Humans are very concerned about how we treat each other. We’re somewhat less concerned (in general) in how we treat animals of other species. What will this mean when we meet animals, not only of other species, but from other planets? At what remove will we put them to us then? It’s an interesting thought, one that Christian Schoon delves into with his new novel Zenn Scarlett.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: smart, thoughtful, logic-driven person, and one of my all-time favorite authors and “Creationism? Surely you jest…” go-to-guys. A few years ago, another smart person, animal rights activist and author Peter Singer, asked why Dawkins, logical-yet-carnivore, thought it was ethical to eat meat. Dawkins’ reply:
“What I am doing is going along with the fact that I live in a society where meat eating is accepted as the norm, and it requires a level of social courage which I haven’t yet produced to break out of that. It’s a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery.”
We’ll come back to this.
So, my Big Bookish Idea was pretty much average-size on arrival. I had a fairly common author-moment: image swims up out of the depths, brief languid backstroke on surface, submerges again. The visual was of my heroine, a female but otherwise blurry, balanced on the snout of a very large, clearly unearthly creature.
So far, idea not so big. Plenty of stories about humans, somewhere in some future, interacting with large, alien animals.
The next time she showed up, more clues: The animal was injured, she was unafraid, she was there to help it. She was a teenage girl training to be an exoveterinarian. A bit later, her environment appeared: a science-based cloister and exovet clinic/school on a slightly down-at-the-heels Mars. Soon, the girl, named Zenn, begins to have disorienting interludes where she seems to be “sharing” thoughts, or at least sensations, with some of her alien patients. She was raised in a house of science, however, and knows there’s no evidence for anything like ESP. But something bizarre is going on. Or maybe she’s just losing her mind.
Then came the backstory of xenophobic, anti-alien sentiment running through the societies of both Earth and its Martian colonies. They have reasons for this, but they’re questionable. Now I began to glimpse the outlines of my Big, or at least, Large-Format-Paperback Idea. (Not claiming unique, here, of course.)
A quick but relevant aside: since moving from Los Angeles to a farmstead in Iowa several years ago, I became involved with several different local animal welfare groups. So, there are horses on our pastures rescued from abusive situations, and I’ve worked to rehab and re-home equines and other animals confiscated by the authorities, from full-grown black bears and cougars to Burmese pythons and alligators. I’m saying I have some experience with humans doing some pretty bad things to animals, generally because it never occurred to them that they needed to behave in any other way, basically because these animals weren’t human. So, speciesism.
Of course, speciesism as a trope is anything but new in SF&F. In fact, it’s rife, and you can likely think of more examples than I can. But, since it’s a subject that touches most of us in our daily lives, I was more than happy to park at least one of my theme-mobiles in its front yard, put it up on blocks and remove the wheels. And now we’re edging back around to Mr. Dawkins.
Those of us who eat meat or eggs or drink milk, wear leather, or benefit from experimentation on animals? Hard to say we’re not overt speciesists, and Dawkins basically admits this, at least where his grocery list is concerned. One can, and most people certainly do, argue the moral merit of human needs trumping all other species’ needs. But as more and more research results verify the continuum-ness of the human-animal continuum, the argument from simple superiority gets less tenable. So, on one side, the usual arguments from marginal cases, discontinuous mind theory and the centrality of consciousness gambit; on other side, religion or pure philosophy. The speciesist position, in the end, still seems to be “Humans aren’t just smart animals. They’re different in a way that makes them better.” Dawkins doesn’t make this argument about food animals. He bluntly admits he lacks the “social courage” to bring his behavior into line with his intellect and go vegan. I applaud his honesty.
But especially concerning to me, especially in the West, and especially significant for our society’s young, is our often-noted, rapidly increasing distance from anything remotely non-human in our lives, beyond the special case of non-food companion animals. Out of sight, out of caring. This is one of the reasons most of us, perhaps Mr. Dawkins included, are entirely able to overlook, rationalize or repress that fact that most of the animals we eat are raised and killed hidden from us in factory farming or similar operations that are anything but humane (I grew up in the rural Midwest. I know this for a plain, no bullshit fact. Appetite-suppressing details on request).
So, do smart, thoughtful humans still continue to exploit animals in some significant, morally troubling ways? Yes, they do. Would our rampant speciesism change if, like my heroine Zenn, all humans could intimately sense the pain and fear of animals in distress? Maybe. Maybe not. Humans have a long, complicated and confounding history with the animals they eat and/or use in other ways to enhance or, in some cases, that allowed certain human cultures to assemble themselves in the first place.
So, my idea, big, pocket-sized, well-worn or otherwise, was simple (and, one hopes, somewhat camouflaged within the off-world adventure, skiffy intrigue and cross-species thought-sharing). That idea was to put some of my story’s attention on what human empathy and compassion mean, or what they might provoke, or how they could affect someone with an inhumanly intimate connection to the interior mentality of the Other. Plus… exovets wrangling big-ass alien animals. I know! Right?