There’s an entire world right under our noses, filled with life, death—and stories. A world of beauty, and sometimes terrifying violence. A world where creatures of tremendous size roam, where monsters may at any moment tear one limb from limb. I’m talking, of course, of the animal kingdom. Because of their alien outlook, their singular societies, and peculiar bodies, animals occupy an interesting place in science fiction and fantasy. From an animal’s point of view, humans become bizarre hairless creatures, the collectivist hivemind of bees can seem a terrifying theocracy, and scent is an essential part of language. There’s a name for this kind of writing: “xenofiction,” or fiction from a non-human or alien point of view. Our recent read of Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen, a novel about elephants in a post-human galaxy, inspired me to ponder other favorite SFF works from an animal perspective.
The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams
While best known for Watership Down, his mythological epic featuring a cast comprised mainly of rabbits, Adams’ The Plague Dogs deserves just as much of a place in discussions of his work, if only for being one of the bleakest things ever written with animal protagonists. The novel follows the exploits of Snitter and Rowf, two dogs who escape an animal testing facility somewhere in Northern England. As they attempt to find a new home and a human to take care of them, danger seems to follow them everywhere they go. Further complicating things are Snitter’s hallucinations (the result of experiments in the testing facility) and the possibility that the dogs are carriers of a bio-weapon, causing a country-wide
man doghunt to bring them in. The Plague Dogs uses animal characters to explore the relationships between humans and beasts, leading to chilling scenes that only deepen its somber atmosphere.
Tailchaser’s Song, by Tad Williams
Mixing epic fantasy, tribal myth, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Tailchaser’s Song is the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a feral tomcat. When Fritti realizes one of his best friends has disappeared, he leads an expedition to the ruling seat of cats to discover what happened. Along the way he tangles with hellhounds, encounters dark gods, and tries to save his species. Williams pas careful attention to the development of cat culture, using the prologue to flesh out the feline creation myths and playing out rituals like the meeting of Fritti’s tribe and rituals like the Dance of Acceptance, a kind of courtship dance. Combined with lyrical prose, the result is a lavish, highly readable heroic tale that feels like it stands alongside the human heroic legends it borrows from.
The Book of Night with Moon, by Diane Duane
A companion to Duane’s classic Young Wizards series, The Book of Night with Moon follows the feline wizards of New York as they protect the city from the Lone Power and its servants. The three feline protagonists (Rhiow, Saash, and Urruah) must rescue a budding tomcat wizard from a strange alternate dimension, travel through time, discover why the world-gates around them have begun to malfunction, and rescue the human supervisor for North America. Duane takes her existing settings and characters and adds new depth and dimension by viewing them through the lens of non-humans with their own language (with thirty-seven vowels), with a particular emphasis on scent. As wizards in Duane’s universe actually do speak to cats on occasion, we also get to see the unusual results when humans try to speak in cat.
The Bees, by Laline Paull
Laline Paull’s debut novel casts the lives of bees as a theocratic dystopia. Flora 717 is a worker born to the sanitation caste, an “unclean” who will remain furthest from the queen. But Flora isn’t a normal worker—she is able to adapt to tasks and exercises free will, something abhorrent to the bees around her, who know their assigned roles and stay in them. Adding dialogue and intent to the movements of bees makes them even more alien and terrifying than they already are, as they ritually slaughter each other for imperfections and hum with devotion for their Queen, the Holy Mother. Paull also creates a vast and unsettling world inside the confined space of the hive, including nurseries, prisons, and other structures analogous to humans. With Flora 717’s changing stature and ability to act independently, the novel also uses the collectivist hivemind for great effect as it explores ideas of free will and the individual in society.
Beasts of New York, by Jon Evans and Jim Westergard
Billed as “A Children’s Book for Grownups,” Beasts of New York is the story of Patch, a squirrel of the treetops tribe in the Central Kingdom. When the kingdom’s food is stolen during an exceptionally long winter, Patch ventures into the jungle of concrete and metal known as the Mountains in search of more. Unfortunately, Patch stumbles upon a conspiracy by rats in service of the King Beneath, who desires to take control of the animal kingdoms above, and must find a way to unite the city against the coming disaster. Evans creates a bleak, wintry world filled of danger and outlines the complex interworkings of the animal kingdoms, and the vast setting makes Patch’s quest to save his kingdom feel truly epic. Removed from the human realm, small details like birds’ nests built high atop skyscrapers and the horror of rat kings take on a truly fantastical air.
What’s your favorite example of xenofiction?