10 min read

Building Beyond: Nepenthes Rea

Nobody @ me about Latin declension.

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

A pitcher plant is on trial for murder.

Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime. She runs the Escape Artists Podcast Network with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to narrate for podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch. Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives. You can follow her adventures across social media.

If I was a more whimsical or capricious person, I would have answered this prompt with the classic lawyer response, ‘It depends’, and left it at that. But where would the fun in that be? So let’s use another legal analysis trick and take this line by line.

Our fact pattern involves an accused (the pitcher plant), a situation (is on trial), and a crime (murder). The combination places us firmly in the criminal law sphere. But let’s start with generalities.[1]

A pitcher plant is not a person. In general, criminal laws apply to the behaviors and actions of people. Those prosecuting the pitcher plant would need to establish the pitcher plant qualifies; those defending it would quickly point out a plant is immune from prosecution.[2] The plant’s owner might be a better target. Or maybe this is a universe where pitcher plants are indeed people in the eyes of the law.[3] Let’s assume that for now, and carry on.

The person-in-the-eyes-of-the-law pitcher plant is on trial. Usually this means they will have been arrested, charged, arraigned, and entered a plea. They may be in detention, or have posted bail or other assurances.[4] None of these steps are pressing on our scenario, but fascinating to consider.

What is important is that the charge the pitcher plant faces is murder. Language varies, but when we talk about murder, we usually mean ‘a person has intentionally calculated and carried out the ending of another person’s life’. Murder is at the top of the pile in criminal law. Legal dramas will teach you about means and motive, but for some reason lawyers still use Latin, so we talk about actus reus (the act) and mens rea (the mind). In other words, to commit murder the accused must have not only physically brought about the deed, but intended to do so with the victim’s death as the desired result. Murder isn’t ‘oops this hapless person fell into a person-in-the-eyes-of-the-law pitcher plant and died’. It’s more ‘behold! I, a pitcher plant of sufficient mental capacity to be held accountable for my independent actions have chosen to use this rare and wonderful gift to end the existence of another sentient being!’[5]. Murder is considered more serious, more heinous than other forms of homicide[6] or mere gross bodily harm. Murder is the crime for which our harshest of punishments are reserved. Murder is a Big Deal.

So having set that stage, let’s move on to the actual questions posed by our scenario.

Gailey: Who adjudicates?

Whoever the society in which the murder took place has decided is empowered to do so.[7] A monarchy might reserve evaluation of such a serious offense to it’s ruler. In many contemporary democracies, a judge and/or jury is commonplace. But even that familiar arrangement raises more questions than it answers. ‘Trial by a jury of your peers’ is a constitutional right in the United States and I kid you not, I took civil litigation from a paralegal for a police department that once nearly had to consider a jury for a police dog.

Are there a sufficient number of people-in-the-eyes-of-the-law pitcher plants such that an impartial jury could be empaneled from their number? If not, can the trial reasonably be relocated to somewhere that does? Are pitcher plants even mobile? The mind boggles.

Gailey: What consequences would be meaningful to all parties?

Answering this question is going to tell us A LOT about the society where our person-in-the-eyes-of-the-law pitcher plant allegedly committed their crime. The thing about death is that it’s final[8]; its punishment isn’t about reinstating what was lost, it’s about restitution, serving as a deterrent, and very often revenge. Criminal laws exist as a way of saying ‘we collectively decided doing X was bad, and that if you do X anyway, we’re going to do Y’. Sometimes Y is an apology, or financial compensation. Sometimes it’s the deprivation of rights and freedoms, like liberty. Or the life of the perpetrator.

So to answer this question, we have to know what the pitcher plant’s society aims to accomplish with its criminal justice system. What rights and freedoms are fundamental enough that their denial is considered a punishment? And what level of severity is the taking of the life of another? We continue with more questions than answers.

Gailey: How can the trial be fair?

This last one’s easy: it can’t be.

For starters, fair to whom? Fairness is like beauty, or purity - it’s a subjective opinion. Our concept of fairness is forged by our personal experiences, our upbringing, our moral values and our privilege. A murder trial involves multiple actors, each with their own motives and ideal outcomes. The accused likely wants to be acquitted; the society bringing them to trial wants there to be consequences for the pitcher plant’s actions or for a price to be paid. Each member of the jury may have their own agenda; likewise the advocates, the judge, the audience.

At best, the definition of ‘fairness’ they might all agree upon is an impartial application of the law. But even that definition conceals issues of fairness at the societal level. Who made the laws? Who applies them, and how, and to whom?[9] Just because they are laws doesn’t mean they’re good, or fit for purpose, or have equitable principles.

Laws are society’s timestamps: at this time, in this place, these people thought this thing was right. Neither you, nor I, have any idea how the criminal law of murder applies to a pitcher plant. We can build theories, account for assumptions, make educated guesses. But there isn’t an empirical answer out there, waiting to be discovered on a dusty law library shelf. The answer is a product, the output of a societal algorithm with centuries of accumulated data points.

Like I said: it depends.

  1. Pages could be filled on all sorts of ancillary issues such as jurisdiction, venue, what happened at arrest, does the accused have a lawyer, were they read their rights, etc. But those details and scenarios offer legal textbook writers some of their only creative outlets, and who are we to deprive them? ↩︎

  2. Liability might be an entirely different question. Inanimate objects (and their owners) can definitely be financially responsible for deaths. ↩︎

  3. Lots of non-people things are: corporations, police dogs, etc. ↩︎

  4. Do they make electronic tracking bracelets to fit ceramic pots? I don’t know. ↩︎

  5. Maybe the pitcher plant and Dr. Dinosaur are friends? I am MADE of questions. ↩︎

  6. Homicide is the generic term; terms like manslaughter (or plant-slaughter?), felony murder, degrees, etc. are used to distinguish levels of severity or differences in actus reus / mens rea. You spend heaps of time on homicide in criminal law classes. ↩︎

  7. And assuming we’re in a time of peace. Wartime criminal procedure is a whole other kettle of … pitcher plants on trial for murder. ↩︎

  8. I mean I’m assuming it is; otherwise whence the murder trial? Or maybe necromancy is a worse crime than murder here. ↩︎

  9. Nearly every atrocity you can think of was legal when it was carried out. War criminals can (and have) passed laws to justify their actions. ↩︎

Sarah Hollowell is a queer fat Hoosier writer aiming to up the magic quotient of Indiana. She graduated from Ball State University with a degree in creative writing, and she remains there to this day. Her work has appeared on The NoSleep Podcast, Huffington Post, and Fireside Magazine, among others. Sarah volunteers with teen writers through the Alpha Workshop, raises small aliens in the shape of cats, listens to too many podcasts, and repeatedly makes the mistake of watching horror movies alone at night. You can find more of her work on her Patreon, and find her on Twitter @sarahhollowell. Sarah’s debut YA contemporary fantasy novel, A Dark and Starless Forest, is available now wherever books are sold.

[transcript from Crime Minute, a true crime podcast providing bite-sized episodes about real cases]

I’ve got a weird one for you today. You’ve almost certainly heard about it, but do you know the whole story?

Last year, local college student Dylan Howard was found dead, drowned and partially dissolved, in a giant pitcher plant. In case you’ve been living in a cave and missed all the info that’s been put out there on these plants, all you have to know is that they’re a carnivorous plant that traps its prey. They’re also usually a lot smaller, preferring flies to humans.

Margaret is different. Named for the grandmother of the lead scientist on the team that grew her, Margaret is a nearly ten-foot-tall pitcher plant. I’m afraid the science of how they got her that big is beyond me, but the info is out there if you are more technically-minded than myself.

What’s most remarkable about Margaret - other than her size - is that she’s intelligent. She has conscious thought. She can communicate through an elaborate system put together by the scientific team. The team has argued in the past that she’s basically a person. And it’s there where the story takes an...even weirder turn.

It should have been simple. Margaret had never been dangerous before, but now that she’d killed Dylan Howard, most people thought it was clear she should be destroyed. After all, we euthanize dangerous animals, don’t we?

In an unusual move, the DA didn’t go after the scientists who had grown Margaret. Instead, this carnivorous plant is being directly charged with murder. If, as the scientists claim, Margaret is a person, then shouldn’t she be held responsible for her crime?

The defense has argued that the claims of personhood were hyperbole, or simple thought experiments. What makes a person, etc, etc. Margaret is a plant with the basic ability to communicate, but no more than a dolphin, and do we put dolphins on trial? Besides, Margaret didn’t even actively attack Dylan Howard. Pitcher plants are passive traps. In order for Dylan to end up inside Margaret, he had to have climbed the vase-shaped pitcher that makes up her body, slipped, and fallen in.

Or that’s how they’re supposed to work. Problem is, there were no witnesses, no CCTV of the incident. The prosecution argued that if Margaret was able to grow so large, able to learn to communicate, then it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that she’d learn to hunt.

It’s all back and forth like that - the defense argues Dylan caused his own death with his recklessness, the prosecution asks why there weren’t warning signs around her enclosure, the defense shoots back that it was closed to the public and he shouldn’t have ever been on the premises.

This case is still ongoing, so I’m afraid there won’t be any tidy answers at the end of this episode. I’m not even sure which side I’m on. Margaret is truly a magnificent creation, and I’d hate to see her destroyed. I also worry that it’s impossible to have a fair trial. Margaret can’t even appear in court!

Then again…Margaret’s almost ten feet tall. She was never going to be sustained on bugs alone, and, frankly, in all my research, I found it difficult to get answers on what exactly the scientists have been feeding her since she outgrew flies. Isn’t it inevitable that there will be another Dylan Howard, trapped and dissolving in Margaret’s pitcher?

Let me know your thoughts in the usual spots on social media, and please make sure to check out this week’s sponsor, HelloFresh. Just as Margaret’s food comes to her, your food can be delivered right to your doorstep. Use code CrimeMinute to get 30% off your first box.

Thank you for taking a minute to catch up on crime with me. Don’t go chasing waterfalls or climbing giant plants, and, as always, stay safe out there.

My pitcher plant would be put on trial by the Council of Carnivorous Plants. The council exists to govern carnivorous plants and prevent them from accidentally revealing to humans that they are capable of conscious thought, because if humans find that shit out they’ll make carnivorous plants work gig economy jobs, and carnivorous plants hate hustle culture. The trial would be less concerned with fairness and more concerned with sending a message. The message is: if you’re going to eat humans, don’t get fucking caught. The outcome of the trial would be meaningful but not just: the pitcher plant, once convicted of the crime of indiscretion, would be sentenced to several years of being filmed for nature documentaries.

All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Marguerite’s legal brief is the start of a dazzling meditation on the nature of the justice system. Sarah's podcast transcript is the introduction to an immersive journey through the world of plant-related crime. My justice system is just one more way for me to say that capitalism sure is bad, huh? Maybe we should do something about that? Guys??

How would your murderous pitcher plant be held accountable? How would justice be served?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this newsletter. The subscriber community is a wonderful and supportive one, and we’re spending 2021 finding new ways to stay connected and share experiences.

If you’re looking for ways to support each other during this time of combined legal and natural disasters affecting many parts of the United States, here are a couple places to start:

  • Abortion is healthcare. Abortion funds are mutual aid. If you’d like to donate to abortion funds in Texas, you can do so here.
  • If you’d like to support relief and recovery efforts for those who have been impacted by Hurricane Ida, click here to donate to The Mutual Aid Response Network led by Imagine Water Works.

No matter what you do, please find ways to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, support Black people and communities, and participate in local mutual aid.

In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.