Beetles and the Sun

A few weeks back I was toying around with the idea of a brain “connectome”. This is the concept of a complete map of all the interconnections in a brain. To date computer scientists working with neuroscientists have been able to take small-scale structures, like insect or mouse brains, and map them with very good detail. The technology is still in its infancy, nevertheless, if it the connections in our brains turn out to be what defines us and stores our memories, the implications could be huge. For a taste at what people are thinking, just read this amazing piece in the NY TImes by Amy Harmon.

I wasn’t going there. Brain mapping in sci-fi is a topic that’s been beaten to death a few times over. I’m more interested in the little things that we’re closer to achieving. If we’re already able to reverse engineer insect brains and simulate them in a supercomputer, then how far are we from mapping them onto mini robots to do tasks that the bugs do naturally? Add a little of our own programmatic secret sauce, and voilà robotic dung beetles to clear sewers. Save millions of gallons of water. Power them with fuel cells that can catalyse the methane in the dung. Make them plant the dung balls in fields as fertilizer.

It’s a fun, though slightly smelly idea, but how to write it? What’s the sci-fi angle? Who are the characters? The bugs? Is this a children’s book? What if the bots have some unpredictable quirks from latent bug brain connections we don’t understand.

What if it’s something rooted in ancient history? I went searching, and boy is there a treasure trove of dung beetle mythology. Prime example:


The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it above the horizon, then carried it through the other world after sunset, only to renew it, again, the next day. Some New Kingdom royal tombs exhibit a threefold image of the sun god, with the beetle as symbol of the morning sun.

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So, what if the latent beetle brain connections give the bot the urge to roll the sun? This almost writes itself. The main character – Capri (cross between Khepri and Caprice) is a capricious beetle bug bot. (Ok this is definitely going to be a children’s book.)

But a dung beetle? Kinda gross topic for a kid’s book. Probably perfect… Is there any precedent of dung beetle children’s stories? Back to wikipedia, and holy $#!* yeah there is.

In literature

In Aesop’s fable “The Dung Beetle and the Eagle”, the eagle kills a hare despite the beetle’s appeals. The beetle takes revenge by twice destroying the eagle’s eggs. The eagle, in despair, flies up to Olympus and places her latest eggs in Zeus‘s lap, beseeching the god to protect them. When the beetle finds out what the eagle has done, it stuffs itself with dung, goes straight up to Zeus and flies right into his face. Zeus is startled at the sight of the unpleasant creature and jumps to his feet. The eggs are broken. Zeus then learns of the beetle’s plea which the eagle had ignored. He scolds the eagle and urges the beetle to stay away from the bird. But his efforts to persuade the beetle fail; so he changes the breeding season of the eagles to take place at a time when the beetles are not above ground.

Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Dung Beetle” tells the story of a dung beetle who lives in the stable of the king’s horses in an imaginary kingdom. When he demands golden shoes like those the king’s horse wears and is refused, he flies away and has a series of adventures, which are often precipitated by his feeling of superiority to other animals. He finally returns to the stable having decided (against all logic) that it is for him that the king’s horse wears golden shoes.[28]

Aristophanes alluded to Aesop’s fable several times in his plays. In Peace, the hero rides up to Olympus to free the goddess Peace from her prison. His steed is an enormous dung beetle which has been fed so much dung that it has grown to monstrous size.

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Ok, my beetles are tame by comparison. This is definitely happening.


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