Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Best Fantasy Book Series Featuring Talking Animals.

On the radio this morning, I heard a commercial in which a woman calls up a company and asks if they do translations; as the commercial goes on the listener realizes there's a twist and the translations are for animal languages -- to talk to pets.

I realized, as I listened to the commercial, that talking to animals is probably one of the most common, most pursued goals in human society. Forget going to the moon, or coming up with something better than sliced bread; if we could just talk to animals, I bet most humans would, once we achieved that, sit back, put their feet up, and think Well done, human race; now we can all relax.

That's why there's so many books and comics and cartoons and radio ads about talking to animals or talking animals or animals talking to animals, from Doctor Doolittle to The Dogs of Babel (a book which was very good but which I found quite disturbing, actually)to lighthearted fare like Millie's Book. Even I am not immune to the idea that talking to animals is something people will eventually learn to do.

Which is probably why talking animals pop up so often in fantasy and science fiction books; if you're going to imagine a different world, a world that's more magical or more scientific than this one (and the scientific advances may as well be magical; remember what Arthur C. Clarke said that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.).) If you're going to imagine such a world, why not imagine a world where that fondest of human dreams, talking to the animals, is achieved?

So that's what fantasy writers do; they let humans (and other characters) talk directly to animals, whether it's Bilbo Baggins talking to a dragon (or Gandalf talking to Shadowfax, or that one wizard, the brown one, talking to birds) or Max talking to the Wild Things, fantasy writers almost always have talking animals.

And the better fantasy and sci-fi writers go one further and make animals an integral part of the story, anthropomorphizing them as necessary to make the world more fantastic and at the same time more in line with what we want to imagine the perfect world would be like.

But the best of those writers do both -- they have animals, and talking animals, but they don't turn the talking animals into caricatures, humans in fuzzy costumes, instead opting to have the animals remain animals that can talk but are still animals and act like animals who can talk instead of humans in costume.

Writers like Alan Dean Foster do that. If you've read any science fiction or fantasy the odds are you have at some point read an Alan Dean Foster book. I just went to Foster's website and looked over the list of books he's written there, and I was (a) surprised at the sheer number of books he's written, and (b) surprised at how many of those books I've read in my lifetime. (The answers are (a) 110 and (b) 24.)

And, as I read that, I got distracted by all the great books he's written, great books that I read long ago and now recall reading and enjoying a great deal, books ranging from Splinter of the Mind's Eye to Quozl to the series I started out discussing and which I should really get around to discussing, the Spellsinger series.

The Spellsinger series could have been awful. It had all the building blocks to become a disaster: the protagonist is a college student/slacker/musician thrown into another world. The books frequently make references to songs and quote from them. And there are talking animals.

Let me touch briefly on that second point for a moment. Is it just me, or are 99.9% of references to songs in books completely terribly lame? Whether the songs are real, as in the Spellsinger books, or made up, as they are in Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes (a very good book aside from the song problem) they almost always come across as, well, dumb. Songs on paper always look and sound terrible, just as fake-movie titles and fake-sitcom titles in books always seem awful, too, in a too-contrived cutesy way.

You know, you go to an Internet site and read the lyrics to a song like Regina Spektor's On The Radio, and think now those are some interesting lyrics, even if you've never heard the song. But have a character in a book listen to that song and re-print the lyrics in that book, and I'll generally just skip over the lyrics, or, if I do read them (real song or not) I'll think well that sucked. And if the song is one that's entirely made up, then the effect, on me at least, is even worse, because now I can't imagine hearing the song and I can't put any kind of music or beat to it, and it just drags the story down.

But Alan Dean Foster avoided that pitfall, through great writing and imaginative use of his songs, in the Spellsinger books, which, as you might have guessed, are about a singer who becomes a wizard. Jonathan Thomas, Jon-Tom, gets called into another world by a wizard who is trying to get someone to help fight a war against a bunch of anthropomorphized insects and crustaceans. He wakes up, a slacker stoned college student, in a tree run by the wizard Clothahump, who turns out to be a turtle. The world Jon-Tom has found himself pulled into is a world where animals have developed intellligence and speech and music and art at the same time as humans have; there are humans, too, but they're no better than the equals of animals and are not a significant portion of the population.

Jon-Tom, it turns out, has magical ability; using a 'duar,' he is able to play and sing and his songs become spells, casting magic. The songs that Jon-Tom knows are the kinds of songs stoner guitar players know-- the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, some popular hits, and the like.

In the wrong hands, this idea could have been terrible. In the wrong hands, this idea would have resulted in the kind of fake rock-star-ish sort of behavior that led the book The Vampire Lestat to go so awry, and would have had Jon-Tom lip-synching through adventures with a cast of characters that were simply humans with more hair.

But Alan Dean Foster not only avoided making the music lame -- it's interwoven into the story and not overly emphasized but when it is a focus it fits in-- he avoided making the animals lame. He kept them animals, with distinct animal personalities and animal ways of thinking and animal behaviors. That's tough to do; it's tough enough, I think, for a writer to create unique characters that are human; it's much harder for a writer to create unique characters who aren't human and who don't act human, who are clearly animals.

Some writers do a pretty good job of just that; David Brin springs to mind. In his Uplift saga Brin created a sci-fi world in which evolved races help lesser races to evolve; humans, having been encouraged to evolve have now helped dolphins and chimpanzees to become spacefaring animals who can talk and build complex machinery, and the science is realistic and the way the first dolphin-run spaceship is presented is believable. (And if you like science fiction, the Uplift saga is a must-read). But Alan Dean Foster does it better.

He does it better by creating distinct personas for the types of animals, first of all. Mudge, an otter and Jon-Tom's best friend in the new world, is a free-drinking, carousing, irresponsible type of animal, just like otters should be. Roseroar the Tiger is a fierce, proud warrior. Other animals -- wolves, foxes, prairie dogs -- all have unique personas that ring true.

That on its own doesn't sound too hard, I suppose. It's not that difficult to imagine otters as funloving and thieving animals; but Foster keeps them consistent throughout, and consistently presents the characters as having a unique point of view, a nonhuman point of view, that helps drive home that this is not just a bunch of people roleplaying -- it's (in the world of the book) actual animals. There's a difference between a human pretending to be an otter, and an otter. One would expect the otter to have an outlook that differs from that of a human being. So it's easy to create a character that's an otter-who-acts-how-a-human-would-act-while-pretending-to-be-an-otter. It's more difficult to create a character that's an otter and acts the way an otter would act. Throughout each of the Spellsinger books (there are 8) Foster consistently has his animal characters act like animals, not humans pretending to be animals.

That, in fact, is something that Foster has done on numerous occasions throughout his writing: presenting a character with a unique, outsider point of view, a point of view that is almost unimaginable for a reader like me, raised in a middle-class house in Wisconsin, and having that character seem both authentic and alien and unique and interesting... having that character seem real. That's what great writers do: they put you into the mind of a person you have never been or cannot be, and the more alien that mind, the more difficult it is to put the reader into the mind of that person, and the more difficult it is to convey that alienness in a way that both makes sense and seems novel. Foster does that in a multitude of books, from the Maasai warrior of the (great) horror book Into The Out Of to the Maori of his historical epic Maori to the rabbitlike aliens of Quozl; each has, and maintains, a new and unusual outlook and perspective.

But he never did that better than in the Spellsinger series, and no other fantasy books did it quite so well, either. If there was any doubt about who the master of fantasy-talking-animals was, Foster settled it all with the fifth book, The Paths of the Perambulator. In that book [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING NONHUMAN PERSPECTIVES] Jon-Tom begins the book as a giant crab, and Foster narrates through Jon-Tom's perspective in such a way as to make the beginning both insanely unusual... and normal. You have to read it to really get the effect, and you will, once you read the four books that come before it.

As you read the books, you'll get to know Mudge, and Pog the bat (who regrets his ugliness) and the other animals that inhabit the Spellsinger world, and you'll, like me, marvel at the way Foster has created not just a world, but a world populated with animals that are both more human, and more animal, than any others in any other literary world. For doing that, I give Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger Series the title of The Best Fantasy Book Series Featuring Talking Animals.

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