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Poem: "The Webs of Death" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "The Webs of Death"
This poem came from the May 5, 2009 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired and sponsored by tabard. For those of you participating in the recent conversation about "science fiction with few or no humans in it," this poem qualifies as an example. Like the "sunken Nebraska" poems -- though not set in the same timestream -- it involves another species on Earth after humans are long dead.

The Webs of Death

It was a strange planet,
covered with blustery air that
whipped the words away from everyone’s antennae,
making conversation difficult even at close range.
Dried seedpods stirred in the stiff wind,
clattering like the carapaces of the dead.

At first they thought
it was uninhabited,
had never been inhabited
by anything higher than the tiny furred things
that ran among the rocks.
They crew watched them nervously as they worked,
gnawed by a primal fear
of creatures that could bite through chitin.

Then one of the geologists
came scuttling back to camp,
reeking with excitement.
The crew put their heads together,
scent whispering about the discovery –-
long lines of hydrocarbon
buried under a few feet of soil and stone,
not the tremendous distance of natural deposits.

They brought their scanners to bear
and mapped out the ancient, broken lines.
They marveled over the extent and
speculated about the purpose.
Perhaps the lines were territorial markers
or warning signs. Then someone
mused that they might be art, of the sort
sometimes made to be viewed from above.

The lines, even fragmented by time,
showed a certain organization
but formed no pattern, no picture –-
until one scent-whisper suggested,
“They look like webs, don’t they?”

Webs, symbols of death, traps
created by ancient enemies
to snare their unwary prey.
Wherever they walked after that,
the crew imagined webs
and eight-legged eaters.
Sometimes they dug for artifacts two-handed,
keeping their secondary hands free for weapons,
just in case.

The crew were nothing if not dutiful:
they completed their assignment
and all the surveys.
Then they scurried back to their ship
as fast as they could, eager to be away
from the home of beings who once worshipped death
and now were dead.

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12 comments or Leave a comment
tabard From: tabard Date: May 18th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is great! The thought of a big thinking insectoids kind of makes my skin crawl, and really punctuates just how alien they are, and why they interpret things the way they do. Also, the thought of spiders big enough for these "webs" is the stuff of my nightmares >.o
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 18th, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)


I'm glad you enjoyed this.

These particular insectoid aliens seem to be on the gentle and shy side, unlike the more common predatory renditions. I'm delighted that they came across as really alien!

Yeah, city-sized spiders = O_O
From: browngirl Date: May 18th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is really, wonderfully, chillingly alien.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 18th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC) (Link)


I am so pleased by that response.

I think part of this comes from my interest in archaeology and historic artifacts, not just the obvious things like bowls and rings, but the weird tools whose shape makes no sense out of context. Hay hooks. The plastic "key" that opens mouse-bait boxes. Shelf supports. Wing nuts. When we look at something from another civilization, we are bereft of the cultural knowledge that would explain the purpose of their widgets. So we guess. Sometimes we guess right, but other times a tidbit emerges later that shows we were wildly, hilariously wrong.

When I write about alien explorers looking at human relics, or human explorers looking at alien relics, I keep that sort of thing in mind. The experiences of each species play into what kind of "guesses" they make. The farther apart the observers are from the species they are studying, the more that distortion affects their accuracy.
From: browngirl Date: May 19th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yay!

I had Thoughts about this (so often even in human archaeology we find items whose uses we haven't yet deciphered, how much more so in cross-species archaeology) but I fell asleep on the bus and they sank into my subconscious.

But they're there, inspired by your poem, and will reappear sometime, I'm sure.
sythyry From: sythyry Date: May 18th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
hee hee hee hee.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 18th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC) (Link)


Laugh it up, O Zi Ri ... YOUR world has enough whacked-out Death deities that it's hard to keep track who's in the Dark Trinity! :P
sythyry From: sythyry Date: May 18th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Eh...

We don't have any death deities!

Deities who indulge in recreational murder, that's a different matter.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 18th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Eh...

Close enough for grabs, I think, in this context.
asakiyume From: asakiyume Date: May 19th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I love these aliens, who are afraid of creatures that can bite through chitin, who keep their secondary hands free for weapons while investigating with their primary ones--super! And I like that oil lines are the remnant of human civilization. Very cool poem.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 19th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

Feedback is candy!

In writing about aliens, I try to use small details densely so that readers learn a lot about them in a short span. Those points above hint that these are not Bug-Eyed-Monsters but rather shy people ... they may have evolved from something like an ant or a beetle instead of a preying mantis or wasp.

One of my favorite thought experiments is imagining what alien or other futuristic archaeologists would make of some things in our lives, and what things we make would survive the longest. Things made from oil, such as roads, would last very well.

Of course, there's another thing that lasts:
asakiyume From: asakiyume Date: May 19th, 2009 03:10 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

Hahaha, very cute--I especially liked solar Barbie in her Malibu aspect :D
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