I like thinking about non-human beings — obviously enough, given the subject matter of my writing. There are so many possibilities, ranging from magical/genetically altered “talking animals”, to anthropomorphic beings who look and behave like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Tons of possibilities there.
But you know what else is interesting? The way ordinary Earth animals react to humans, right here in our present-day world.
Because it’s not as simple as “humans are scary apex predators, always flee from them”. We’ve domesticated dogs and horses. Cats are commensal, which is a fancy word for choosing to hang around with humans. Even rats, a long-time nuisance animal, have found a niche as pet fancy rats who can be as beloved as any family dog.
What about animals we don’t consider pets, though? Even when they’re not sharing our homes, animals share this planet with us. They watch our daily lives, and we watch theirs. Sometimes, kind-hearted humans will use our particular skill sets to rescue an animal — and this doesn’t go unnoticed in animals’ collective awareness.
There are many recorded examples of distressed animals approaching humans, seemingly asking for help. A fox cub with a jar stuck on its head; a mama duck whose ducklings are trapped in a storm drain; a raven with porcupine quills embedded in its face; a wild dolphin tangled in fishing line. Even sharks — which are often thought of as soulless monsters — seem able to understand that humans can be benevolent.
This discussion between Tumblr users makes an excellent point: as animals watch us, they notice that city-dwelling humans don’t really behave like apex predators. User Roachpatrol says:
raccoons and possums and foxes and crows all succeed in an urban environment because they’re opportunistic and observant. and almost none of them would have observed us pounce on one of their species and then start eating it, you know? a lot of them would have observed that we scream and chase them out of wherever we don’t want them to be, but other animals are territorial too. but there’s a number of situations where humans feed whoever’s bold enough to take them up on the offer, and we do tend to pull garbage off of other animals as soon as they slow down enough for us to catch. ‘a human got me but nothing bad happened’ is a much more frequent thing than ‘a human got me and tried to eat me’.
Tsfennec and Sapphicaquarius add that there’s a remarkable parallel with the way humans imagine mysterious fantasy creatures — for example, fairies/fae.
Of the stories I’ve read, the food of the Fae, its origins and effects, are often strange and/or obscure.- Just like our food to most animals.
The Fae are strange beings that seem to know weird things that give them power or an edge over us.- Just like us to animals.
The Fae work and live by strange rules also often nonsensical or obscure to us.- Just like us to animals.
The Fae can easily obtain vast amounts of things we consider rare/precious/desireable, and have no problem with dishing it out wantonly for no other reason than amusement.- Just like us to animals.
The Fae sometimes are amused by having us around, but only on their terms and IF it amuses/intrigues them.- Just like us to animals.
This line of thought is so interesting to me! When humans imagine interacting with other intelligent species, we don’t have a lot to go on. Just our relationships with the animals in our environment. So what if a dragon/fae/god/etc. represented a higher tier of power and awareness? What if humans were the animal in the relationship, forced in our moments of desperation to approach those higher creatures and hope that they’ll be merciful?
It would be an inversion of our normal power dynamics with the animals around us. It would be a frightening, exciting — yet somehow familiar — frontier. And that’s what fantasy/sci-fi is all about.
One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.
More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.
Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?
In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.
It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.
In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.
Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?
I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.
Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.
I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.
Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.
-Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9
And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.
In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.
In case you hadn’t heard the news, a new species of octopus was discovered this summer — and it’s really cute.
Just look at that squishy little guy! The webbing between its tentacles gives it a bouncy swimming pattern, and the flappy little fins on its head are for steering. One of the scientists studying this new species has proposed calling it Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because of its adorable appearance. (At the time of posting, I couldn’t find word on whether the name is official.)
Mostly, I just thought my blog readers should see this octopus. Octopuses are neat! But adorabilis is also an interesting contrast to otherworldly-looking oceanic creatures, like nudibranchs and anglerfish. The sheer variety of life on our Earth should never be forgotten.
First things first: a personal update! Yeah, I’ve been quiet these past few months, mostly because my job situation went belly-up while I was finishing Tinder Stricken. When I say that, I mean the boss thought it was fine to give me zero hours per week.
I quit with extreme prejudice and focused solely on Tinder Stricken. After the book launch at What The Fur? 2015 — and a few merciful days of sleep — I got job hunting and found another prep cook position, one with plenty of working hours and lots of physical demands that leave me tired after work. I haven’t had much energy left over for freeform essays. That, and I simply didn’t feel like I had anything to say on this blog. I’m a big advocate of not talking just for the sake of it.
But anyway, here I am with a blog post! Because I read a metaphor today that stuck in my throat like an awkward segue, or perhaps a rock.
We Don’t All Need To Be Diamonds
I subscribe to some book bargain mailouts and today, this testimonial caught my eye:
Not because I have any particular interest in Robin Hobb or G.R.R. Martin, but because a series of fantasy novels was described as “diamonds in a sea of zircons”. That turn of phrase saddens me.
We use diamonds as a metaphor for greatness and they are pretty remarkable stones (if not as rare as we often think). But it’s all too easy to keep barrelling past a love of greatness, right into the thought that only the #1 greatest things ever matter. Only the blockbusters and runaway hits are worth noticing. Only the hardest gemstone on Earth is worth wearing or considering beautiful.
It ties into my thought that “typical fantasy” should be an oxymoron. Sure, it’s sad to be a zircon, a material with nowhere near as much merit as the stone it mimicks. There are few things more disappointing than a fantasy story that’s clumsily imitating a better book. But when we’re considering minerals, we have more to choose from than just diamonds and zircons, just as there’s more to the fantasy genre than who writes the grittiest political coup. We’re not limited to winners and losers — why, just look at the variety out there.
There are minerals for every purpose. Mountains of them, both literally and figuratively. There are quartz crystals for your watch components, and granite that’ll look great as a polished countertop. Quartz and granite are common, humble minerals that will never measure up to a diamond — and why should they? Olivine isn’t the most glamorous stone group around, but if you like how your peridot earrings look when they catch the light, then who cares?
This metaphor is particularly personal for me because I associate Remedy, my first-published novel, with amethysts. At the beginning of the story, Peregrine is a miner who brings home mostly amethysts. These stones aren’t ideal for common useage (clear quartz is preferred, since it’ll take any and all magical charges), but amethyst has its place in Aligare society. It’s perfect for darkcasters. Brightcasters can’t use it and that’s fine; it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with either the caster or the stone. We all have our tastes and alignments, that’s all. Remedy is my own handful of natural amethyst — amethyst that a New York editor once told me would never be a diamond, so I should rewrite it. No, thanks. I happen to like quartz formations.
It’s great to write a classic-styled epic fantasy, or wear a diamond. But as with all things, the world needs variety. I tell myself this every time I read or write a story. There’s plenty of room in the fantasy genre for jasper and amber, and even room for an old piece of petrified wood if it manages to shine.
I’m not generally enthused about humans as a species. We’re not as perfect as we tend to believe, and I highly doubt that humans are the ultimate pinnacle of life. But one human quality I do think is pretty great? Our hands.
Oh, hands aren’t necessary for higher functions. Birds get by just fine without hands: there are myriad examples of ordinary Earth birds using their beaks and feet to make wire tools or build elaborate nests. They can even open containers designed for human hands, and teach other birds how they did it.
That’s how my phoenixes get by Tinder Stricken. They’re dextrous enough to tie knots and start fires with flint and tinder, despite a marked lack of thumbs. Most of their complex skills are taught, from parent to chick — or simply older phoenix to younger phoenix.
Tinder Stricken’s other non-human race, the leviathans/water serpents, have proved more difficult to write interacting with their environment. Our real world doesn’t have much precident for salamanders or fish handling small objects. But between salamanders’ delicate little feet and the sensitive, whisker-like barbels on bottom-dwelling fish, I’m making it work.
Thinking about this basic physical issue is what got me appreciating all the human hands here on Earth. Hands are a luxury we take for granted. Just look at Wikipedia’s thorough study of our hands! They’re a pretty big deal! Our thumb and fingers have a wide range of motion. Our arrangement of fingers allows for many variations of grip. Human hands are precise enough to slip the skin off a roasted peanut, but strong enough to karate chop through hardwood boards. (Hypothetically. I mean, I can’t chop through boards and it would take me quite a while to learn how.)
Nothing else on Earth has the sheer versatility of a human hand. No wonder we stick hands onto most anthropomorphic animal characters: it makes them easier to write stories with, and easier to relate to.
And despite humans’ skill at grasping weapons and smashing things, our fleshy, dextrous hands are also good at pleasant actions like massaging, stroking, and friendly scratching. Dogs love it. Cats love it. Foxes and owls and eels love it. I like to jokingly imagine that our hands are the one truly redeeming quality of humanity, the contribution we make to the universe that no other species can. Highly advanced entities from other galaxies will tell each other, “Oh man, you have to visit the third planet from The Sun and try the scalp massage, it’s amazing.”
So to you readers navigating the Internet with buttons and touchpads, I say we all grasp a container full of beverage and raise it in toast to human hands. They’re not the only way to interact with the world — but they are a very, very good one.
- Human posture as a marker of anthropomorphism
- Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for?
- Knife calluses and what they say about their owners
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.
This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.
I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.
It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).
And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.
Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”
I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.
- Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?
- Fiction begins with real life: The story of a rapping guy
- What maturity means
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?
Language-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”.
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.’
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
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology
- Why fantasy?
I recently changed my day job. Tired of the customer-service grind of being a waitress, I decided to return to my professional cooking roots — but this time, I’m working as a prep cook. It’s less exciting than being the line cook who makes meals with speed and flair, but that’s okay. I’m not looking to be a hotshot in my day job. Cutting vegetables and making basic sauces will hopefully be a low-stress occupation that leaves me more energy for writing.
Although, it’s been about 6 years since I last chopped restaurant quantities of vegetables. My knife callus had long since faded away, and in the past few weeks I’ve had to harden my hands up again. It made me realise that a chef’s knife leaves a very particular mark on its user — and that’s a detail not everyone is aware of, because it’s not very glamorous. Knife calluses aren’t something a Food Network host will grinningly tell you about.
So, since I’m a world-building fantasy writer, how about I show you a defining part of my real-life world? I’ve been showing all my friends this visible change in my hands. I find it interesting that my occupation is changing the texture of my hands, and leaving a visible mark. It’s telling. But more on that later.
First things first! When I talk about using a chef’s knife, I mean something like this:
Chef’s knives vary slightly in design, depending on whether the knife is German, French or Japanese-styled. The blade can be between 6 and 14 inches long (15 and 36 cm), but the most common chef’s knives are between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long. My own knife is a 9-inch Victoronox, a lightweight, nimble model preferred by the female chefs who trained me. My new workplace provides a whole bucket of chef’s knives for my use, all between 8 and 11 inches, and all of them a heavier tool than I’d prefer. It’s like wearing nice, breezy sneakers every day and then suddenly putting on hiking boots that, relatively speaking, feel like blocks of cement.
Anyway, regardless of the knife’s exact measurements, a professional cook gets a callus from using it. A very particular callus, on the index finger of their dominant hand. Here’s mine:
Why does the chopping friction affect such a small, specific area? Because when you use a knife for hours each day, it’s not always held by the handle. Well, uh, let me show you. With some pictures of me using my Victoronox knife in my tiny apartment kitchen.
Tender foods — such as parsley leaves — don’t provide much resistance. The cook can easily hold the knife by its handle and make a quick up-and-down chopping motion.
But when cutting larger or tougher foods, holding the knife by its handle puts the cook’s wrist at an ineffective angle. It’s more efficient to actually hold the base of the blade, to allow more direct downward force. Like so:
That blunt edge of the knife is what creates the callus. And that callus shows that I work with actual meat and vegetables, not factory-made things pulled out of the freezer. My prep work isn’t glamorous but it’s a necessary part of making really good food, which is why I’m proud of my little friction wound.
And that’s what I mean by my knife callus being a defining detail of me. It’s always kind of bothered me when I’m reading a fantasy story and it offhandedly mentions some character’s “callused hands of a swordsman”, or whatever their profession is. Callused in what way? Just callused all over? Probably not. And they’re probably not the same calluses you’d find on an archer, or a seamstress, or a blacksmith.
Granted, I’m sure most authors don’t want to include an infodump explanation of exactly where a swordsman’s hands get callused. They might not even know where a sword hilt rubs on its user’s hands — because I sure don’t. It … varies by the type of sword and the fighting technique, I’d assume. But that’s exactly why I want the book to specify that detail! It would lend authenticism to a fantasy world if the seasoned warrior gets lost in thought while rubbing that one particularly leathery spot on his hand.
Calluses are something I’ll have to include in Tinder Stricken, since the main character Esha is a manual laborer. She’s been farming for most of her life and even if she doesn’t think much about her own calluses, she’ll probably notice the state of other people’s hands and what that says about them. I could have included calluses in the Stories of Aligare, now that I think about it. Aemet and korvi skin have different properties than human skin — but however tough korvi hide is, it’s nice to think that Peregrine’s hands tell a story of hard work.
And as for me and my day job? I’ll get more interesting marks to go with my knife callus, I’m sure.
- Scars: fictional meaning versus real mundanity
- Why fantasy?
- The Western view of snakes and how I changed it in my spare time
So, here’s something I just thought of. English sci-fi usually refers to its interstellar spacecraft as “space ships”, or “starships”, or something else with “ship” in the name. It’s a commonplace term.
Because it makes sense for humans to root our space travel in the nomenclature of sailing. The Age of Sail was a major formative period in Western history, so modern English still uses sailing idioms like “batten down the hatches”, “know the ropes” and “close quarters”, even though sailing is now a tiny niche of world travel. The vast majority of human cultures use boats in some way, and can relate to the imagery of travelling by wind and water. Sailing has a nostalgic sense of exploration and bold human endeavor. But if we dig a little deeper, sailing also touches on the less pleasant lessons history has to teach us — issues like the soul-sucking conditions of long-haul travel, and the human rights atrocities committed in the Age of Sail. The glamour and the grimness of the Age of Sail make a good blueprint for a space opera.
I was thinking about this while listening to The Picard Song, a Star Trek fanwork that starts with Captain Picard’s stately declaration of, “Here’s to the finest crew in Starfleet.”
Huh, I thought. Starfleet. Like a fleet of ships, in keeping with the nautical theme and the military implications. I wonder if alien races have metaphors like that for their space programs — different metaphors than ours.
And it suddenly occurred to me that I can’t think of any non-human versions of the term “spaceship”. Much as I appreciate Star Trek’s efforts to show non-humans in a dignified light, its alien races always seem to accept the “ship” and “fleet” terminology that humans use. Now, granted, universal translation technology is partly to blame. Of course it’s going to use our most commonly understood nomenclature. But still, I don’t recall any sci-fi media where an alien says, “Oh, you call it a space-[water-going vessel]? My species calls it a space-[something else].”
Why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t we hear other colourful names for spacecraft? Why aren’t there more telling glimpses into alien cultures?
I don’t ask that question directly at Star Trek, of course. That franchise had enough of a struggle on its hands, making its vision palatable to mainstream TV audiences of the 20th century. No, I think this is a question to ask of science fiction in general — and maybe fantasy, too, with its “airships” sailing the skies. Sci-fi made me think of this question, but I firmly believe that a magical non-human can do as much thought-provoking as a hard sci-fi alien.
I mean, what about a race that glorifies farming and plant husbandry? They might call their vessels “space seeds”, since they’re tough little packets of life meant to colonize new lands. Or aliens who see spacecraft as a mimickry of stars and planets, a mortal being’s attempt to fit in with the celestial bodies? Maybe their vessels would be called “hardstars”.
Now, I don’t claim to be aware of every book, TV show and movie ever made — actually, I get through novels pretty slowly for someone who writes them. So I hope there are examples of space not-ships that I’m simply not aware of. This concept just has so much creative potential, I hope it’s being used to add colour to fictional societies.
Do you know of a sci-fi/fantasy series with an interesting name for its spaceships/airships? Share in the comments!