The Ecology of the Night Land


I think it can be said that the mark of a good story is the fascination that it can generate in all its parts, not just the main story line. In the case of Hodgson's book he creates an almost surreal world that his character wanders through on his quest. It begs a closer look. Lacking that closer look in the book inspires speculation.

Before going further in this, some assumptions need be made. First is that any biosphere aeons removed from our present one isn't going to be even remotely comparable. Nor will the sapients that live then bear any resemblance to us. Less time separates us from "Lucy" and her kindred in Africa than separates us from the inhabitants of the Great Redoubt, and few would consider "Lucy" to be truly human. But not being comparable doesn't exclude "analogous". The author specifically uses the term "humanity" to describe these extreme future descendants of ours; thus we will assume they are "humans" analogous to us today, even though they would not be comparable.

Another point is the author used the lands as both backdrop and plot device, going into detail only when needed. The rest of the time he used default imagery for the reader to conjure analogies of his own from. Any ecosystem that can function under conditions when there is no sun to derive energy from, again, is going to be radically different than ours, especially since the available energy seems to be coming from geothermal sources, including vulcanism (we'll ponder the psychic powers later).

But there are some cited facts to draw upon that can form the skeleton we can hang flesh on as we go. One of those facts is: there is no mention of there being ice or snow anywhere. Thus it can be assumed the ambient temperature of the Night Land is above the freezing point of water.

There is no mention of weather of any type, but there are rivers. Rivers are normally formed through water run-off, such as rain. Also it should be noted that there are spring-fed streams near the Redoubt, but no rivers. The rivers are found by the Great Sea, where there is marked geothermal activity that in some places comes close to boiling the water. Thus it can be assumed that this water vapor rises to condense as rain elsewhere in a simple circulation weather pattern, returning to the Sea as run-off in the rivers.

The area near the Redoubt has "moss-bushes" but no other plant types. The area has "fire pits" and "fire holes" but no notable geothermal features beyond that. Near the Great Sea and its vulcanism, however, there are forests proper. Plants are normally thoughtof  as needing sunlight, but some subsist in other ways — mushrooms being a prime example. Also, there is chemosynthesis, such as what takes place with the critters that live by underwater volcanic vents.

But just because there is no sun doesn't mean photosynthesis does not occur. There are some chlorophylls that operate in the infrared region. Such plants would only need a heat source, and vulcanism could serve quite handily for that. This can also be assumed because the author specifically mentions two "fire hills" on the side of a mountain that burn very bright "like small suns".

The fauna of the Night Land unfortunately is food-chain top-heavy, a problem due to the author using it more for a plot device than anything else. Almost every creature encountered is large, humanoid, and mammalian; and all are predatory/carnivorous. Mammals are huge wasters of energy, with about 90% of their energy going into maintaining their body temperatures. There are a few cold-blooded creatures about, but they again are more for a plot device.

There is no mention of any form of herbivore to be an intermediary between the plant-life and the carnivores. Now it can be assumed that since present humanity, and thus the other later day humanoids of the Night Land, are omnivores, they could make use of plant energy sources directly. Having nothing else to fall back on, we'll let that assumption stand.

The size factor is one that might seem anachronistic. In such an energy-starved ecosystem (as compared to ours today) it seems inconsistent to have large energy-wasters wandering about when smaller, more energy-economical critters would fare the better. Now it can likely be rightly said that the author ignored such things in creating his imagery.

However, truth can also be weirder than fiction. A look at our present day arctic and subarctic regions, which can also be considered energy-starved, have a percentage of large mammals running about. That's because a large bodies also mean more thermal mass to help maintain optimal body temperatures. Under the same conditions a small creature, such as a mouse, could freeze to death (or freeze solid) in a matter of minutes. Large bodies, even cold-blooded ones, also generate heat through friction as they move. The larger the body mass the more heat generated. It is theorized that's part of the reason for the dinosaurs growing to the huge sizes they did, and why they could survive the winter at the south pole.

So putting all this ramble together, we have a biosphere that's powered by geothermal activity through a variety of means to maintain the flora that grows in this seemingly inhospitable place. The flora acts as a base energy source that supports omnivorous creatures at the top of the food chain, who also prey on one another for the high-energy food sources they are. Though a relatively small percentage of the total biomass, they are nonetheless physically large as a rule, to maximize their energy efficiency.

Anachronistic creatures, such as the snakes that seem to be everywhere, have no apparent food supply as even the larger ones are too small to be predatory towards even the smaller creatures. Add to this that the snakes themselves are prey to other creatures, such as the "rat-dogs". There are obviously many gaps in this simplistic model that can only be filled through speculation, since there are no canonical sources.

Though the above might be analogous to our present day and age, it is not comparable. Though the Night Land is habitable for the creatures living there, it would not be for us. The air would be too thin, cold, and acrid, with sulfurous gases that would make survival impossible for us. Add to this that the flora and fauna would be likewise poisonous. A choice between suffocation, poisoning, or starvation hardly sounds pleasant.

The Psychic Ecology

As if the physical ecology of the Night Land wasn't weird enough, there is a psychic/psionic/spiritual one as well. Though a plot device of the author, it too is intriguing in its vagueness. Almost all of this ecology can be traced to Victorian-era Christian fundamentalism. As the author was fully entrenched in the Victorian mindset, it should come as no surprise he would borrow from the spiritual mindset of the day as well.

Basically there are 3 different classes to this ecology:

    1. There are humans, some of whom — the Sensitives — have telepathic powers. Humans can buy the farm in two ways. They can die/be killed, or they can be Destroyed. Death is just the death of the body, but Destruction is death for the Immortal Soul. Faced with Destruction, most humans of the Night Land will commit suicide first. Death is not permanent as humans have been reincarnated over the history of the race (now isn't that a radical concept to add in here!).
    2. The creatures that Destroy are called pneumavores. They are psychic carnivores, analogous to the various satanic demons and devils they are borrowed from. Their appearances are intermittent — usually when a notable human "food source" has been made available and noticeable. Though there are creatures that maintain a constant surveillance on humans and the Great Redoubt, most notably the huge Watchers, the pneumavores themselves must be remaining in an energy-conserving dormancy until alerted. An exception to this likely is the enigmatic House of Silence. Whatever inhabits the House is ever-vigilant but waits patiently like a spider for something to blunder into its webs. Nothing else is known about the House, but that is deemed sufficient.
    3. Of course if there are Evil Powers then there must also be a Power of Good as well. Whatever it is in the story — though it's obviously borrowed from the Angelic and Divine — is even more enigmatic than the various pneumavores. This Power has only manifested itself four times in the story. Once it took the form of a shining dome that encloses one of the Watchers, preventing it from continuing to move towards the Great Redoubt as it had for millennia. The next time it appears as a shining barrier that tries to block the way of a group of hot-headed youths that charged bravely into the Night Land and were beguiled by the House of Silence. This attempt failed and the youths were captured, never to be seen again. The third time was a shining dome cast over the army that set forth to rescue the hotheads, and which drove away the pneumavore that was bearing down on them. Though it saved their collective souls' cookies, they yet had to battle their way back to the Redoubt through attacking nasties from the Night Land. The final time was when the main character and his lady fair, both powerful Sensitives, were discovered by a pneumavore. Once again the cookie-saving deus ex machina took a shining white form, this time as a brilliant star-like object overhead. Why did these things happen when they did? What was the reasoning? Who knows? But it's okay there's no discernable logic to it all: everyone knows the Lord moves in mysterious (and incomprehensible) ways.

There is one final factor to the mix: the Earth Current. The Earth Current is the primary power source of the Great Redoubt and is also used to place a protective barrier around the Redoubt (shining white, of course). It appears to be some form of geo-electricity, though there's more to it than that. It also seems to have a holistic effect on the humans living in the Redoubt, strengthening them in mind, body, and soul. This is apparent because the inhabitants of the Lesser Redoubt, whose Earth Current had waned and failed, were the lesser on each of these counts — so much so that they had been beguiled into opening their gates, allowing the creatures of the Night Land to enter and attack, bringing the Lesser Redoubt's fall and Destruction to many of its citizens.

So if it wasn't rough enough dealing with the basic physical ecology, now you have to deal with the battle betwixt Good and Evil as well. Is it any real surprise that those that venture into the Night Land almost never return? Talk about stacking the deck! Yet in one respect it's no more cruel than our own times. Without our tech toys, our version of the Great Redoubt, we'd see half the population die before reaching 5 years old, the median age would be about 17, and only 5% would ever see 40 or older. And that's under average conditions.

Hmmmm, maybe it's comparable after all.


From: Sandy Petersen

There are many ecologies which work quite differently from the normal land ecology we live in. I see no reason to believe that the Night Land ecology would be very similar to ours. Particularly speaking as a former Zoology major and science buff, but also a Night Land buff.

For example, the ecology of the deep sea is almost entirely carnivorous or (on the sea floor) scavengers. Monstrous predators which feed primarily on other monstrous predators. This ecology is fueled by dead creatures and plants dropping from above. Swamps operate similarly, with influxes of dead and rotting food matter from the river, but they have more emphasis on scavengers rather than predators. Perhaps the psychic and semi-magic powers of the Watchers or Pneumavores radiate some kind of fuel for at least some inhabitants of the Night Land. This would provide a power source similar to that of the deep sea or a swamp. We know that in the distant past, humans bred with Things From Outside. One plausible reason for such traffic might be that Outside beings had no (or less) need of earthly sustenance. The Giants, such a hybrid spawn, might be able to get much of their energy source from Beyond.

The ecology of the ocean consists mostly of animals, mostly carnivores — there are certainly planktonic plants, but the animal plankton outnumber them. The plants only persist by their extremely quick multiplication. The Night Land might, alternatively, work like this. There would be chemosynthetic or geothermal organisms that were cropped by the other life-forms. Such life might not even be noticeable to the hero as he travels the Night Land — they might look like pools of liquid or even rocks. Or they might be a thin sheath atop a rock — a logical food source for the giant slugs to devour as they move along their cavern, licking off the chemosynthetic slime, but occasionally getting a tastier treat as well. The ancient ecosystem of Earth’s Carboniferous was also largely a mass of large amphibians and reptiles which mostly ate each other. There was no true herbivore class for millions of years, yet ecosystems persisted.

Finally, I want to make the obvious point that the hero naturally noticed the larger, more dangerous organisms. They are the ones dangerous to him, after all. If I go out on a walk and see a deer, when I get home, I say, “I saw a deer”. I don’t say, “I heard tree crickets, and heard a splash in the pond that was probably a frog or a bluegill, and noticed some june bugs under the streetlight, and accidentally walked through a spider web. And oh yeah, I saw a deer.” The deer dominates the conversation, even though the other organisms are far more important to the ecology.

Anyway there are three reasons the Night Land ecology could work — the deep-sea analogy, the ocean analogy, and the “hero didn’t notice the little guy” analogy. I could probably come up with more if pressed, but I hope these provide food for thought.

Essay © 2007 by Zathras.