Thursday, June 12, 2014

Domesticated Animals: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout report with VIDEO

We had a great discussion about domesticated animals that took a science-fictional turn at one point into domesticating humans! I was joined by Reggie Lutz, Pat McEwen, and Glenda Pfeiffer.

We started by trying to define domesticated animals. Mostly, I see a lot of lapdogs and lap cats in movies and in books, so we were trying to expand the framework there a little bit. Really, you can include all kinds of things in this list, from horses to food animals to silk worms and even escargots. If you are setting out to build a world, it's a good idea to think about all the different kinds of animal raising that would go on, and why.

Reggie mentioned that in her world, a cataclysm which affected humans also affected animals. Pets were pretty much lost, as were many large work animals, which means if you see animals and humans working together, it will probably mean that magic is involved, or something is wrong with the animals. Dogs have become large enough to crossbreed with coyotes and wolves, so there is an identified population of fairy dogs.

Animals can be very important to worldbuilding because they are often used as a gauge of character. Working animals and companion animals can be part of this. A writer can use a character's interactions with animals to show whether that person is kind or merciless, or insincere, etc.

Pat remarked that half-feral dogs are generally medium sized, rather than large. She also pointed out that the rate of genetic mutation in populations that interact - like humans and dogs - is higher than when they don't interact. She mentioned the populations of Russian foxes that had been bred for docility (and actually, at the same time in parallel, for hostility), and how quickly the changes had occurred. These changes also came in sets. Not only personality changed, but also coat color and a number of other characteristics. Here is an article from National Geographic about animal domestication that you might find interesting.

We use watchdogs, we use animal companions, we have service animals that help the blind and deaf. We also use animals for fiber, like sheep, rabbits, alpaca, etc. Animals can serve as familiars. They can help to keep us sane. Pat mentioned a service dog that had been trained to smell endocrine imbalance in her mistress and remind her to take her medicine. We have probably all seen the airport dogs who are trained to sniff for drugs or explosives.

Are there helper monkeys? Some animals are not as easily domesticated, and domestication is not the same thing as taming. The above linked article addresses that question to some extent.

When I was designing Varin, I realized I needed to have some unusual animals to make clear that this was not Earth. I did various things - including using English animal words as rough translations for animals (like the rabbit) that were too similar to Earth animals for a whole new word to be helpful. I also hyphenate to make clear that distinctions are there, when I don't want to confuse with an alien word. So Varin has cave-cats and tunnel-hounds, for example. I went into quite a bit of depth with the tunnel-hounds. These look a bit like black-furred puppies, but have no eyes. They have sharp teeth and sensitive noses, and also have the ability to sense electricity, a bit like the platypus. They are not kept as pets because their appearance is disconcerting, but they are used as security animals to sniff poisons and sense if people are carrying energy weapons.

We asked, "How would aliens domesticate animals?" As we reflected on what domestication really meant, we noted that it was unclear whether we really domesticated cats. We certainly developed a symbiotic relationship with them. Pat said that domesticated cats have smaller brains than wild cats relative to their size, but they are not less intelligent; it's possible that they lost certain areas of the brain that became unnecessary within the symbiosis.

If you are trying to develop a very alien world, you have to try to find a balance between things that can be described in a familiar way and those that can be described in an unfamiliar way. Too many alien words for creatures and plants will end up doing two things: creating a memorization burden for the reader, and making the world more sparse than it needs to be. The second result tends to come from the author's desire not to make the memorization burden become a barrier to enjoyment and comprehension. If you think about Watership Down, Richard Adams uses a huge amount of description of nature and names plants that I had never heard of, but at least if you wanted to, you could go and look them up. That creates a level of trust that lets readers say "okay, I'm going to let that plant term slide." Creating the same level of trust in a made-up world is much trickier.

We spoke a bit about geese and ducks, and less commonly seen things like walking a cat, or carrying a parrot on your shoulder. The idea of the pirate parrot was intriguing, though. If you are working in a very different world, what kind of person-animal pairings are iconic (like the pirate)? Why are they iconic, and how did they become so?

We then thought about what would happen if humans were domesticated by aliens. Would it be for hunting? For entertainment? How would they change us to fit them? We thought about the mice in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the giants who wanted to eat the protagonists in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair. It seems fully possible that aliens would try to improve us without really understanding us. They might try to eliminate mental illness but end up reducing human creativity. What other factors might change at the same time? David Brin looked at this a bit with his Uplift series, where the gorillas and chimps weren't happy with the result of their uplift.

Pat said that much of mental variation has to do with input filtering. Schizophrenics filter out a lot, but their filters are unreliable. Autistic people tend not to be able to filter out anything. Creative people filter things, but they pay attention in an unusual way.

We talked about otters. I mentioned my otter aliens and how their metabolism and natural modes of attention made the bridge of their space ship look like a nightclub to humans. Otters are too energetic to make good pets for humans! What kind of aliens might keep very active pets?

Reggie mentioned circus bears, bringing us back to the question of taming vs. domestication.

Can domestication go too far? Pat mentioned that male llamas have to be raised with other male llamas, because if they are away from the herd they will get aggressive if not "fixed" early. Reggie said that parrots also can develop bad behavior if they have not bred. Elephants rely on the herd to civilize young males. Is it any wonder that humans geld so many of the animals they keep as pets? People also abuse their animals, as when elephants are given drugs to get more work out of them (since they ordinarily eat 18 hours a day). Animals are given everything from supplements to special food to tranquilizers. What would happen if humans were domesticated by aliens while earth was left to the "wild humans"? What would be left?

It was a great discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended. Today's discussion, coming right up, will be about "Killing your darlings." I hope to see you there!


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