‘No Animals …’ – the story behind the story

In the 1890s when gender role reversals could ...

I had just started writing this when I saw that the author of Digging Deep, which followed mine on EDF, had done exactly the same thing. His account of the genesis of his story lets us into the history of it, the emotional drive, and also the subtext that, for better or for worse, is so often implied rather than exposed in very short fiction.

Aaron Polson wrote in his blog about the intensity of feeling that underpinned Digging Deep because he wanted us to know, I imagine, how deeply he felt that connection. It is important to him and it adds deeper currents to the stream of his story. I liked his story and I felt a great deal of his connection with the theme, but his account of its inception adds another colour to my palette of appreciation and it enhances my satisfaction with the whole. Why? Because I know more now and I like knowing a bit more. It does not detract from the fiction, or rationalise it or subvert it or explain it or in any way make up for any perceived inadequacy in it. It is instead the thing upon which it rests, the mount that enhances it and adds new light and shade.

So what about No Animals? This was not universally loved, it must be said, with at least one person unable even to read it all the way through. Others liked the feisty heroine and gave it five stars, while some were confused about what was happening. If they read it the way I read most of the non-literary fiction I have delivered to my inbox, I am not at all surprised much of it escaped people so that all they were left with was a character some people really did not like and a scenario they found difficult to understand. These are the issues I was aiming to present, and they are admittedly, unlike Aaron’s, somewhat explanatory:

  • Difference and the inability to ‘see’ another group, race, or identity. Setting aside the actual likelihood of there being a species so utterly unlike ours biologically, these people are nevertheless much like us in that they are sentient, they like to be entertained, and they have codes of practice, yet they could not recognise sentient life when it was so different from their own. I wonder how much better we would do in similar circumstances.
  • The role of women in fiction. In so many TV and film productions, they are just victims – there to scream and be helpless while the hero sets about either saving them or investigating their death. This character is neither, instead she wise-cracks her way to a death that is not investigated but is certainly regretted. Real women do wise-crack in adversity, despite what the media would have us believe.
  • Victim-blaming. There is also the commonly held belief that getting wasted makes whatever happens to you, especially if you are female, pretty much your own fault, and this character has been on a celebratory bender that might have been exacerbated by spiking of her drinks by her colleagues. Subsequent to that is the ‘hazing’ to which she is subjected – shoved out into space by workmates as drunk as she is on the assumption they can haul her capsule back in again when they wish. So who is to blame for this? All of them for getting drunk? The tradition of bullying that is titled ‘hazing’ because it is accepted?  The character for buying into it? And is it worse, more blame-worthy, because she is a mother?
  • Responsibility and culpability. We live in a litigious and often scape-goating world but most mistakes for which individuals are blamed are actually systemic. The main character’s crewmates make an honest if stupid mistake when they send her out in the capsule. The aliens make an honest if ignorant mistake when they fail to see her as sentient. What is to blame there but, for each of them, a failure to take all eventualities into consideration, and how many of us do that?
  • Reality TV and the treatment of vulnerable participants. So often, we see people whose personal difficulties make them good TV and ‘willing’ victims who will suffer without knowing why. In this story, the aliens are trying to avoid harm by only using non-sentient artificial intelligences for their extreme reality shows, and in their ignorance, they fail to recognise this woman as a life form. Why? Perhaps because, like much of our own media, theirs is populated by arts graduates who have not the faintest idea of anything scientific, so they take the data they are given as absolute and make no further checks of their own. They do not recognise life because they are incapable of thinking outside their box, in the same way that many of our own reality shows fail consistently to recognise participant vulnerabilities because they are not trained, and also they do not wish to see them. They have a schedule and that is their priority – a recognisable problem for many of us.
  • Ethics and how these can tie us in knots. The aliens here are conservers of both life and materials and so they clean up near space and use only robotic entities for entertainment in situations that are likely to end in perceived (by the audience) destruction. This combination of ideals is central to the terrible consequences that ensue.

So the subtext of No Animals is ethics, ignorance, honest mistakes and their implications, bullying disguised as tradition, and gender role stereotyping. I am a fan of ethics, I understand how people make mistakes, but I abhor remediable ignorance, bullying, and unwarranted gender based pigeon-holing of individuals. This story took a bit of a pop at all that and yes, thank you, I feel a lot better now!

8 thoughts on “‘No Animals …’ – the story behind the story

  1. Thanks for this Suzanne – an intelligent explanation. I found the story difficult, but persevered and got all the points you expanded above. Sometimes stories should be challenging and thoughtful – maybe we shouldn’t ‘get’ everything on first read. I think it was Patrick Gale who wrote that readers should have to do some work too.

    1. Thank you, Tracy, I struggle with that contract though because I don’t put nearly as much effort into reading other people’s work as I expect them to put into mine! That said, I enjoy the writing so that, for me, is an end in itself. I may not be satisfied with it if I hadn’t pulled a few obscure threads and hitched them to unlikely needles 🙂

  2. I enjoyed the story, Suzanne. I knew it would be tough sledding for some of the readership, but am glad we decided to publish it. The idea that our “first contact” is going to be with an alien intelligence that pretty much “gets us” out of the box is probably a pipe dream. Let’s hope it isn’t quite as extreme as was for poor Neela.

    1. I recall someone – I’d like to think it was Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman – said we can only imagine what we can imagine, and so our notion of alien life is limited by what we believe about the way life manifests itself. He (and it was definitely ‘he’!), went on to ask, ‘What if it isn’t?’ There’s a great deal more research about the diversity of life now but the commonality of its requirements is narrowing down to the presence of water. Maybe that’s reassuring to some, but I’m more interested in the left field possibilities and I’d like to think we’d be ready for them too. Or them for us, at least!

  3. My review is coming up on my blog tomorrow – a little thanks for reviewing my first published story.

    I also like the story a lot – I thought it was fast-paced, fun, and witty.

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