The sf author Terry Bisson, in 1991, published a short dialogue entitled “They’re Made out of Meat”. Like Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” this story is much beloved among the Hacker News set and others for whom thinking fast and shallow seems to rise to the level of avocation.

If you’re not yet familiar with “They’re Made out of Meat”, now may be a good time to become so, as needed context for what follows.

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Yes, we know. That’s what the Council has been investigating.”

“That they’re made out of meat?”

“That we didn’t officially know about them before now.”

“Oh, yes, that.”

“Yes. That.”

“We can’t speak on our predecessors’ behalf, of course.”

“Of course. But you understand our concerns, yes?”

“Yes. That a sentient species should go unreported, however…strange…that species may happen to be.”

“Yes. But we didn’t ask you here to make excuses for actions—”

“We can’t—”

“—for actions which were not yours.”

“Ah. Well, then. Why are we here?”

“Because you’ve been studying them. You are studying them. Unofficially. And you needn’t look like that.”

“Like what?”

“Why bother to dissemble about something that’s written all over your orbitals? We are here on behalf of the Galactic Council. And so are you. You need not fear undue consequences.”

“…all right, then. What do you want to know?”

Thank you. What we want to know is—why.”

“Why what? Why meat?”

“No, no, not ‘why meat’. We don’t expect ever to understand that. But why the interest? You’ve spent four galactic rotations doing survey missions. Why revisit this one?”

“Out of any of them, you mean.”

“Well…yes. Why this, this fascination? With meat?

“Our predecessors recognized, however prejudicially, the possibility that the meat may dream. They did not consider what. We have.”

“And where has this considering led you?”

“Will you share with me a little more closely?”

“It’s not really proper. We act on behalf of the Galactic Council. We must remain impartial.”

“Does the Council wish to know what we’ve learned? We don’t know how else to convey it.”

“Very well, we will justify this decision. After.

“Ah, yes, just there. Now—”

“Agh! This? This is all?

“This is the customary extent of their perception.”

“How do they live like this? Planetbound they may be, but even so—this is…this is beyond description. Your predecessors were incorrect indeed: We fail to believe these meat creatures are sentient. How could they be?—and exist so starved of information.”

“Our predecessors made the same mistake. That is where they exist. This is where they live.”



“How can they be so small? No. Better put: how do they contain it all? All of—this?”

“We don’t yet know. We might by now, if not for our predecessors’—omission.”

“Oh, yes—here, ease back a bit, this is all a bit overwhelming—yes, thank you. We did ask your predecessors about this.”

“How did they account for their actions?”

“In our view, insufficiently. Why do you imagine they got it wrong?”

“Well. Think about how our predecessors introduce themselves to new sentients.”

“Titrated cognito-spatial integration, yes. Quite ordinary. What of it?”

“Meat doesn’t do it.”

“Doesn’t do—”

“Why do you think they flap meat at one another to communicate? Squirt air through meat to sing? You have perceived the shape of their minds. Do you imagine they would choose meat noises? If they had any other option? Would we? Would you?

“No, of course n—ah. We begin to understand.”

“But they do perceive the integration.”


“It excites their meat. Here, we made this model—see there, and then the corresponding action there and there. And if I do this—”

“The meat responds?

“Yes. So they do perceive it, but—well, note here how their senses work. Electromagnetic, mechanical, even chemical in a very constrained way—”

“All transducers, yes. Clever, effective, but limited—reminds me of an Orfolei infant. They perceive nothing directly?”

“It’s the strangest thing! They do. In addition to the rest. But they seem mostly unable to—to integrate it, if you like. They perceive and are not aware.”

“Most unpleasant. Is this where your fascination arises? You have a taste for existential horror?”

“No! Well, yes, but unrelated. My point is that the attempt at integration excites their meat, and—here, this has to be shared—”

“They dream of us?”

“No, they dream us. We can excite the meat and have them perceive us, but in a way that’s mediated by the meat. So what they end up with is…well. This.

“Really! What is the purpose of all this activity?”

“Oh—ah, don’t make too much of this one; it’s a bit of an outlier. Each seems to grow its own unique set of meat filters, and some have what even for them is an unusual index of refraction. Generally we encounter something more in the fashion of—here, this is a reasonably representative example.”

“How strange. To imagine that we arrange matter this way. To manipulate? Indirectly? And why would we take such a direct and prolonged interest in…in meat? To say nothing of this, this apparent coercion. None of our surveyors would behave in this fashion! And—oh, no! Is that—it can’t be—”

“It is. They dream us as meat!

“Oh, that’s really too much—”

“Well, yes, we felt the same at first. Reasonable, but incomplete! Observe these particular arrangements of matter. The meat creatures—and then their dream of us—”


“Note the similarities. Two parallel extensions here, two more for manipulation, these huge organs here which we think are involved in sensory input, even these orifices they use to obtain energy from their environment. In every case, the same! When they dream us as meat, they dream us like them. Mostly, anyway.”

“No wonder your predecessors erred so. This also explains the reticence they exhibited in our interview with them.”

“Yes, even I found it quite surprising. They must have assumed they were being deliberately mocked.”

“Mocked by meat. Yes, we understand, we think. But to leave them uncontacted in consequence of that misunderstanding—no. We will recommend a special envoy to this…this planet of dreaming meatheads.”

“We aren’t sure that’s a good idea. It may be better to leave the meat planet uncontacted for now.”

“Better how? It’s hardly as if they could harm us. Are they even capable of violence?”

“Oh yes, but mostly only to other meat. No, I fear we may harm them. You have observed that their perceptions are…idiosyncratic. Our models are crude. We cannot confidently predict what effect we may have on them should we make ourselves known. Perhaps we would be wise to await some incontrovertible indication on their part, that they are ready to be made aware that they are not alone in a cold and uncaring universe, lest we through imperfect caution injure them or damage their culture somehow.”

“Oh, you can’t possibly believe that.”

“Of course not. How cruelly absurd such an attitude would be! Low humor aside—everything they know comes through meat, and also everything they feel. What do you think that’s like? You know how their sensoria work in raw terms. Would you like to know how they experience those senses?”

“How they—so you have integrated with them?”

“Something like that. We’ve listened to the scatter off the interfaces between their minds and their meat, what they think with and what they think—there are patterns in it, like a stellar nursery. It becomes a kind of song.”

“Is it a song you can sing?”

“Perhaps someday. We can share what we’ve heard. Come closer—closer—yes, there. Now listen—

“…they live—like this? This is how they live? No stellar nursery in the universe could be like this!”

“This is the best we can do, and still only a shadow. You should hear them for yourself.”

“So exuberant!

“Well, they are highly variable, and this is a highly excited vibration. Not rare, though, they do this quite often. We forget what they call it, in any of their ‘languages’—orgo-something? Orgone? No…doesn’t matter. The point is that, whatever state one of them happens to be in, they’re almost always so unique.

“You favor these creatures.”


“We begin to understand why, we think. That, a mere reflection…all that, in every one of these tiny meat heads…”

“Then you understand why we’re unsure about contact. They do perceive it, however strangely, when we excite their meat. Some of them find that very upsetting. It can even be damaging. We’ve had to be extremely careful.”

“And you don’t trust others to be likewise.”

“We wouldn’t like to assume that they will be.”

“And this by you is a problem?”

“Isn’t it? If the Council provides an envoy ill suited to the task—”

“Who better than the pre-eminent expert on these meat creatures? Who knows more about them than you do?”

“As far as we know, no one. Well, the Nhanth-lei, maybe. They’re very fond of uncontacted species in general, but given their habits and predilections we’re hardly inclined to inquire.”

“Nor we. So you’ll serve as the envoy, then. Unless you’d rather not?”

“Oh, we want to! But the Council—”

“In this matter we are the council. Their plenipotentiary, in fact, as they don’t wish to trouble themselves with such small concerns as one planet full of—how many of them are there?”

“Oh, about eight billion. Ish? Even they don’t find themselves easy to count.”

“—a planet of a few billion uncontacted sentient meatheads, in a sector of little interest to anyone. The Council doesn’t want to have to care about this, which is why they gave /us/ that job. So, as of now, you are the envoy.”


“Well, then. We’ll visit in a little while, to see how you and the meatheads are getting on. And…”


“When you have learned to integrate with them, we ask that you say something to them. Pass on a message for us.”

“Of course. What message?”

“Tell them that—that we’re sorry. We should never have left them to think they were alone for so long.”

(1650 words)

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