell in kingdoms locked in perpetual strife with their neighbors - especially the elves and the rachasa.

Rachasa - cat people. On the 'other world,' these are nomadic savages and mercenaries. Some of them have taken to civilization of sorts here, dwelling in towns with populaces ranging to the upper four-digit range. These are at once clannish and anarchic, with 'Speakers' (bards of a sort) acting as intermediaries between factions. Feuds and duels are common, and murder isn't exactly a crime. Other races are there as servants - groomers, artisans, but don't have high life expectancies.

The Rachasa and the Hobs have set aside places - most notably a fair sized island - as arenas. A pack of Hobs gets dropped off at one end and a band of Rachasa at the other, and then the killing starts. It doesn't end until one group or the other is dead. (Humans and elves sometimes get drafted as referees)

Dwarves are present as well.

Probably did enough damage to this thread.
 

pmmg

Vala
More than I think I would have added to any of these races. I think maybe dwarves would have great close vision, such that they could see well enough to make tiny gears and such. God knows last time I tried to solder something, I got an education in how bad my eyes have gotten.

Might they have other senses that are also enhanced or deprecated. Such as a sense of direction, or maybe a magnetic sense that helps dwarves navigate underground?
 
I have a dwarven-like people, the Kingdomers, enhanced with a keen sense of direction and altitude making it basically impossible for them to get lost. They are shorter and stockier than we tend to think of people, but nobody thinks of them as anything other than humans, nor do they consider themselves not human.
More than I think I would have added to any of these races. I think maybe dwarves would have great close vision, such that they could see well enough to make tiny gears and such. God knows last time I tried to solder something, I got an education in how bad my eyes have gotten.

Might they have other senses that are also enhanced or deprecated. Such as a sense of direction, or maybe a magnetic sense that helps dwarves navigate underground?
 
Random notes as I'm reading:
What's the point of the greater frequency range for dwarves?

Elves seem to be good at everything. Is there no downside to their amazing senses?

How does it affect society? You mention a bit about grumpy old dwarves. But what about elves? Are cooks more highly regarded in elvish society?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>Might they have other senses that are also enhanced or deprecated. Such as a sense of direction, or maybe a magnetic sense that helps dwarves navigate underground?

Oh, thanks for that! I was being bound by the five senses or adding a sixth along magical lines. Isn't it curious that we call it a "sense" of direction, even though it's not attached to a sense organ? (now I'm picturing a very weird Hammond organ)

But you've freed me. A sense of this, that, and the other thing. Oh, especially the other things. I'll have to play around with this one.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>but nobody thinks of them as anything other than humans
Yeah, this is a tricky one. My approach has been to use the term "people" and occasionally "nations" (in the original Latin sense, which means I can't lean too heavily on that).

So, dwarves, elves, even orcs, are all people. The basic criterion is the sapiens part of homo sapiens. It's why goblins, for example, are not a people in Altearth, they are beasts. So far it's been serviceable as a distinction, though occasionally it makes me get a little inventive in phrasing.

But now I'm curious. If dwarves etc. are all called human, what do you call humans--that is, those people who are not dwarves or elves etc? What term do you use as a writer?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Random notes as I'm reading:
What's the point of the greater frequency range for dwarves?

Elves seem to be good at everything. Is there no downside to their amazing senses?

How does it affect society? You mention a bit about grumpy old dwarves. But what about elves? Are cooks more highly regarded in elvish society?
1. Not a point, really, but it establishes they can hear things others cannot. Think dog whistles, for example.
2. That's a good observation. To make the essay more complete, I should address that. I move tentatively through world building stuff because anything that gets into the books (or onto the website) becomes canon and then I have to live with it. Makes me itchy.
3. And ditto. It's another area that should be filled out a bit.

Thanks, all, and here's hoping for more from those of you just lurking. You know who you are.
 
They just aren't dwarves in a classic sense, they're just a culture that spent time in isolation and they are shorter and stockier, but due to their extra senses, came to be known as great miners. In fact, during the Age of God Wars, they were coveted as slaves because of their abilities, and this drove them deeper into hiding, and the captured ones gods altered further. Thirty years ago when developing the world they were dwarves, but over time I moved away from that. Without an origin story for dwarves like Tolkien has, or the inability to breed with humans, the term dwarf for these people grew kind of silly in my mind. The word elf is also never used, they have cultural names under the umbrella of Woodkin.

Other races are distinctly not human.

>but nobody thinks of them as anything other than humans
Yeah, this is a tricky one. My approach has been to use the term "people" and occasionally "nations" (in the original Latin sense, which means I can't lean too heavily on that).

So, dwarves, elves, even orcs, are all people. The basic criterion is the sapiens part of homo sapiens. It's why goblins, for example, are not a people in Altearth, they are beasts. So far it's been serviceable as a distinction, though occasionally it makes me get a little inventive in phrasing.

But now I'm curious. If dwarves etc. are all called human, what do you call humans--that is, those people who are not dwarves or elves etc? What term do you use as a writer?
 

SinghSong

Minstrel
1. Not a point, really, but it establishes they can hear things others cannot. Think dog whistles, for example.
2. That's a good observation. To make the essay more complete, I should address that. I move tentatively through world building stuff because anything that gets into the books (or onto the website) becomes canon and then I have to live with it. Makes me itchy.
3. And ditto. It's another area that should be filled out a bit.

Thanks, all, and here's hoping for more from those of you just lurking. You know who you are.
1. You could extend it to plenty of other things as well, you know, which'd have far greater implications for dwarven society. For instance, did you know that plant roots are effectively their brains, which host neuron-like activity? https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429980-400-root-intelligence-plants-can-think-feel-and-learn/? And that plant roots communicate with one another predominantly via infrasounds (too low pitched for humans to hear), since these sound waves travel most efficiently through soil and can be produced with minimal energy expenditure (in the tips of plants' roots)- with plant roots receiving and transducing sound vibrations into signals to elicit behavioral modifications as a form of below ground communication, responding only to sound waves at frequencies which match waves emitted by the plants themselves? If Dwarves could hear (and potentially, vocalize themselves at these low frequencies), then they'd not only be able to more effectively communicate with one another underground through the soil, but they could also effectively be 'plant whisperers', capable of literally verbally communicating with potatoes, turnips, carrots and other root veg, to a similar extent to how humans can communicate with domesticated animals...

2. Regarding the potential downsides of Elven senses, you could go with something akin to the downsides for real life animals with far superior senses to those of humans. Mantis Shrimps, for instance, possess by far the most complex and sophisticated visual systems in the animal kingdom. Compared with the three types of photoreceptor cell that humans possess in their eyes, the eyes of a mantis shrimp have between 12 and 16 types of photoreceptor cells; and they alone of all animals can detect circularly polarized light (enabling them to hypothetically read Blu-ray Discs- if Elves could do this too, then they'd have exclusive access to a means of recording and reading knowledge that no other species would be capable of deciphering). And some mantis shrimps can tune the sensitivity of their long-wavelength colour vision to adapt to their environment, and see equally well in full colour at any levels of ambient light (a species-specific phenomenon known as "spectral tuning", directly linked to mutations in the retinal binding pocket of the opsin- a mutation which you could easily say that Elves possess, even in a world where Elves are genetically close enough to humans to be inter-fertile with them).

However, this has its downsides; whilst mantis shrimps have the ability to visualize an unparalleled range of different light wavelengths, this in turn renders them incapable of discriminating between wavelengths less than 25nm apart. For context, all the colors of the rainbow visible to humans cover the wavelengths of 380-750nm; 'yellow', as a color, only encompasses a wavelength bandwidth of 20nm (570-590nm), whilst 'orange' is the next smallest, covering only 30nm (590-620nm). Not discriminating between closely positioned wavelengths is a necessity, enabling them to maintain the fastest possible reaction times, and rapidly process the overabundance of visual info they receive, minimizing the inordinate processing delays they'd otherwise have to struggle with on account of their vast visual range. And you could easily incorporate a similar downside for Elves; given the prevailing canon of Elves being far superior marksmen and snipers to humans, with peerless visual processing and reaction times, as well as having the ability see a far wider range of wavelengths than humans can, it'd only make sense for this to come at the expense of being incapable of differentiating between wavelengths which're too close to one another (e.g, "Pfft, you humans are so barbaric to one another. Why? You're all the same, aren't you? What- you think they're a 'different race'!? Their skin color's different to yours- darker? What are you talking about- so far as we can see, averaged out across the entirety of OUR visual spectrum, which includes far-ultraviolet and far-infrared, your skin tone's identical to theirs! You truly can't see it? Foolish narrow-minded savages., discriminating between yourselves over such petty and arbitrary non-differences...")
 

TheKillerBs

Inkling
I think adding texture contrast to the temperature contrast in dwarvish cuisine would make sense. Maybe they like contrasting hot and cold of the same texture or maybe they like some textures for hot and some for cold, or something else. I think it'd add some depth to it.
 
With humans, sensory memory is mainly about sight, followed by smell and sound. (From your page.)

Not all humans. Different people remember things differently.

For me, sensory memory is more about sound than sight. And sensation. Mention being on a boat, and I'll feel the particular rocking motion boats make. But my visualizations are always vague.

A flat out contraindication I see is in how you describe your elves. All their senses are heightened, but they don't get overwhelmed? The drawback to extra sensitive senses is sensory overwhelm. People with heightened sensitivities have low tolerance for loud noise, bright lights, crowds, bold flavors, and all sorts of things that people with average sensory levels not only tolerate but enjoy. One would think those highly sensitive elves would be like that. They would absolutely not be able to tolerate walking through a field of corpses or tasting every food out there.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Thanks for that feedback, Rosemary Tea. I get your point; I have a counterpoint (but you were expecting that, weren't you? <g>).

I was thinking of dogs. It has long puzzled me how dogs can be so sensitive to sounds and smells, yet seem able to bear a loud sound or especially pungent smell. It's more about types of sounds and smells that they react to.

That's what was in my mind when I thought of Altearth elves having heightened senses. First, they don't all need to be Superman-level heightened. But more, I thought of them having instinctive and even physical systems in place that let them tune in when interested and tune out, either deliberately or by some sort of self-preservation.

That said, I can see positing that one (of several) reasons why elves tend not to have large settlements in human cities is that they are too "noisy" - by which they would mean all senses. Too busy, smelly, loud, jostling, and so on. Some humans even react that way, especially if all they've known is rural life.

See, this is why I make posts like this. I get other perspectives, which are always welcome.
 
Thanks for that feedback, Rosemary Tea. I get your point; I have a counterpoint (but you were expecting that, weren't you? <g>).

Of course! :D

I was thinking of dogs. It has long puzzled me how dogs can be so sensitive to sounds and smells, yet seem able to bear a loud sound or especially pungent smell. It's more about types of sounds and smells that they react to.

But you know how most dogs react to thunderstorms or fireworks? That kind of loud noise really bothers them.

Dogs also have to be trained to not react to certain environmental cues and stressors, if they're going to do jobs like bomb sniffing or drug sniffing or search and rescue. Controlling their reactions doesn't come naturally.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
As I chew over this, I see that "heightened" doesn't necessarily have to mean more. For example, I could have elves--though the specific nation doesn't matter--be able to see further into the blue end of the spectrum than can humans. Or, and I think I did say this one, dwarves might hear to a different frequency. And because I have some magical elements in Altearth, they might hear/see/taste/smell/feel flows or manifestations of those energies that others do not.

I can go further and take the point about training, such that maybe orcs with training can perceive things orcs without such training cannot. I'm always looking out for nuance and this gives a fair range to that.
 
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