The Pitfalls of Writing of the Animal/Other

It is many years since I read Brian Caswell’s Deucalion but I can still remember the shock of discovering the viewpoint character wasn’t human. Apart from a masterful piece of writing, it planted the seeds of my fascination with writing the Animal/Other. A few years later, I read Sonya Hartnett’s Forest, a story told through the viewpoint of cats. Probably Hartnett is one of the few writers with the skill to pull off such a tale while avoiding anthropomorphism and stumbling into sentimentalism.

Writing aliens effectively might actually be easier than writing of the animals we are already familiar with in their anthropomorphized forms, but none of it is easy given the limitations of our human consciousness.

The Cuteness of the Internet Creature

Children’s books are full of ‘mischievous’ rabbits, ‘gallant’ toads and ‘adventurous’ possums, stories that aim to charm and entertain, which of course, is absolutely fine. But it does add to the illusion that non-human animals are like humans, or rather, lesser versions of humans.

Likewise, the internet is full of pictures of dogs looking ‘guilty’ for destroying toilet rolls, cats ‘gleefully’ attacking Christmas trees, and bears ‘protecting’ fauns. In a similar vein we have race horses that ‘love’ to win, cows ‘grateful’ to be rescued from slaughter houses, and pigs ‘enjoying’ their release from factory farms.

 The Cultural Worth of Animals

The way (Western) culture depicts animals also sets up a hierarchy of worth. The extinction of certain insect species tends to elicit less anguish than the possible extinction of elephants or rhinoceroses, while in Australia, we are more likely to go into bat for a koala than a shark. While some animals have a better ‘PR system’ behind them (think panda), and some are more appealing to our mammalian human eye (particularly baby animals whose large eyes and foreheads, and rounded features resemble a human baby’s), all animals have worth, bestowed not by their attractiveness or usefulness to humans, but intrinsic to them by virtue of their animal selves.

 Human Consciousness and Writing the Animal/Other

The non-humaness of animals and the other (such as aliens), and the limitations of our human consciousness throws up all sorts of challenges to the writer. We can only ever operate within the limits of our humanity, but the Arts (almost by definition, I would argue), is about enlarging these limits and, in one way or another, throwing open doors to reveal strange, and sometimes confronting views of things we thought we knew. Thus writing about animals and/or the alien other requires the building of a narrative that is familiar enough for us to access and engage with, and one that provides new, fresh and enriching insights.

 Deep Fantasy and the Animal/Other

Writing the Animal or Other (such as aliens and mythical creatures) is a challenging task when the aim is to avoid anthropomorphism and sentimentality, and one well-suited to the aims of Deep Fantasy, namely to make the hero’s psychological journey explicit.  It is a task I’ve tackled in different ways in four of my novels.

The Physical and Psychological Spaces

In The Emerald Serpent the serpent might inhabit the physical realm, the psychological realm, or the spiritual realm, or all three. It might be in a specific place, or in all places. It might be in the present, or in all times.

The novel’s setting is spread between three planes: one of which is recognizably a physical landscape, and two that are most likely psychological or spiritual landscapes, but these settings can blend, or invade each other. Operating between and within the physical and psychological allows the serpent to remain sacred, amoral and powerful, but also accessible via its human-like demand for creation over destruction.

Bears (berian in the novel) are central to Heart Hunter Fleet’s settlement is called Berian-tur (literally bear-home) and bears are a very real threat, as bears in the wild can be. One of her friends is killed by a bear and she adopts submissive behavior to escape a bear attack herself. Fleet’s people are respectful of bears, but do not worship or vilify them. Bears are simply a natural hazard of their environment.

But bears also merge into the psychological space. When Fleet is in a hypothermic state, in a blizzard, high in the frozen mountains, a bear appears. The air is so full of snow that land and sky blend and the bear seems to walk on air, merging and re-emerging from the snow. The dissolution of the physical landscape places Fleet in the liminal, and the bear might or might not be physically real, but desperate for any aid, Fleet follows it and plunges into a cavern (the unconscious) where she finds her way out by following bear scent (which is real). Thus, bears act according to their natures in both the physical and psychological spaces.

The Lefer, bird-human blends (in the Angel Caste series, Book 2 Angel Breath, remain in the physical space and one (Roaith en-Leferen) is a view-point character. In creating the Lefer, I was very conscious of the intrinsic worth of non-human animals (including created ones) and of them behaving in accordance with their natures. I created a list of bird verbalizations (caws, cheeps, whistles, chirps, warbles and so on) and assigned each an emotional or situational context. I also ensured I knew the Lefers’ feeding, flocking and nesting habits; the rookery’s power structure; their human-like and bird-like attributes, and how they interacted. To ensure they didn’t merely end up as lesser humans, I gave them super-human attributes, such as the ability sense a tree’s sap-flows through the soles of their feet. The Lefer’s behavior is explicable within the bounds of their nature at all times.

 One of the initial ideas behind The Third Moon ( was a love affair between Warrain, the human settler on the planet Imago, and one of the planet’s sentient life-forms, pejoratively called maggots. I quickly abandoned the idea. They would have to have some sort of psychological similarity (including shared notions of love) and a physical compatibility (if the partnering was to be consummated).

I didn’t want to replicate the sex scene between Jake and Neytiri (in James Cameron’s Avatar) which between kissing and the hinted at intercourse, seemed all too human, and which completely ignored the intimacy of tsahaylu, a neural connection achieved by connecting queues.

Again I wanted the planet’s sentient life-forms to be true to their natures, not behave like a degraded or enhanced form of human. I achieved this by making Warrain’s link to the female maggot empathetic, rather than physical. He fights for her because he is plagued by inherited memories of his own peoples’ dispossession on Earth thousands of years before, and because the maggots are now suffering the same fate.

At no time does the maggot thank him or acknowledge his aid, in keeping with the essence of her species, and nor does Warrain expect it, knowing what she is. But in aiding her to complete the physical cycle of transformation intrinsic to her species, he transforms himself psychologically, which of course, is the core of Deep Fantasy.

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