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.
Right now, I’m busy with pre-release work for Tinder Stricken. Racing to the finish is pretty much always how I do things. But hey, before I dive back in, let me show you Tinder Stricken‘s cover!
On Tselaya Mountain, all humans transform into animals as a consequence of age — but for fieldwoman Esha, goat horns began growing in when she was just a child. Now in her forties, unmarried and alone, Esha scrambles to pay for her own retirement before she is more goat than person.
But when Esha stumbles into the wrong patch of forest, a wild phoenix steals her heirloom khukuri knife. Unwilling to lose her treasure before she can sell it, Esha forges a deal with Atarangi, a back-alley diplomat who speaks to animals. Together, the two women climb mountain plateaus to reach the wild phoenix’s territory. With enough tact and translation magic, the bird might be convinced to give Esha’s retirement fund back.
But the question remains: why did the phoenix steal an heirloom in the first place? What debt could a wild, free creature possibly need to pay?
Tinder Stricken releases this Friday, May 22nd (barring technical difficulties in uploading). And I’ll be at my annual furry convention hangout — What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec — to throw a launch party! Can’t wait to share this new book of mine with the world!
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
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?
With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.
Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?
Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.
That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.
There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.
As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.
But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.
I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.
To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.
Haven’t made much progress on Tinder Stricken lately. I’m mostly trying to get my head in order.
But I am dabbling more with painting, while trying to get some mental images in place. Here’s a concept piece of a Tselaya Mountain leviathan:
Leviathans are water dragons with overtones of salamander/nudibranch/deep ocean fish. These intelligent, amphibious beings live underground and are rarely seen by humans. I’m thinking leviathans are accustomed to dark, narrow, water-filled spaces. Their sensitive fins and whiskers tell them everything they need to know about the crannies around them.
They have a different headspace than a human, that’s for sure.
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.
Just a quick update on my writing-related endeavours lately, for those who didn’t happen to catch my Twitter commentary:
—My short story submission was selected for the Distorted anthology forthcoming from Transmundane Press. Distorted‘s theme is modern reimaginings of mythology — and my story puts an environmentalist spin on the oceanic Greek sirens. This is my first sale to an established fiction market, which finally makes me a professional author by conventional standards. I’m awfully amused about that! Distorted is tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
—This past weekend, I had a great time at What The Fur? 2014. It’s a small convention (breaking 300 attendees for the first time this year), so it’s a wonderfully friendly event to return on an annual basis. I always see familiar faces dropping by my dealer’s table. As a first, I was invited to participate in the annual Iron Artist competition — which isn’t exactly geared to writers, but I suppose I made an interesting underdog against the three well-known visual artists! The surprise medium was cheap face paint (plus brushes and a small canvas). My painting didn’t win — that honour went to the Guest of Honour, Ookami Kemono — but I enjoyed the challenge a lot anyway.
—Work continues on the tabletop game Omens of Aligare. A small game company has expressed interest in our project! Further developments if something solidifies.
—Work also continues on the first draft of Tinderstrike, my next novel. Hopefully this summer will be a productive one.
Hmm, I don’t really have anything to say this week. How about I share some links to things that caught my eye?
- Till Human Voices Wake Us by Annie Bellet. I’m currently reading this collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories. It’s got an interesting variety of speculative elements — and lots of non-white humans, who are always nice to see in sci-fi/fantasy.
- War Dog and Marginalized Populations by Malcom Cross. A pair of novelettes about genetically engineered dog supersoldiers, who have to find a way to fit into human society when there are no more battles to fight. Military fiction isn’t one of my stronger interests but the concept seems like a great way to use anthropomorphic characters.
- The Whacker Chronicles by Stan Grimes. Adult fantasy fiction about a society of pigeons, who deal with very relatable issues.
- To Journey in the Year of the Tiger by H. Leighton Dickson. First book in a saga of genetically altered tigers, lions, wolves and dragons, who picked up the torches of ancient China, India and Japan. Sounds pretty cool to me!
- And, for a non-book entry, the tile-matching game 2048. WARNING: highly addictive.
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.