Posts Tagged ‘speciesism’

It’s out!

Among Animals 2 is now available from Ashland Creek Press, featuring my short story “Phoenix Cross”!  What happens when struggling chicken farmers gene-splice the company breed with a mythological phoenix?  Well, not exactly what they hoped for.

I’ll be reading from the story at The Potter’s House at 7pm, October 14.  If you’re in the DC-area, stop on by!  Then stick around for the discussion with DC Stampede – a grassroots social justice collective for animals, people, and the planet.  Details available on Facebook.

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Book Review – We3

We3We3 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw the cover of this comic, I thought “hmm…” Three pets (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) in mech-warrior suits. When I read the cover treatment, I thought “oh, cooooool.” A story of lab animals breaking free. Of course it had to go on my reading list.

The story lived up to its cover and more. Since Charlotte’s Web or maybe Three Bags Full, this is the first fiction I’ve read that takes its animal heroes seriously, with their desire for life, and life on their own terms. In fighting to escape from the callous U.S. military, and to return to the safe place they vaguely remember as “home,” the three protagonists are firmly sympathetic. In part this is because the narrative makes them as beloved pets — we see the “Lost Pet” signs that their respective families made searching for each of them — but to its credit, the story is not about the grieving (human) families, but about the animals themselves. In fact, we never meet their human “owners.” It is the animals who matter here.

Nor are the animals anthropomorphized or cutesy (a failing that Charlotte’s Web does sometimes have). While the story uses the conceit that part of the experiments done on them have given them human speech, the animals’ syntax and vocabulary is distinctly other than human, and their perspective, at least so far as human authors and readers can imagine, is suited to their animal identities. The rabbit, for instance, is interested in grass and munching. The three animals have been taught to work together as an elite team of super-soldiers, but their emotional bond with one another makes sense in a non-human way. They are a pack, a pride, or a bonded trio.

Predictably, the dog is the most loyal, conventionally moral, and pro-human of the three; the cat is most aloof and stubbornly anti-human; and the rabbit is a sweet, simple soul who tries to smooth over the others’ disagreements. These are stereotypes of these species, to be sure, and yet believable characters in their way. I grew up around cats, shared an apartment with a dog, and now live with rabbits; I have known individuals of each species who fit these descriptions, and the characterization of We3’s heroes resonated with me. The artwork on the animals also impressed me with its accuracy, capturing the anatomy, expression, and personality of each.

The storyline, simple as it is, carries big themes. Not only do the three main characters’ lives matter to them (and us the readers who are following them), the plot explores the speciesist contention that animals matter less than humans, v.s. the idea that companion animals (pets) deserve special consideration, and the animal rights perspective that all sentient lives are equally important and valid. The bad guys here are the U.S. military and a politician who want to make non-human soldiers out of animals, thus saving humans from death on the battle field. For the time being, their work has been kept secret, in part because, while they believe in the ethics of their goal, they realize the American public may not be on board. One boss tells the researchers that, in contrast to their work thus far, they need to breed animals specifically for this purpose; if animals are bred to be used as war-machines, their exploitation and deaths will be more palatable, rather than if family pets are press-ganged into it. For me, this perfectly articulates what Gary Francione calls the “moral schizophrenia” of Americans toward animals. In our society, when a pet is harmed in some unusual and outrageous way, there is public outcry and disgust; at the same time the daily exploitation, suffering, and death of millions of chickens, cows, pigs, rats, fish, and other species in slaughterhouses and labs is ignored. What might have been empathy and calls for justice is tempered with the sense that those uses are what those animals “are for.” We3 troubles that narrative; the three protagonists are sympathetic, yes, in part because we know these animals are pets and we’re probably familiar with their species’ traits from experience with our own pets. But other victims of the lab experiments are also presented as pitiable (lab rats and even the monstrous mastiff who is to replace the main three when they are euthanized), as well as wild animals the escaped soldiers meet.

If one does not read the story literally (as many critics insist on doing with stories about animals, perhaps uncomfortable with the ethical imperatives that would result from taking animals’ lives seriously), it is like many tales of workers who find out they’ve outlived their usefulness to their bosses and are now disposable. It is about a small group of such exploited people resisting, revolting, and ultimately escaping the machine. Here, the story is triumphant, and the heroes (mostly) succeed because of inter-species cooperation. At no point do the “good” characters, animal or human, understand each other perfectly. Yet, in spite of this, they empathize, and put themselves in danger to protect one another.

If the story has any faults, it is in some early sections, when the graphic narrative is difficult to follow. I had to repeat a sequence told only through images on CCTV cameras a few times to understand what had happened. Other readers will, I’m sure, question the violence and gore of some of the images. I wonder about that myself, if it’s strictly necessary to show so much blood and mutilation. Yet overall, the explicit images (much as I felt watching Django Unchained) are there to expose the violence of an unjust system. While the scientists, military, and politicians wax poetic about how they will save human lives, the storytelling makes them hypocrites. The violence they unleash on the animals and human bystanders through their super-solider program is just as horrific, brutal, and disturbing as any human-fought war. (The story does not explore the reason or need for war itself. That wars happen and must be fought is a given.)

I wasn’t expecting this quick little read to grab and twist my heart quite so much. Sure, reading about animals in danger always gets me. But in the surreal world of comic books, I thought the effect might be softened. Nope. Nor was I expecting such a powerful, serious treatment of species. While I cannot speak to the author’s particular political orientation vis-a-vis animal rights or research on animals, Morrison has created an excellent text to start that conversation, one that gets beyond purely theoretical debates about sentience and ethics. If you’re ready, I highly recommend it.

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Book Review – Un Lun Dun

Un Lun DunUn Lun Dun by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pretty sure I was going to love this. After reading three of China Mieville’s novels, I was eager to get to this one. My only hesitation was that those others were written for adults, this one for older children and adolescents. Would a writer who’s mostly about leftist ideas, bizarre creatures, and coining multi-syllabic words really translate to juvenile fiction?

I need not have worried. This is a book I would have devoured as a twelve-year-old and still enjoy as an adult, with enough breadth and depth to draw readers back for the second, third, and twenty-third time. Except for a few missteps, which I’ll get to below, I would have given it five stars, no question.

I read this just after finishing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, to compare how two different fantasy authors handle the alternative/underground city theme. Like Gaiman’s London Below, UnLondon (or Un Lun Dun, as the protagonist first hears it) is an alternative, magical version of London. In this universe, what’s discarded or obsolete in London seeps through a magical barrier into UnLondon, where it becomes part of a new urban ecosystem. Unlike London Below, which exists in the unseen and unused corners of London Above in Gaiman’s world, UnLondon is its own complete city, a kind of Wonderland, geographically distinct and difficult to get to without some otherworldly guidance.

Mieville has A LOT of fun with this premise. In this, his first book for “younger readers,” he drops the thick intellectualism of his other books and indicates that not only is he clever and imaginative, but he also has a sense of humor. Much of this comes in the wordplay: broken umbrellas become unbrellas in UnLondon. From Manifest Station you can take a train to Parisn’t or No York. A nine-wheeled vehicle is a noncycle…and so on. As in any Mieville story, we find weird and wonderful settings and characters whose very physiology defies expectations. Here, they are more fanciful than in his adult books: a tailor with a pincushion for a head; a birdcage-headed automaton whose consciousness is the canary who lives inside; a half-ghost, half-living boy; sentient books, words, umbrellas, smog, and an empty milk carton named Curdle.

But there’s much more than wonder here, there’s friends and foes and a quest and IDEAS. UnLondon has aspects of an eco-socialist utopia: mass transit takes you where you need to go at whatever price you can afford; “emptish” houses stand open for travelers, with food for the taking; an enormous waterwheel called the London-I provides hydroelectricity to the city; bus conductors and librarians are glorified and respected occupations; trash is re-purposed into building material. What’s discarded, unloved, and obsolete in London finds its/his/her purpose here. Yet this also puts UnLondon in danger: a massive cloud of chemical pollutants (seeped down from London over the years) has grown a mind of its own, and wants to take over, using its self-made minions of smog-junkies, smombies, and smoglodytes. A shadowy business association called the Concern supports cooperating with the Smog to build new factories, and someone in the British government may even be on the payroll…

Through the first two parts of the novel, Mieville shows he understands well the conventions of the genre and goes with them. A chosen one from London must come to UnLondon and defeat the Smog. She faces danger almost immediately, followed speedily by learning her destiny and acquiring some new allies. Indeed, there are even some shades of Harry Potter as the UnLondoners lavish praise on their bewildered heroine.

And then…Mieville stands it all on its head. There still is a quest. There still is a hero. And the Smog still has to be defeated. But none of it works out as the UnLondoners, or the reader, expects. Mieville walks a fine line, between reinventing the genre and tearing it to shreds. It works, in part, because he makes his protagonist practical and self-aware. She is not the kind of girl who’s going to be pushed around by a prophecy. So when she deviates from the heroic script, the reader wants to go with her because well, it feels like what I’d do in her situation (or what I like to think I’d do).

It also works because Mieville is a confirmed Marxist; he isn’t overly burdened by the individualist (and hierarchical) expectations of heroes that exist in a mainstream culture of blockbuster superheroes and prime-time cop dramas. The story shifts from a warrior-savior appearing to protect the peaceful kingdom, to a renegade whistle blower gathering allies at the grassroots, and we go with it precisely because it isn’t the heroic quest we’re used to. It’s new and unexpected, a story we’re excited to follow, with real suspense.

And may I say what a relief it is not to turn off my political mind when reading a novel? To cheer wholeheartedly for the protagonist and the way she accomplishes her mission, to nod along in agreement when the true friends and foes are revealed and think, “Yep, just like real life,” and not have to pretend that the hero isn’t going to become a cult of personality that destroys everything after the book has ended? Generally, Un Lun Dun’s heroine succeeds because she finds allies who can stop the gears of the machine–the little guys who know how stuff works–and because she liberates as she goes. E.g., four chapters take place in The Talklands section of UnLondon, in which the heroine persuades sentient words (“utterlings”) to rebel against their tyrannical ruler, Mr. Speaker. The episode is both a philosophically potent meditation on the nature of language, and a revolutionary fairy tale about the power of the people. Later, when our heroine discovers how she can help unbrellas become rebrellas (like rebels, get it?), she reflects how people always fight harder when they’ve freely chosen to. The vested, recognized centers of authority in UnLondon (and London, too) turn out to be dupes at best or vile tyrants at worst. When London police show up, Mieville captures the mix of bribe and veiled threat that cops offer in the real-world to oppressed people. He writes a deliciously tense good-cop-bad-cop routine that had me squirming as I read. Another novelist would have made the good cop, well, good. Mieville even manages to surpass some of the latent speciesism that I’ve found in his other books. In Un Lun Dun, humans, canaries, half-ghosts, and sea creatures are all integral parts of the team, dutifully mourned and honored.

There are some typos and small continuity problems, like a character exiting the scene and then reappearing suddenly on the next page, things one more round of copy editing could have easily fixed. More critically, the story, at over 400 pages, is probably longer than it has to be, and started to meander for me about two thirds of the way in, about the point when Mieville had messed with the heroic quest script so much that I started wonder where the plot could possibly go now. Things pick up speedily again a few chapters later, building to the ultimate confrontation. For that, we can all cheer.

UN LUN DUN!

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