Human/Animal

Fantasy fiction usually designates a conscious breaking-free from reality. The term is applied to a text that takes place in a nonexistent and unreal world, such as fairyland, or concerns incredible and unreal characters, or relies on scientific principles not yet discovered or contrary to present experience, as in some utopian fiction. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, appears to be a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein in an essay written in 1948, “On Writing of Speculative Fiction,” where he explicitly used the term as a substitute for “science fiction.” Once the term went into popular use, editors, readers, academics and some writers developed a tendency to think of speculative fiction as an umbrella term covering everything from science fiction and fantasy to magical realism. Under this definition, every novel that is not highly invested in “realism” could be called “speculative fiction.”

I’m interested in discussion of The Familiar as speculative fiction and fantasy in relation to how how the human/animal/posthuman relation is treated, particularly in relation to other fiction (and vice versa). In texts as wildly different as, for example, Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Spiegelman’s Maus I and II, Karen Emshwiller’s The Mount, or Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore–or even in realism such as J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Linda Hogan’s Power, or Karen Joy Fowler’s We are all Completely Beside Ourselves–we see the human/animal relation centralized in relation to themes, narrational style and technique, and posthuman ethics. How does The Familiar converse with and speak to these kinds of texts and rejoin, reframe, reject, and/or resituate their perspectives? How might putting these and other texts in conversation elucidate key differences in The Familiar in terms of style, theme, and politics?

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About ajelias

Professor of English, University of Tennessee (Knoxville)

One response to “Human/Animal”

  1. dgatewoood says :

    One of the things that I began wondering about as the novel progressed is the degree to which MD might ultimately invert the traditional human-animal relationship, or subvert that relationship by suggesting human as animal. In the novel, we primarily see the tradition of human as dominant over animal, and then we see Xanther’s empathetic relationship with an animal. However, there seem to be some subtle hints of human treated as animal. Perhaps the first example is the Anwar chapter “Prey” in which he shows Xanther his game in progress. We see it is game about being hunted by animal. The human player essentially is the prey. Then there is the strange chapter with Isandorno and the crates. We have the mysterious fourth crate in which there is an unnamed create. Meanwhile, we have connected to that chapter the two pages of graphic novel text with the question about whether we would be willing to eat human flesh as part of great meal at an upscale restaurant. This makes me speculate that the fourth crate might be a human. So, in some ways, this harkens back to Spiegleman’s Maus in which it is the Jews are mice and Nazis are cats. It is the concept of humans, or specifically a particular race of humans, being represented as prey subject to predators that seems relevant. I wonder if MD might ultimately broaden that idea beyond a singular race to the species as a whole (I’m playing off of the global implications of the opening frames in which we seem to be getting a warning of sorts from the alien voice). It seem to me, then, that it would be Xanther’s empathy for her animal that might be the key to avoiding such a terrible fate. Is with so much of the novel, these a just guesses.

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