Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Science Fiction

The Curious Behaviour 
of the Altharian Tzog in the Night

By Bob Billing

2002, Bob Billing

Animals know things that we don't, or at least that's what they'd like us to think, particularly if there's food involved.

Introducing 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.

The 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.

Animals 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.

He 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.

This 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.

Dogs 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.

Dog 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 temper.

Animal 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.

Fish 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.

Incidentally 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.

My 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.

Different 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.

On 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!".

This 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.

Which 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:

There was a faint clicking of claws on the steriloid floor.

Jane's face brightened as the collie walked into the kitchen. "Flossie - come and talk to me."

Flossie ambled up to Jane, then sat down with the side of her face against Jane's knee.

Jane buried her hands in the thick, silky fur. "You understand, don't you, Flossie? You know what's happened. Or perhaps you don't."

Going 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.

Which 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.

You can finish the story. It'll help if you read Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze first.