of the Altharian Tzog in the Night
2002, Bob Billing
know things that we don't, or at least that's what they'd like us to think,
particularly if there's food involved.
an animal into a story can sometimes be a useful plot device. In fact I have a
rough collie called Flora McDonald --Flossie to her friends -- in my current
work in progress. In this article I'd like to go through some of the ways in
which animals not only can bring out points about the human characters but can
also let you present things that would be difficult to say in any other way.
first thing to remember is that animals aren't people with fur. With few
exceptions they take their environment for granted and make the best they can of
it. Termites build mounds and beavers dam rivers, but they do it instinctively
as a result of millions of years of natural selection. They don't change their
plans to suit new situations. Give a beaver a truck load of cement and he won't
build a better dam, he'll still go looking for branches.
don't view the passage of time the way we do. Patrick, my New Forest Cross pony,
knows full well when it's time for a feed, or for me to harness him to the trap.
But I really don't think the concept of "a week next Thursday " means
much to him.
does know people. He'll come to me and snuffle around the pockets of my old
Barbour looking for titbits. He also knows the name of the veterinary surgeon
who had to operate on him twice. Speak of that person and he's straight down the
back of his loose box and won't come out.
is the first point: Animals don't bother to be polite. They remember who's been
kind to them, and who carries a stick. If you have a character who beats his
wife or children he may also terrorise them into keeping silent. But if he beats
his dog the dog will be straight back with hackles up and teeth bared. Animals
don't go to support groups or seek counselling. They bite people.
particularly display a level of loyalty and straight dealing that would put most
humans to shame. This loyalty, which seems to grow out of wolf pack organisation,
can be misplaced. A good dog can be loyal to a bad owner.
loyalty extends to copying the owner's lifestyle. Nervous people make their dogs
nervous. If a man's dog suddenly flies at me I'd be cautious about the owner's
senses aren't the same as ours. A bee can not only see well into the
ultraviolet, it can sense polarisation as well. To a bee the sky contains a huge
pointer showing the direction in which it should fly. To us, only able to see
brightness and colour, the pointer isn't there. Rattlesnakes have sensor pits
that give images in the infrared. By our standards they can see in total
darkness. By theirs it's never dark.
can directly sense electric fields. Some, notably the electric eel, can generate
pulses that are anything from painful to deadly. Sound carries well under water,
even though it's usually mammals that have gone back to the water that use it.
Pigeons have specialised nerve cells that enable then to feel magnetic fields.
In part that's how they navigate.
this is fruitful territory for creating alien races. Try to imagine how the
world would appear if you could see a magnetic field or smell radio waves.
Asimov in The Secret Sense described the portwem, a "musical
instrument" that was a keyboard connected to a cat's cradle of fine wires.
A virtuoso performer could create a pattern of magnetic fields of breathtaking
beauty -- except that the human observers could see nothing; only the martians
were aware of the performance.
second point is that the extension of senses that some animals have is itself a
useful device. It can be used to provide clues far more subtle than would be
possible with only human characters. For example, a gundog can hear the
difference between an exploding firework and the sharper report of a rifle or
shotgun. So a gundog that reacts during a firework display, having ignored
dozens of earlier reports, has heard the poacher's - or murderer's - gun, which
the culprit hoped would be lost in the background noise.
senses and different lifestyles are often combined. Wild horses are herd
animals; they seek out other horses and quickly establish an order of
precedence. And if a rider isn't careful the herd instinct can take over. The
lone horseman who sees the enemy cavalry going by had better be in control of
his mount or he'll join them. And horses are uncannily good at hearing other
horses. Certainly my pony can pick up hoofbeats at about half a mile in good
conditions. There's a subtle change in the feel of the reins when he's locked on
to another horse.
the other hand, he doesn't really parse voice commands. It's the tone, more than
the actual words he listens to. To demonstrate this I've driven him through
Bramshill forest, with a horrified observer on the trap, while I gave the Star
Trek bridge orders. "One half impulse," pronounced with the same
cadence as "Walk on" got us moving. Then, "Warp factor TWO!"
with a very sharp T had the same effect as "Trot!".
story has another point - I hope it told you something about me as a character,
that I'm the sort of person who goes in the woods and develops mildly silly
tricks with his pony. Find a horse or a dog with a sense of fun and you'll know
something about the owner.
brings me to my third point: The relationships between humans and animals can
bring out the truth about the humans. In the same way that animals don't bother
being polite to us, we often take off our masks when we think we're alone with
an animal. A man who cloaks his cruelty with politeness will kick the hamster in
private. A woman who is hurting too deeply to tell anyone the cause of her grief
will confide in a dog. From my current work in progress:
was a faint clicking of claws on the steriloid floor.
face brightened as the collie walked into the kitchen. "Flossie - come and
talk to me."
ambled up to Jane, then sat down with the side of her face against Jane's knee.
buried her hands in the thick, silky fur. "You understand, don't you,
Flossie? You know what's happened. Or perhaps you don't."
on beyond this, it's possible to imagine new animals with senses as yet
undreamed of. Direct perception of tidal forces and changes in air pressure, the
ability to smell earthquakes in the early stages or feel radioactivity and the
power to taste single disease organisms, all have potential. Read Asimov's Talking
Stone to see one of these in action.
brings us to the curious behaviour of the Altharian Tzog. As everyone knows
Altharian cheese, in fact everything made from the Altharian Bitharg,
gives off a revolting chemical called polybutylcarboxysulphonin. And since in
the wild the Tzog live mainly on Bitharg carrion, they can smell the
stuff in very low concentrations. The man in the spaceport bar last night
claimed he'd just come from Althari, and that he liked the cheese. But the
barman's pet Tzog stayed in his bucket, never twitching a spine or a tusk. So
either the Tzog's got a thick cold or the man was lying.
can finish the story. It'll help if you read Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze first.