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.
Today’s post is a guest post by Claudie Arsenault, editor of the upcoming anthology Wings Of Renewal. It’s a collection of solarpunk dragon stories — and hey, any interesting spin on dragons has my full attention! But what was the inspiration to combine eco-positive science fiction and dragons? Take it away, Claudie!
The Inspiration Behind Wings of Renewal
Ever seen an image so stunning you just had to write something about it? Read about a new technology that sent your mind spinning with possibilities? I think most writers have felt the thrill of sudden inspiration at one point or another, the solid desire to produce fiction, right there and then, based on something heard or seen.
Solarpunk does this to me all the time. Might be why I love it so much! There’s something about the Art Nouveau aesthetics, the incredible sustainable techs, and the marvelous gardens attached to it I just can’t get enough of.
So today I wanted to present three of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, a solarpunk dragon anthology I curated with my friend and co-editor, Brenda J. Pierson.
- The Great Green Wall
Let’s start with a cool, currently-occurring African initiative, shall we? The Great Green Wall is a project to plant a long and wide line of trees all along the Sahara’s southern edge. Its goal is to prevent further desertification, and to help communities in the area. The initiative goes well beyond planting trees and includes programs on ecosystem management and the protection of local heritage. As a whole, it seeks to mitigate climate change and improve food security for the local communities. The picture is of China’s very similar initiative, called the Great Green Wall of China.
And I mean, when you look at it, the Great Green Wall is huge undertaking by eleven African countries (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad), aiming to create a more sustainable and stable world for the communities involved. You hardly get more solarpunk than that! It’s no surprise, then, that defending the Wall against a terrible forest fire is at the center of Fighting Fire with Fire.
- Darkling Beetles and water condensation
Did you know some beetles can condense dew onto their body and get their daily hydration from it? That’s how the darkling beetles manage to live in the desert! Now give this to a creative writer, and suddenly it’s not a tiny beetle with this ability, but a huge dragon! How much water could one create? Seven? A dozen? Enough for sparkling oasis with a thriving ecosystem? Why yes! That’s the setting in Lost and Found.
Solarpunk isn’t all about adding greenery to the desert. A lot of it revolves around making cities sustainable and accessible living places. 3D printing is a huge part of ‘accessible’ as it allows prosthetics to be created at low costs and high speed. And nothing says these can’t be beautiful and badass! So as a personal fan of everything 3D-printing can bring to a solarpunk universe, I was thrilled when the protagonist from Summer Project not only had prosthetics, but worked in a shop building some.
If you haven’t heard of E-Nable, watch this video! It explains how the organization uses volunteers with 3D printers all over the world to bring cheap (as in, low-cost) prosthetics to people who couldn’t afford it otherwise.
- Dragonsight, by Donato Giancola
The last is not so much solarpunk inspiration as a painting at the center of Wanderer’s Dream, one of the last short stories featured in Wings of Renewal. But it’s a perfect example of what I mentioned at the beginning: sometime an image has a story, or a setting is too charming to refuse. And that’s what happened with Dragonsight and Maura Lydon.
So those are some of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, but there are way too many for me to fit all today! I mean, what about vertical gardens? Beekeeping? Tree-shaped solar panels? Everything else I’m forgetting? Between, stunning aesthetics, world-changing goals, and sweeping technologies, solarpunk has all the inspiration you need.
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.
Launch day has come and gone. Which means that my Nepal-inspired story full of phoenixes, magic and other surprises can be purchased and read by you — yes, you!
At the moment, Tinder Stricken is only available in ebook form through Amazon and Smashwords. That’ll change as I get the ebook ont other retailers, as well as do the formatting work for the Createspace paperback version. Check back here in a few days: I’ll update this blogsite as Tinder Stricken gets more buying options.
Some hours ago, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal near the capital city of Kathmandu. Information is still incoming but a state of emergency has been declared and the death toll at this time is over 2 500 people.
If you’ve talked to me in the past year, you’ve probably heard about my in-progress novel Tinder Stricken, a fantasy story set in a Nepal-inspired mountain society. And I haven’t mentioned this before, but seismic activity plays a major role in Tinder Stricken’s story. An earthquake in Chapter 2 cause Esha to lose a close friend and alters the course of her life. Further into the plot, earthquakes turn out to be a significant threat to Esha’s new non-human allies. A particularly large earthquake near the end of the story does a lot of damage to humans and non-humans alike, and Tselaya Mountain’s society is changed forever.
My story is fiction with phoenixes and magic in it. But still, I’ve been drawing influence from Nepal’s real people and history, and I regret that my book will release at a time when Nepali people are trying to rebuild their lives. Tinder Stricken not an attempt to cash in on current events and I hope it won’t be perceived that way. Removing the earthquakes from Tinder Stricken would mean completely remaking Esha’s story — and despite unfortunate timing, I don’t think censoring fiction is an appropriate way to deal with difficult issues. If anything, fiction helps us rationalize the real world.
As a writer trying to encourage broader minds, I should try to do the real Nepal some good in this difficult time. I think the best thing I can do with my upcoming book is to help the fundraising efforts for the Nepal earthquake relief efforts.
Therefore, if you donate money to a Nepal relief fund before May 22nd, I’ll give you a free ebook copy of Tinder Stricken on that May 22nd release day.
–There’s no minimum donation for this event. Any amount helps.
–You can choose Global Giving, the Red Cross, or any other charity organization you’d like. Just be careful that it’s a legitimate charity and not some scammer, okay?
–To claim your free Tinder Stricken copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and attach a picture of your donation receipt (with personal information blanked out, if you’d prefer). I’ll note your email address and get in touch with you once Tinder Stricken is ready.
Please share this post and tell your friends. I hope I can help send some pocket money to a good cause — and give you folks a thought-provoking story to read, too.
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?
Work continues on Tinder Stricken. What I originally thought would be a quick blitz through a mountain world has become an odyssey of learning and stretching myself as a writer. So I’ve been painting lately, trying to cement some mental images. You might have already seen these if you follow me on Twitter!
This is a house on Tselaya Mountain, made of clay, stone and bamboo (one of few plant products cheap enough for lesser castes to build with). This concept painting was mostly to help me remember the coloured flags. Inspired by Tibetan and Nepalese prayer flags, the five colours of flags are used to show a household’s rank, occupation(s), marital status, and much more.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this significant character much —mostly because her personal traits only gelled recently, and also because I can’t decide on a name for her. She’s Kaewa right now and we’ll see if that sticks! Kaewa is from a Maori-inspired coastal society. On Tselaya Mountain, she works as a diplomat, using plant-based magic to translate languages, understand people, and mediate disputes. She also speaks with animals — which is a taboo subject among Tselayans. She’s pictured with her closest phoenix friend, who is her clever partner in less-than-legal human matters.
And with a new novel comes a new table display! I’m building up a base for a nearly-life-size Tselayan phoenix made of paper maché. Like my other paper maché display pieces, this will be built up into the right shape and then finished with acrylic paint and feathers. Nothing says “cool, non-human character” like a dramatically fanned pair of wings, am I right?
So if I’m quiet in the next few months, it’s because I’m working my creative butt off! Tinder Stricken will hit metaphorical shelves in late May, 2015.
- Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya Mountain
- Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi
- The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology