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In Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep there is a rather odd communication relay message that contained the keyword phrase "Hexapodia as the key insight":

Crypto: 0

As-Received-By: OOB shipboard ad hoc

Language-Path: Arbwyth->Trade 24->Cherguelen->Triskweline, SjK units

From: Twirlip of the Mists

Subject: Blighter Video thread

Keywords: Hexapodia as the key insight

Distribution: Threat of the Blight

Approved: yes

Date: 8.68 days since Fall of Relay

I haven't had a chance to see the famous video from Straumli Realm, except as an evocation. (My only gateway onto the Net is very expensive.) Is it true that humans have six legs? I wasn't sure from the evocation. If these humans have three pairs of legs, then I think there is an easy explanation for


The Language-Path field indicates that the message had been translated repeatedly, which implies that some of the odd wording may be the result of translation degradation.

However, the phrase "Hexapodia as the key insight" appears to have become rather well known. In fact, rather strange references to the quote appear around the internet.

Is there some significance of this phrase beyond the surface appearances? Why is this such a popular reference, when the actual reference in the book is dismissed as a casual instance of absurdity?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Spoilers in abundance:

It's a joke about Usenet as it was in the 1980s. Twirlip sounds eccentric and expresses himself poorly, but in fact his insight is dead on, and everyone should be listening to him/her/it. Even the line about hexapodia as the key insight is correct and helpful -- the Skroderiders are unwitting tools of the Blight, and their skrodes have six wheels (which are pretty much the same thing as legs to something that lives in a gas giant's atmosphere).

Read this post for more analysis (which is also full of spoilers, of course).

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That's a take that hadn't occurred to me. None-the-less, Twirlip is deeply confused and out of touch---there is no way to construe humans as hexopedic. –  dmckee Jan 30 '12 at 19:27
Wow, I'd never noticed that Twirlip might be referring to the Skroderiders as hexapodic! I thought it was just a comical mistranslation. –  Gilles Jan 30 '12 at 19:40
@dmckee: But that's the point: Twirlip is asking whether humans have six legs because they are widely assumed to be willing agents of the Blight (rather than victims), and Twirlip knows about some sort of connection between Hexapodia and the Blight - but humans are neither hexapodic nor agents of the Blight, while Skroderiders are both. Twirlip is correct, just not communicating effectively. –  Michael Borgwardt Jul 4 '13 at 8:32

As far as I can tell this message---and the several more like it later in the book---is meant to draw attention to the lack of reliability of the Net of Million Lies. We're told that the author of these posts is at the far end of a narrow pipe and several stages of automatic translation using only middle beyond technology. He is clearly---even admittedly---speaking of things for which he lacks the basic foundational knowledge; much like many authors on the Usenet.

He/she/it has obviously formed a poor understanding of just what a "human" is, and may be a bit of a kook besides.

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Mike Scott's reply above matches the overwhelming majority consensus on the issue, with which I also join.

However, an additional (as opposed to an alternative) interpretation exists that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. Throughout those parts of the novel dealing with the interactions of the humans and the tines, there are several references to humans as "two-legs" and Tines as "four-legs". And especially in the Epilogs chapter, Vinge's main human and tinish characters -- even what's left of Flenser/Tyrathect -- are extremely optimistic and even joyous about the prospects of the two species' increasingly close collaboration, a kind of cultural/technological/intellectual symbiosis. In other words, a singular collaboration between "two-legs" and "four-legs".

I'll leave the arithmetic as an exercise for the reader...

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When did Twirlip learn about the Tines? I'm not sure he ever did, which would mean his post had nothing to do with addition... –  John C Jan 30 '13 at 11:10

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