Monster of the Week: The Nonmen of Eärwa

Nonman King Cû'jara-Cinmoi Art by Jason Deem/SpiralhorizonArt

Long before barbaric tribes ventured into Northern Eärwa, the Nonmen battled for the survival of their own advanced and waning civilization. Known to themselves as ji'cûnû roi or "the People of Dawn," the Nonmen proved culturally, psychologically and biologically distinct from lesser breeds of humanity. You might even call them monstrous.

Given our previous look at the Consult skin spies of R. Scott Bakker's excellent "Second Apocalypse" saga, let us now consider the peculiarities of this undying and tragic race.

Nonman Physiology

Physically taller and stronger than their human kin, the Nonmen never abandoned the use of caves as a form of shelter and therefore evolved both culturally and physically for lives centered in subterranean environments. As such, like so many natural-world troglophiles*, they lost both pigment and body hair in their buried mansions.

(Dave King/Dorling Kindersley/Getty)

Nonmen dental physiology is also rather distinct in that they boast an upper and lower shelf of fused teeth rather than individual teeth. The details of this peculiar array are scant, but a few possible natural-world parallels present themselves. The mouth of a ray boasts tooth bands and puffer fish feature single "tooth plates" in either jaw -- though a fish hardly seems the proper parallel for a highly-evolved hominid. We see specialized fused rows of teeth (AKA toothcombs) in such mammals as the lemur, but it's hard to equate this with the Nonman smile.

Elephant dentition, however, presents a more attractive parallel. Pachyderms are polyphyodonts rather than diphyodont, meaning they cycle through teeth their entire life rather than depending on two sets. Long ridges of teeth move from back-to-front along upper and lower jaws, slowly wearing into a shelf at the front as the roots are absorbed. Nonmen teeth may function in a similar fashion. In fact, the teeth of Sranc (a debased weapons-race engineered from Nonmen stock by the unholy Inchori) are described as "small, curved combs of enamel with three pairs of roots to a tooth."

Nonman Neuroscience

Nonman culture is rather cold and alien in comparison to those shared by Eärwa's human population, and nothing typifies this quite like the Nonman inability to "see" paintings. They instead depend exclusively on complex, multilayered high relief carvings.

Khajuraho, India.
Paule Seux/Getty

While some commentators have attributed this aesthetic quirk to monochromatic vision, I think a more likely interpretation can be found in agnosia, a rare neural disorder that disrupts the ability to process sensory information.

Agnosia includes such specific stimuli transmission-scrambling conditions as prosopagnosia (face blindness) and phonagnosia (voice blindness). But there are also cases of agnosia that relate directly to the cognitive experience of music -- as well as various forms of visual information. Consider the 1978 case of an artist who, following an accident, developed an inability "to identify single objects on visual presentation, and displayed marked difficulty in interpreting complex objects, depicted scenes, and partially occluded figures." He could still recognize geometric forms, perceive optical illusions and copy designs -- could in fact utilize many of his artistic skills -- but his post-injury work exhibited an "over-elaboration of detail."

Based on descriptions of Nonman carvings and the architecture, I think "over-elaboration of detail" is very much in keeping with their aesthetic tendencies. Just as agnosia forces us to recognize our tenuous and subjective cognitive grasp of reality, it also forces us to realize that a different sort of ascendant hominid might reside in a slightly different visual world.

2018 UPDATE: I actually had the chance to ask Bakker about this in one of our 2017 interviews with him (embedded at the bottom of this page). Here's what he had to say:

“You always want to distinguish your various races and species you create in speculative fiction. And this notion of nonmen not being able to see two-dimensional visual representations is a textural detail along those lines, but it actually does have a rationale. Just think of the cavemen in Chauvet in France. They dragged their charcoal-stained fingers across the cave walls for the first time and, realizing they could see a shape in that, they experimented. It turns out for humans we can actually see horses and bison and figures of humans given a very, very small amount of visual information. A finger covered in charcoal dragged across a cave wall is enough for us to be able to recognize a lion or a horse. The famous horses of Chauvet are a wonderful example of this. For nonmen, their ability to cue cognition of scenes simply requires a bit more information and particularly requires depth information. So they can see representations the way we can, they just have difficulty with two-dimensional representations, just simply because the amount of information that is given in two-dimensional representation isn’t enough to actually cue the cognitive systems involved in recognizing horses and tigers and what have you. So it’s just one of many ways in which my blind brain theory has sort of nuanced the background and the landscape of the novels.”
R. Scott Bakker

The Nasamorgas

Of course, the greatest mystery of Nonman physiology is the biological immortality granted them by the alien Inchori **-- a gift that also accompanied the "womb plague" (AKA Nasamorgas or "death of birth") responsible for the death of all Nonmen women and children. The secrets of this gift remain the sole property of the Consult, that cabal of Inchori, Nonman and human sorcerers committed to undying freedom from divine judgement.

* Troglophiles are cave-dwellers that complete their life cycles in a cave, but also thrive above ground. Trogloxenes use caves for shelters but don't complete their life cycles there. Given their cultural ascension and functional extinction, it's hard to say which category truly suits the Nonmen. See my post on the Crawlers of "The Descent" for more.

** In some cases, this also results in vastly increased height.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.