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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Need Pets

"For example, can I make even you understand how I know, beyond all question, why it is that the Malacandrians don't keep pets and, in general, don't feel about their 'lower animals' as we do about ours? Naturally it is the sort of thing they themselves could never have told me. One just sees why when one sees the three species together. Each of them is to the others both what a man is to us and what an animal is to us. They can talk to each other, they can co-operate, they have the same ethics; to that extent a sorn and a hross meet like two men. But then each finds the other different, funny, attractive as an animal is attractive. Some instinct starved in us, which we try to soothe by treating irrational creatures almost as if they were rational, is really satisfied in Malacandra. They don't need pets."
-C. S. Lewis from Out of the Silent Planet

I had intended to write about this passage for a course I am taking on animals and religion but after a meeting with one of my professors, I have been side-tracked toward something altogether more practical.

When I wrote much earlier that Earth Abides has been my first sci-fi book that was both true and misleading. It would have been better to say that it was the first book I read while aware of the whole weight of science fiction. But years before that I was having a C. S. Lewis kick having discovered the Chronicles of Narnia and then his religious texts and then his other works. So it was natural that I should come across his strange sci-fi trilogy. I have never quite made heads of tails of it. At the time, I read it in light of his religious works. And since I could not have been more than 11, I confess much of that was merely stored away to be reflected upon later. I have always had rather great faith that eventually I will understand. So I read something over my head and wait.

If I read the book now I would see it through the lens of science fiction and also through Lewis's relationship with Tolkein. I still not sure what to make of it. So I store it away and wait for understanding.

This passage has stuck with me. We need pets. The fulfill in us some deep, cosmic loneliness. We are the only beings like us, capable of complete language - at the very least we absolutely deny every other species the right to be in our class. And, because we deny them, we make it true. We teach apes sign language but refuse to try to learn theirs, to communicate to them as they would to each other.

We like to pretend that humans are a more recent occurrence than they are. On a terrestrial time scale, especially on a universal time scale, humanity is just the tiniest of dots at one end of the scale. But humans, the homo sapiens kind, have been kicking around this planet for almost 200,000 years. During that time, we spend a few thousand years sharing the earth with Neanderthals, and quite a few other cousins from the homo branch of the ape tree. Consider the "ancient world" that you know - temple, pyramids, the great wall of China. The time between the construction of those buildings and today is shorter than the time humans spent sharing this planet with other beings that were pretty darn close to ourselves. Since we shared certain amazing anatomy (their hyoid bone is just like ours) they were able to make the curious array of sounds we call talking.

It probably was not very exciting or fulfilling for either species to have the other around. Life was hard and people didn't have time to waste on existential loneliness - or fulfillment for that matter. Only very recently have we had the luxury of sitting around bemoaning that we have only our own species to wear thin with our constant prattle.

I have been considering writing a parallel universe style story to explore this little fixation of mine. In the other universe, one or more now-extinct species from the homo genus has survived to the modern day. Europe did not happen, at least not the way it is now. Humanity survived in Africa. I have not figured out the new world just yet. It would be rather difficult not to draw from Clan of the Cave Bear or the Thursday Next series.

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