Jul 5 2013 10:00am

The Ecology of Roshar, Continued: Quest for Blood

The Ecology of Roshar I Can Explain

When I first sat down to plan this article, I knew what I was doing. I was going to flesh out the theories I hinted at near the end of my Rosharan ecology article by discussing how well every lifeform on Roshar fits into a certain pattern, with the notable exception of humans. I would pepper it with some science, spin some theories about our conceptions of the Other in SFF, and call it a day. Then I started doing research, and a winding tunnel of possibilities opened up below me. I still plan to do all those things I said, but the path I take to explain is going to be… a lot stranger. And it is going to involve crab blood. Do you like crab blood? Do you want to know more about crab blood? Because that’s what I’m offering at this point: crab blood, with a bit of lobster fluids thrown into the mix.

Chapter One: Reasonable Premises

If you’ve read my previous article, you know how well adapted the plants and animals are to the regular battering forces of the Highstorms. Humans have shown none of the same tendencies towards biological adaptation. As far as I can tell, outside of occasional propensities for magic, the people of Roshar are normal, garden-variety humans, even in the absence of gardens. Instead of adapting to their surroundings, mankind has adapted their surroundings to them. Towns are built in the shelter of hills. The city of Kharbranth has an entire mountain at its back, with most of the royal complex and the Palanaeum library being carved straight down into the bowels of the mountain, Erebor style. Kholinar nestles amid wave-like rock formations. Most amazing of all, however, is Sesemalex Dar, capital of Emul. The city is built in giant troughs, keeping their homes below the ground, with lids at the top of the chasms to keep the city dry, and an incredible semi-natural drainage system at the bottom.

These cities are rumored to be Dawncities, created in times of legend by the mysterious Dawnsingers. These mythical creator figures must have applied monumental magical force or unbelievably skillful engineering to carve out a niche for humankind, whose soft, squishy bodies couldn’t possibly survive. There’s only one place on the planet where human survival without incredible magic or technology makes sense: Shinovar. Far to the west, separated from most of the continent by mountains, Shinovar is a haven of what we would consider normal. There is grass, which doesn’t even move. There are trees, and fields, and soil. They breed horses there. They keep chickens and pigs. In fact, ecologically, it seems almost exactly like European earth. They even grow strawberries.

This strikes me as massively out of place. This pocket of land that is almost like earth, where things run around being shaped like Earth animals without even a cursory fantasy reskinning, clashes terribly with the land of giant crabs and lobster-dogs and grass that runs away. How is a chicken supposed to survive a hurricane, anyway? Perhaps Shinovar is the cradle of life on Roshar, the evolutionary homeland of all humankind. They don’t fit the evolutionary pattern of the rest of the continent. But can an explanation of that other evolutionary pattern be put forward that covers some of the stranger details?

Chapter Two: The Descent

There’s something that’s been bothering me for a very long time, and I wanted to try to address it while researching this article. Why do chasmfiends have purple blood? Why does it smell like mold? What is going on here?! So, while formulating my theories that humans are either alien invaders to Roshar, brought over by the Heralds to subjugate the land and carve out an ecological niche from which to thrive, I decided to nail down some scientific arguments for how Rosharan ecology made sense, to prove that it was consistent without humanity. Sadly, any search for purple blood yields a collection of music videos, ebooks, and Yahoo Answers results, none of which were up to my Exacting Research Standards. After an amount of searching that made me start to question my life choices, I made a huge breakthrough.

From my Twitter:

Sometimes you make discoveries that can change the course of your life forever. Sometimes they just reshape an entire afternoon. When I learned that horseshoe crabs have blue blood, I was hooked. I had to go further. (BEWARE: Horseshoe crab gore beyond this point.)

The Ecology of Roshar Horseshoe Crab Blood

Instead of using hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in mammalian blood, horseshoe crabs rely on hemocyanin. These proteins contain two copper atoms that bind to oxygen, and when oxygenated become blue. Horseshoe crabs aren’t the only species that use hemocyanin, though, the proteins can also be found in many species of mollusks and crustaceans, including some lobsters and crabs. And look at that vivid purple color inside the crab. But hemocyanin isn’t enough on its own to make blood appear violet.

Chapter Three: Wild Speculation

Crustaceans just don’t grow as large as chasmfiends, ever. Sanderson has said that some of the factors that allow the massive size that greatshells reach is the high oxygen content of the air and the low gravity. So, does this mean greatshells need more oxygen to live? What if, to provide evolutionary redundancy, greatshells developed parallel oxygenation mechanisms? Blood that carries both hemoglobin and hemocyanin? Red proteins and blue proteins, coming together to make purple blood!

I am well beyond scientific proof at this point. I am speculating, and proud of it, because that’s what I love to do with Roshar. I love to pull back the layers and convince myself that the world is rich enough to support my crazy theories. And I think, in this case, at this point, I’m right that the world can support the weight of my guesses. But creating a personally satisfactory explanation for why greatshells have violet blood wasn’t enough for me, for one simple reason.

If I wanted to say that humans shouldn’t have evolved on Roshar, I had to prove that the Parshendi did. The other humanoid species on Roshar, the Parshendi, look very different from normal humans. They have red, black and white marbled skin and wear orangish armor that seems to be some kind of natural carapace. They can also jump much farther than humans, leaping across the chasms of the Shattered Plains. Some have speculated that the Parshendi communicate by song, or that they have some kind of weird hive mind. We know that they can travel outside during the highstorms, because they’ve burned down Alethi bridges while the storms were raging.

The Parshendi seem so much more natural a fit for this world. They’re more like crustaceans, with their partial exoskeletons, and they’re more physically adjusted to the harsh environment. But there’s a complicating factor. The Parshendi have orange blood.

Chapter Four: A Desperate Quest

You know I had to figure out how blood can be orange. You know what has orange blood in nature? Nothing. Nothing has orange blood. That made my job more difficult. In a weak moment, I admit it, I turned to Yahoo Answers, which told me that sometimes orangish blood can be a symptom of iron deficiencies. But really? An entire species with iron deficiencies? I was getting nothing. And it’s even harder to research orange blood than it is to research purple blood. Why, you ask?

The Ecology of Roshar The Way of Kings Brandon Sanderson Stormlight Archive blood orange

Blood oranges. Defeated by delicious fruit. But I persevered. I dug deeper. I found a disgusting “bleeding” mushroom that made me not want to live on this planet anymore that supposedly sometimes has orange “blood,” but in every picture that “blood” was bright red. I drew wild conclusions and started wondering what would happen if a crab became anemic. It was a confusing time in my life, and one I still regret, but it has a happy ending.

Chapter Five: Victory, But At What Cost?

Eventually, I decided to ask a medically-inclined friend of mine who had also read The Way of Kings for help. She at first suggested rifampicin, a bactericidal antibiotic drug known for making various bodily fluids turn red-orange. Producing a bacteria as an antibacterial agent would be a pretty cool thing for a fantasy race to do, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Then, after a long back and forth, my excellent friend tossed me this sentence: “Look, maybe these guys just have hemolymph like insects do. Then their lymph fluid can be orange.”

Hemolymph! I had never even heard of hemolymph! And googling “orange hemolymph” was much less likely to result in delicious fruit! Sure enough, orange hemolymph yielded results almost immediately, and what I discovered was more perfect than I could have imagined.

Behold the glory that is this scientific paper from UMass Amherst: “Using Serum properties and shell-condition as an indicator of stage of maturation of the American lobster, Homarus americanus.” This article showed that lobsters can sometimes have orange hemolymph, usually indicating advanced ovary development. Maybe not enough to make an entire species have orange blood, but hey, I had my answer. The Parshendi are now officially lobstermen.

The Ecology of Roshar Why Not Zoidberg?

It starts to make more and more sense. The carapaces, the skin mottling, the, uh, jumping skills… Almost everything pointed to a lobster influence on Parshendi evolution. This links them to the chasmfiends, the axehounds, and so many more animals of Roshar.

So here I stand, at the end of this journey, unsure if I’ve uncovered the deepest, truest secrets of the creation of Brandon Sanderson’s world or spun out an insane yarn that will be universally ridiculed. And what have I taken away from it? A deeper understanding of all the crazy fluids that are essentially for the biological systems of many and varied species, a deep and abiding love of blood oranges, and a more complete self-understanding. Yes, I will go this far to try to make a theory work. And I think I have to be proud of that.

Carl Engle-Laird is the editorial assistant for He is one of the Way of Kings rereaders and’s resident Stormlight Archive correspondent. He is better now, he promises. You can follow him on Twitter.

Having helped a graduate student with research on horseshoe crabs one memorable weekend in 1999 by helping to collect their . . .

You know what, let's just say that suddenly chasmfiends have a large ick factor for me. I'm going to go take a shower and then eat some blood oranges. I have a sudden craving.
Phil Anthrop
2. Isomere
The only obvious adaptation humans have made on Roshar is evolving for epicanthal folds. The Shin people have large open eyes that make them look childlike, but the rest of the races developed slit-like eyes with epicanthal folds to protect them from the storms fury.
Jeremy Goff
3. JeremyM
I just wanted to say that this and the first article are awesome. Great insights into a world that I love and can't wait to continue learning about. I wish I had the patience and skills to analyze these and other books to this degree. While it's great reading this it's seems like it would be even more fun doing the research for it.
4. Dory
The humans on Roshar do seem to have some slight differences: their hair color, which can have streaks of different colors depending on their ancestry, and eye colors that I, at least, have never seen before, like yellow or really dark green.

Speaking of eye color, light-colored eyes (blue, purple) are generally a recessive trait (in my weak understanding of genetics). Why would light eyes be so prevalent within lighteyed families, and never randomly show up within the darkeyes?
5. Rumda
I think considering the effect shards havwe can conclude that eye colour genetics Work Differently on Roshar. Any way even on earth eye colour gentics iusn't as simple as you have one form of one gene you havbe blue eyes if you don't you have brown, which should be obvious by the fact that we have more than two eye colours.
Nadine L.
6. travyl
Carl, what a great and amusing article. Thank you.
Flint Timmins
7. Giovanotto
Really enjoyed the article Carl. All this talk of crustacean innards and blood oranges reminds me of my time in Sicily.

Does anyone know if there's an episode of "Writing Excuses" where Brandon discusses how he does research for his books? That's something I'd like to listen to.
Alice Arneson
8. Wetlandernw
Good work, Carl! Very.... interesting research, although you almost lost me at "crab blood, with a bit of lobster fluids thrown into the mix." :)
9. Zen
I don't think Parshendi are the only sentient lifeforms from Roshar. I seem to recall Sanderson mentioning 2 or 3 other races, some from the continent/island SW of Shinovar, called Aimia. Also, I seem to recall the inhabitants of Iri being rather unique. In any case, we seem to have a wide variety of races and distinct cultures across Roshar - wider than we have seen in the rest of the Cosmere.
10. Vauric
Hair color (as mentioned above) does vary a bit more, with some being described not as blonde but gold. I can't recall all of the instances, but I felt like there were several references to different nationalities having more metallic hair colors.

Also, the Aimians, like Axies the Collector, are definitely farther out there in terms of their physiology. He always made me think that the people on the Reshi isles might be less like Earth humans.
Jennifer B
11. JennB
Interesting thoughts. Probably not significant, but I figured that I would point out that horseshoe crabs are not crustaceans like crabs and lobsters. They are more closely related to arachnids like spiders.

Many humans on Roshar are different than the common earth varieties. Thaylens ave their ogier eyebrows, Purelakers are adapted to stand in water all day long. There is the eye color thing with the Alethi and the Shin have wide eyes.

It never occurred to me that the Shin eyes may be more like what we are used to and the rest of Roshar humans have adapted to have narrower eyes. I like that idea.

Not to mention the collector guy. I don't really think he is human though.
12. Dr. Phil
Great sleuthing!
I really enjoy your work on the truly fascinating world of Roshar. As a brother-in-law said, if Sanderson can pull off the Shinovar anomaly, and make truly credible connections in the cosmere across his corpus, then he deserves canonization without debate!
Even so, Sanderson is so ridiculously good that I am having a hard time rounding up anyone else's stuff to read that captures my imagination quite like he does.
November comes too slowly...
Jeremy Guebert
13. jeremyguebert
Very interesting article, Carl.

Very minor nitpick near the start: some people on Roshar actually do have gardens (specifically the Davars, see Nan Balat's interlude), although I'm not sure that we would think of them the same way.

The fact that there are actually creatures on Earth that have blue or orange blood is fascinating.
William Carter
14. wcarter
Nice article.

I wonder if the human presence on Roshar is the direct result of one or more of the Shards interloping.

They used to be "human" after a fashion didn't they?
15. BarBar
To add, in New Zealand locals have a seafood delicacy they call Kina. Like many sea urcchins they move by retractable tube-feet and inside its shell is a membranous substance purplish in colour. A genuine contender for 'Roshar on Earth' recognition
Kurt Lorey
16. Shimrod
Nothing like some dedicated (obsessive?) research! Great work, Carl.
17. Zen
Of course, any time I see the Parshendi now, I am going to think, "Why not Zoidberg?"
Carl Engle-Laird
18. CarlEngle-Laird
@17 That's how I know I'm doing my job! Thank you for all the kind words everyone. I'm glad you've been enjoying my ridiculous ramblings.
Adam S.
19. MDNY
I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that BWS said Yolen, the world of Dragonsteel (his Masters Thesis book) was the origin of humans in the cosmere, but he never explained exactly how they spread from there. I always figured the Parshendi, and likely the Aimian, were more native to Roshar, since they are so clearly different from regular humans. The rest of humanity (other than the Shin) have evolved with slight differences over the millenia (possibly influenced by a shard or Shardholder, the way that the Lord Ruler changed the physiology of people, plants and animals on Scadrial to deal with the ash).
21. SCM of 2814
See, THIS is what I love about Brandon's work. It makes SENSE for him to work out the evolution of the species in his works. Yuo wouldn't DARE try to do this in other fantasy fandoms (possibly exempting the Codex Alera), because apparently evolution doesn't happen there...
Sharat Buddhavarapu
22. spinfuzz
@13 jeremyguebert: Gives a whole new meaning to blue bloods, eh?
Alex Slane
23. ASlane
Very cool article! Hopefully at some point in the series, or maybe when we learn more about the cosmere as a whole, we can see how humans actually came to Roshar. My guess is it is some variation on the Voranism belief that humans were thrown out of heaven (dont remember if it was heaven or somewhere else?) by the Voidbringers. Maybe some sort of fight between shards that caused mass evac of humanities original planet?
24. whimsicalrapscallion
That was the best, but now every parshendi battle I read I'm gonna hear "woopwoopwoopwoopwoop"

It's a little soon to tell, but I think I'm mostly happy about this.
Orayelle Johnson
25. Orayelle
Incredible! Love the depth and work put into this! The theories are brilliant and the science behind it is astounding. Great work:)
…And everything I read just gets me more excited for WoR!!
26. VB
This was actually awesome to read, and very informative. I could not help but nodding as I was reading, as the information clicked. These theories fit so well, its uncanny. Humans did seem a little too "human", and sometimes I found myself rooting for the deli..savage, lobs..parshendi.
Alexander Denley
27. Winterfell911
Has anyone thought that the spren could have some, slightly similar way of evolving ( or coming into being I guess would be a better term). Taking syl and the spren that hang around Shallan for example. When Kaladin first saw syl, he thought that the spren was a wind spren, but later when she has a memory she says she's an honour spren. The spren that are around Shallan though appeared in her drawing first, so could that mean that they are in some way related to creative spren like the ones that appeared in front Shallan when she drew the picture of Kharbranth.

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