Talking animals

Sometimes I wonder if it would be nice to write books for children.

Not ones that the child will a decade later realize were vast metaphors for drug addiction and suicide… well, not entirely those ones.

Just weird and not dull ones.

The problem might be, for each page I’d finish there’d be three pages of MST-ings where something adult suddenly happens.

My father used to tell stories, when we three children were young, stories to get us to quiet down for sleep… stories with Aunt Organic-Waste-Basket and various characters, all anthropomorphic sausages of varying brands, in them.

Childhood is weird.

Below is my essay on what kind of children’s stories I would write. After reading it, you might conclude it is best I do not.

* * *

My personal idea for a best-selling series of children’s books (okay, cribbed from me and dad joking around, a long time ago) is the Adventures of the Gangster Squirrels.

Or, actually, the Gangster Squirrels are the bad guys. They blackmail and steal and don’t even fear the Human People. First book: Gangsterioravat ja sarjapurija; The Gangster Squirrels and the Serial Biter; I don’t know what the plot is about or who the characters are.

Also there may be evil pigs; I’ve got the perfect name for their shuddersome boss: Kärsimys. A Finnish word that may recall kärsä (“snout”), especially on a pig, but is just capitalized kärsimys, “suffering; intense, terrible and lasting agony”. That’s one baconmaker you don’t want to make unhappy.

Er, but wait. If I introduced human-sentient talking pigs and squirrels, just what kind of a horrid world would that be? Think of it as an alternate world of science fiction: boom! all mammals are sentient now.

Turns out carnivores are not nice. How would you feel about a human tribe that tries to eat you?

Turns out humans are worse. There are entire species that are held captive by humans, robbed of their young (chickens), carried away and butchered (pigs), abused in a parody of their maternal reactions (milk cows), or subjected to involuntary labor (horses).

And don’t even talk about dogs, the drooling harlequin hordes of endlessly varying genetic perversion, the happy coward lapdogs of the human-colonial oppression regime.

The idea that humans are sentient and have a language too, but never notice their animals are the same… is just too horrible. (Also highly implausible.)

So what then? An animal enclave deep in the woods, with nothing known of humans except old, dark rumors? A peace of indifference between the herbivores, and a common hostility against carnivores. (Among whom, “fox shall eat no fox”? Or “Chicken people, bring us five of your young every week, or the small bear tribe shall come and utterly destroy you all. Accept or be destroyed. We do not bargain with meat.“)

And what does “sentient and with a language” really imply? Tools? Houses? Clothing against the elements? How much can a pig without opposable digits, without a pair of limbs that are off the ground, actually do? And with animal lifespans, how much room is there for intelligence — if wild pigs live for 25 years, and squirrels for 16, that probably implies something about the culture, and the transmission of culture. (Then again, after assuming sentient squirrels with a language it might be silly to assume a normal lifespan, but hey, of such details are stories made.)

If mammals (or say “big enough animals”) are sentient, would those that live the longest grow to be the smartest, the most well-knit and cohesive community, the most able to retain and exploit inventions, and eventually the Lord of Creation?

Swans live for a century. (I’m just pulling these numbers off a seemingly reputable list.) So do carps. Tortoises live a century, or several centuries. Imagine the intellectual development of a human being that has several centuries of time to learn and grow. Now imagine a race of such creatures… with protective armor!

If there are enough turtles, they will rule the animal world.

This, of course, assuming there are enough turtles. Probably not, because in the great fashion of children’s literature I’m thinking about the rural corner of Finland I grew up in. (Swans, yes, occasionally; but not too many turtles.)

(What does it mean that animals are smart? Would Bucephalus have thrown Alexander off in exchange for Persian oats? Would the geese of the Capitol have taken bribes? Would Spartacus have been a ram? Or is intelligence, in the world of the story, a recent, local development? Then consider the trauma, in the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, of Caesar thrown among the “normal” monkeys, who to him were a horde of gibbering, screaming heavily developmentally disabled people; people that looked the same but had… nothing in there.)

(There’s no obligation to ask why; but one is forced to ask “what then?”, or end up with a weak and unsatisfying story. Which, mind you, is crazy business for a talking animals story, but I have too much free time.)

This may be an unfortunate case where fantastic racism or speciesism really is justified: it does not seem far-fetched some species will be smarter, just by brain size (squirrels and pigs, come on); and the lifespan alone will make some cultures more expansive and wear-resistant than others.

And the biology: different social structures would lead to different morals, I think. Pack animals have pack virtues and vices: obedience, subservience, and the like, just out of biology. Carnivores and herbivores live differently, need different traits to survive; and if intelligent, will probably start with deciding those traits are moral and so decreed by the Fox-God or the Rabbit-God. (That’s where many of the best and worst of human morals come from, after all: from social monkeys that will eat anything.)

Those species with a short lifespan would, to put it youthfully, so totally get exploited by the long-lived species. Imagine a tribe whose intellectual capacity stops at the level of a sixteen-year-old human, not seemingly, because of difficulties of culture, language and stimulus, but because after that the animal dies. It’s not that the work-filled life leaves no time for intellectual advancement; there is no time, work or no work. Human sixteen-year-olds feel smart, but aren’t all that; that animal tribe would be hoodwinked over and over again, until it got used to the fact, or became very unwilling to talk to strangers. There would be lackey tribes, and savage, suspicious isolationists; and king species… but no interbreeding. Even I know enough biology to say that is impossible.

In human history, marriages and interbreeding have been very good in making humans live with each other — how about a situation where a fox is a fox and a pig is a pig, and the two shall never mix? That situation just screams the ease of genocide. There are no half-pigs, or foxes with a pig grandparent; if one species decides it doesn’t like another, the line is drawn clear, and deadly. And beyond extermination, if a king species decides it is the only one fit to rule, its rule will not be diluted by bed-hopping. (I think it’s an inevitable effect of intelligence that there will be bestiality between all species, rishathra, or at least between those with the power, and those without… but this may not be a meaningful speculation for a children’s book.)

(Marriages and sex… well, one would need to think about those too, but not narration material, no.)

Mind you, “different species will have different cultures” needs sufficient numbers; I have no idea how many rabbits, squirrels, foxes, etc., there are per a square kilometer of forest. And if, as an effect of intelligence, communities will form… what will a rabbit village look like? How long will it be able to sustain itself by foraging? Will there be carrot fields cared for by rabbitses? How much social interaction do you need for language, and for culture?

Where, on the incline from animals to the stone age, to Ur, to Carthage, to medieval folks, to the Renaissance and to mobile phones, are these animal cultures? (No badgers with jetpacks, thank you very much. Not my genre.) Remember that each “stage” builds on those before — unless one can look at humans, or swans, and leap-frog into the neighbor’s utopia. But what do the neighbors think of badgers in waistcoats? Would it be the easiest to just assume humanity has gone extinct, giving the animals room to roam and grow without their cultures being the uneasy refuse of humanity… or does it stretch credulity and imagination too much to try to have them totally independent of humankind, except for old graves and rotting concrete? (Or is there someone in orbit, chuckling at what the medieval badgers do? If so, a very bored posthuman doing long-range sociological experimentation, or an AI unsure if this is what the last order for “the happiness of almost human pets” meant?)

Also mind you, “different cultures” should not be taken as “good cultures and evil cultures”, much less “good and evil species”. I very much doubt some would be kind, hospitable herbivores full of love, cheer and cuddly modern values, and others cold treacherous vermin red in tooth and fang. Each culture would have its ups and downs; and a culture, or a species, would not fully define each individual, except as far as stereotypes and biological imperatives kick them in the head. (“He’s a badger. Badgers are no good. Lazy, stupid, venal, greedy, not worth your trust. Tell that badger to get out!” — that generalization would be nearly as bad tosh about animals as it is about human groups.)

Dogs don’t seem to top thirty years, and average much less; this means the greatest dog thinkers will need to get their ideas early. A dog university won’t offer doctoral degrees; the students would die of old age before graduating.

Or squirrels. One shouldn’t assume that if the average squirrel lifespan is 16 years, then squirrels magically get a huge vocabulary when two years old, just so that they can have a culture. No, they will (as I see it) grow up like human children do: slowly, maturing physically quicker than mentally. (That’s a huge problem: say two thirds of your society is mobile, able to forage and to survive… but mentally on the level of not particularly bright human toddlers. What manners does that lead to? What laws?)

There’s a horror story for you: to be on the mental level of a ten-year-old, and going upwards, and already a grandfather and a survivor of a decade of mostly instinct-based forest life. To first consider yourself as a you, as a separate being with goals and desires beyond food and shelter… and to know that your children have children already, you have no idea who you had those children with, and in five years you will be so frail you’ll likely to be et by a fox.

For something worse, consider the fox. How about developing an adult sense of self and a sense of morals, and then realizing you’ve been hunting, killing and eating other sentient beings all your life? That means instant denial; carnivore societies would not regard the meat species as precious, important minds; they would be talking meat, with “meat” being more important than “talk”. There might be sporadic attempts at vegetarianism; but overall I think those would be societies more cruel and callous than anything I can think of. Humans are proficient in racism, but even the worst racist doesn’t need to accept the death and devaluation of a sub-being as the price of their every meal. Even the most callous capitalist doesn’t actually kill and eat the workers pursuing his profits.

Would the foxes and wolves prefer “live hunts”, or capture and breed particularly tasty species and then hunt and kill them for sport? Less chance of the stupid prey fighting back, not knowing it is made for defeat, that way. And how do the meat species dare to organize and fight back? Would they have the proud hunting foxes starve? Why, the Fox-God says it is the duty of the weak to be meat for the strong; there’s no shame in the weak going that way…

And back to squirrels. With the squirrel lifespan averaging off at sixteen, well, the old geezers will have the maturity of teens; which is to say, maybe my idea of Gangster Squirrels wasn’t that far off. I’m not sure what a society would look like when there are no middle-aged people, no old people; but a sort of a primitive gang-based life seems right to me.

Meanwhile, the swans not only fly; they live, even without medical intervention, decades longer than humans do. The Gangster Squirrels would be bowing at their Swan Overlords pretty quickly; or then wiped off the face of the forest, driven screaming into hiding. And swans can fly, and paddle — they have an air force and a navy from the start! For land use, I’m sure there are fox mercenaries that can be hired for the spoils and a loser buffet.

Consider carps, too — there are no carps in Finland, but maybe there are other long-lived fish species? — a lifespan of a century, and a pond that will not have swans or squirrels invading it in any hurry.  And lakes don’t have any easy avenues of escape, if you are an underwater creature: if a would-be fish empress closes the rivers, she can guarantee there will be no escape for her enemies.

As for dryland suits for the fish, well, really, how cartoonish can you get? First you’d need tools, which fish are not best built to use; then you’d need the materials and the ingenuity to conceive of and to create a fishbowl and some mechanical legs or treads. All without fire, without glass, without smelting and forges, mind you; fire is difficult underwater. Though there could be mines, deep into the silt; and baskets of woven weeds — but for some reason I can’t escape the thought that any fishbowl might be unpleasantly organic, fish being known for having all kinds of air bladders in them, that could be cut away and sewn into waterproof sacs.

The fish may come out of the lakes, but it will take a long march along the road of technology before they do.

Though they could always obtain some tools by capsizing a boat…

“That lake? Jake, we don’t go boating on that lake. Too many good boats and men been lost on that lake…”

The problem here is that the horror movie scenario of a murderous, suddenly cunning animal species is familiar to all; but what does it look like when a scenario of less ferocity persists? When animal intelligence is a fact known for years, decades, for all of human history? (Well, it would be easier for the animal rights movement. If you can hear a cow saying “Please don’t eat me!” in English, well…)

If animal intelligence is a new, local thing, there will be hordes of curious biologists, or gruff animal control officers. But if it is an old thing, there will be… enduring oppression of Animal-Americans? Actual voting asses and elephants? Because animals keeping up a charade of stupidity is an… an asinine thought; such a conspiracy would never last. And without it, people of all species need to deal with the situation.

I’d probably need to go with an isolated forest, with not many humans around; otherwise the story would quickly become a leaden metaphor for foreign people, integration, and racism, which is a very bad idea if you have species that really are fundamentally different. (“Why do the white swans rule? Because they are superior. It is the nature’s law that the superior species rules…”)

But language. If squirrels die as teenagers, I don’t see much great poetry coming from them; and I’m not sure how many languages there will be. Multiples ones for each species, if they are divided and isolated; the same language across multiple species, with varying dialects, if there is One Species To Rule Them All. A squirrel grunting a few syllable of Swan, bartering with a squinty-eyed pig for a few acorns…

All above has been assuming the idea of “talking animals” is much like the issue of “talking humans”: biology and its consequences. All is different if you have only a handful of sentient, intelligent animals with a language: not Redwall but the Winnie-the-Pooh gang, a small group set apart from the bestial majority of animals. Then there’s no great disruption in the order of the world, and no great consequences.

There I’d go for the why: Why, all of a sudden, a bear, a cat and a sparrow think much like humans do, feel like humans do, use the language humans do? How can they all of a sudden do that? And who are they — is this sudden awareness a possession, or an amplification? Language is not something to be poured into a person’s head, and culture even less so: how come the cat can quote Shakespeare, not even having hands for leafing through the pages? Has she seen it on stage? How can the bear do mathematics, not having had any natural reason for developing those abilities? He she picked it up, doing tricks? And how on Earth the sparrow, small enough to fit in a human hand, can have the brain capacity to behave socially like humans do, instead of madly pecking and cacking all over the place? Not by the processes of nature.

What then, but a quest after answers. Is it “magic”, rebirth, the surgical work of a mad computer seeking agents, or something more bizarre? Who, how, why? (“You are”, the Man in Black drawled, “My people. I made you people. How dare you disobey me, Mr. Bear? Now go and get me those Russian nuclear secrets!”)

Turns out “talking animals” is an interesting idea, with the potential for very heavily screwed up tales in it, tales far beyond Winnie-the-Pooh or Redwall… and far beyond the point where the potential publisher says, “I think your future lies with the Xerox machine.”

3 Responses to “Talking animals”

  1. Margaret K. Westfall Says:

    You take a rejection of hand-waving and ‘woo-woo’ to an extreme. I am now wondering, can / do mathematicians, surely the most rigorous of logicians, write novels?
    I mean this in an entirely positive way. While grinning at the ramifications of the world you explore, I cringe as I think about how many gaping holes of logic I leave.
    Start with an assumption that psychic powers exist. Or, start with an assumption that a creature from another dimension enters our world.
    I end up with a creature light-years vast, whose intelligence relies on the hand waving of quantum entanglement and dark energy ( despite this, I loathe how people drag ‘quantum’ in to justify any and every absurd claim). And let us not dwell on how I mangled basic chemistry to achieve his diet.
    I just remembered a mathematician-novelist: Ian Stewart. He wrote Wheelers, which I enjoyed. Though it had a co-author, Jack Cohen, a biologist. While not as capable of ‘this’ll make a great tshirt” abstract thinking as physicists, I suspect biologists are good at creative what-ifs.
    Perhaps what it boils down to is, if a mathematician writes a novel, it will likely be a masterpiece of internal consistency, whatever its initial premises.
    And certainly not as full of blatant generalizations as this comment is :)

    PS. I really, really want to hear the story of ‘Aunt Organic-Waste-Basket’.

  2. Masks of Eris Says:

    Hm, I’d say mathematicians writing novels might oftener lead to Mr. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, i.e. Lewis Carroll, whose books are weird.

    (Or then full of horrible math-based in-jokes; I have the Alice annotated by mathematician Martin Gardner somewhere, but I haven’t gotten around to reading just how numerous and horrible the in-jokes are. Seriously; this happens when you let a mathematician write a book for children: “one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre”.)

    I know the Stewart-Cohen pair from the Science of Discworld books; jolly good fun.

    Tangentially, here’s H. P. Lovecraft, in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, with talking animals:

    A yowl now came from the farther peak, and the old leader paused abruptly in his conversation. It was one of the army’s outposts, stationed on the highest of the mountains to watch the one foe which Earth’s cats fear; the very large and peculiar cats from Saturn, who for some reason have not been oblivious of the charm of our moon’s dark side. They are leagued by treaty with the evil toad-things, and are notoriously hostile to our earthly cats; so that at this juncture a meeting would have been a somewhat grave matter.

  3. steven poll Says:

    online site…

    […]Talking animals « Masks of Eris[…]…

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