Up the Indus by Brain Slug

A Science-Fiction interpretation of some curious features
of the Indus Valley Civilisation


This isn't a story yet, but I have fond hopes it may be someday. The Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilisation (I'll use the terms interchangably) has always struck me as excellent material for science fiction. They have any number of odd, not to say creepy, features.

It seems hard to believe science fiction would have ignored so significant a culture. As far as I know, however, nobody's ever done a story anything like this: if you know of an SF story based around the Harappans drop me a line. I hope someone does, and that these notes turn out to be helpful. If that someone turns out to be me, all the better.

In a non-Harappan setting some relatives are Dean Ing's Anasazi, Harry Turtledove's Between the Rivers (though that's fantasy rather than science fiction) and anything by Erich von Daniken (though that's pseudo-science non-fiction: fiction is when you admit it isn't true).

Weird Facts

This section contains a collection of factoids about the Harappans. Some are here because I find them impressive, interesting, unusual, weird and/or disturbing, others just because I want to mention them later. They lead on to the conclusions of the next section.

The Basics

The Harappans were an early riverine civilisation, reminiscent of Sumer and Egypt and not much later. Their two largest cities were at places that today are called Harappa (hence the name) and Mohenjo-Daro (nobody knows what the Harappans called themselves). Generally they concentrated along the Indus river (hence the name) and the Sarisvati river (which is now dry).


The Indus Valley was an organised state. A very organised state. Cities were laid out in grid patterns, for instance. Different quarters of the city were reserved for different occupations (check).


There's some suggestion that the Indus Valley might have been a republic. That's not something you expect in the third century BC but there are some echoes of it in other early cultures in India. There seems to have been a lot of decentralisation in the government, but the whole area was definitely one state.


The Indus Valley civilisation covered an area of over a million square kilometres. By ancient standards, this is huge: larger, for instance, than the Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian and Hittite states put together.


Today, most languages in Northern India are Indo-Aryan languages, that arrtived with the Aryan invasion about the time the Indus Valley civilisation was falling. Most scholars believe that before Indo-Aryan languages supplanted them the languages of Northern India would have been Dravidian, like most of the languages in Southern India. The nearest living relative of Harrapan is probably Tamil, the Dravidian language least affected by Indo-Aryan languages.


Symbol-frequency analysis suggests that the language was the same all along the river. (Compare this with, say, French and English, where the alphabet is the same but the frequency of use of symbols is very different. This would give an alien archaeologist a hint that the languages were different.)


I think their bricks were the single freakiest thing about them. All through the empire they had the same dimensions: 28 centimetres long, 14 centimetres wide and 7 centimetres deep. It sounds like an alien artefact from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, or some mad standardisation scheme out of the French revolution, but it happened in the third millenium BC. The bricks were oven baked: technology significantly in advance of their Sumerian equivalents, which were sun-baked. But Harappan technology regressed in this respect and the later bricks aren't any better than Sumerian ones (check).


The Indus Valley script has yet to be deciphered. That's unusual, the only other great bronze-age imperial script we can't read is Etruscan. The script did not evolve over the several centuries it was used, unlike everyone else's script in this era.

The End

The fall of the Indus Valley civilisation was partly due to the arrival of the Aryans, a people from Central Asia (isn't everyone) speaking Indo-European languages. But the Indus Valley seems to have been in decline before this. Partly this may be associated with climate changes that caused the Sarisvati to dry up, but it's hard to see why they should have been so harsh as to decivilise a region larger than modern Pakistan. In Iraq, by contrast, these same changes collapsed the cities of the lower Tigris-Euphrates, but civilisation just moved up the river.


Judging by their statues, the people of the Indus Valley appear to have come from many different races. The usual rule of thumb is that linguistics tracks ethnicity, so one might expect them to look kind of Dravidian — Caucasian features and very dark skin — like the people of Southern India. Instead, they have the weirdest racial mix.


This doesn't seem to have been anything like as important to the Harappans as it was to most early civilisations. There are some people in art work that some scholars believe are priests, but it's uncertain and there's nothing like the ubiquity of religion in middle eastern societies.


There don't appear to have been any. The contrast here with the other “hydraulic” river civilisations (Egypt and Sumer) is immense. It seems reasonable to assume this is connected to republicanism and their disinterest in religion.


Ancient cities were dirty, smelly places ... unless you lived in the Indus Valley. They had covered, brick-lined sewers.


One of the great public buildings of Mohenjo-Daro is the Great Bath, which is more or less a twelve metre indoor swimming pool. That may not sound impressive if you've been watching the olympics, but it's the largest such structure in the ancient world. Bathing was obviously important to these people.


Not much of this. Archaeologists have found a few weapons, but nothing like as many as in, say, Egyptian digs. Most Harappan towns weren't fortified, and some of those that were seemed to have been designed more for flood control than military applications. In the Rig-Veda (an early Hindu epic) the principal Hindu god Indra, who may be loosely based on a real Aryan leader involved in the destruction of the Indus Valley civilisation, has the sobriquet “fort-destroyer”. But perhaps any large town looked like a fort to the non-urbanised Aryans.


They don't have any. The Indus Valley seems to have leapt full-grown from almost nothing. Oh, there are village cultures in Afghanistan and so forth but the ramp up time was astonishingly short, compared with, say, the fertile crescent.

The Only Possible Explanation

I haven't worked this out in detail yet but the Harappan society was run by aliens with the power to control human minds. I've borrowed the term “brain slug” from Matt Groening's Futurama for this purpose, though I envisage aliens larger, less numerous and not requiring physical contact.

The human cattle are trawled from all over, hence the variation in ethnicity. The aliens may be very large and like floating in twelve-metre tubs, or be hive minds that link themselves together by ultrasonics through the water, or maybe they're just diverting rivers to extract enough deuterium to get their spaceship working again. Certainly they don't like bad smells, hence the covered sewers. All this diversion of rivers is going to ruin the climate but the aliens hope they'll be gone by then.

They're big fans of standardisation, because they like to simultaneously teleoperate thousands of workers by mind control. “All workers assigned to bricklaying, use your left hand to lift a standard brick from the pile. All workers assigned to bricklaying, use your right hand to spread mortar on the brick. All workers assigned to bricklaying, ...” There's a sort of republicanism, in the sense that people vote on what they think would most benefit their alien masters, reducing the chance that they will have a fit of pique and order some random people to disembowel themselves. The aliens can't really tell humans apart (they all smell almost exactly the same) so they don't have subordinate leaders, or palaces, or anything like that. They don't need soldiers for internal disputes because there aren't any, and their superb organisation is unbeatable by external invaders, even given a certain lack of martial skill and equipment at the individual level.

It doesn't seem reasonable the aliens happened along just as civilisation was starting up. Two obvious explanations:

In the end, all the aliens get sick and tired. You just can't get the right vitamins on Earth and they gradually decline in psychic strength, until unable to force the people to think the right thoughts to run a civilisation the alien way. Civilisation falters, and Indra's Aryans trash the culture. It's a pity, from some points of view: though probably not that of humans, who would otherwise have been teleoperated machinery for eternity.


So that's the backplot, but what's the story? I have no idea, though the obvious plots sound kind of like Harry Harrison's East of Eden, with an Aryan viewpoint character. Certainly the viewpoint character will have to be controlled at some time, to show what it's like. Probably the book would stretch over most of the viewpoint character's life. If you think you have an idea, feel free to drop me a line. Or write the story yourself. Or both.

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