The definition of “person” in a human-free story

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Hobsyllwin and Kume (artwork by Ciruelo)

Fantasy and sci-fi stories aren’t limited to human characters. With a little thought and effort, an author can give intelligence, emotion and personality to just about anything we can imagine — animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract concepts. Dragons and cat-people are actually fairly tame choices, if you think about it.

But fantasy/sci-fi brings up some weak points in our languages — such as the distinction of what, exactly, a “person” is. Is it an accurate term for xenomorphs and magical creatures? Would a non-human individual even identify with the human word “person”?

Oh, there are ways around the issue. We can refer to intelligent non-humans as “beings” or “individuals”. Characters can talk about “this one” or “that one”. And a story can just call characters by their names, species and formal titles, without ever speaking broadly about persons or people.

But why avoid it? If we can’t question the nature of personhood in genres full of faeries and aliens, where can we question it?

colourfulpeople2Language-wise, it’s a tricky issue. Here on real-life Earth, Homo sapiens hasn’t met any other clearly defined intelligent races yet, so we usually only need to talk about ourselves. The human connotation of “person” is usually a moot point. We do, however, see it surface occasionally in the news — such as in medical definitions of consciousness, or as part of the movement to grant personhood rights to whales and dolphins. (That link actually makes some interesting points about the nature of personhood, so I highly recommend reading it.)

This question seems to get mixed responses in the anthropomorphic/furry circles I’ve experienced. Some fans feel that “person” is a term too strongly tied to the human species. Furry literature sometimes uses “fur” to identify an intelligent being — so that an anthropomorphic fox character talks about this fur, somefur, everyfur or anyfur. It’s a striking way to remind the reader that there are no humans here, as well as give the characters a sense of their own vocabulary and culture.

Myself? I think “person” can be used to describe any being comparable to a human in intelligence or complexity. “Person” and “people” are commonly used words in my Stories of Aligare, where the three races call each other “peoplekind” instead of “species”.

Peregrine and Tillian

Here’s TwilightSaint‘s art again!

That was a partly reactionary choice, I have to admit. Anthropomorphic characters are is often marketed — and perceived by the general public — as vapid children’s entertainment. I’ve long been frustrated with people assuming that my stories aren’t about humans, therefore they must be about cartoon mascots for preschoolers. Awww, look at the little animal people! No, my characters are just people.

But word roots also factored into my choice. In the English language, “person” didn’t originally specify a human at all. Quoth the dictionary:

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French persone, from Latin persona ‘actor’s mask, character in a play,’ later ‘human being.’

Roman_masks

Tragedy and Comedy masks, depicted in a 2nd century Roman mosiac.

Throughout human history, masks have represented a wide variety of beings — humans, animals, mythological beings and gods. And hey, that brings us back to the idea that when we open our minds, anything and anyone can be a significant, meaningful character. Fantasy and sci-fi have the power to really explore that.

So that’s why I like to classify intelligent, fictional beings by the same “person” term I’d use for myself. That term can help a seemingly simple creature serve us up some food for thought.


Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism

I’ve talked before about anthropomorphic stories, where non-human beings have the traits of a human. Humans in fictional stories are often held up as an ideal that other life forms aspire to. But I’ve been wondering what we consider “human”, exactly. What really distinguishes us from other living things, the ones we call mere animals?

Well, intelligence is a big factor.  Humans are the only (known) higher beings with elaborate developments such as technology, art and the ability to learn other languages. But intelligence is a loaded concept. Just because a being can’t do a specific task doesn’t mean they’re too simple. Maybe they just didn’t understand what was being asked of them. Maybe they didn’t see any motivation to comply. Earth animals such as ravens, squid, elephants and whales have shown relatively complex behaviours such as tool use, problem solving and communication — but they can’t exactly take an IQ test. They don’t follow our standards, so it’s hard to measure what their full capabilities are.

Okay, so intelligence isn’t necessarily humans’ domain. Brainpower can be a vague and scary thing. And besides, when fantasy or sci-fi prompts us to define “human” traits, we often think of simpler, more concrete things.  Maybe human social constructs — such as being given a name at birth, or working at a job to earn money. That’s hard to sum up in a snappy way, though. You can’t exactly draw cover art to represent the concept of a name. This is where simpler aspects of anthropomorphism come in — like when we give an animal different physical traits! Distinctly human physical traits! Yeah, there we go!

 

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

My favourite moments in Family Guy are when Brian actually bothers to act like a dog.

So, let’s see. How to make an animal seem more human. Mammals and birds already have a lot of similarities with humans: a fleshy body supported by a bony spine; four main limbs attached to shoulders and pelvis; a head with two complex eyes; a mouth with one moving jaw. We find mammals and birds fairly relatable, as evidenced by all the mammal and bird characters in human cultures. And when mainstream media does anthropomorphize insects — and tries to make them look “friendly” or “relatable” or “less scary” — we can really see how many physical traits we take for granted.

 

It's enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

Look at that humanoid torso and toothy mouth! It’s enough to deeply annoy an entomologist.

 

I think we can agree, though, that the human body has a few truly defining factors.

Terrestrial biped posture seems to be the trait most strongly associated with humans. We’re the only creatures on Earth who stand upright on two legs, walk easily on just those two legs, and use our dextrous forelimbs for manipulating objects. So when we’re fictionalizing our normal Earth animals into thinking beings, the quickest visual way to say “These are people now” is to make them straight-backed bipeds.

walkinganimals

If you think that such two-legged animals are always childish, I’d point at the rightmost picture and suggest that you actually read Animal Farm.

King Louie from The Jungle Book? Brian from Family Guy? Team Rocket’s Meowth from the Pokemon anime (whose backstory is surprisingly sad, as a warning)? They all relate to humans by mimicking human posture. Look at the poster for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie and you’ll see Rocket the bioengineered raccoon standing in a remarkably human stance. And when we’re creating alien beings from other worlds, we tend to assume that the tall, stately, two-legged aliens are the intelligent ones — and any other body type is a cute pet and/or vicious monster. I think that’s an alarmingly bigoted way to look at other beings, but it’s a shorthand often used in our fictional stories.

 

As a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, I always try to question norms before I use them. Why must intelligent species be bipeds? Would a species reasonably end up looking like us, if they evolved in their own speculative world? As much as I like Star Trek, I don’t think it’s reasonable that the path to sentience always makes a creature look like a makeup-decorated human. So I made sure to think about physical form while developing the non-human people in my Stories of Aligare. And since my ideal fantasy works hand-in-hand with science, I basically asked myself why these fantasy beings would develop into what they currently are.

 

differentpacespic

 

  • Ferrin are the most closely linked to their animal origins. They move like squirrels: switching between quadrupedal movement for running/climbing, and bipedal movement to free up their forepaws for delicate tasks. They have thumbs, if small and still-developing thumbs: they sometimes use their jaws to help hold and manipulate objects. (The other peoplekinds don’t put too fine a point on it.)
  • Korvi are dragons, and dragons can have as many limbs as they want because fantasy genre, that’s why.  But I looked mainly to birds when I was designing korvi, which is why they’re bipeds. I think the biggest design decision I made was using the classic lizard-like dragon tail as a third weight-bearing limb. Korvi are a bit top-heavy, so they walk on two legs but use their tail as a tripod leg while resting or leaning backward — somewhat like an Earth kangaroo would. They’re not very biologically realistic — with all those big, well-developed, metabolically expensive limbs — but that’s why korvi rely on their innate magic as a fuel source.
  • Aemets are a grab bag of insect and mammal traits, and they use a partial exoskeleton (their “shell”) in place of a mammalian spine. They might look humanoid at a cursory glance but if you X-rayed one, the story would be very different. They have two arms, two legs, and the vestigal traces of a second pair of arms buried in their torsos (like how Earth snakes have remnants of their ancestral leg joints). Aemets’ casting magic comes from the palms of their hands, so it seemed reasonable to me that they would use those limbs for dexterity, not for bearing body weight. Aemets are related to sylphs, which look much more bug-like, so I imagine that proto-aemets made some pretty dramatic evolutionary changes before arriving at the aemet characters I’m actually writing about. Maybe. Depending on how long it’s been since the gods created life long ago …

Long story short, an upright bipedal posture is one of the most significant parts of being a Homo sapiens. Anthropomorphic characters have human posture and body structure to make them more relatable — which is one thing when we’re talking about a humanoid tiger selling breakfast cereal. But in more meaning-laden fantasy and sci-fi, I think that human appearance is a tool to be used wisely. Two legs and a vertical spine don’t have to be directly related to intelligence. Fantasy races from magical worlds don’t have to be just humans with pointy ears. If we learn to understand living things who don’t physically resemble us, we’ve taken a big step in broadening our minds. That’s something I care a lot about.


So what’s my next novel going to be?

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mentioning this: I’m working on a new novel. Worldbuilding began at Furnal Equinox while I was sitting at my dealer’s table, and I’m nearly finished a chapter of rough draft.

Concept art of the new novel's main characters. (Can you tell I like drawing birds more than drawing humans?)

Concept art of the new novel’s main characters. (Can you tell I like drawing birds more than drawing humans?)

It’s still very rough, of course, but the tentative title is Tinderstrike. This is the story of Eino, a middle-aged woman who’s been working the fields for decades and has very little to show for it. If she hopes to provide for herself in her declining years, she’ll need some extra income. So Eino secretly goes out trapping in the forest — and in her inexperience, she gets stuck in one of her own traps. Unable to free herself, she uses communication magic to call a phoenix (which are highly intelligent, crow-like birds, known for using flint and pyrite to start fires). And after the phoenix uses Eino’s knife to cut her free, the phoenix makes off with it. Since that knife was Eino’s most valuable possession — and part of her retirement resource — she has to find that phoenix.

But the phoenix didn’t just take that knife because it’s shiny. She’s trying to pay off a looming price of her own — to the leviathans, a race of subterranean water dragons that humanity knows very little about.

Tinderstrike takes place in a fantasy realm loosely based on the Himalayas and surrounding Asian countries. The dry, high-altitude climate means that local plant life is mostly coniferous. Magic-rich flowers are rare and valuable.

Why does Eino have deer-like ears and horns in the concept art? Because in this world, humans develop animal traits as they age. It’s thought unseemly to be anything except a human, so non-human features are kept covered up with clothing as much as possible. Full transformation in old age is thought to be worse than death. Eino has early-onset deer features, so she was abandoned by her upper-class family at a young age, and now her time to provide for herself is growing short.

This is part of the new writing direction I was talking about. It’ll have plenty of non-humans with viewpoints of their own, but it’ll also have broader appeal (I hope) than the Stories of Aligare. I’ll let you folks know when Tinderstrike is near completion!


Serpents of Sky now available! Plus an interview with Self Publisher’s Showcase

serpentscoverpng

Today is the day! You can buy Serpents of Sky from Amazon for $1.99 US.

This 34 000-word collection explores the many roles of dragons. Contains 9 short stories of fantasy and science fiction, including:

  • With Less Lament. During a dragon attack on her city, an elderly woman meets unexpected guardians in her own garden.
  • Cardiology. Trapped in his laboratory and running out of supplies, a scientist bioengineers reptilian creatures based on the dragons he grew up reading about. These flawed beings are his only hope for survival in the ruined outside world.
  • Clearsight. Two dragons perform magical biology experiments with prehistoric Earth animals. They hope to aid the evolution of more dragons — a rare event in all the universe — but an oncoming extinction event threatens all their efforts.
  • Iron Workings. A boy stands on a cliff edge, his flightsuit wings spread. His dragon captains use electric magic to force his compliance and enable him to fly — but then one of the dragons whispers in his ear about mutiny.
  • In Lifetimes Spared. Once a princess kidnapped by a terrible dragon, she is now a wise queen who calls that dragon her friend. Her dream is for humans and dragons to share peace, but the process is not proving simple.
  • Raise (A story of Aligare). A novelette set in the magical, human-free society of Aligare. Tenver, a weasel-like ferrin, accidentally trades away the eggshells his adoptive mother Constezza hatched from. Those eggshells are any korvi’s most precious possession. Determined to fix his mistake, Tenver enlists the help of Judellie, a korvi just finding the courage to leave home on her own wings.

Also of note, I recently did an interview with Self Publisher’s Showcase!

SelfPublishersShowcase-Logo-Colours

They asked me some great questions about the Stories of Aligare characters, as well as my own path to self-publishing and why I write fantasy fiction. Check out the interview here!


Some Aligare sketches

I have lots of final prep to do before Serpents of Sky launches next week! So I don’t have much in the way of bloggish thoughts today, but I did do a few rough sketches. Just some random Aligare folk.aemetfeb14sketch korvifeb14sketch ferrinfeb14sketch

 

I think it’s about time I update the diagram of the Aligare peoplekinds — the one that appears at the beginning of every Story of Aligare book. In the original image, I was trying for a clean, simplified look. But I’m thinking a more detailed, dynamic art style like these sketches might make it easier for readers to visualize the Aligare races in the story to come. Thoughts?


Serpents of Sky cover reveal

Well, folks, here’s that cover art I’ve been working on! That paper maché dragon got a few coats of paint, then I enlisted my dad’s help to set up lights and take photos. I’ve been slaving away over a hot image editing program and now I bring you the Serpents of Sky cover:

serpentscoverpng

Because dragons are fictional, yet such a deeply-rooted part of human culture and lore, they’re unreal even when they’re “realistic”. So I was going for a semi-realistic look to this cover. This art project has been a learning experience!

And when will you be able to read the short stories underneath the cover? February 17th! Serpents of Sky is going to be an Amazon exclusive when it first launches. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can use Amazon’s free Kindle app, or convert the .mobi file to another ebook format using Calibre or a similar service. Paperbacks should be available by the end of February. After a few months, I’ll consider bringing Serpents of Sky to Smashwords and other ebook retailers.

Like any of my writing, I’m really excited to show this to the world. Serpents of Sky touches on a wide variety of genres, from sword and sorcery to dystopian sci-fi. The crown jewel of the collection is Raise (A story of Aligare), a novelette of adventure and family drama — which I hope will welcome new readers into my land of Aligare. Judellie of Cherez, one of the dragon-like korvi from Render, makes another appearance in Raise. (Syril of Reyardine returns, too, but it just wouldn’t be a Story of Aligare without some mention of that guy.)

That’s enough blogging for me. Back to editing!

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What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014 (heidicvlach.com)


Serpents of Sky progress

skyserpentbase3

The paper maché dragon is coming along! He’ll get a finishing layer and some paint, and then he’ll be ready for the cover art.

How’s Serpents of Sky coming along? Well, it’ll be a February release, I know that! I’ve got a bit of writing and editing left, then I’ll make the most agonizing decision of all: what order the stories appear in. Serious to lighthearted? Lighthearted to serious? Should the mood rise and fall like the swellings of the ocean? Soon, I’ll pick one and go with it.

Next week I’ll reveal the exact release date, plus the finished Serpents of Sky cover. I’ll be busy until then!


The Lifedancing, an Aligare celebration of new beginnings

As we approach New Year’s Eve, how about I tell you about new year festivities in the land of Aligare?

An Aligare year has three seasons: sowing, reaping and waiting. Waiting season is most analogous to our concept of winter. It’s a cool, dry season, a natural low ebb to be endured. Plants still grow, but slowly: cultivating crops takes more work and more plantcasting magic than usual. Folk tend to eat stored grain and preserved foods, since fresh greens and plump food animals trade at a steeper price.

But when waiting season ends and Phoenixmonth arrives, a new year has begun. Not a named or numbered year: there’s no written history. It’s simply another year. In these first days of a new year, korvi folk like throw caution to the wind and celebrate the Lifedancing.

A corner of Hotrock Volcano during a typical Lifedancing.

A corner of Hotrock Volcano during a typical Lifedancing.

Essentially a New Year’s Eve party of epic proportions, the Lifedancing is a two or three-day festival (depending on the community holding it). It’s a korvi holiday, but anyone can attend and help kick off the new year. Korvi-majority communities each hold a street party featuring all the singers, dancers, bards, musicians, acrobats, casting artists and assorted other performers that can possibly be assembled. Everyone shows off and entertains others to the fullest of their ability, as long as their voices, muscles and spirit hold out.

And it’s a merry event, indeed. Merchants make sure they have jewelry and bright fabrics spread out for trade. Special caches of food are brought out, and street-foods are prepared: honey-glazed nuts and meats; sweet biscuits with fruit chunks in them; popcorn and crisp-fried vegetable cakes. Vendors trade cups of warm mull and herbed cool water to the revelers, and they’ll typically bring free drinks to the hard-working performers.

There’s no shortage of alcohol. Ordinary fruit wine is common and plentiful. Aemets treat wine as a tonic for their nervous dispositions, and a festival full of happy friends is good for them, too. Ferrin will partake in a small, watered-down cup of wine — since their small size and sensitive palates mean they’re not well suited to alcohol.  Korvi, on the other hand, typically like their drink and handle it well. They sometimes drink astringent wines made of birdcherries, or spiced brandies they distill from aemet-made wine. Corn whiskey is another korvi-made treat: some refuse to drink it any time of year except the Lifedancing.

It’s said that the fire god Fyrian loves a lively party, so he shows up to Lifedancing parties on a regular basis. Electric goddess Ambri has also been alleged to attend Lifedancings, where she curiously watches from the sidelines. It’s not uncommon for someone to claim they glimpsed a High One in the crowd, or talked to them in a quieter corner of the party. Such accounts tend to be hazy after a few late nights and full cups. A Lifedancing ebbs and flows for its 2-3 days, with the mood of the party changing as people leave, return and nod off to sleep — so a god might well be present for a few moments. Who’s to say for sure?

Despite all the levity and drinking, the Lifedancing has a vital purpose. It’s held at the beginning of Phoenixmonth to mirror the Legend Creature Phoenix’s way of renewing herself. For mortal peoplekind — who can’t just fling themselves into lava to freshen up — the cusp of a new year is a fine time to shed their old grievances and fears.  Korvi take the Lifedancing as a time to apologize to someone they’ve slighted, or resolve to achieve a goal, or ask someone to be their mate (monogamous or otherwise). Aligare society may be very kind and fair, but everyone needs a prompt sometimes.

And after all this celebration dwindles, everyone packs up the festival blankets and nurses their hangovers. Korvi and their friends return to ordinary life, at the beginning of sowing season and good weather. Maybe they’re looking forward to a new relationship or life goal. Maybe they’re just talking about the entertainers they saw. Either way, life is renewed and life goes on.

Related articles:

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What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014

Hey, readers! Whether you just stumbled across me in some Google result today, or you’ve been reading my fiction for years, I’m glad you’re here. Let me tell you what I’m working on for the coming year.

—That short story collection I’ve been talking about. Tentatively titled Serpents of Sky, it’ll have many different spins on dragon mythology.  One of these shorts will be a new Story of Aligare about the motherly korvi, Constezza. I predict a February 2014 release, but we’ll see how it goes.

I'm still designing the cover, so have a stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

I’m still working on original cover art, so in the meantime, have this stock dragon from Openclipart.org.

—A tabletop game called Omens of Aligare. My roommate/best friend is a tabletop game enthusiast. He’s been tinkering with the idea of a cards-and-tokens game that’s faithful to the Aligare books — because multi-racial fantasy societies can make for really interesting roleplay games. The Aligare tabletop project picked up steam when some of our other writer friends got involved, and I’ve been offering up ideas and lore that might make the game more fun. All the effort is beginning to pay off!

Playable for 2-6 players (probably), Omens of Aligare is a resource-management game where the players work together against Aligare’s “demons” of natural disaster and illness. The game is in a playable state right now but it still needs adjustments and balancing. We don’t have concrete release plans yet; crowdfunding will likely be involved. I’ll keep you posted if anything happens.

—Two convention stops this year. I’ll be attending Furnal Equinox in Toronto, Ontario for my first time. As well, I’ll be at What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec for my fourth year running. I’ll have dealer’s tables at both events and I hope to schedule readings, so folks can hear me perform a sample of Render (A story of Aligare). With character voices, of course. You gotta do character voices.

And since we’re very near the end of 2013, I’d also like to mention that Render (A story of Aligare) is eligible for the 2013 Ursa Major Awards.

ursamajor

The Ursa Majors recognise excellence in anthropomorphic art and literature — that’s anything where non-human character(s) plays a significant role. If you’re voting, please keep Render in mind for the Anthropomorphic Novel category! If you’re not voting, then I’d still recommend browsing the Ursa Majors’ recommended list for 2013, as well as previous years’ listings. They’re a helpful compendium of books, artwork and other media featuring non-human characters, with many works coming from independent artists and small presses.

That’s all I have planned for 2014 so far. I’m not sure what I’ll write after Serpents of Sky — maybe another novel in the Stories of Aligare series, or maybe something from a new world. I’ll chew what I’ve got on my plate first.

Hoping to see anything in particular from me in 2014? Doing anything special yourself? Share in the comments!


What it means when Aligare folk say “anypace”

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Aligare folk get around at their own pace.

In our English language conversations, sometimes we want to suggest that the details aren’t really important. We might indicate this with an interjection — like “anyway”, or “at any rate”. In Aligare society, people express the same sentiment, but they don’t typically say “anyway” or “at any rate”. Instead, they say “at any pace” — or “anypace” for short.

Judellie blew a jet of smoke through her grinning teeth. “He doesn’t sound so good to me.”

Rue couldn’t help a smile. “You shouldn’t say things like that. Not where folk can hear you, anypace.”

     -Chapter 5 of Render (A story of Aligare)

 

As Felixi turned away, he nodded. It was a movement brief as a heartbeat, but Rue felt it an accomplishment anypace.

    -Chapter 9 of Render (A story of Aligare)

 

Why this detail? Well, I thought it was important that these non-human folk have a few minor — but striking — differences from our Earth conversations. They’re supposed to be understandable, but not fully familiar. How better to do that than with some simple turns of phrase we don’t usually use? I know I’ve never heard another human say, “That’s what I think, at any pace.”

In a deeper sense, though, “anypace” reflects the understanding between Aligare’s three peoplekinds. Everyone has their own skill sets and abilities, and their own ways of arriving at a destination. Everyone is different; Aligare society always tries to respect that. So when someone says, “at any pace”, they basically mean to say, “However we get there and however long it takes, we’re arriving at the same conclusion.” It’s acknowledging that there’s no One Right Way to get goals accomplished.

But still, it’s a casual phrase. Aligare folk don’t think about the significance as much as I do.

 

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