Science Fiction Studies

#114 = Volume 38, Part 2 = July 2011


Joan Gordon

Learning to Live With the Animals in SF

Sherryl Vint. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2010. Distr. through U of Chicago P in US. x + 269 pp. £65 hc.

Sherryl Vint’s Animal Alterity continues the project of her previous book Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction (2007). Where the first book explored the technological posthuman, the new one looks at the biological posthuman. Animal Alterity, like the earlier book, is concerned with the ethical implications of expanding the circle of subject beings; it could have been subtitled Animals, Subjectivity, Science Fiction instead of Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Also like the previous volume, the new book is distinguished by its rigorous coverage of scholarship in cultural studies, philosophy, and science fiction, and by its use of a wide range of relevant sf. Indeed, one of the great values of Animal Alterity is its bibliography, and I look forward to mining it for my own work. The book itself has a great deal to offer scholars in both Human-Animal Studies (HAS) and science fiction, fields that have, I believe along with Vint, a symbiotic relationship. The volume is organized into an introduction, eight chapters, and a conclusion, offering a thorough overview of the many ways in which the sf-HAS hybrid functions.

The introduction, “Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and Human-Animal Studies,” establishes the link between HAS and science fiction. Vint points out that while sf representations of animals “can provide insight into the way the discourse of species informs other ideologies at work, ... some sf texts themselves perform the work of HAS, striving to gesture beyond normative conceptions of animal and human being” (8). The introduction makes clear that Vint’s focus throughout will be ethical, and that this approach will take into account materiality—as in embodiment and as in dialectical materialism. “In reconnecting with animals,” she says, “we are also reconnecting with our embodied being, with what might be thought of as our animal nature; this new way of conceptualising human subjectivity and our relation with the rest of the living world thus has important affinities with scholarship on posthumanism” (9). Furthermore, “resistance to the biopolitical regime of neo-liberal capitalism requires acknowledging the degree to which species difference has been foundational in structuring the liberal institutions one might wish to contest” (17). Typical of the work as a whole, Vint’s book demonstrates solid theoretical foundations for her position, as when she points out that:

A necessary supplement, in Derrida’s sense, to this project of returning to a sense of embodied subjectivity connected to the material world is an understanding of humans as merely one species among many with whom we are in obligatory, symbiotic, complex, contradictory and confusing exchange. (17)

Vint sees her whole project as exploring “the tension between the gravitational pull” of considering the metaphysical and ethical claims of the species boundary as they are explored in sf and “the potentially subversive and new ways of conceiving species interrelations made possible by the genre’s creative extrapolations” (21). One can see from this description the importance of dialectic—on the one hand, on the other; the tensions between paired ideas—to the structure and arguments of the book.

Chapter one, “Always-Already Meat: The Human-Animal Boundary and Ethics,” begins by parsing Carol Emshwiller’s 2007 story “Sanctuary” in order to make the point that “consumption is a social relationship” (37). This will be Vint’s characteristic opening gambit for each chapter—using an sf text to introduce and open up her thesis. The chapter goes on to use other sf texts, including John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1938) and Paul McAuley’s White Devils (2004), as well as such theorists as Giorgio Agamben, John Berger, Jacques Derrida, and Donna Haraway, to interrogate the friction between ethics and economics in meat eating. She concludes that “the material basis of our culture is among the most problematic sites that must be addressed in any transformed vision of posthuman companion species” (44). The use of both current and classic sf, as well as the strong theoretical support, are also typical of how Vint develops each chapter.

Chapter two, “The Mirror Test: Humans, Animals and Sentience,” elegantly links the mirror test as a determiner of consciousness with the idea that animals serve as mirrors for ourselves. The fiction discussed includes Connie Willis’s “Samaritan” (1985), Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “Conditionally Human” (1952), John Crowley’s Beasts (1976), and Kirsten Baker’s Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997) to explore Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notions of becoming-human and becoming-animal. While the discussions are rich and thoughtful, this set of ideas is becoming-canonical and, therefore, I worry, becoming-mechanical in HAS. I know I too have plowed that field in my article “Gazing Across the Abyss: The Amborg Gaze in Sheri S. Tepper’s Six Moon Dance” (2008). Perhaps because of over-familiarity, I found this chapter less revelatory than some of the others.

On the other hand, chapter three, “The Animal Responds: Language, Animals and Science Fiction,” covers critical works and fiction I have written about as well, but this chapter was very stimulating indeed. It critiques Heidegger’s claim that animals are “poor in the world” to examine the use of language as a way to join us to or divide us from other species. While I have written about Kij Johnson’s wonderful “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” (2007) in terms of the use of language (see “Talking [for, with] Dogs”), I found her discussion of Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” (1974) and Ian Watson’s The Jonah Kit (1975) very valuable. Vint’s thoroughness in following multiple lines of research, and her ability to engage with Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, are impressive and suggest ways to further the reader’s lines of inquiry as well.

By chapter four, “‘The Female is Somewhat Duller’: Gender and Animals,” it is apparent that Vint’s thoroughness extends to covering some of the most important topics of HAS. This is another very strong chapter, here on the now frequently observed “overlap between patriarchal discourses of masculine power and superiority and species discourses of human exceptionalism” (90). The chapter includes a good critique of sociobiology, and then uses the work of Lynda Birke and Carol Adams, among others, to analyze a number of sf works, including Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them” (1985), Bob Olsen’s “Peril Among the Drivers” (1934), Racoona Sheldon’s “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), and John Kessel’s “Animals” (1997). The chapter demonstrates further strengths of the book. For one thing, the discussions make one want to read the stories themselves, not always the case with scholarly work. For another, while she sometimes makes points that may seem obvious, she makes them when others have not, and then she draws fine conclusions from them, always pushing her readings beyond the obvious. The writing itself could sometimes benefit from one more revision, as in the following sentence: “Many aspects of the story challenge the human-animal boundary, centrally the demonstration of what it is like to be a species eradicated via manipulation of one’s reproduction by putting humans in this position of the manipulated animal” (100). But the thinking is sound and the ideas are important.

Chapter five, “Sapien Orientalism: Animals, Colonialism, Science Fiction,” shows the importance of the Marxist strand in Vint’s ongoing argument as she parallels “[t]he rhetorical division of animals into domestic and wild species”  with the colonialist “division between civilised and savage societies” (113). Here Vint uses John Rieder’s important Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008) as she emphasizes sf from the 1930s, especially stories about ants and apes, including Čapek’s non-ape-or-ant War with the Newts (1936), but also less well-known pulp sf, along with Wells’s “Empire of the Ants” (1905). In an example of the sort of perceptive and surprising readings Vint often provides, she offers a recuperative analysis of Clare Winger Harris’s “The Ape Cycle” (1930). While she admits that one can read the story as “a cautionary tale that insists that what is ‘proper’ to the human/elite ... should remain with the human/elite,” she also suggests that it “might also be read as a critique, not of these divisions but rather through the revelation that such roles must be jealously guarded for the human/elite, that the subordinated other is just as capable” (116). The chapter concludes by saying that:

The colonial and labour conflicts dramatised through animal others in the stories discussed in this chapter have at their root a common engine of capitalist production and its role in producing social relations which alienate us from animals because they have the status of commodities. (134)

Thus, she makes clear the connection between Marxism and the ethics of embodiment.

Chapter six, “Existing for Their Own Reasons: Animal Aliens,” begins with a wonderful passage from Alice Walker: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men” (qtd. 135).The previous chapters outlined a number of the ways in which humans have treated animals as if they were made for our reasons rather than their own, and paralleled those assumptions with similar assumptions about other human beings. This chapter confronts the notion of human exceptionalism. Vint claims convincingly that “animal aliens represent both humanity’s desire for connection to another being and its fear that all others represent a threat to self and hence must be destroyed” (136). After discussing several stories that use the animal other to explore human aggression, there follows a more lengthy examination of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall (1985), in which Vint points out the tendency among hard sf writers to ignore ethology when creating animal aliens, although they are concerned with other forms of scientific accuracy. While the discussion of Footfall is predominantly negative, a more positive analysis of Anne McCaffrey’s Decision at Doona (1969) follows. The chapter concludes with an extended discussion of Karen Traviss’s Wess’har War series (2004-08), six books that should enter the canon of animal studies sf, and which I am grateful to Vint for introducing me to. Vint says that the series “directly confronts the difficulties, contradictions and non-innocence (to borrow a term from Donna Haraway) that are the material context of the social relations we have with non-human species” (148). Vint sees the series as a work of ecocriticism that, citing Dana Phillips, “aims to do more than merely interpret works of literature from an ecological perspective, ... [and] ‘represents an attempt to improve behaviors and change minds well beyond the walls of the academy’” (148-49). And, while Vint’s book will stay within those walls for the most part, that seems to be her goal as well.

Chapter seven, “A Rope Over an Abyss: Humans as Animals,” also takes its title from a quotation, this time by the more dour Nietzsche: Nietzsche defines humanity as “a rope fastened between animal and overman—a rope over an abyss” (qtd. 158). In this chapter, Vint reverses the focus of the previous one, “positing alien beings who perceive humans as animals rather than recognising in us fellow sentient beings” (158). After some words on J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), a work that makes regular appearances in Vint’s book, Vint begins her discussion with an analysis of Leslie F. Stone’s “The Human Pets of Mars” (1936), a story that “keeps the category of animal intact” (160), although Vint continues her excellent practice of “reading against the grain” (161) to point out the moments when the story makes those categories ambiguous. She also discusses Gordon R. Dickson’s “Dolphin’s Way” (1964), an old favorite with its terrific surprise ending that reverses, as Vint says, “the human expectation that we are the dominant species” (163). The chapter segues into an examination of pet keeping, animal welfare, and class, using Thomas M. Disch’s The Puppies of Terra (1966). This section had a bit too much plot summary for my taste. She also discusses Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount (2002), another book that should enter the HAS-sf canon (I also used it in my essay for The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction on “Animal Studies”). Again, there was quite a bit of plot summary. Because of the extensive descriptions, this was not one of the stronger chapters, although it makes the important point that “The Mount suggests ways in which the sf imagination can inspire us to new relationships with the species with whom we already share this planet” (180).

Chapter eight, “The Modern Epimetheus: Animals and/as Technology,” begins with an inspired rethinking of the story of Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, who distributed gifts to the animals, but who ran out of desirable traits before he got to humans. Vint suggests that:

Rather than seeing technology as a sign of human superiority, then, we might reconfigure this story to focus upon humanity’s greater vulnerability and reliance on external prostheses. Such a “modern” reading of the story would focus on Epimetheus’s gifts and acknowledge Prometheus’s compensatory gift of technology as that which has created the human-animal boundary, and thus has had deleterious effects on humans and animals. (182)

This launches a very strong discussion of how animal experimentation is treated in sf. Vint claims that the negative consequences for animals are stressed in sf, and that “animals become subjects, which allows the sf narratives to supplement, in the Derridean sense, the official discourse of science which recounts their experience only as objects” (183). Ursula Le Guin’s “Mazes” (1975), William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat (1971), Brian Aldiss’s Moreau’s Other Island (1980) (a.k.a. An Island Called Moreau), F. Paul Wilson’s Sims (2000), Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (1944; that must be in the HAS-sf canon), and James Tiptree’s “The Psychologist who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” (1976) support this excellent chapter. J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007) provide theoretical and ethical underpinning. The entire chapter makes clear the terrible moral cost of ignoring animal subjectivity.

The book’s conclusion, “‘Other Fashionings of Life’: Science Fiction, Human-Animal Studies and the Future of Subjectivity,” continues the practice of using sf works to illustrate and develop its ideas. Here Vint begins by using Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm (2004; trans. 2006) to illustrate both the potential and  limitations of fiction’s interrogation of the human-animal boundary. She uses a number of other works as well, including stories by Le Guin and Clifford D. Simak. As a conclusion should, this one points to the promises of the book’s ideas and to future directions. Vint says that sf and HAS “share the goal of imagining the world and social relations otherwise” (211). She suggests that “scientific research in ethology could become the basis of future hard sf extrapolation, and the sf imagination can help concretise the lifeworlds of other species as we learn more about their perception and cognition” (213). She raises a series of guiding questions:

How can we understand an animal’s different experience of the world and seek to communicate with it? How do human ideologies of gender and race influence our reading of animal subjects? What is the relationship between the culture of science and our ways of understanding and relating to animal others? (225)

And she allows for the transformative nature of sf thinking: “the genre might be thought of as a kind of solution to the problem of ‘the loneliness of man as a species’” (John Berger qtd. 226), where “humans might interact with an intelligence other than our own and be transformed by it” (227).

Animal Alterity is foundational for everyone who wants to explore the tremendous potential of the biological posthuman, and for anyone interested in the connection between sf and animal studies or HAS. Vint’s work, not only here but since she introduced me to the connection between sf and animal studies a number of years ago, has been foundational for my own scholarship. Because Vint covers so many works of science fiction, and so many important HAS theorists, she provides a base for further explorations of the conjunction. Indeed, her overview seems so thorough that at first one wonders what else there is to do. First of all, many of the ideas that Vint introduces have room for much more exploration and many of the works she discusses can be analyzed to much further benefit. Second, there is room to look at how the narratological devices of sf expand its ability to imagine a biological posthumanity. Third, one can explore more thoroughly not only ethology but neuroscience and consciousness studies as they contribute to our imagining of the biological posthuman. Fourth, it is impossible to cover all the sf that holds promise at this busy crossroads: what about works by Molly Gloss, Paolo Bacigalupi, China Miéville, Jeff Noon, Tanith Lee, etc., etc.? But Vint’s book will be the place to start.

Gordon, Joan. “Animal Studies.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. New York: Routledge, 2009. 331-40.
─────. “Gazing Across the Abyss: The Amborg Gaze in Sheri S. Tepper’s Six Moon Dance.” SFS 35.2 (July 2008):189-206.
─────. “Talking (for, with) Dogs: Science Fiction Breaks a Species Barrier.” SFS 37.3 (Nov. 2010): 456-65.
Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.

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