Sunday, November 18, 2012

Petless in Fantasyland

I've been reading Alexandra Horowitz' wonderful book Inside of a Dog. I strongly recommend it to anyone. It's a book about how dogs think and perceive the world-- vastly different from how we do,. It's not the only dog natured material I've been reading. Nova has had several episodes involving what goes on inside of the dog mind and dogs figured prominently in a recent episode of Nova Science Now: How Smart Can We Get.

My family bred collies for a few years when I was in high school. We've had dogs and cats as long as I can remember. Along with ferrets, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, turtles (lots of turtles), mice and birds. But mostly dogs and cats.

I can tell many stories about them: How Heidi (my collie) ate all the hot dogs. Spielkes (the cat) and the adventure of the blue jays. How Snoopy (another dog)  learned to climb trees. The tale of Hulk Hogan (a turtle) and Hurricane Hugo. But I won't go into them now. They serve to illustrate that most of my life has animals in it. Usually pets. Wild animals such as snakes and turtles have a different sort of relationship.

Nor am I alone. Most writers I know at least have a cat. Some have dogs. Some have a different sort of animal.

Indeed, there's interesting evidence that dogs have been associated with us for as much as a hundred thousand years and domesticated by us for as much as twenty. Cats have been with us since agriculture.

My point here is that having animals-- specifically, having pets-- is one of the human universals, like people getting married, religions involving children and the conservation of property.

Why then is it so absent in science fiction?

As I look over SF I find an incredible paucity of pets showing up. There are more stories with horses in them than dogs or cats.

And no, I don't include talking animals or familiars. If they talk they're not really pets.

Oddly, the one writer I find that regularly had pets show up in his stories and novels is Heinlein. Jubal in Stranger has a cat. There's a ship's cat in several Heinlein novels. There are several dogs in The Star Beast. Recall the flatcats in The Rolling Stones. He even wrote an entire novel where the cat is one of the main characters: The Door Into Summer. (I'm not going to talk about The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls. My doctor told me not to discuss the later Heinlein novels. For my health.)

As many things that Heinlein got wrong he clearly understood that people had pets and those pets were a big part of their lives.

Where are the Cats of Antares? The Dogs of Vega?

Fantasy scores somewhat better than science fiction but only just. There is the janitor's cat in Harry Potter. And Hagrid has all sort of pets. Animals tend to show up in fantasy stories but largely as an artifact that most fantasy stories are situated in a past environment of one sort or another. High fantasy based on medieval times is still medieval times, fantasy or no. There are few pets in Lord of the Rings even in the Shire. It doesn't help that a lot of times in fantasy when it shows up like a pet it's talking up a storm two chapters later. Again, animals that talk don't count.

I'm no better. None of my stories have a pet in them. The realization of the lack is what inspired this post.

It's possible that the whole space influence on SF precluded the idea of pets. Imagine a cat on the Apollo missions. Or on the ISS. If you're a space cadet learning how to save the world it's not cool to change the litter box.

Or is there a deeper problem. One of the criticisms leveled at our genre is a lack of characterization. We're accused of presenting cartoon characters. Taking this a step further, this could be a criticism that we are not presenting actual human beings in our works but caricatures suitable only for the simpler presentations to children.

While I don't subscribe to this idea I think there is a particle of truth in it. In our zeal to present our vision of a world we do often fail to make it real. We fail to people it with human beings who would make that world their own. In both world wars there were many stories where soldiers found dogs and cats and took care of them, brought them along with them into harms way. Some animals died. Some soldiers died protecting them. The colonists that came over to America came to live here, not to explore and return. They brought dogs, cats and canaries.

I would never expect astronauts to take their pets into space. But I would never expect those who go to live there to leave them behind.

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