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As a child circa the late 1970s, I read a poignant science fiction story that I would love to be able to identify. As best I can recall after all these years, the story went something like this:

A planet is inhabited by intelligent slugs that live in the oceans that cover much of the planet. An alien force (possibly humans from earth?) land on the planet and are going to do something that will exterminate the slugs. They are aware that the slugs are a life form on the planet, but assume they have no intelligence or consciousness and thus have no qualms about their demise. One slug attempts to save his species from extinction by communicating with the alien force and convincing them of the slugs' intelligence. Although he cannot live long outside the oceans of the planet, he comes up onto the land and arranges stones on the shore in some mathematical pattern (perhaps in groups of prime numbers?) -- with some emphasis in the story on the theme of mathematics as a universal language. The story describes the slug's physical suffering on land as he races against time to communicate to the alien force. I believe the story ends with the slug dying from exposure to the toxic land environment, whereupon the alien force discovers his corpse and the stones he arranged, realizes that the species exhibits both intelligence and gallantry, and spares the species from destruction.

I think the title of the story might have been the name of the slug who was the story's protagonist, possibly "Flan" (like the dessert). I think the story might have appeared in some sort of science fiction magazine of the late 1970s.

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After a lot of fiddly Googling, the title "Flan" is correct, by Mary Caraker; it appeared in Jack and Jill magazine, vol. 42, issue 4 (April, 1980).

The only two mentions I found online were in two student Prezi files dated about the same time (March 2014), so I guess there's a teacher somewhere who has a copy of this magazine and uses it in class.

Extra information about the story: the alien force is humans and the destructive action is possibly pumping oil out of the slugs' planet, or at least something to do with oil.

  • You are a brilliant investigator! I had Googled everything I could think of, to no avail, before posting my question here. I'll continue searching with the new information you've unearthed. Hopefully an exact reference will turn up. – Jim Henderson Apr 27 '14 at 1:47
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    Based on the additional information Yee-Lum provided, it seems likely that the story is "Flan" by Mary Lumijarvi Caraker, a science fiction writer born in 1929, who seems to have written several short stories and novels about alien worlds in crisis. Will try to confirm. – Jim Henderson Apr 27 '14 at 2:46
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    A book about critical reading contains the attribution "'Flan' by Mary Caraker": books.google.com/… and searching just "Flan" in the book seems to confirm that the story is about alien slugs! I'm intrigued, though: how did you come up with the author's name? – Yee-Lum Apr 27 '14 at 6:19
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    Basically, further searching using "Holder" located the Prezi files you cited, and with a couple additional key words from the Prezi files I found the same Google Books site. Still no original source; my attempts to search Google's scan of "Thoughtful Reading" for an acknowledgment of permission to reprint, for example, yielded nothing. The Google scan does make it clear that this is the story about which I had inquired. I'm trying to order "Thoughtful Reading" and will report back on what I find. – Jim Henderson May 1 '14 at 0:24
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    Oops, I never did report back. Thank you again to Yee-Lum for placing the crucial first pieces in the puzzle! The story is "Flan," by Mary Caraker; it appeared in Jack and Jill magazine, vol. 42, issue 4 (April, 1980). If any of you would like a PDF copy of the story, I will be happy to e-mail it to you upon request; I can be reached at jmshenderson33 followed by the standard part of a G-mail address. I don't think that would violate Ms. Caraker's copyright, and people who like the story might be inclined to buy her books The Snows of Jaspre and Water Song. – Jim Henderson Dec 29 '17 at 5:38
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Good afternoon! I am a teacher who first encountered this short story as part of a literature class at the University of Minnesota around 2000/2001. I continue to use it with my 6th and 7th graders. I teach at a middle school in the St. Louis area. I have also looked for years, trying to track down more information about this short story and its author. It's great to see others appreciate the story as well! Yes, this short story by Mary Caraker titled "Flan" is set on a distant planet with "twin moons" where humans (most likely) have discovered it to be full of concentrated petroleum. A young slug named Flan sees the humans on the surface and realizes they are going to drain the planet unless he can convince the humans--"the spindly two-legged monsters--of the slugs' intelligence. It's a wonderful read.

  • If you don't mind my asking, which school? – Adamant Feb 4 at 21:17
  • Yes, Flan has to convince the human invaders that his species has intelligence. In a nice bit of parallelism, at the start of the story, Flan has to convince his fellow slugs that the humans have intelligence, though they lack the slugs' capacity for telepathic communication. – Jim Henderson Feb 15 at 3:06

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