The Big Idea: Christian Schoon

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?


Zenn Scarlett: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Christian Schoon”

  1. Non-human animals eat other animals as a matter of course. That’s about all the justification it requires.

  2. I think it’s a fascinating concept to explore. Can’t wait to read it!

  3. I wonder if this book will address that humans eat meat as a matter of biological necessity. We evolved to do it. It’s why we have nice big brains that do mathematics and such. Nobody faults a bear for being omnivorous.

    And I never would have thought that Richard Dawkins, who’s been threatened with death more times than he would care to remember, would admit to peer pressure on what he has for dinner. I must be the most curious tidbit I’ve read in a while.

  4. It’s definitely an idea and question worth exploring. I got into a discussion recently about the percieved difference between ‘eating animals’ and ‘companion animals’ and how society says it’s okay to eat one (cow) but not another (horse).
    I do think Helix’s point is a good one – animals eating animals is part of the natural order of things. Unless there is some outside source for morality and ethics aside from “what creates a functional society” and natural laws (such as they are) I don’t see why there is something inherently wrong in eating other animals. (Please note that I am not speaking of cruelty to animals – the way meat animals are raised and treated in our society is a separate issue.)

  5. I’m looking forward to reading a book exploring issues of animal rights in an engaging way, and to the conversations that may start as a result. Discussions of whether or not it’s ethical to eat/wear animals tend to make many people uncomfortable and defensive: adding a fictional spin might make the topic more palatable. There’s been discussion of biology and the “natural order of things” already, here. I might point out that dying of infectious diseases (and in oodles of other horrible ways) is also the natural order of things: this doesn’t comprise an ethical argument against the use of antibiotics. Evolution is a journey, not a destination.

    There are many compelling reasons to consider vegetarianism, or eating less meat, or even just questioning where the animal you’re eating came from and how it was raised. Thanks for the interesting post :)

  6. As a fellow fan of Singer and of Dawkins’s science*, and someone with several vegie/vegan friends, this Big Idea sounds like it might be interesting enough to check out, particularly since it sounds like it’s more about reason than spiritual in-group Kumbaya drum circles where reason is treated as a bug, not a feature. Sapere aude, and all that.

    My position is that unnecessary cruelty to animals is at the very least aesthetically repugnant, and, according to my own value system, morally wrong insofar as animals are self-conscious beings (and I suspect that they are to some degree self-aware). Unlike Singer, I don’t regard the ability to suffer is all that is required to for compassion. I can make a program that can simulate the suffering of a rudimentary nervous system, and that would be enough is there were no qualitative difference between a simple neuronal circuit and the complex neuronal circuits in a living animal. But if I could make it self-aware (as I believe we eventually will be able to), that is a different story. Even a plant has biofeedback systems that are damaged by killing it. Yet we don’t identify with those lower-energy chemical feedback signals the same way we identify with the electrochemical feedback of a neuron.

    I find basing rights at least primarily on compassion to be problematic because it sets as the standard the degree to which pathos can be widely engaged in society, and that can and has lead to some seriously horrific atrocities (the Atlantic slave trade among them) when that pathos falters. Indeed, I see the animosity rampant in the West from the unrestrained hyper-polarization of and alienation within our culture, and I’m thankful for those legal rights, imperfect though they may be, enshrined, however imperfectly, above the whims of democracy in documents such as the Bill of Rights.

    I do believe that self-awareness is a quantitative difference that achieves a qualitative difference, the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Likewise, I believe that humans, with our capacity for symbolic recombination, have also evolved a quantitative difference that is qualitatively different from other self-aware animals. That is, I do indeed believe there are points of radical departure in the continua of cognition, that we may not even be aware of all of them, and that there may be more yet to appear on the Earth in the near or distant possible futures. Even now, we do not understand, beyond the basic mechanisms, the functioning of the vast majority of neuronal circuits in humans or any other animal.

    On the other hand, just because I don’t believe something should be outlawed doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s morally wrong, or that it should be condoned. There are many moral choices that I believe it is best for individuals to make on their own.

    On the gripping hand, I am somewhat more concerned with human penchant for hunting other species to extinction than whether my neighbors eat steak for dinner.

    Finally, while I strive to eat meat and animals products from animals that are raised humanely (in sense of how I believe humans should treat livestock, not in the sense of treating animals as humans), I recognize that not everyone is privileged enough to be able to afford to eat free-range chicken or fish that had enough room to swim around. I’m also troubled by the “organic” and “green” marketing trend and the demographics that literally eat up the perceived value of those labels. These are problems with the way food is produced, stored and distributed, and, above all, how we as a society tend to think about food, and not with letting livestock have room to turn around.

    All that said, I hope this isn’t the sort of story where the heroine must convince the menfolk to develop compassion; that stereotype of women as caring and men as uncaring is more than a little worn.

    *I find Dawkins’s anti-religious polemics to range between stating the obvious and stridently decrying the symptoms rather than the disease, essentially preaching to the choir while actively alienating the people that don’t already agree with him.

  7. @Jessica:

    Horse might be a bad example for non-food companions, it IS widely eaten. Even former companion horses. It’s quite tasty, actually.

    I grew up with the concept that animals are breed to be food. No matter how cute, the animal was either to be eaten, or any other kind of service animals. My grandparents raised rabbits on kitchen scraps and grass, just out of necessary to stave off starvation and malnutrition, just like they grew their own fruit and vegetables. I remember both, playing with the baby rabbits and, half a year later, helping my grandfather killing and skinning them.

    They might’ve not needed to do that anymore when I was younger (although they still bartered rabbits for potatoes and etc., coz the rabbit was worth more than the money), but they almost starved as kids during WW2 and lack of food (be it in quantitative way or in lack of options) still sends them into a hording frenzy.

    It’s something I always found curious – ethical veganism very, very often means the person in question has little to none food worries. It’s quite an interesting luxery to be ABLE to make food decisions based on where the food came from.

  8. I enjoy my status as an apex predator. Having said that, I concur with Gulliver’s statements about “humane” treatment.

    Much of the rest of the world does not have the luxury of making these choices concerning whether or not to eat meat.

    I find the idea of ‘specieism’ ridiculous outside of a scifi context.

  9. While I read the book, I got the speciesism vibe, and the scene with speciesism flipped from the non-human perspective could have been didactic if it had gone on for much longer…

    But the camouflage was so good, that by the end, I didn’t really think of it as a book about speciesism, but about how people (including sentient non-humans) are willing to use other people for their own ends.

    Great novel.

    When is the next one out?

  10. @Carina Very good point. I’ve thought similarly about the Amish, a rich society can “afford” to have them working small farms because we have lots of larger, more efficient farms to feed most of the people. If we didn’t……(yeah, I know, they are, in general, good farmers (those that farm), but it’s still inefficient compared to “industrial” farming. You couldn’t feed the U.S. (and a lot of the rest of the world) with all Amish sized farms). The point being that rich society’s can afford luxuries that poor ones cannot.

  11. I hope the animals on Mars are as delicious as the ones here on Earth.

  12. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I really like your big idea here and it is an interesting topic to explore in a sci-fi setting. It is a particularly contentious topic, so I’m sure you will get a variety of comments from “meat tastes good” to angry retorts to those that are actually contributing to the conversation.

    Human empathy and compassion is still evolving. We’ve come leaps and bounds from a time when slavery and other horrors were commonplace, but we haven’t came far enough and those things still exist. There will always be those who are not moved by compassion and will treat other living beings (human and animal) as “others,” but I believe (and hope) that in the in the near future, we will see a change in how people view the treatment of animals. Studies are beginning to show how intelligent and aware animals are. It will become increasingly more difficult to treat them the way we have been.

    I’ll definitely be checking out this book!

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