Robert Silverberg, editor: “Murasaki” (c) 1992

Robert Silverberg, editor: “Murasaki” (c) 1992

“Murasaki” is a sci fi novel in six parts by Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Nancy Kress, and Fredrick Pohl, edited by Robert Silverberg.

 The novel is about three vastly different, intelligent alien races, on two closely revolving planets, Genji and Chujo, around the fictional star Murasaki.

The story becomes more complex when human space explorers set foot on the planets in the 23rd century. Various expeditions from Earth, Mars, and the Spacer habitats arrive – including Americans, Japanese, and British; and there are researchers and scientists, from various fields; and missionaries.

Mixed in with the excitement of discovery, there is the unsettling realization for the humans that the three alien races have their own cultures, histories and conflicts. The humans cannot apply directly Earth-based paradigms or methods or knowledge of cultures, societies or civilizations to the aliens they encounter.

Bio-engineered spaceships ? Ancient cities left by choice? Whales capable of receiving and sending light signals? What is clear to Chujoans and Genjians is a deep mystery to humans.

At the end of the novel, some of the humans feel that the role of humans is irrelevant on Murasaki and they choose to return to Earth. For others, the new knowledge and experiences they have acquired becomes an important challenge to learn even more, and they choose to remain on Genji and Chujo.  For Rilla Johnson, born on Genji, the Murasaki system is her home.

And the challenge to continue to explore space remains strong.  As the story ends, new arrivals from Earth arrive on the planets. And among these is a young man, Kevin Kammer-Washington, the son of Aaron Kammer and Nicole Washington, two members of the first expedition to the Murasaki system.


Background information

Robert Silverberg, the editor, provides an introduction to “Murasaki”: it is a “shared-world” anthology of stories , in which the authors explore the same set of ideas and characters, set in the same fictional world.

Naming the star and its planets:    “Murasaki” is the fictitious name of an actual star HD 36395 (in the constellation Orion).

In the novel, the star system was first explored by a Japanese interstellar probe, and is given the name “Murasaki”, after Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial court in the 10th/11th century. The title of her best known novel is Genji Monogatari or “The Tale of Genji” ; in her novel Hikaru Genji is the name of the hero and To no Chujo is his close friend.
In the sci fi novel , the larger of the two planets is named Genji, and the smaller one is named Chujo.

As I read the novel, the story flowed well from one writer to the next. And at the end of the novel, an integrated picture emerged based on the histories, cultures, and evolution of the Genji and Chujo alien races, and the critical role that the carpet whales play in the survival of the two races.

Frederick Pohl and Poul Anderson set up the physical characteristics of the fictional Murasaki system in terms of the atmosphere, geology, chemistry, flora and fauna.
(Appendix A : “Design for two worlds” by Poul Anderson; and Appendix B: “Murasaki’s worlds” by Frederick Pohl).
The Murasaki system is about 20 light years from Earth, and in ships time that’s 11 years. The star itself is a red dwarf star with a yellowish tinge to its light.

The planets Genji and Chujo are close to each other, about 40% of the distance between Earth and the Moon. Both planets have oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres somewhat similar to Earth. However, the gravity and the atmospheric pressure of Genji, and of Chujo, are different enough from that of Earth, that humans must wear space suits with artificial decompression, or risk acute and chronic damage to the lungs.

In the novel  the story unfolds  in the following sequence:
Frederik Pohl : The Treasures of Chujo
David Brin : Genji
Poul Anderson : Language
Gregory Benford: World Vast, World Various
Greg Bear: A Plague of Conscience
Nancy Kress: Birthing Pool


The story is set in the 23rd century. The first Earth-based expedition is sent to the Murasaki system when a Japanese robot probe reports Earth-like planets and intelligent life in the system. The crew of the starship includes Spacers, from the asteroid habitats in Earth’s solar system and from Mars. The expedition is under orders to leave the Murasaki system when a Japanese expedition force arrives. The exploration teams quickly wind up their brief survey of the planets Genji and Chujo. Two crew members, Nicole Washington and Aaron Kammer are on Chujo; Kammer goes alone to explore the forested area, and does not return.  The starship leaves without Kammer, who is presumed to be dead.

The departing Spacer expedition shares with the Japanese their knowledge and experience from their expeditions to Chujo and Genji. The Japanese begin the work of establishing more permanent expedition bases. This includes building pressurized facilities for living and research purposes; power and fuel processing units; computing facilities; hydroponic units and facilities to produce food in artificial environments.

On Genji the side of the planet that constantly faces Chujo is called “Moonside” ; an ocean dominates the geographical features on this side of Genji. The Ihrdizu are Genji aliens who live in villages near the seashore. They are amphibian-like with torpedo-shaped bodies, and four telescoping eyes that give them an almost panoramic vision.

Minoru is a Japanese biologist. Using translator machines, he learns from the Ihrdizu villagers about their society, their culture and history. The Ihrdizu cultivate swamp farms in the forested hills, and have designed birthing pools that are flooded at high tide, leaving behind flora and fauna when the waters recede. The pools are used by Ihrdizu females after mating; the egg sacs containing embryos develop in the pools; the young hatch out in the pools. The males are farmers and tend to the young in their family, whereas the females are the warriors. The Ihrdizu believe that Chujo is the home of Angels.

As Minoru makes a closer study of the Genji ecosystem, and its geological history, he discovers flora and fauna fossils that indicate Genji has gone through devastating  ecological changes a number of times in the past. The mystery deepens when he comes across a  medallion with writing on it. This adds to findings by other Japanese teams that Genji has also gone through a rise and fall in the invention of metallurgy a number of times.

The himatids or carpet whales live in the vast ocean on Genji’s moonside. The Ihrdizu have a history of enslaving and hunting the carpet whales for food.

Over the years that follow, researchers from different countries come to the Murasaki system. On Genji an Exploration Corps is established for scientific research and xenological expeditions. One of their responsibilities is to assess and allocate resources to various research activities.

Rita Byrne, one of a very few humans born and raised on Genji, is a member of the Corps. She has flown from the mountainous starside of Genji, to the Moonside of Genji, to meet with Malchiel Holden, a reclusive biologist. The life-cycle, migratory habits and communications of the carpet-whale is of particular interest to Holden. His research shows that the carpet-whale has an intelligence different from the Ihrdizu, Chujoans, and humans. The carpet-whales have their own language of signals with complex semantics and structure.

In their biological development, himatid calves move from the tidewater near the shores to the more arctic-like open waters of the ocean, with migrating adult carpet whales, and mature into whales. When Rita is at Holden’s research outpost, Holden accompanies a himatid calf to the open sea to join with migrating whales. Rita tracks the carpet whales in her flyer, and witnesses a violent encounter. Holden has confronted two Ihrdizu whaling ships which have harpooned a carpet whale. Using explosives, he sinks one of the vessels, and kills three Ihrdizu as they try to board his schooner.

Rita confronts Holden as there are very stringent laws against killing any intelligent life forms or aliens. Holden defends his actions: The Ihrdizu think of himatids as animals, and have a history of hunting them for food. He is determined to protect the himatids because his research shows that the whales are intelligent and he believes the basis of their language is biological. Eventually Rita joins Holden in his research on the whales,  and they marry.

With jagged mountains, smaller seas, and a colder environment, Chujo is a different planet than Genji. The Japanese expeditions find a great deal of evidence of an ancient Chujoan civilization. Their abandoned cities still stand. The Chujoans are now a nomadic race, but at one time they were farmers: there are ancient irrigation channels in the valleys. Some of their grain fields still exist.  These and other observations suggest the Chujoans once had considerable technological  skills. However, all attempts to communicate directly with the Chujoans have failed.

Physically, the Chujoans have legs and arms but their large oval heads, and four-fingered hands with blue nails set them apart from the Ihrdizu and humans. Their most distinctive feature is the symbiotic living mat, or “snug” of microorganisms that covers their entire body.

It is only later on when closer contact occurs between the Chujoans and the humans, that more is learned about the Chujoans and their earlier biotechnological expertise and civilization. And that in fact the Chujoans and Ihrdizu are genetically related.

Miyuki is a geophysicist with a Japanese team of biologists and sociologists, on Chujo. She explores a large ruined, abandoned city, with its airy buildings and carved and fretted stonework. As in the other abandoned cities, there are mysterious wall paintings and engravings. There is a particular stone artwork that has shown up also in the other ruins. The art work is of a tiger eating its own tail. A figure of a Chujoan is twisted in the tail. Green teardrops fall from the sky.

Miyuki’s team also observes the Chujoans have a type of “library”, with cube-shaped objects stored in  cairns of stacked stones.

While the Japanese team is on Chujo, their robot space probes show the Chujoan tribes migrating towards the mountains. Miyuki and the team fly to the region. They land on a valley floor which is covered with an extensive mat of interconnected green algae and fibers. The giant mat begins to move  with the strength of earthquake-like tremblors.  The Japanese find themselves hurled off the mat as it rises off the valley floor. Some of the gathered Chujoans scramble across the mat as one edge of the giant algal mat rises into the air, leaps upwards, and merges with another rising edge of the algal mat, to form a balloon or “bioloon”.   Chujoans scramble into pockets in the bioloon.

Miyuki and her team watch as other bioloons rise into the sky . They are like the green teardrops in the artwork in the abandoned cities.  The “bioloons”  move up into the sky towards Genji,  but soon fall back to the ground, killing  the Chujoans in the bioloons.

The protection of the Ihrdizu and Chujo cultures and beliefs becomes significant when an American Christian group arrives on Genji. Their leader is Robert Carnot. He preaches a gospel based on “God the Physicist”, Jesus as the savior, and he talks of reuniting Genji and Chujo.

By this time, a Japanese expedition has discovered that Aaron Kammer from the first expedition to Murasaki is alive, on Chujo, and is being cared for by Chujoan shamans. Carnot meets with Kammer and claims that Kammer is a resurrection or an avatar of ancient Chujo spirituality.

Edward Philby, the First Planetfall co-ordinator, realizes that the Ihrdizu and Chujoans have their own way of thinking, their own language,. He sees the danger that Carnot poses to the cultures of Genji and Chujo. and  he convinces  Kammer  to help stop Carnot’s preaching.

Kammer arrives on the Genji seashores to meet with Carnot and Philby, in a meeting arranged by a Japanese scientific liaison Suzy Tatsumi. As Kammer walks along the shore he sees racks of himatid calf and carpet whale skins. He is furious at the sight of the destruction of the whales by the Ihrdizu. He has realized that the whales are critical to the survival of Genji and Chujo. A group of female Ihrdizu now surround Kammer and Carnot, and stone the two men to death.

About 30 years have passed since the first expeditions to Genji and Chujo. Jordan Dane is First Conciliator, to resolve conflicts among the different human groups. Dane is a librarian, and a specialist of Quantum Effect Devices (QED). These devices are used by the various researchers to receive data from the main computer at Okuma Base.

Jordan Dane and scientific liaison Suzy Tatsumi , and other researchers monitor the data flowing in from Chujo and Genji, and are transfixed by the  unfolding events.

On the valley floors of Chujo, the giant green mats are rising again, many years after the first observations of the “bioloons” by the early Japanese expedition. Chujoans are migrating to the valleys.

On Genji, the carpet-whales are all swimming to the mainland waters, towards the Ihrdizu seashores.

Bruce Johnson is a xenobiologist. As he watches the migrations of the whales, he wonders if an outside signal has triggered a genetically-coded behavior. Curious and excited,  Bruce uses a fuzzy-logic software, searching for correlations between seemingly unrelated events.

The whales arrive and remain stationary in the straits, at a point where Chujo is exactly overhead. The whales roll over to their ventral sides. Light from the star Murasaki strikes millions of light refractors embedded in the whales’ ventral sides. Light signals from the whales flash into the sky and focus the light on the green snug mats on Chujo.

On Chujo as the huge living mats rise and their edges merge, Chujoans scramble across them as before, and scramble into pockets in the mats. The rising  bioloons  change shape precisely  as simultaneously, the whales on Genji are observed to change the focus and intensity of light from their refractors. The whales continue to change their light signals and the shape of the bioloons flattens out as they move forward into space, and towards Genji.

As the bioloons enter the Genji atmosphere, a heat shield forms around them. Their  shapes change into giant parachutes.  As the bioloons drop into the sea, the whales guide them towards the seashore. The Ihrdizu welcome the Chujoans as they emerge from the bioloons.

The explanation for these events emerges from the etchings  (the “library”) that the Chujoans provide to the humans, breaking their silence of nearly three decades.

The Chujoans are the “Masters” of bio-engineering, and have used their skills to create a balanced ecology on Genji.  But from time to time, errors in their bio-engineering  devastate the Genji ecology and significantly, devastate the Ihrdizu birthing pools.  The whales exile the Chujoans to their own planet,  to create new bio-engineered green mats and to restore Genji’s ecological balance. The new bio-engineered mats arrive in Genji in the form of the bioloons, together with the Chujo Masters to help in the restoration work on Genji.

The whales are critical in keeping this link intact between the Genji Ihrdizu and Chujoans. When there are not enough  whales  to make the correct light  signals,  the bioloons fall back to the ground on Chujo and never make it to Genji.

With the successful journey  of the Chujo  Masters and the new bio-engineered bioloons to  Genji,  the work of  transforming Genji’s degraded  ecology begins.  And the Ihrdizu birthing pools once again provide a safe environment for the development of young Ihrdizu.

 Reserarchers like Bruce Johnson decide to remain  on Genji, rather return to Earth.  For Bruce,   there are many  new exciting scientific challenges, including more research into the origins of the whales, and the  bio-engineering  alteration of plankton, and of  land flora and fauna.

On the other hand, Jane Johnson, Bruce Johnson’s wife, returns to Earth.  She perceives the aliens to be  animal-like,  and  does not believe that humans have any  relevant role to play in the Murasaki system.

Their ten-year old daughter, Rilla, was born on Genji. She considers Genji as her home, and her decision to remain on Genji, with her father, is approved by the First Conciliator.

Even as some people return to Earth, the Murasaki system draws the curiosity and interest  of others.  Among the new arrivals  is a young man, Kevin Kammer-Washington, the son of Aaron Kammer and Nicole Washington, two members of the first expedition to the Murasaki system.