Bird feathers are pretty amazing. They’re the most complex skin outgrowths found on any Earth animal, specialized for everything from basic locomotion to unique courtship displays. But as I’ve been reading in National Geographic and other online articles, the path to modern bird feathers was a long one.
Since Jurassic Park showed us bare-skinned dinosaurs in the 90’s, science has found feathered dinosaur fossils from as early as 124 million years ago. Feathers probably developed from reptile scales, which gradually frayed and enlongated. These early feathers could have been for waterproofing or insulating the body. But even in their early stages, feathers might have been used for courtship. A theropod would have to be in good health to spare metabolic energy on these extraneous growths, so attractive display feathers would have indicated a potential mate.
Over time, those straggly beginnings became a mechanism for gliding. And over even more time, birds’ bones and muscles adapted to allow flapping flight. Some feathered dinosaur fossils have quill-like feathers on all four limbs, suggesting that some species experimented with a four-winged approach. We take sparrows and pigeons for granted when they flap around our cities, but these thriving creatures are the product of millions of years of biological trial and error.
The key to evolution theory is that it’s not a planned march toward perfection. It’s just what happens when life throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and, over thousands of years, figures out what sticks. It’s kind of amazing how many animals have adapted to flinging themselves into the air on flat membranes: giant pterosaurs, insects, squirrels, bats and rainforest frogs. Birds just took a less intuitive, more difficult route. For their trouble, they ended up with a flight method well suited to specialization. Diving falcons, hovering hummingbirds, and albatrosses that can glide for hours are only some of the options. If real live Earth can produce such natural variety — under strict rules of physical efficiency — then I think our sci-fi/fantasy worlds should be even more richly built.
Fond of science fantasy as I am, I think feathers are a great tool for character design and worldbuilding. Korvi, the dragonfolk of the Stories of Aligare, have feathered wings as well as decorative feather manes. (Also, Tijo the mage might have been a deus ex machina in Remedy if I hadn’t inflicted moulting feathers on him. I clipped the character’s wings in an overly literal way!) And in the upcoming Tinder Stricken, phoenixes will use their feathers for flight, communication and more. The real mechanics of a bird’s physiology can make a good grounding element for a story full of magic and lore.
Thinking like this makes me want to see the fossil records of magical creatures. It might be tricky to balance scientific discovery with the faith-driven nature of magic — but wouldn’t it be cool to see the Archaeopteryx-like ancestors of glorious phoenixes? Or how harpies’ bodies changed over millenia? Hey, there’s something I’ve never seen done in a fantasy-type time travel plot: serious archaeology! I’ll add it to my To Write list.
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
This past weekend, I attended Furnal Equinox 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. It was my first time at this particular anthopomorphic convention. I had some technical difficulties over the weekend, and my Render reading had less than a handful of attendees (possibly because of its timeslot: 1 PM on Friday, when many of the con-goers had yet to arrive).
But the convention’s atmosphere was great. I chatted up artists and costumers. I participated in a goofy scavenger hunt. I lounged in the hotel’s lobby, reading an ebook and giggling when fursuiters leaned over me to peer at my phone’s screen. Overall, I’d call it an enjoyable weekend!
I also did a lot of thinking while sitting at my dealer’s table, waiting for people to happen by. My biggest life decisions are made while I’m away from home, it seems. So, here goes.
I’ve been giving the Stories of Aligare series the best treatment I’m capable of right now, but its very essence is also its greatest handicap: these are small, odd stories. They’re not thrill-a-minute page-turners. They’re not the kind of book people gobble down in one night and then rave about to all their friends. I firmly believe that quiet stories deserve to exist, and deserve to be read. The tiny little legion of Aligare fans is so meaningful to me — but I think I need to increase my reach as a writer and publisher, or else I’m not doing justice to this goal of mine.
I’ve got other unusual, human-free stories in mind. Some of them I’m holding back because I don’t think I’m ready to execute them well. (I felt kinship in the way Pixar’s WALL-E took years of development and tinkering with the emotional tones. ) But as a writer, I like working with a variety of literary tones and approaches. And Serpents of Sky has gotten a better reception so far than any of the Aligare books. I’m clearly able to write higher-concept stories.
So my next full-length novel won’t be a Story of Aligare. The next story (or stories) I publish will be something with broader appeal. I’ll still twist and subvert fantasy clichés wherever I find them. But I’ll see if I can tell a more crowd-pleasing story, before asking that crowd to give my weirder works a chance.
Stay tuned! I’ll tell you folks what my next book will be as soon as I’m sure myself.
So, hey, when was the last time I told you folks an anecdote from my life? I’ve been talking about Serpents of Sky and other book-centric stuff for quite a while now. Yeah, let’s have a science center story.
To recap: when I was a teenager, I volunteered at the local science center. I was stationed in the live animal section — so I sometimes did cool things like handle snakes and give spontaneous educational speeches, and I mostly did less cool things like scrub animal habitats.
One of those animal habitats contained a deer mouse.
“Deer mouse” is a generic term for many different mouse species, but I’m fairly sure he was a white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). I don’t remember what the signage said: I was busy studying the animals that visitors handled on a regular basis, like the snakes and flying squirrels. Regardless of his scientific classification, this particular deer mouse was a tiny thing, about 3 inches long and weighing less than an ounce (7 1/2 centimeters and less than 30 grams). Despite his delicate size, he was a willful creature who did not like to be handled.
One day, I was working with a fellow teenage volunteer named Eric. We were tasked with cleaning the deer mouse’s enclosure: just put the animal in a bucket for safe keeping, scrub all the hard surfaces, change the bedding, and put the animal back in. Sounds simple enough. Armed with buckets and supplies, Eric and I went out onto the science center floor and opened up the lid of the big triangular plexiglass box that was the deer mouse enclosure. We were wearing lab coats so that probably made us experts!
Now, we had a net to catch the mouse with. One of those fine-meshed green nets you’d use to scoop up a goldfish from an aquarium. But the deer mouse didn’t appreciate being woken up and he was having none of this grabbed-by-humans nonsense. He evaded the net, and evaded our attempts to seize him by the tail. And then the deer mouse darted up Eric’s arm and out onto the floor — to bounce away across the wide open carpet. In the public area of the science center, where tourists wandered around by the dozens.
Oh geez oh my god grab more buckets and nets and another teenage volunteer, we have to catch this thing before it escapes into a crevice or gets stepped on! So we — this gaggle of three lab-coat-wearing kids — chased that deer mouse behind displays and under equipment. I imagine Yakety Sax would have made an appropriate soundtrack.
Eventually, we cornered the deer mouse in a dark, curtained-off alcove. The deer mouse hunkered in a corner with nowhere to go. I positioned my foot beside him so that he only had one direction left to run: into Eric’s bucket. Well, actually, the deer mouse’s other option at that moment was to run up my pant leg. So that’s what he did. Ran up my pant leg.
Did I mention that our science center deer mouse was known to bite when agitated?
So, yes, I had this biting-prone small animal jamming itself higher and higher in my khakis. While I was surrounded by science center visitors I couldn’t just drop my pants in front of, and also two male coworkers.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said. And I calmly walked back into the staff-only area, with a tiny lump of a time bomb creeping up my thigh.
I’m a little sketchy on what the more experienced staff were doing during this ridiculous slip-up. But thankfully the department supervisor that day was female, making it marginally less uncomfortable to undress so she could grab the deer mouse. I didn’t get bitten in any sensitive areas — and to be really optimistic about it, deer mice are known for their personal cleanliness so really, there are worse animals I could have had inside my clothes.
As my supervisor and I exited the back room with the deer mouse safely contained in a bucket, Eric came around the corner asking why I just left like that.
The entire mousecapade is one of those events that my writer’s brain wants to attach some meaning to. Is there a lesson to be learned here, other than not underestimating rodents? (No, really, mice and rats have pretty incredible capabilities.) Should I learn from my own example? In the 15-ish years since that happened, I don’t think I’ve ever handled any crisis as gracefully as I handled walking to the staff area with a mouse in my pants. (My supervisor did make sure to praise me for that part.)
Maybe this is just an example of life’s great capability for chaos, and the human ability to make stories out of chaos. Even the weirdest nonsense gives us chances to laugh, learn and share a narrative. And I can offhandedly describe things as “less scary than having a mouse in my pants”, which is a fun mental image to throw into a conversation. I’ll call that a win!
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Hanging out with a porcupine (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people (heidicvlach.com)
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.
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?
When I was in high school, there was a talent-type show in the auditorium. The student council performed a skit. I did some stand-up comedy poking fun at the school. One guy rapped.
Now, this rapping guy was notorious around the school. He was the type of teenage boy who thought he was cooler than he actually was, and thought he had more buddies than he actually did. He tried to wear a gangster image that fit him like a cheap Halloween mask. This guy didn’t spend high school crammed into a locker or anything — but his name was certainly a punch line among the student body.
So this guy got up on stage and began his rap. He made a decent rapper, in my thoroughly amateur opinion. But that wasn’t the issue. It was the sheer fact that he was on a stage in front of the whole school, nonchalantly wearing this persona that everyone made fun of. It was a firing range. Some kids booed. A few threw fruit, paper wads and whatever else their school bags could provide.
As a sandwich came flying at his head, the rapper stopped his performance and caught it. He was done rapping. Even he could tell it wasn’t going so well. But he stood there and took a bite of that sandwich. The tables had turned: the rapper had a free sandwich and the thrower was presumably missing some of his lunch. I saw it as a turnabout, anyway, or maybe even a victory — even though the rapper walked off the stage with people still heckling. That classy sandwich catch raised my respect for the rapper considerably. Hey, if you can manage that level of aplomb, then do whatever you want and let the haters hate.
I would have forgotten that rapping guy along with many other high school. But a few years ago, while I was waitressing at a little sushi restaurant, the rapping guy turned up as a customer. I’m not sure if he remembered me as the stand-up comedy chick (or as anything else). All I did was take his order and bring him some food. I didn’t see a reason to bring up long-gone high school, because it’s not like I knew him as a person. I know him for that inspiring scene he made. By catching a sandwich, he lodged a scene in my head — one pinned in place with the kind of character tropes and morals I associate with books and TV shows and video games, not real life.
But inspiring things happen even in our ordinary lives, and they gain meaning when we think about them. Characters walk among us. There’s potential fiction everywhere.
◦ Purple dinosaur earrings and other telling details (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.com)