Review of Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal

12 Apr

Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal

By Sherryl Vint (Liverpool University Press, 2010, 269 pp, £65.00)

Reviewed by Tom Sykes, Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

In recent decades, intellectuals in various fields have felt the need to critique conventional thinking about the relationship between humans and animals. In Straw Dogs (2002) – tellingly subtitled Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals – John Gray argues that humans have tended to arrogantly assume that they rule supreme over all other forms of life on Earth, with environmental catastrophe being the most dangerous consequence of this fallacy. The Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer has called for the extension of the utilitarian imperative (‘the greatest good for the greatest number’) to any creature that is able to experience pain, while comparing the “speciesism” of Western thought to racism and sexism. In the area of literary studies, critics such as Carrie Rohman have turned their attention to “textual representations of animality, an animality that resides both in humans and in nonhumans, though humans have tended historically to repress and disavow their own animal being” (Rohman 16).

The stage has been set, then, for a critical re-examination of human-animal relations as they are constructed in sf, and Sherryl Vint’s Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal steps up to the role with brio, urgency and originality. Taking her theoretical cues from the discipline of Human-Animal Studies (HAS) and its project to interrogate the “human-animal boundary” that all too often justifies the exploitation and destruction of “non-humans with whom we share the planet” (2), Vint argues that a number of sf texts make a progressive contribution to this project by dint of their non-anthropocentric sentiments, their imaginings of ‘other’ subjectivities, and their inventions of alternative ecologies, societies and value systems.

Into this category of progressive sf Vint places Karen Traviss’s Wess’har War (2004-8) cycle of novels. Its setting, the planet Bezer’ej, is protected by the wess’har, an environmentally-aware alien species devoted to equality with all other beings, including a colony of humans known as gethes. Furthermore, Traviss’s empathetic depictions of the social relations of non-human creatures accords, so argues Vint, with ecocriticism’s aims to “improve behaviours and change minds” (149). Although it ends on a disquietingly ironical note, The Swarm (2004) by Frank Schatzing is commended for its representation of an animal rebellion against humans that is the direct consequence of mankind’s failure to understand the interconnectedness of all nature.

Other fictions try to bring human and animal subjectivities closer together in order to find some ethical and perceptual common ground. The Jonah Kit (1975) by Ian Watson concerns an experiment to project a human mind into a whale’s brain, while Roger Zelazny posits a “four-dimensional building” of combined human and animal consciousness in his tale of telepathy and dolphins, “Kjwalll’kje’k’koothailill’kje’k” (1973). However, Vint reminds us that such “thinking our way into the other” (7) is not a straightforward enterprise: “such communication is never … transparent and complete” (75).

To be sure, not all sf that engages with animal alterity can be termed progressive, and much of it is either ambivalent about the prospects of challenging the human-animal boundary or reinforces that boundary in deeply reactionary ways, though not without recognising “sites of anxiety” (27). In John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the alien ‘thing’ that consumes the identities of humans appears to problematise any easy attempt to demarcate the category of the human, but, by the end of the story, it is clear that Campbell is promoting a strict ideological conception of the human that is dependent on violence, patriarchy and scientism.

Vint’s thesis draws upon a wide spectrum of issues and sub-issues related to the human-animal question. The first chapter, “Always-Already Meat”, shows us how sf has grappled with the ways in which human exceptionalism underpins the commodification of animals and their consumption as meat products, citing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Raccoona Sheldon’s 1985 short story “Morality Meat”, and H. G. Wells’ relativist rejoinder to the Martian invaders’ penchant for human blood in The War of the Worlds (1896): “we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit” (26). Another chapter, “The Animal Responds”, disputes the tendency in Western philosophy to claim that capacity for language sets humans apart from beasts (Heidegger: “’animals lack man’s specific relation to language’”) with evidence from the cognitive psychologists William A. Hillix and Duane A. Rumbaugh, which Vint finds echoed and imaginatively explored in sf thought experiments by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin in her “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” (1974).

Another strength of this study is its often revelatory affiliating of the question of the animal in sf with other critical concerns such as gender and postcolonialism. Chapter 4 outlines how, in our culture, the male-female binary has often been propped up with the human-animal binary, as indicated by misogynistic insults that liken females – and female sexuality – to animals or animal behaviour (‘dog’, ‘bitch’, ‘cow’ etc); it may be no accident, then, that women have tended to be at the forefront of animal rights activism. At the same time, bestial designations for men tend to positively evoke physical strength and sexual puissance (‘bull’, ‘stallion’ etc). Perhaps the text that most interests Vint here is Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1983. In this offbeat yarn, a human male researcher’s carnal desire for a highly intelligent female orang-utan is rooted in a patriarchal fantasy of both women and animals as obedient, submissive and pleasure-giving beings.

In Chapter 5, Vint contends that animals “occupied an ambiguous and fluctuating third space” (113) in the European conquest of foreign lands and peoples. Wild and exotic creatures were brought from the colonies and displayed in zoos as representations of subjugated human cultures. Orientalists regarded the savagery of wild animals such as tigers as evidence of the savagery of humans native to the same regions; a preposterous excuse for colonial brutality if ever there was one. Returning to War of the Worlds, Vint finds the Martians showing the same indifference to the sanctity of British life as the British showed to the sanctity of oriental life – both animal and animalised human.

Throughout Animal Alterity are fascinating segues into real-world events that strongly affect how and what we think about animals. Biotechnological gene-splicing and diseases such as BSE that migrate from animals to humans are blurring the inter-species divide, though clearly not in the constructive ways HAS has in mind. Contemporary laboratory science denigrates the value of non-human life and turns the “animal subject” into a “product” (188). In “The Mirror Test”, a chapter, in part, about how humans construct animals according to their own expectations and standards, Vint relates the anecdote of Clever Hans, a horse in nineteenth century Germany who appeared to be able to do sums by tapping his feet, but was in fact responding to “subtle cues from his owner which informed him when he had reached the required count” (46). While the German board of education of the time refused to accept this as a valid demonstration of intelligence, Vint’s analysis is that Hans’s ability to follow the cues untrained and his “sensitivity to social interaction” (46) are proof of other kinds of intelligence, even if they are not defined as such by the anthropocentric mindset.

Some of Vint’s digressions away from sf and into critical theory may seem a little long-winded, although she does always take care to come back and ground the abstractions of scholars such as Nagel, Derrida, Agamben and Berger in close readings of the canon. Indeed, her concise précis of numerous novels and short stories work very well as reading recommendations for any sf fan. While we might question the practicality of HAS’s self-avowedly utopian political aims – chief amongst them the establishment of a posthuman society of absolute human-animal equality – there is no doubt that Animal Alterity palpably succeeds in showing us how, as Vint puts it herself, sf “can stage the problems that confront us in rich, concrete detail and thus potentially enable its readers to perceive the world and other species in new ways” (211).

(Originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction)

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