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.
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.
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)
If you ask me, the best part of fantasy writing is the variety of creatures. We can go ahead and imagine strange beasts that don’t actually exist in our world. The weird part is that we’ve usually seen them all before. Mythical creatures are mostly just amalgams of more familiar animals.
Which makes them chimeras. Chimera often refers to the Greek monster that is a combination of lion, goat and snake.
But the term can be used to refer to any fictional creature that is a mishmash of species. Even in real-life science, a living thing made up of different groups of cells fused together is called a chimera. So whether literal or figurative, many of the fictional beasts we know of are chimeras.
Because a griffon is a combination of eagle and lion’s physical traits. Add human characteristics to that and you’ve got a sphinx. Basilisks and cockatrice are combinations of chickens and snakes/lizards. A unicorn is fundamentally just a horse with a horn, but it’s traditionally depicted as having a goat’s beard, deer’s feet and lion’s tail. Even if they’re not explicitly described as “half this, half that”, mythical creatures are usually a mash-up of animal features we’ve seen before. They’re chimeras in spirit if not in actual DNA. Dragons are so common in Earth history because nearly every culture invented a reptilian creature that fit the general description. Sometimes dragons have bat wings, fish scales, deer horns or a snake’s venom, but they still fit.
The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances’ (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.
– Wang Fu, a Han Dynasty scholar
I think this happens because humans are hard-wired to prefer familiar things. When we’re struggling to understand a new idea, we try to compare it to things we already know. Heraldic unicorns probably weren’t actual genetic fusions of horses and goats: it was just easier to describe them as having “a beard like a goat”, and trust that other Europeans know what a goat looks like. So even if we’re inventing a nightmarish monster that doesn’t really exist, we seem to prefer that it look familiar.
We learn from the world around us, and from the experience of others. We draw from what’s already been established in our world. So inventing a completely new animal is actually pretty hard. And on the off chance someone succeeds, we usually compare it to Earth animals anyway. It hunts in groups? Oh, like lions! It has a venomous bite? Ah, like a snake! A four-footed herbivore that humans can ride? Much like a horse! That makes description much easier but, well, what’s the point of inventing a distinctive wild animal for your fantasy world if people are just going to think of it as a “lion-snake”, anyway?
Sci-fi finds it more worthwhile to invent completely new animals. It’s unreasonable to think that everything in a populous universe will look like an Earth animal — and a truly foreign creature can reinforce the idea that we’re not in metaphorical Kansas anymore. Fantasy, though, has stronger ties to human history and the things we’ve thought since antiquity. So fantasy creatures are naturally going to look familiar, I guess. And what’s more fantastic than a chimera, an impossible blending of very different animals? As much as I wish fantasy would stop leaning on old tropes, there are reasons behind most of these norms. And mixing animals together has as many combinations as there are creatures in nature.
- Aligare wildlife: the basilisk (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Flashback post: Why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- The Manticore- The Locusts in Rev: 9 (endtimelect.com)
Aligare’s invented animals are often based on Earth mythology. And as I talked about in the post about the lucky rue plant, Aligare has basilisks.
The traditional Earth basilisk is a monstrous snake/lizard creature with poisonous breath. There’s some confusion and cross-over with the similar legendary creature, the cockatrice. Either way, basilisks are bad news.
Aligare basilisks still aren’t something you want to run into — but they’re not legendary, and not prone to destroying everything in their path. They’re just lizard creatures.
They’re sort of a mixture of Gila monsters and raptor dinosaurs. Aligare basilisks stand about 3 feet/1 meter tall, and have pebbly hide with hard, scale-like feathers. Their spotted colouring and grass-like feathers serve as camofluage in the basilisk’s grassland habitat. They’re active hunters, seeking out animals to ambush, sometimes working together in pairs or stealing kills from other carnivores. The basilisk’s teeth are grooved to let their venom flow into its prey (which is a sort of evolutionary precursor to snakes’ fangs). Basilisks also have innate electricasting magic, which is based in their mouth. It’s used on larger, struggling prey; it’s also used for mating displays and to scare off larger predators.
Opportunistic and aggressive, basilisks usually hunt small animals like birds, lizards, snakes, rodents, and rabbits — but they’ll attack larger animals that seem weak or ill. In an open grassland area, signs of weakness such as heavy breathing or limping might catch the attention of a nearby basilisk. Even peoplekinds need to be careful. Basilisks can be incredibly bold if they think they have a chance to take down a meal.
“Dear gods.” Eyes wide, Tijo hurried close and laid knuckles on the boy’s brow. “Where was he?”
“Two-thirds of the way between Opens and here. I came across the whole family but everything holy forgive me, I couldn’t carry all four of them! The mother was the only one who could cough two words and as if that weren’t enough, she said something about a basilisk hunting them. The miserable beast must’ve–”
“Here, pass him.”
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13
Basilisk venom kills the small creatures the basilisk usually feeds on. It’s not usually fatal to larger creatures, but causes weakness, numbness, blurred vision and difficulty breathing (hence why the basilisk only attacks larger creatures if they seem weakened already). But animals in the mustelid (weasel) family resist basilisk venom. An adult ferrin is significantly smaller than a basilisk but will only experience mild symptoms if bitten. Ferrin also aren’t easily affected by other creatures’ electricasting, because of the way a ferrin’s own electricasting flows through their fur and basically envelops their entire body. So despite their small size, an adult ferrin has little to fear from a basilisk. Like in Earth mythology, weasels are well-suited to fending off a basilisk.
Although korvi are pretty good at it, too, being much larger and stronger.
Peregrine may have stumbled upon the occasional basilisk, but those beasts turned cowardly as soon as a fellow spat some smoke; a second tooth puncture scar on his leg wouldn’t be the end of him. The Skyfield plains held no trouble Peregrine couldn’t handle alone – oh, this was true and he knew it.
Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 17
And like any Aligare animal, basilisks aren’t considered evil. They’re dangerous sometimes, and prone to attacking others’ weaknesses — but they’re only following their nature and only trying to kill so they can eat. They’re just a sharp-toothed part of the natural world.
- The structure of Aligare homes (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Render, a story of Aligare, is available now! (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Flashback post: Why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
I’ve talked before about volunteering at the local science center when I was a teenager (in my post The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time). Well, here’s another anecdote!
When I was a teenage volunteer, the science center had a North American porcupine. One of these guys:
North American porcupines are solitary, nocturnal herbivores. They’ll often climb a tree and not come down until they’ve eaten all the bark off it. And even when they’re not stationary lumps in trees, they’re slow-moving and they keep to themselves. Even in Canada, where North American porcupines are native wildlife, people don’t seem overly aware of these animals unless they live in a remote rural area. You get an occasional cartoon-animal joke about how dangerous it is to touch a porcupine, and that’s about it.
Because of this lack of contact, many people still believe the old myth that porcupines can shoot their quills like arrows. Which doesn’t make any rational sense at all, but I guess it’s just one of those things we humans tell each other and keep believing simply because someone else told it to us. At the science center, adults would often bring their children over to Ralph’s enclosure — which was just a thigh-high wall, open on top — and tell the child, “Be careful, he might shoot quills at you!”
I, the labcoat-wearing pseudoscientist teen, would often drop into the conversation at this point. I’d explain that actually, Ralph’s quills are just loosely attached and don’t have any kind of firing mechanism. You’ll only get jabbed if you grab at the porcupine, or scare him into swinging his tail at you. Dogs that get a face full of porcupine quills? Yeah, they’ve actually attempted to bite the porcupine, that’s why. Those quills are an oft-misunderstood defense, not some menacing form of attack, which is a good lesson to learn.
Actually, despite those barbed quills that embed easily in flesh, it was quite possible to pet Ralph. The porcupine’s quills point backward just like its fur and are mostly on the porcupine’s hindquarters, so as long as people were careful they could pet Ralph just like petting a big old housecat. Being around humans for so long, he had taken a liking to attention that’s not typical for a solitary animal. He had a big, flat-topped rock as part of his enclosure wall, and when he was feeling sociable he’d sit on that rock where people could reach him. I and the other labcoated staff would come over and show people how to safely pet him. One time, I was showing a middle-aged woman how to pet Ralph and he suddenly decided he liked this lady, and tried to climb into her arms. Which was pretty alarming since he weighed over 30 pounds/13.6 kilograms! Neither of us had the strength to lift an animal that big, particularly one covered in quills, and of course Ralph himself didn’t see the big deal. None of the other staff happened by because that would be far too convenient. It took a few tense minutes of prodding to get Ralph balanced back onto his rock, and he quickly forgot what he was trying to do and wandered back down into his main enclosure.
That was the biggest, most ambitious move I ever saw Ralph make. Other than that, he was very relaxed and set in his ways, accustomed to the noise and bustle of tourists around him. The analogy of a big old housecat always stuck in my mind. Sometimes I got the task of turning the mulch in his enclosure and giving him his daily dinner of assorted fruits and vegetables. While I was in there, Ralph would brush against my leg — exactly like a friendly cat does. Just … much slower. Pretty cute for an animal associated with danger and cheap jokes.
It’s just one of those life experiences I occasionally remember and think, “Huh. That was cool. I was really lucky to be a part of that.” I moved on, and the science center got another rescued porcupette after Ralph died. But I’m glad I got to meet Ralph and introduce him to strangers.
- Fable of the porcupine (christianmotivations.weebly.com)
- Dogs in Aligare (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aligare wildlife: the sylph (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
In my last post, I talked about Aligare dogs and how they fit into a non-human society. Dogs are useful to aemets — for many of the same reasons early humans found dogs worthwhile to have around. And dogs have been present in Aligare long enough to be talked about in legends.
Aligare legends are a teaching tool as well as a form of entertainment. Since there’s no written language, people tell each other the information and moral values that need to be passed on. Some legends morph into multiple forms, adapted to different storytellers’ tastes. Other legends are so well-loved, they endure with very little change. There are factual legends about how dogs descended from wolves — but the story of Juniper is more popular. It tells of the dog’s enduring loyalty, the gift these creatures give to peoplekind.
Here is an except from the upcoming book, Render:
“I’m doing Juniper’s work, in a way,” came the [dog] breeder’s voice from across the stone hearth. Steam rose from his hands: he had finally gotten his cup of tea. “I’m sure she’d have wanted everyone to have a loyal beast the same way she did. You know the tale of Juniper and her dog, don’t you, sprout?”
A pause. Rue sensed a child’s small head moving, his antennae cutting air while he shook his head.
“You haven’t heard it? Goodness! You need to know about Juniper if your neighbours are going to have dogs.”
Anticipation thickened in the air, the combined attention of people ready to hear old truths. On a deep breath, the breeder began:
“Long ago, there was an aemet woman named Juniper. She liked the feel of earth under her feet and she drew strength from it, just as a plant draws from deep roots. Juniper walked the land and saw its sights, too detemined for any howling wind to stop her, and too brave for any portent air to unsettle her. She even walked through a hard-wind rainstorm for an entire day, not daunted in the least. Juniper’s dog followed her everywhere she went, raising his hackles at any unfitting motion in the land. That creature didn’t leave her side for a heartbeat.”
Rue’s hand fell to Feor — who lay so quietly in front of her that she had nearly forgot him. Dog fur passed smooth under her fingers. She got another flick of slimy tongue over her skin.
“They grew old together, walking and seeing each corner of the land. They knew every breath of air and every pebble resting on soil. Juniper was brown with age and the dog had a limp in his hind leg, but Juniper didn’t feel that they were finished. She wanted one more new sight, she told her dog while she stroked his ears. One more place they could see together.
The dog jumped to his feet and trotted away from Juniper, barking for her to follow. She called for him to slow down but the dog had a force in his heart. He kept trotting even as his limp grew worse and Juniper wished for a rest. They reached a place of blowing sand and smooth rock, and plants as tough as rope. It was a desert at the edge of the land, where the two of them had never been. Juniper and her dog looked at the desert stones and the wind-warped trees, and the shine of endless sand. Juniper sensed winds with a thousand years’ wisdom and not one mote of water. It was new, indeed. Thank you, Juniper told the dog. He licked her hand. And then he laid down and breathed no more.”
The breeder paused. Rue thought she sensed a twitch in his air-filled throat, a swallowed lump of emotion.
“The dog returned to the earth to nourish the soil. Juniper stayed there, kneeling over his resting place, and she cried. Cried until she had no more moisture to cry with, and soon she died herself. In that dry land, their remains gave life to a new plant sprout — one called a juniper bush. It had scaly leaves and tough wood, so it feared no drought. Even now, a juniper will still grow wherever sand gathers — as long as there’s a friend there to look upon that sand.”
To Rue’s knowledge, that was a legend many hundreds of years old. Folk said that the desert was long gone. Passed over by the shifting Great Barrier, swallowed by the outside wastelands full of terrible Cold. Rue knew that from stories told in the broodery — just one of the passed-down stories she still remembered the cadence of. Even without its desert home, the juniper plant must have lived on, protected and nurtured by its aemet sisters; juniper wood had to come from somewhere, after all. Looking at the guard ring on her wrist, Rue could imagine the hours of work that went into wood cultivation even before dyes and metal findings became involved. She wondered what sort of soil a juniper plant preferred. Something inhospitable to other plants, surely. Acidic. Soil that would starve the roots of anything less hardy. Rue ran fingertips over her guard ring, which was polished too smooth to feel like wood at all.
“I don’t think we’ll need to go to any deserts.” she told Feor, “Just this mountain.”
Feor opened his mouth like a smile.
This legend speaks of the bonds of love and trust that can cross species barriers, in the Aligare world or any other. Despite her moments of cynicism, Rue can appreciate that, and it’s one of the many themes at Render‘s core.
- Korvitongue (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Salterra sickness (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aligare greetings (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)