Human and Nonhuman Intersections in Rosa Montero’s Bruna Husky Novels
Nonhuman animals have appeared in most cultural representations throughout human history. As Margo DeMello points out, “animals have played a major role in the symbolic behaviors of humans for thousands of years, through art, through religion, and through folklore and myth” (326-27). DeMello argues that in the last two centuries, “animals continue to be major characters in literature in the West” because, following the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the frontier between human and nonhuman animal “continues to crumble” (328). In fact, Darwin’s theory and other advances in different branches of science have proven that human and nonhuman animals are not as different as anthropocentrism has assumed: “[i]f humans are no longer ‘the centre of the universe’ and if our relations with animals are much more complex than previously thought, then we need to study them in new—and diverse—ways; in ways which continue to challenge us to re-think ‘our’ relationships with ‘them’” (Taylor 1). The emerging field of animal studies has become increasingly relevant in literary criticism, a reflection of our need to rethink human relationships with nonhuman animals not only within biology and ecology, but also through “disciplines previously largely concerned only with humans (i.e., the social sciences and the humanities)” (Taylor 1). In such work, “the treatment of nonhuman animals is the operative analytic frame” (Shapiro and Copeland 343), as in the example of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), a major influence on Montero’s work. Nonhuman animals play a very important role even though most real animals have disappeared and thus the only ones left are luxury items. The test used in the novel to distinguish humans from androids is based on the capacity to feel empathy towards other animals.
Nonhumans are also silent protagonists in Montero’s popular novels Lágrimas en la lluvia [2011, translated as Tears in Rain, 2012] and El peso del corazón [2015, translated as Weight of the Heart, 2016]. Bruna Husky is a combat replicant who, after her compulsory service, becomes a private investigator. The novels mix sf and detective fiction in their highly hierarchical future plagued by serious environmental problems that primarily affect underprivileged citizens. We accompany Bruna Husky in her work and experience her concern about her looming replicant expiration date, which prevents her from establishing personal bonds with other human and nonhuman characters.
Bruna Husky interacts with nonhuman creatures both in direct and indirect ways and focuses her attention on creatures that have traditionally been labeled the other. Bruna herself is such an other: she looks human except for some physical traits that give away her artificial origin. Bruna’s own struggles thus lead to moments of self-discovery via encounters with the other (Cibreiro 50). This essay explores of the way ways in which nonhuman animals are key to Montero’s reworking of Dick’s themes.
Animal Studies and Science Fiction. As a genre about “the encounter with difference” (Roberts 17), sf has interesting connections with animal studies. In Montero’s Tears in Rain and Weight of the Heart, the encounter with difference is represented through the relationships with nonhuman characters, and some of these relationships are based on prejudices and characterized by hatred and hierarchical thought. For example, many humans see technohumans (the appropriate term for created beings such as Bruna; “replicant” is a slur) and aliens as inferior creatures despite some of their enhanced physical attributes. Similarly, we can find examples of how some human characters treat other humans contemptuously because of their inferior social position in a hierarchy that favors wealth, while perpetuating inequality by secluding the underprivileged in the most polluted areas.
Historically, other animals have always been defined in contrast to humans because of their lack of reason. In Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (2003), Randy Malamud has defined the relationship between human and nonhuman animals as “hierarchical and fundamentally impermeable: we are in here, they are out there” (3). Lynda Birke posits that “wherever and however we live, we are always relating to animals” but that “these interspecies minglings have been absent from many areas of academic inquiry—especially in the social sciences and humanities, which have focused on what we humans are up to and ignored our co-travellers” (xvii). From the anthropocentrist perspective, nonhuman animals are inherently inferior, and when they appear in literary works they tend to be depicted in human terms—when they are not completely ignored. This is something that needs to be changed if we are to think beyond the border between culture and nature: “[i]f we are interested in animals, we are inclined to bring them into our world rather than meeting them on their own terms and in their own territory” (Malamud 5). Montero’s novels show how the lens through which nonhuman animals are usually perceived can be altered through a process of identification and empathy: “art has the potential to present a valuable (if not complete and flawless) account of what it is like to be an animal different from ourselves” (Malamud 6). Science fiction is an especially interesting genre because it helps us to imagine alternative ways of relating to nonhuman animals. In Animal Alterity (2014),Sherryl Vint highlights the reasons why connecting sf and human-animal studies is relevant:
Both are interested in foundational questions about the nature of human existence and sociality. Both are concerned with the construction of alterity and what it means for subjects to be thus positioned as outsiders. Both take seriously the question of what it means to communicate with a being whose embodied, communicative, emotional and cultural life—perhaps even physical environment—is radically different from our own. (1)
In other words, both sf and human-animal studies focus on how we interact with the other. Vint argues that sf has always been interested in exploring “questions of alterity and particularly of the boundary between human and other sentient beings” (6). Montero’s work explores this terrain.
Rosa Montero’s Technohuman World. Rosa Montero Gayo is an acclaimed Spanish author and journalist for the prestigious Spanish newspaper El País. She has received several awards for her work in both fields. In addition to her Bruna Husky novels Tears in Rain and Weight of the Heart, her other (untranslated) fiction titles include Temblor [Tremor, 1990], La hija del caníbal [The Cannibal’s Daughter, 1997], Historia del Rey Transparente [History of King Transparent, 2005], and Instrucciones para salvar el mundo [Instructions to Save the World, 2008]. Montero decided to start writing sf quite late in her career, reflecting the low profile of the genre in Spain. Thanks to her popularity, sf has gained much more visibility.
Inspired by Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and especially by Ridley Scott’s adaptation Blade Runner (1982), Montero’s work emphasizes the consequences of environmental problems we face today: climate change, global warming, and species extinction. In this future, global warming has raised the sea level by two meters, flooding 18% of the Earth’s surface (Tears 108). Montero highlights how this affects nonhuman animals, chiefly polar bears. She further depicts a world in which large power companies own clean air and charge the world’s inhabitants for it, until the Constitutional Tribunal declares this illegal. The situation does not improve, however, since the green areas, those with clean air, rapidly impose a residential tax that poor people cannot afford. Therefore the real borders that separate the regions are based on money: those at the lowest levels of society are most affected by pollution. People with limited economic resources are doubly punished: first, because the strict hierarchical social system in which they live makes it difficult to climb to a higher level, and second, because people without resources are prone to health problems due to living in polluted areas. The relevance of environmental problems in her novels shows the author’s concern for the well-being of the planet, which she also expresses in her interviews. Montero believes that, though we should not be alarmists, the situation is far more serious than we might think (Cibreiro 54). Her novels show the possible future consequences of the environmental crisis, inviting readers to reflect on the possible aftermath of our lack of action.
Pollution is a central component in the settings of the novel, not only as an environmental problem but also as an indicator of the socioeconomic level of the protagonists. Montero calls the zones of clean air for which one pays access “lung parks.”1 Lung parks resemble vegetation parks but have artificial trees that “absorbed much more carbon dioxide than genuine trees and you could really notice the higher concentration of oxygen” (Tears 59). The narrator explains that while in the beginning artificial trees were created in such a way as to resemble real trees, later the engineers decided to create more efficient models: “like enormous banners made from an almost transparent, and extremely fine, and metallic thread, floating strips three feet wide and about thirty-three feet long that swayed with the wind and produced small, chirruping, cricketlike noises” (Tears 59). Despite their artificiality, Montero manages to infuse life into these trees by comparing the sound they produce with that of a cricket and by envisioning them as beings akin to cetaceans: “[c]rossing the park was like passing through the baleen filter of an enormous whale” (Tears 59). Artificiality mimics life, and just as replicants displace humans, real trees have been replaced by more efficient structures in a world in which actual trees cannot absorb the amounts of pollutants that humans produce.
Another environmental issue that plays a significant role in the novel is loss of species diversity, that appears as a direct consequence of global warming and pollution. In Weight of the Heart we see an example of this relation when Bruna visits a tropical jungle during a virtual voyage and points out that there are no tropical jungles left, “apart from the ones on the exclusive estates of luxury hotels” (Weight 113). In that virtual jungle, she sees a silverback gorilla eating some fruit, an image that brings to her mind how “all the great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos—had been wiped out almost a century ago. There were a few hundred left on reserves” (Weight 113). The seemingly greater environmental awareness Bruna reflects came too late to transform the disastrous situation. For example, although meat consumption continues, we are told that the methods to kill nonhuman animals in legitimate slaughterhouses are regulated by law; they are also much less controversial than the ones applied today since legal regulations (to slaughter pigs, in this case) include “using anesthesia and a stun gun” (Tears 55). Besides, the number of slaughterhouses around the world has also been reduced “in part due to a growing sensitivity toward animals, and in part because in order to reduce CO2 emissions, the government has required meat eaters to acquire an expensive license” (Tears 55). These legislative changes would seem practically impossible in our times, especially if we consider the huge amount of meat consumed in the world every day. If we consider specifically the Spanish context, this legislative turn seems especially remarkable. The current hostile confrontation between animal-rights defenders and those who protect bullfighting as a cultural tradition makes its banning inconceivable at this moment. This is one example of the social boundaries that Montero tries to cross in her fiction.
Human and Nonhuman Intersections. Although many nonhuman animal species have become extinct in Bruna Husky’s world, other creatures have been introduced. In Tears in Rain Bruna adopts a small alien creature, a bubi—also called a “greedy-guts” because of its voracity. This small, domestic, alien mammal has become a very popular pet on Earth because of its ability to adapt and its tough constitution. When Bruna finds the bubi, she reads an article about this species in which it is specified that animal associations had been advocating to grant this species the same taxonomic consideration as that granted to great apes, recognized as sentient creatures. Because of her obsession with her expiration date, Bruna finds it difficult to establish deep bonds with human or nonhuman creatures, since she knows that on a certain date she will stop living. Although at the beginning of their relationship Bruna treats the bubi with a certain rudeness, little by little she develops a more caring attitude towards the pet.
The most interesting relations that Bruna has with nonhumans reveal how Montero uses metaphors, especially the use of animal terms to name certain characters. For example, the protagonist’s name, Bruna Husky, alludes to a well-known breed of sled dog. The policeman who helps Bruna on several occasions, and for whom she has contradictory feelings, is called Inspector Paul Lizard. Another strategy that Montero uses to interconnect human and nonhuman worlds expands on this practice of identification. For example, one of the most emblematic settings in the novels is the Bear Pavilion, where Bruna meets one of her informants. He happens to be the man who designed her artificial memory using his own memories and experiences, making Bruna unique among androids. The Bear Pavilion was built during the Universal Exhibition in Madrid some years before as a way of modernizing the traditional symbol of the city: a bear eating fruit from a strawberry tree. The author explains that bears had become extinct half a century ago when the Arctic ice cap melted (Tears 158) and describes the cruelty and horror of how these animals—and presumably many others—died:
A slow and agonizing death for animals capable of swimming desperately for more than three hundred miles before succumbing to exhaustion. The last polar bear to drown—or at least the last anyone knew about—was followed by a helicopter from the organization Bears at Risk. (Tears 158)
Although bears became extinct, some of their blood and genetic data were stored and used to help President Inmaculada Cruz “get her new symbol for Madrid” (Tears 159). Using a technique like the one used to produce technohumans, bioengineers create a female bear called Melba. The Bear Pavilion is a poignant place for Bruna because she feels a special bond with Melba, since both are bioengineered female creatures of approximately the same age (Tears 159). Melba has been reproduced several times and this identification with Melba becomes more significant when we later learn that the model used for Bruna is not unique, at least not her body: just like Melba, she has also been mass-produced. Near the end of the first novel, Bruna visits the Pavilion, and the reader can perceive more clearly the bond between them:
Melba was looking at her from the other side, eyes like black buttons. Bruna pressed her palms up against the glass, sensing the weight and push of the water, the turbulent power of that other life. And for an instant, she saw herself next to the bear, the two of them floating in the blue of time. (Tears 409)
The important role the bear plays in the novel can be glimpsed on the book cover of one of the Spanish editions, which features a polar bear peering directly at the reader from under the water’s surface, just as Melba looks at Bruna. In Weight of the Heart, this identification intensifies and focuses on her need for privacy. Thus, Bruna is said to hate “any intrusion on her privacy, into her solitary bear den, the beast’s sacred lair” (Weight 88). Later she identifies as a “wolf without a pack” and then again with the bear: “A surly solitary bear, a creature who fled from contact with the rest. She was like Melba—the only one of her species, swimming in the vast emptiness of her tank of water” (241). Although Bruna is a replicant and not even the only individual model of her type, the uniqueness of her memories makes her different from all the other androids. This sense of uniqueness makes her feel solitary, a role that she reinforces by rejecting—at least at the beginning—the other creatures with which she has contact.
In Weight of the Heart, Montero establishes a parallel between tigers and technohumans in general, Bruna in particular. Bruna sees herself as a “tiger trapped in the tiny prison of her life” because she is aware of the short period of existence that technohumans have: from the moment they are activated, they know that their expiration date is approximately one decade later (Weight 1). Throughout the novels Bruna continuously repeats the number of years, months, and days that she has left as a kind of obsession. Androids share physical qualities with tigers, such as “feline eyes with their vertical pupils that identified her as a technohuman” (Weight 2). Just as the first novel finishes with the identification of Bruna with Melba, the second starts with another animal identification, also highlighted on the cover of the Spanish edition of the book, the profile of a white tiger. Physically, Bruna is a strong woman with the typical features of a combat android, making her look invulnerable. Her characterization shows that she is a highly sensitive person, even when she tries to hide her pain and her feelings by means of rude answers and aloofness. Therefore, like the caged tiger and the cloned bear, Bruna is a wild animal in the prison of her short life, a creature of impressive appearance but nevertheless vulnerable.
Technohumans have coexisted with humans for some time in the world of the novel, but we can still perceive the tension between them as a kind of speciesism—in fact, this tension is an essential component in the plot of the first novel. One of the reasons for this speciesism—and at the same time one of the pillars that supports it—is the lack of equality between humans and androids. For example, androids are forbidden to travel to the two Floating Lands that orbit around the Earth: the Democratic State of Cosmos and the Kingdom of Labari. They also lack the same rights as humans on Earth; sometimes they receive degrading treatment. Montero’s depiction of these speciesist attitudes includes references to nonhuman animals. When Bruna visits her favorite bar, a drunk human shows disgust: “[g]et lost, you revolting monster. Clear off, and don’t come back. We’re going to exterminate the lot of you, just like rats” (Tears 177). Animal speciesism permeates human language even when most animals have become extinct. Human hatred towards technohumans is expressed similarly in Weight of the Heart: “[i]f you reps don’t know how to control yourselves, you’ll have to be exterminated like mad dogs” (7). The figure of the rabid dog also appears later when Bruna takes the girl she is temporarily supervising, Gabi, to the hospital. Since she shows violent behavior—the reason why they go to the hospital is that Gabi bit her—Bruna comments that “the nurses who had taken Gabi off had treated her with the same suspicion and precautions as they would a mad dog” (Weight 31). This analogy is made in two distinct contexts. First, a human policeman utters the words in a pejorative way when referring to Bruna Husky and all technohumans; second, Bruna uses “mad dog” to talk about Gabi and her violent behavior. In both cases, we can see that, although “mad dog” has negative connotations, these usages are not equivalent: the policeman suggests extermination, but Bruna uses it to suggest a disease that needs to be treated carefully. There is another interesting reference to dogs when Bruna goes to a human funeral and realizes that there are no reps inside the crematory. When she looks outside through the door, all she sees are twenty combat technohumans like herself, working as private bodyguards for powerful people: “[w]ell-trained dogs who were left outside so they wouldn’t detract from the ceremony” (Weight 110).
Technohumans are not the only characters associated with nonhuman animals in a negative way. For example, people from the lower classes are sometimes called “moths,” who “ru[n] the risk of living clandestinely in Clean Air Zones they couldn’t afford … for fear of the undeniable harm pollution caused to children” (Tears 179). The author explains that these people are called moths because, “just like moths, [they are] attracted by the sunlight and the oxygen” (Tears 179) in the clean zones and flock to them despite the risk. Technohumans also hold prejudiced attitudes towards humans, as revealed by the first sentence of the second novel: “[h]umans are slow and heavy elephants; replicants are fast and desperate tigers, Bruna Husky thought, consumed by the impatience of having to wait in the queue” (Weight 1; emphasis in original). Bruna’s attitude towards humans is not one of superiority—unless she feels threatened in some way—but here we can perceive resentment because she is tired of waiting and because she thinks technohumans can work in a more efficient way. Montero pushes us toward respect across difference rather than indulging in such resentment, however, urging us to see value in all life, human and nonhuman.
Conclusion. The world created by Rosa Montero is suffering the serious consequences of climate change: global warming and diversity extinction. It is productive to read the novels in terms of animal studies precisely because nonhuman animals, like humans without economic resources, are the ones most deeply affected by these crises. Montero’s work shows us the deep connection between these two kinds of discrimination, material and figurative. Through Bruna’s identification with the nonhuman, we can experience what it means to be the other in two ways: as a technohuman who is considered a second-class citizen, and as an soon-to-be extinct nonhuman. Malamud observes that “[b]ecoming-animal enables us to see the human-animal relationship as versatile rather than dogmatic and hierarchical” (13). With her novels Montero invites us to identify with the nonhuman other, whether it is a technohuman or a bear. Carmen Flys-Junquera points out that even though we can see how nature, nonhuman animals, and the poor suffer parallel dominations, Montero also gives hope by “endow[ing] Earth’s others with respect and moral consideration.” Whereas in Dick’s Do Android Dreams of Electric Sheep? replicants are detected because of their lack of empathy towards animals, in Montero’s novels it is the replicant protagonist Bruna Husky who best identifies with them.
1. All quotations from the novels are from their English translations.
Birke, Lynda. “Preface: In Hope of Change: Rethinking Human-Animal Relations?” Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations. Ed. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal. Leiden: Brill, 2011. vii-xx.
Cibreiro, Estrella. “Entrevistas a María Reimóndez, Rosa Montero y Julia Otxoa: El arte de la escritura y el activismo.” Romance Studies 34.1 (2016): 43-63.
DeMello, Margo. “Animals in Literature and Film.” Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human Animal Studies. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. 325-41.
Flys-Junquera, Carmen. “Wolves, Singing Trees and Replicants: Ecofeminist Readings of Contemporary Spanish Novels.” Unpublished book manuscript.
Malamud, Randy. Poetic Animals and Animal Souls. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Montero, Rosa. “El error.” Mañana todavía. Doce distopías para el siglo XXI. Ed. Ricardo Ruiz Garzón. Barcelona: Fantascy, 2014. 161-71.
─────. La hija del caníbal. Barcelona: Espasa, 1997.
─────. Historia del rey transparente. Madrid: Alfaguara, 2005.
─────. Instrucciones para salvar el mundo Madrid: Alfaguara, 2008.
─────. Lágrimas en la lluvia. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2011. Translated into English as Tears in Rain by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites. Las Vegas: Amazon Crossing, 2012.
─────. El peso del corazón. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2015. Translated into English as Weight of the Heart by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites. Seattle: Amazon Crossing, 2016.
─────. Temblor. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990.
Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2006.
Shapiro, Kenneth, and Marion W. Copeland. “Toward a Critical Theory of Animal Issues in Fiction.” Society & Animals 13.4 (2005): 343-6.
Taylor, Nik. “Introduction: Thinking About Animals.” Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations. Ed. Nik Taylor and Tania Signal. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 1-18.
Vint, Sherryl. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014.
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