Scampering past the Baioconodon, a Mesodma climbs, squirrel-like, along an aspen branch, looking for food. Clambering headfirst down a woody vine, it rejects some dark, low-hanging berries among the dagger-leaves of Cocculus flabella, the moonseed. A Procerberus, a slightly larger animal sheltering under the vines, something like a large and aggressive shrew, barks in alarm and scurries away through the vegetation, its hiding place located. Moonseed fruit is not good food for a Mesodma; it grows quickly, climbing over the larger trees, using their height to reach the sun, so is plentiful, but the seeds themselves are toxic.
This is the voice of the nature documentary. It doesn’t just describe a scene; it explains it. Its animals are more subjects than characters.
The narrator created by the paragraph is one of us, a contemporary human, and—more precisely, since this is taken from a work of nonfiction, namely the paleobiologist Thomas Halliday’s enjoyably alienating Otherlands (2022, pp. 105-106), which descends readers episodically back through Earth’s history from a mere 20,000 years ago to 550 million years ago—it is a flash-frozen version of the consciousness of Thomas Halliday circa the early 2020s. This textual Halliday does want us to be immersed in the scene—hence the present tense to describe actions—but does not invite us into the consciousness of the animals under observation. They act, but we do not hear them think.
The closest novelistic equivalent of Otherlands that I’m aware of, at least for its first few hundred pages, is Stephen Baxter’s magisterial Evolution (2002), which tracks the history of primates in the other direction, from 65 million years before the present to 500 million years after it. Here is Baxter’s narrator describing a similar time and place:
Hesitantly, scrambling at the scaly surface of the branch, Plesi tensed, and leapt.
Plesi was a plesiadapid: she belonged, in fact, to a species that would one day be called carpolestid. [...] she looked something like a small squirrel, with a low-slung body like a large rat’s, and a bushy tail. [...]
Few animals of this time fed off leaves. In an equable world where tropical or paratropical forests spread far from the Equator, there was little seasonal variation, and here in Texas the trees did not shed their leaves regularly. In fact the trees loaded their leaves with toxins and chemicals to make them bitter or poisonous to curious mammalian tongues. (pp. 89-90)
This makes some more concessions to fictionality, most obviously in the abbreviation of a genus into a name, which gives Plesi an immediate injection of main character energy. But the explanatory tone is still present and correct (even, it seems, drawing on similar research), the narrator still reminds us that we look back on this far and foreign place from the present, and, for the most part, looking is all we do: we’re still observers.
That “for the most part” is critical, however, because Evolution is science fiction, and its primary area of speculation is the line between its human readers and its animal protagonists. The novel is clear from the start that it is telling stories about creatures whose species did, in the fullness of a very very long time, give rise to us, and as a result every so often it will foreground humanlike or proto-human qualities in its animal characters. After an encounter with a predator, for instance, Plesi has a feeling “deep within her cells,” and the narrator ventriloquises the unthought-thought for us: “I always knew it was too good to be true” (p. 95). At a certain point, of course, Evolution also dramatises the transition to sapience, and does so for my money in a compelling and memorable way. It then tells a few stories about hominids and humans and even those who come after us. But the transition I want to explore is not the line between human and animal; instead I want to look at the line between Halliday and Baxter. How and when do animals in SF stories become characters?
This is obviously a broad question to which one column cannot provide a comprehensive answer. But the specific approaches of a few different works might be interesting nevertheless. The next step along from Evolution, for instance, is a novel such as Laline Paull’s Pod (2022). Set now or in the near future, it tells the tale of various inhabitants of the waters around an archipelago “somewhere in the Indian Ocean” (p. 3), and it has an even less objective documentarian for a narrator. Here’s a sample from the novel’s first chapter, introducing us to Ea, a Stenella longirostris, or spinner dolphin:
She knew she was valued for being a good hunter, but what Ea craved was to be normal. To spin like everyone else was the key to fitting in, and if she could only hear the music of the ocean like everyone else, she too would be able to tune in and do it. She was fast, healthy and wanted so badly to succeed—but she had never heard the music. Spinning was the Longi’s art form, it was dance, athleticism, most commonly just for entertainment and sport, but it also held a spiritual element. It was union with the ocean itself. (p. 5)
There is reality here, but submerged. The spinning of spinners is indeed thought to have performative, communicative, and competitive elements—but whether or not the dolphins themselves have a subjective experience of spirituality is not knowable by us. Ea’s imagined searching nature is presented as a way into her consciousness, a human-animal commonality; her youth, too, makes her approachable. Other characters have similar, if not always elegant, markers of familiarity. A lonely rorqual whale, for instance, is described as singing a new song that is “a radical departure from the popular and traditional power-ballads” (p. 15), a phrasing that absolutely encapsulates him as a musician, but is a little too knowingly cute for my taste. Other species to feature include a pod of tursiops truncatus, or bottlenose dolphins, who are the novel’s villains; a talkative remora that attaches itself to Ea for a period; a Cheilinus undulatus (Napoleon fish, or wrasse) who undergoes multiple environmentally driven sex changes; and another loner with whom Ea can bond, a tursiops called Google who has been raised and trained by the human (or “anthrops”) military, only to be unexpectedly and somewhat uncomprehendingly freed by a ferocious storm.
For our purposes, Google is a telling comparator to Ea, in that he is explicitly humanised—or, we might say, domesticated. It is uncomfortable to realise that the reason he is often the most psychologically familiar character in the novel is because he has been made that way. Brief flashbacks describe Google’s time in service, for which he has been trained both behaviourally and chemically, in the ways that real marine service animals are trained; and like them he is given tasks such as marking and retrieving objects from locations his handlers can’t reach. He is an exemplary performer, with one exception: he will tag an intruding human diver, but he will not harm them, for he sees humans as kin. Such purity of heart is a sharp contrast to the utilitarian behaviours of the humans who raised him, and so when that storm hits, we think it a good thing, but understand absolutely the simple sentiment that drives Google from that point on: “His world had gone” (p. 91).
Ea and Google are destined to be wild-card lovers, disrupting a tale of territorial competition, exile, and return. The Tursiops drove the Longi from their ancestral grounds, and what we are shown of their society is brutal: hierarchy and harems and rape. As in the portrayal of Ea as an individual, so with this portrayal of Tursiops society: there are seeds of reality, but they are grown into weirdly melodramatic structures that don’t entirely convince. Yet all the same there is a discernible logic. Paull’s first novel, The Bees (2014), played a similar game, imagining the stratified society of a beehive as a totalitarian state. In Pod, it becomes clear relatively quickly that Google is not the only example of humanity’s impact; in fact in both Pod and The Bees the inciting incidents of their narratives are, in ways not fully understood by any of the characters, human-caused ecological disruption, and the social structures are the way they are, in part, as a coping mechanism. The argument might be: this is an attempt to demonstrate what it is like to be subject species within the anthropocene, and if these characters seem not quite like real animals, then perhaps that is because, as with Google, we have made them that way.
It’s a provocative thought, and a noble attempt to dramatise the oft-stated truism that there is no true separation between the human world and the thing we call “nature.” And there are scenes and images from Pod that will stay with me—the Longi “shriving moil,” for instance, which is a frenzied and physical venting of dark thoughts and feelings that comes across as something between a confessional and a rave; or the remora, who reads like a very weird and creepy AI personal assistant; or the polluted sea, filled with “moults” that we recognise as decaying plastics. But the effect is undone in the end, I think, by the psychological simplicity of the characters: Ea the seeker, Google the paladin, and all the others, are just too easy to anticipate. This is done, surely, to give the reader something to hang on to as the novel oscillates between zoology and allegory; but in the end what it means is that its animals never quite convince as characters, and settle instead for being symbols.
I said I wasn’t going to focus on the line between humans and animals, but most SF stories with animal characters also include human ones, and so the relationship between the two groups becomes relevant to my primary question. A case in point is Clifford D. Simak’s City—which, to digress briefly, has a typically delightful Golden Age publication history: eight stories originally published individually between 1944 and 1951, fixed up in 1952 with the transformative addition of diegetic forewords for each story (about which more below), and then a final story published in 1973, subsequently added to a revised 1980 edition, which is included in the current (2016) Gollancz Masterwork ebook edition, but not (for some reason) the most recent (2011) Gollancz Masterwork paperback edition. I had both Gollancz editions on hand for this column, and in either case City is perhaps most fully understood in the terms Sherryl Vint deploys in her monograph Animal Alterity (2010): as a complexly imagined future history sweeping from the space-age year of 1990 to ten thousand years hence, which demonstrates over and over that humans are incapable of truly thinking past the human-animal boundary, such that (pessimistically) “the only way to ‘overcome’ the human is by eliminating the species and starting again with the dogs” (Animal Alterity, p. 219), but which also and nevertheless provokes yearning in its readers for the better, dog-dreamed world it proposes—such that (optimistically) Simak’s fiction “prompts [readers] to embrace change more readily than can his humans” (p. 219).
That neatly summarises the book’s structure (beginning with stories centred on humans, and ending with ones centred on dogs or other nonhumans), its philosophy (as I read it), and its effect (at least on me). For the most part, it is not subtle. In the fourth story, “Desertion,” humanity is trying to adapt itself to life on Jupiter by placing the consciousness of test subjects in specially designed new bodies, known as “Lopers,” which can survive beyond the planet’s domed human settlements. But none of the subjects return from the Jovian wastes once they are transferred. Despairing, and unwilling to order anyone else to what he presumes is their death, Fowler, the head of Dome Number 3, assigns himself and his beloved dog as next in line for the procedure. After the transfer, the reason for the repeated mission failure becomes clear: it is simply that the new bodies are better in every way than the standard human offering, and nobody wants to come back.
“Our human bodies were poor bodies,” Fowler realises. “Poorly equipped for thinking [...] Perhaps even lacking in certain senses that are necessary to true knowledge” (p. 110). And the dog, Towser, has been liberated as well. This is not uplift, per se—Towser makes clear that he has always been trying to talk to Fowler, it is just that Fowler was, until now, unable to understand—but it involves the same expansion of horizons, and Towser is immediately certain that he will not go back. At the end of the story, Fowler joins him: an equality between human and animal that has only been accomplished by leaving both behind, and the sort of existentially bleak perspective on human capacities that appears in the work of later writers like James Tiptree Jr. and Peter Watts. (In such a context it feels a bit less essential than it otherwise might to point out that, before we get to the dogs, this is one of those Golden Age futures populated almost entirely by men, almost certainly imagined as white men. Be reassured that the handful of female characters appear no less and no more inadequate than their male counterparts.)
And so we look to the dogs. The first five stories begin with humans, mostly members of a single family lineage, the Websters; the last four, with nonhumans. A robot, Jenkins, bridges: he is initially a butler to the Websters, later a mentor to the dogs. Through a mix of biological engineering and assistive technology—notably, companion-robots to provide the dogs with hands—the Websters create a population of dogs who can express themselves and act more directly on the world (like Towser, they could, it is clear, already think for themselves), and the future they desire is one “when all the wild things would be thinking, talking, working beings” (p. 163), intelligent in their own ways. As the dogs begin to move centre stage, Simak grants them full interiority, the ability to empathise with other species, and a measure of self-awareness. Early in the sixth story, “Hobbies,” Ebenezer remonstrates with himself for chasing a rabbit into the path of a hungry wolf, leading to the rabbit’s death. One does, admittedly, question whether the rabbit shared Ebenezer’s belief that they both knew the chase was all just in good fun, but Ebenezer is at least clear that the rabbit’s demise is his and not the wolf’s fault: “To a wolf a rabbit wasn’t just something that was fun to chase. For the wolf had no herds for meat and milk, no fields of grain” (p. 145). More than that:
It’s the animal in me, thought Ebenezer. The old flea-scratching, bone-chewing, gopher-digging dog that will not let me be—that sends me sneaking out to chase a rabbit when I should be listening, out prowling the forest when I would be reading the old books from the shelves that line the study wall.
Too fast, he told himself. We came up too fast. (pp. 145-146)
These dogs have, like Paull’s oceanic cast, been changed by humans; but at this stage, they know it, own it, and grapple with it. And when one of the last humans encounters these independent-living dogs, his determination is that they deserve a free chance to maximise their capabilities, and that the way to ensure that they do is to remove the few remaining humans from the board entirely, and allow them—essentially—to un-domesticate themselves. “A new way of thought and life [...] must not be tainted by the stale breath of man’s thinking” (p. 179). The story’s tone here does become more subtle, conveying two entwined themes. There is a sense of lament that humans have failed (failure being cast in terms of retreating from the wider universe, of failing to follow their dreams and outward urge), and, alongside that, an equally pervasive sense that such failure was inevitable, that humanity was flawed and dogs must have their chance.
The most important dog character in the book—really, the most important character full stop—describes “Hobbies” like this: “Man, in this story, is treated with a certain tenderness [...] at once a lonely and pitiful creature, and yet somehow glorious” (p. 142). This character does not exist within any of the stories, however. The voice is that of the Editor, the author of the forewords mentioned above. These frame the stories as a myth-cycle that is part of the heritage of some even further-distant Dog society (he uses a political capital letter that does not appear within the stories themselves). The Editor is a brilliant addition that unifies the book. Sometimes Simak has some metatextual fun with it; the eighth story is introduced with a preemptive and not entirely wrong critique that it is “too clever in its assembly of material, [it] works the several angles from the other tales too patly together” (p. 217). The Dog-scholars whose debates about the veracity and meaning of the tales are frequently cited are called Bounce and Rover. But it is also a portrait that is missing from the rest of the book of a fully independent, sophisticated dog mind, in no way beholden to humans, who through his reactions and misapprehensions helps us to imagine a more completely shaded-in Dog society.
“Killing,” the Editor writes, “is a process, usually involving violence, by which one living thing ends the life of another living thing” (p. 6). In the introduction to the second story, the idea of interplanetary travel, indeed the whole idea of other planets in space is dismissed as “impossible,” and must be “an ancient story-teller’s twist on the cobbly worlds” (p. 40): Dog science has led to a different understanding of reality, the nature of which won’t be clear to readers until much later in the book. The introduction to “Desertion” advocates for a charitable interpretation of Towser’s character, against critics who see his portrayal as demeaning for his loyalty to a human master. And to return to “Hobbies”—in which the last humans cede the stage, remember—the Editor proudly states that it cannot possibly have been composed by humans: “It has the deeper emotional value, the close attention to ethical matters which are stressed in all other Doggish myths” (p. 141). From outside the text, City is still critiquable as an instrumental use of animals—that is, one designed to enable us humans to see ourselves afresh—but it is one of the most effective such uses that I’ve read.
When the Websters begin their work on dogs, they do it in part to ensure there is a backup plan. Grant Webster tells his dog, Nathaniel, that humans may come to ruin, “and if they do, you have to carry on”; Nathaniel solemnly accepts the responsibility (p. 95). Clifford Simak wasn’t the only one thinking this way at this time. On the other side of the Atlantic, Hackenfeller’s Ape, a short and acerbic novel by Brigid Brophy, was published only a year later than the fixed-up City, and includes a similar exchange. In what appears to be a very near future (relative to 1953), Professor Clement Darrelhyde sits in London Zoo, next to Regent’s Park, waiting for the chance to observe the mating behaviours of the titular (fictional) species. A bit of a sad sack, and also not too optimistic about the prospects of the human race, Darrelhyde struggles with his tendencies towards anthropomorphisation, and as part of a one-sided conversation with the male ape, Percy, finds himself echoing Webster: “When my species has destroyed itself, we may need yours to start it all again” (p. 27). An understandable sentiment, writing in the shadow of the bomb, although today perhaps the unconscious confidence that it will only be themselves that humans might destroy seems quaintly optimistic. And Percy is no Nathaniel: he is “exhausted by the attempt to understand” (p. 27), and no reassuring cross-species communication occurs.
Into this situation comes Kendrick, a government man who has purchased Percy from his private owners for the purpose of sending him into space in a rocket, to gather invaluable information about the physiological effects of such a journey—Anthropithicus hirsutus africanus being more nearly human, we are told, than any other primate. Darrelhyde is appalled. He spends the middle part of the novel questioning the moral legitimacy of this action, and decrying its technical legality, to a variety of indifferent or unhelpful individuals: his sister (surely it’s better to send the monkey than a man), a journalist (initially interested, but won’t publish because their paper’s editorial line is that space is the next big thing), and a researcher (it’s evolution in action, old boy, survival of the fittest and all that). Desperate, Darrelhyde obtains the help of a thief, and resolves to break Percy (and his co-habitee, Edwina), out of the zoo before launch day.
When the unlikely duo succeed, the focus shifts to Percy’s perspective, experiencing his first freedom for a long time:
Leaning clumsily on his knuckles, he crossed a path; then in a second he was airborne again, vaulting up another wall and up, on to a still higher roof. Exercise brought it back to him that he had once before enjoyed this athletic liberty: but the landscape that now lay beneath him was less monotonous than the jungle and seemed, as his vision penetrated the misty moonlight, more fruitful of mischief. (pp. 83-84)
To be clear: what we have here is a normal animal, albeit of a nonexistent species. There is no uplift or modification; Brophy is just straightforwardly writing Percy with conventional narrative interiority, memory, and personality. And he does get up to some mischief. Up until this point Percy has been a secondary character, his reactions to Darrelhyde mentioned in passing, but here he takes centre stage for several pages, visiting various species around the zoo, exploring, playing a few tricks. It perhaps lands as easily as it does because Brophy also plays a Simak-like trick with her narrator. A witty disclaimer at the start sets the scene, archly reminding us that while the characters are fictitious, Homo sapiens as a species is not. And then, every so often within the text of the story, a documentarian-naturalist voice emerges, but not to describe Percy and Edwina: rather, it describes the humans, in a way that suggests it does not count itself as one of them. The novel’s first few pages are as alienating, in their way, as Otherlands. “Radiant and full-leafed, the Park was alive with the murmuring vibration of the species which made it its preserve,” we are told. Panning across the landscape, the narrator observes that “scuffles and hoots gave evidence of courting rites” and that the ingenuity of the species “outstripped the beaver”; and, more critically, that this unnamed species is “the only species which imprisoned other species not for any motive of economic parasitism but for the dispassionate parasitism of indulging its curiosity” (pp. 3-4). The zoo is not in fact much better than the rocket, in this logic, and Percy’s escapades—and his clear joy in them—are the emotive keystone in an argument that really we should just let animals be.
In Pod and City, humans act on animal characters with impunity; in the former for their own benefit, training Google as a military tool, in the latter both for their own benefit and also, explicitly, for the benefit of the acted-upon species. In Hackenfeller’s Ape, the recruitment of Percy as an unconsenting astronaut is comparable to the treatment of Google, but more interesting are Darrelhyde’s aspirations, which are not cruel or invasive, and are dramatically more modest than those of any other human character in this column: he merely hopes to write “a couple of sentences, packed and precisely descriptive” (p. 12) about Percy and Edwina’s sexual behaviour, to become a minor but essential footnote in future work. But Brophy’s narration makes clear that within a zoo even this is an oppression; Darrelhyde demonstrates his progress when, at the moment he eventually gets his chance to watch the couple in the act, he averts his eyes.
Lee Mandelo’s dense and sceptical novella Feed Them Silence (2023) includes at least one character who I suspect would appreciate the uncompromising assertion of animal rights in Hackenfeller’s Ape. Riya is a climate researcher, and the wife of the novella’s protagonist, Sean, a middle-aged neuroscientist who is planning to use an experimental interface to access the sensations and thoughts of one of the planet’s last remaining wild wolves. They argue about the ethics of the experiment. Their perspectives may sound familiar by now.
“And you can call those wolves collaborators or ’mutual subjects’ all you like, you’re still using them as objects of study. Which is, well, whatever, but it’s gross to pretend anything otherwise.”
“That’s what you think about my whole field, the subject-object power dynamic stuff. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t producing good and important data—”
Riya interrupted, “Focusing all your resources on these individual animals to determine what makes them so special distracts people from addressing the systems that killed all the other goddamn wolves in the first place, but we’ve had that argument before too.”
Sean closed her jaws around her canned venture-funding interview responses, things like, observing the behavior of the animal is insufficient without understanding of the interior being. (pp. 6-7)
While Sean’s interview response is surely one of the justifications for the kinds of animal characters that appear in the books I’ve been discussing, I suspect Riya would find them cloying. Imagine an interior being, the argument in favour will go, and readers can imagine themselves “being-in-kind,” as the phrase in Feed Them Silence has it, and good outcomes will follow. Maybe. But maybe not. In an essay about the genesis of the novella, Mandelo cites with approval Donna Haraway’s rejection of “the fantasy” of getting inside an animal companion’s brain, and accordingly in this story Sean is doomed to failure. The experiment is meant to be pure observation, riding alongside a chosen wolf subject, Kate, and recording her experiences over the course of an autumn and winter. Of course pure observation is impossible.
There is, therefore, no godlike documentarian narration to be found in Feed Them Silence, and—in a mark of further respect for, or perhaps testing of, Haraway’s position—no independent entry into Kate’s perspective. She exists as a character in the novella, but always translated for us by Sean. Right from the start it is clear how incomplete this will be: in their first session, Sean’s sensorium struggles to process the “more-than-human” (telling phrase) input from Kate. “Chemical saturation bowled over Sean’s distancing protocols,” punctuated by just enough moments of “startling recognition” (p. 13) for the possibility of true understanding to feel tantalisingly possible. Soon she is going with the flow, telling herself that she will process the observations post-hoc: “Words were for after the feed cut her loose from the rush of being something else” (p. 19). Pronouns collide; sometimes Kate does something, sometimes “she” does something. Physiological responses start to overlap. It becomes a kind of addiction, and when Sean tries to rewatch video taken during earlier sessions, she experiences severe cognitive dissonance. “Memories of herself experiencing their warm, simple camaraderie ran aground on the sight of an animal recorded by a field camera, another form and creature entirely separate from her” (p. 40).
The true, if not entirely surprising, sting of Feed Them Silence, however, is the revelation that not only is Kate affecting Sean, but—as Riya predicted, in defiance of all understanding of how the equipment is meant to work—Sean has been affecting Kate. (It is not entirely surprising because the slow-motion collapse of Sean and Riya’s relationship—an at-times suffocatingly earnest but authentically painful depiction of unevenly desired and offered intimacy—has set us up to expect this parallel. To the last page I was unsure which relationship was more important to Sean.) When the sponsoring company, which plans to use the implants for entertainment purposes, realises what is happening, they immediately shut down the programme, laying claim to almost all of the captured data, and to Kate herself, whom they unceremoniously euthanise ahead of an autopsy.
The ending is no less brutal for the fact that you can see it coming. It echoes Brophy, who also dispatches her animal protagonist to make a point about human use of animals, but goes further, insisting that we value Kate’s consciousness not because it is like us but precisely because it is not. Feed Them Silence is about our real-world relationships with animals, but it also functions, surely deliberately, along the lines of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (2015) or Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… (1977), as a call for imaginative honesty when imagining animal consciousness. As the novels I’ve been reading in this column show, it’s possible to say meaningful things while imagining animals that are not much like their real-world counterparts. But it’s useful to be reminded that reality is played with the net up.
Evolution by Stephen Baxter (2002). Gollancz 2002 (London, UK). Hardback. ISBN: 0-575-07341-1.
Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy (1953). Faber & Faber 2023 (London, UK). Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-571-38129-6.
Otherlands: A World in the Making by Thomas Halliday (2022). Allen & Unwin 2022 (Dublin, Ireland). Harback. ISBN: 978-0-241-40574-1.
“The Companion Species Manifesto” by Donna J. Haraway (2003). In Manifestly Haraway by Donna J. Haraway, University of Minnesota Press 2016 (Minneapolis, MN, USA). Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-816-65048-4.
Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo (2023). Tordotcom 2023 (New York, USA). Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-250-82450-9.
“Being in Kind”: Studying Animal Intimacies for Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo (2023). Tor.com, 14 March 2023. Available online at: https://www.tor.com/2023/03/14/being-in-kind-studying-animal-intimacies-for-feed-them-silence/
Pod by Laline Paull (2022). Corsair 2022 (London, UK). Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-472-15660-0.
City by Clifford D. Simak (1952). Gollancz (London, UK). Paperback. ISBN (2011): 978-0-575-10523-2.
Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal by Sherryl Vint (2010). Liverpool University Press 2010 (Liverpool, UK). Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-846-31234-2.