Yes, I'm still alive: sorry for the long wait, I expected to get this out much earlier until life sort of blew up. I'm heading out of the country for a couple weeks soon, and decided to knuckle down to finish it before I go. Still playing around with a number of things, like capitalization of "pokemon" and the way to reference real concepts in a fictional world. Any feedback is appreciated!
Chapter 3: Memetics 101
Pallet Town has no particular boundary, the buildings simply growing farther and farther apart until the roads fade to hardpacked dirt. Cars continue to pass the three travelers by on the main street, but once they reach the outer edges the majority of traffic is on foot or bicycle, cutting through the grass every which way to reach the various houses and stores around Pallet's perimeter.
Red's mother had told him that this was how the whole town was at first, just a collection of spaced out buildings with dirt roads between them. He looks back at the heart of the town now and smiles at its permanence, the Pokemon Lab sticking up bright and shining against the clear blue sky. A half hour later, they're far from any houses, and the various paths meander over hills and between lakes, the foliage growing wild and free in every direction around them.
Conversation is light for the first couple hours. Occasionally Leaf asks a question about Kanto, and Blue or Red will answer, fully but without embellishment. Red doesn't know how Blue sees it, but it feels awkward traveling with a stranger, especially after spending so long planning their journey together.
The first bit of excitement comes when a flock of pidgey fly by overhead. Too high for a pokeball to reach, Red and Blue still argue over whether his squirtle could hit one with a Water Gun. Leaf suggests they take measurements of its range, but Red objects that firing upward would be very different than firing horizontally even without taking into account the wind, while Blue says he doesn't want to tire Squirtle out, and they continue their walk in silence again.
Finally Leaf turns to Red and says "So you mentioned finding fault with the common type charts, back at the lab. Would you mind explaining what you meant?"
"Oh. Uh, sure." Ignoring Blue's smirk, Red collects his thoughts. "So how much do you know about the history of 'typing'?"
"Not a lot," Leaf says. "I know it hasn't always been around, but that it's pretty universal."
"Right. Professor Dawkins from Hoenn uses the 'typing phenomenon' as an example of a meme in The Selfish Gene. A meme is 'an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person in cultures.' Unlike a simple fad, memes are like genes in that they self-replicate and adapt to selective pressures."
"Okay. But the meme of 'typing' must be useful if it's so good at surviving and spreading, right?"
"Sure, at some level. But think of how everyone but professors incorrectly call pokemon metamorphosis 'evolution'. Even some professors do it colloquially: it's just too ingrained in the public consciousness. Just because an idea is popular and resilient doesn't mean it's correct."
Leaf looks skeptical. "Ehh. I dunno. I mean sure to that last part, but that example seems like a semantic argument. Words change in meaning over time based on use. Maybe in a hundred years, 'evolution' will mean what we now call 'metamorphosis' and 'metamorphosis' will mean what we now call 'evolution.'"
Red waves this off. "That's just an example of how things can spread without being critically examined. The point is that 'typing' started in one culture, spread throughout it, and then moved on to every other culture from there. Normally when new ideas get introduced, there's some pushback, some skepticism. It's not immediately adopted as the norm. 'Typing' is such a strong meme because of how interactive and efficient it is. It satisfies the need people have to classify things and fit them into boxes. It encourages the tribal tendencies in us to pick favorites, and satisfies our desire for fairness and balance. With the typing meme, every pokemon has strengths and weaknesses, so virtually none are strictly superior to an other.
"The commercialization of battle tournaments accelerated its spread even further, until virtually every region had adopted the same system with little time or inclination to critically examine typing. The metagame revolved around it, and creating or countering a balanced team demanded the study of type interactions. Even minor differences got washed away over time in the face of popularity and conformity: here in Kanto, we used to call them 'Plant' types before 'Grass' caught on, even though it makes less sense."
"He's been calling them 'Plant' types ever since he learned that," Blue says.
"Hey, I always thought it was stupid."
"Sure you did."
Leaf smiles. "Okay, so there's probably room for error along the way. But no one claims that the typing system is perfect... it's still being adapted based on what we observe."
Blue nods. "That's what I always say. But small changes aren't enough for him."
"The 'typing meme' is too ingrained to allow fundamental shifts," Red says. "The details adapt as we learn more, but the basics, that pokemon are of one or two types, that those types are weak or strong against other types, have persisted, even when they don't always make much sense."
Leaf is quiet for a moment. "So the whole idea of typing pokemon started in a certain culture, and spread as a concept from one to the next without necessarily being justified. The 'meme' of pokemon types is just so ingrained by now, it persists without being critically examined. Is that the gist?"
"More or less. Specifically, my problem is with how it's done and the rigidity of the interactions between the types. Like I said, I'm fine with calling my charmander a 'Fire type', and obviously he's strong against 'Plant types'. But take those pidgey we saw earlier. What would you call those, if you saw them in Unova?"
"I didn't get a good look, but probably Flying/Normal."
"Right. So what does that mean, 'Flying'?' What does that mean, 'Normal'?"
Blue sighs. "Just tell her what you think."
"No, I like this," Leaf says with a smile. "It's how my mom likes to teach." She thinks about it a moment. "So first off, there's the obvious: they fly. Not all pokemon do, so it's an important distinction. And 'Normal' means just... normal. You know, baseline. Nothing remarkable. I always figured Normal is what we a call a Pokemon when we can't figure something else to call them."
"Okay. So what does it mean to be a 'Flying' pokemon, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses to others?"
"Well, it's strong against Fighting, Grass and Bug types... but weak to Rock, Electric and Ice attacks. Oh, and Ground attacks are pretty worthless against it."
"What does all that have to do with it being Flying?"
Leaf blinks at him. "Well, birds eat plants and bugs, and Fighting Pokemon can't really hit them. And since they're in the air, being knocked down by a rock or lightning is extra painful when they hit the ground... and, well, cold makes it hard to fly..."
Red is nodding. "So let's deconstruct that a bit. The first thing you said was that 'birds eat plants and bugs'. Are all flying pokemon birds? The next things you listed were consequences of being in the air. So is all that part of what a pokemon is, or what it does? If a Flying type has a broken wing, what type is it?"
"So you're saying that Flying isn't a type? It's just... what some pokemon do, so we lump that in with the typing meme? That seems to be splitting hairs a bit. Even if they don't share universal traits, 'Flying' still seems a worthwhile classification."
"Let's shift focus a bit. Know any Fighting pokemon?"
"Is it on your pokedex?"
Leaf pulls it out and shows it to them. A bipedal, weasel-looking pokemon appears, its movements and strikes very balanced and quick.
"Neat. Are mienfoo Fighting/Normal?"
"No, just Fighting."
"Because it just... isn't. Why would it be Fighting/Normal? I've never even heard of a Fighting/Normal type."
Red takes out his pokedex and shows her a machop. "What's this look like to you?"
"But not Fighting/Fire either, right? Or Fighting/Bug? Or Fighting/Electric?"
"I mean, it's a normal looking Fighting type, but I guess it just doesn't make sense to call it Fighting/Normal. It seems unnecessary to add it."
"But not unnecessary to call a pidgey Flying/Normal?" Red switches the pokedex image to show poliwhirl. "What about this guy?"
Leaf examines the bipedal amphibian. "That looks Water... maybe Water/Fighting?"
Red switches it to poliwrath, its metamorphed, more muscular form. "And this?"
"What tipped you off?"
"The physique. It's clearly strong, so I just think it would be a Fighting type."
"But also a Water type."
"Well yeah, that's obviously still a Water type."
Red nods and puts his pokedex away. "Let's say you found a new Pokemon type."
"A new type?"
"Yeah. How would you know?"
The three walk in silence, Pallet town a distant, vague shape behind them. Red pulls out his water bottle and takes a drink, the cool liquid refreshing under the hot sun. He offers some to Blue and Leaf, who take it in turns.
"I guess I would have to see it do something I've never seen before," Leaf says at last.
"Okay. Like what?"
"Like... I don't know. Control... wind? I guess that would be a Flying type, huh? But what if it doesn't fly itself... hm... maybe if it controlled light. Or if I found a pokemon made of some new material? Though I'm not sure what... like a Glass type?"
Red smiles. "So basically, you would base it on what abilities it has, or what it's made of?
"Yeah. When you put it like that, it seems obvious. But that's pretty much the way things are, isn't it?"
"But we don't see it so clearly most of the time: we're so used to thinking of types as intrinsic to a pokemon that we lump what it does in with what it is."
"Okay. I mean I follow what you're saying, I'm just not sure how that necessarily makes the typing wrong. If the effects of what pokemon does and what it is are basically the same, what difference does it make?"
"That's where the meme problem comes in. Did we invent the typing system ourselves?"
"No," Leaf says slowly. "We inherited it whole-cloth from another culture."
"So what's the question you have to ask yourself now?"
Leaf is quiet for a minute as the three shift onto a well worn side path around a hill, the grass high as Red's waist on either side. A berry bush grows beside it, and Blue and Red take a few handfuls to fill their pouches, handing some to Leaf.
She thanks them, then answers. "How much did people know about Pokemon when the meme of 'typing' them started?"
Blue groans. "You've walked right into his trap."
Red is grinning. "Not just how much did people know about pokemon: how much did people know about anything? I've looked into it, and it turns out the answer is 'not a lot'. The origins of typing are a bit murky, but it definitely started over three thousand years ago. Think about that for a minute: people were classifying types before we even knew about cells or basic chemistry. Some of the classifications adapted as time went on: 'Lightning' became 'Electric' around the time we managed to harness it. Others got simplified by popular usage: when pokemon like magnemite and klink started showing up from man-made objects, 'Steel type' became the norm, even though many metal pokemon don't have steel in them, and not all metals have the same properties. It was the 'Grass' thing all over again. And that's just the names! We still can't agree on what a 'Dragon Type' is. No matter how you cut it, the classification system just isn't rational."
"And you don't think it might fix itself over time?" Leaf says.
Red shrugs. "At some point, given enough time and pressure, maybe, maybe we'll start seeing people classifying some pokemon with three types instead of two. But even if we do, I bet those types are still based on the current illogical, contradictory system."
"Think back to the fighting examples. Why is it acceptable to call some pokemon Fighting/Water, but others just Fighting, when we call every Flying pokemon that isn't something else Flying/Normal?"
Just as she opens her mouth to respond, the grass to her side begins to rustle.
Everyone freezes, Blue's hand already on his pokeball. "Careful," he whispers. "Probably just a rattata, but they don't normally attack three people traveling together... just walk quietly..." They begin to move again, slowly passing the shaking grass.
The rustling suddenly comes from the opposite side in front of them, and Red's heart leaps in his throat as three shapes rush out at him and Leaf. He raises a hand to push her out of the way and is surprised to feel her palm against his. He turns a bit and sees the surprise mirrored on her face, and then they're propelling each other in opposite directions as the rattata jump just where they'd been standing, teeth flashing and squealing in anger.
"Come out, Bulbasaur!"
Two flashes of light, and Leaf and Blue's pokemon are standing between them and the rattata. Another two had emerged from Blue's direction, and dash at Squirtle from both sides.
The blue turtle pops her head and limbs into her hard shell just as the two rodents tackle her. They knock Squirtle a few feet away, but she pops out of her shell unharmed a moment later, while both rattata appear a bit dazed from the impact.
A brief jet of water smacks one of the rattata into the grass, then the other. It all happens so fast that Red barely has time to throw his own pokeball and yell "Charmander, I choose you!"
His fire lizard materializes a few feet before him, and Red snatches his pokeball out of the air as it rockets back to him, feeling a surge of adrenaline. His brief triumph is forgotten as Charmander rushes to intercept a rattata heading for Red. The two begin to bite and scratch at each other, and Red steps to the side so that the fight is between him and the other two rattata, forcing them to circle around.
"Charmander, Tail Whip!"
Charmander breaks away from the rattata, then whirls around and smacks it with the flame at the end of his tail. The rodent squeals in pain and scampers back.
"Bulbasaur, Tackle, then Vine Whip!"
Red glances to the side to see Leaf dealing with the other two rattata: Bulbasaur meets one of their tackles head-on, knocking the smaller pokemon backward and then using his vines to whip it into the second. Both go tumbling away, but the third that had fought Charmander jumps forward to bite down on the long plant, and Bulbasaur cries out in pain.
"Charmander, Scratch!" Red says, pointing at the rattata. He can't risk using Ember so close to Bulbasaur, especially with all the grass around them...
Luckily the rattata releases its bite and backs off as soon as Charmander approaches, and a sudden jet of water from the side sends it tumbling head over paws.
The three trainers step back to back in a rough triangle, and their pokemon spread out to cover them from every angle as the rattata circle warily. Red does a quick count, dismayed to see eight of the purple furred rodents.
"We must have stepped near a nest," he says as Charmander growls at an encroaching rattata, halting its advance.
"So close to the road?" Leaf asks.
"Might be new."
"Squirtle, Water Gun! We need to keep moving till we're past it then." Blue tosses a berry at his pokemon after she finishes blasting away another rattata. Squirtle snaps it out of the air, munching and swallowing without taking her eyes off their enemies.
"On it. Charmander, Ember! Ember! Ember!"
Each command is punctuated by a point in a different direction, and Charmander whips his tail again and again to fling fiery oil onto the path ahead. The rattata there dive out of the way, and Red yells "Come on!" and runs for the opening.
Charmander dashes along at his heels, and he hears the others following behind. The rattata run along on both sides and behind them, some getting close enough to leap. Charmander intercepts one mid-air and smacks it away with his tail, while the other lands on Red's shoulder, its teeth tearing through the protective mesh under his shirt to sink into his shoulder. He yells at the sharp pain that runs through his arm, and bashes its furry body with his fist until it falls off.
Red keeps running, one hand held over his bleeding shoulder, heart pounding. He reminds himself to breathe as he runs, the months of physical training paying off as they begin to outrun the rodents. One makes a final leap onto Charmander, and both pokemon tumble to the ground, tearing into each other. Red stops and turns around. Leaf and Bulbasaur are right behind them, Blue and Squirtle a bit farther back.
"Bulbasaur, Vine Whip!"
The rattata is knocked off Charmander, who struggles to his feet, bleeding from multiple wounds. Red dashes forward as the rattata attacks Charmander again and kicks at the rodent to make it veer off, right into Bulbasaur's tackle. The wild pokemon is knocked into a limp heap.
"Thanks," Red says as Blue and Squirtle reach them, the rest of the rattata giving up the chase and disappearing back into the grass.
"You guys alright?" Blue asks, then hisses in sympathy as he sees Red's blood-stained sleeve.
"Here, let's get something on that," Leaf says, reaching into her bag.
"Charmander first..." Red kneels before his trembling pokemon and reaches back to opens a side pouch of his pack, pulling out a small bottle by feel. "You did great Charmander," he murmurs. He sprays the lizard's wounds, and feels a knot of tension release in him as the painkiller visibly kicks in: Charmander's shaking stops, the lizard's eyes slipping closed and his rapid breaths steadying. The medicine begins to coagulate Charmander's wounds right before Red's eyes, and after it finishes he stands and points his pokeball at the lizard. "Return!"
Only once Charmander is absorbed back into the ball does Red sit on the ground to catch his breath, resting back on his pack with his legs splayed in front of him. He watches Blue and Leaf pet and feed their own pokemon before withdrawing them, then lets them tend to his wound. Blue carefully bares Red's bloody shoulder, and Leaf sprays her own potion onto the wound. The pain relief is immediate, and Red lets out a breath, feeling his whole body relax.
The other two sit, Leaf breathing hard while Blue rolls up his long sleeve to spray some potion onto scratch marks on his arm. There's silence as everyone recuperates, and after a minute Red notices he's smiling. When he catches Blue's eye, he sees him smiling too. Their smiles turn to grins, and soon they're both laughing until Red is clutching his sides and Blue is lying on his back, hands over his face.
"What's the matter with you two?" Leaf says, though she's grinning too.
"Nothing," Blue gasps, wiping at one eye and sitting up. "That was just..."
"Totally awesome." Red extends a fist, and Blue raps knuckles with his.
Leaf laughs. "You only say that because we made it through alright!"
"Well, yeah," Red says, still feeling a ghost of the adrenaline rush, remembering the crystal clarity of his thoughts. "It's just nice to finally know how you really handle that sort of situation, you know?"
Leaf nods. "You guys were great."
Blue pats Squirtle's pokeball. "All in a day's work."
"You were amazing too," Red says. "How did you know Bulbasaur would act out two different commands consecutively?"
"I tried it back at the lab. Took a few attempts, but he picked up on it quick."
"Not everyone wasted their time making discoveries that weren't discoveries," Blue says, and ducks as Red throws a pebble at him.
Leaf giggles and turns to Red. "The look on your face-"
"-when we pushed each other? The look on your face!"
Blue grins. "You two looked like dancers whose music got cut off midstep!"
Everyone laughs again, and when it tapers off, they simply sit and listen to the wind over the fields. Red's nerves still feel amped, and his hand twitches for his pokeball every time the wind rustles the grass particularly hard, in case more pokemon to rush out at them.
When his nerves calm a bit, Red remembers their duty. "Hey," he says as he pulls out his phone and brings up the Coordinated Ranger Response Network site. "How far did we run, about?"
Blue looks up. "You contacting CoRRNet?"
Leaf tilts her head back and closes her eyes. "Say a sprinting speed of nineteen kilometers an hour, couldn't have been more than fifteen seconds of running, so nineteen by sixty by four would be about eighty meters.
Red opens a calculator app and checks her math, then adds "good with numbers" to his tally of Leaf's skills as he inputs the rough location of the potential rattata nest. He flags it at the lowest priority, and a few moments later gets back an automated estimation of response time.
"Looks like there's a pair of Rangers nearby, so they should deal with the nest before anyone else wanders past it."
"Want to stick around till they get here?" Leaf asks.
"Nah, they'll have it covered," Blue says, stretching and sitting up. "We should get a move on."
Movement at the corner of Red's eye makes him turn. The rattata that Bulbasaur had knocked out is stirring. "Hey," Red says, rising to his feet. "It's waking up."
"Is that the one that bit you?" Blue asks as he and Leaf also stand.
"No, it's the one that got Charmander."
"Well?" Leaf gestures. "Care to do the honors?"
Red glances at Blue, who smiles. "Go ahead, I'll get the next one."
"Hell yeah!" Red takes out one of his unregistered pokeballs as the rattata begins to get shakily to its feet, and with a press of the lens-button, expands it. "Pokeball, scan." He holds the lens toward the rattata, and when the ball emits a chime, cocks it back, aims, and throws, muscle memory kicking in from hours of practice he and Blue had spent hitting cans with rocks.
The ball hits the rattata dead on, and sucks it in with a burst of light before rolling along the ground. The lens blinks red as it registers the pokemon inside, then fades.
Red picks up his first caught pokemon and takes out his pokedex, lining up the lens on both. The screen shows the rattata resting in a grassy glade, its vital data listing beside it:
Rattata: Female. Height: 28 cm. Weight: 3.3 kg. Approximate age, 9 Months. Rattata's large teeth grow continuously throughout its life, and must be worn down by gnawing. Hardy omnivores, rattata have been known to thrive in virtually any environment. Because it reproduces so quickly, a pair of rattata can quickly colonize an area.
Seeing that his new pokemon is a female sends a note of disquiet through Red's triumph. He thinks back to what he'd said about them stumbling onto a nest. Had he just caught a mother?
His train of thought is interrupted by Blue's hand clapping his good shoulder. "Come on, let's get get going. I want to find a pidgey!" His friend picks up his bag, and begins to jog ahead. Leaf smiles and follows, and Red clips his new pokemon to his belt and hurries to catch up.