This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Brie Paddock
Brie Paddock (@bookstoregirl) is an intrepid biology professor by day and aspiring writer by night. She teaches animal anatomy and physiology to enthusiastic undergraduates and creates fantasy lands of dragons and to emotionally torture her characters. She holds a PhD in Biomedical Science, focusing in molecular, cellular, and integrative neuroscience from Colorado State University and is currently seeking representation for her first fantasy novel, Bones of the Progenitors.
Thinking Outside the Human Box
We are surrounded by representations of humans at the pinnacle of society, communication, technology, with little room left for the other thousands of species that share our planet. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a beautiful piece of art that relates architecture to the proportions of a human man, shows just how self-centered we are, despite being only one of nearly 9 million species on this planet.
But speculative fiction goes beyond the limitations of the mundane and into the realm of the fantastic. Elves, dragons, vampires. Tolkien, McCaffrey, Stoker. Love them. But it’s been done. You can dust off these supernatural beings, reinvent an aspect, tweak a trope. Or you can invent your own monsters and aliens. Give them their own form, their own behaviors, their own motivations, thoughts, strangeness. Make them real.
The Truth About Flies
I spent many years putting electrodes into the nerves of fruit flies to see, exactly, how they work. This (among some other things) earned me a PhD with a focus in neuroscience. You probably know that they can smell bananas better than we can. But fruit flies also:
- Flirt with each other
- Can get jet lagged
- Learn and remember things that happen to them
I’m not trying to get you to write about fruit flies as your next alien or fantasy villain or mount for your hero in plate mail. But think about this: our brains are not fundamentally different from those of other animals.
What Makes Us Human?
Most people are shocked to discover that flies show other complex behaviors over which we feel possessive. Our job as writers of fiction is to support those ideas with words that resonate with readers and make them question and assess their own humanity.
Humanity is defined in many ways and most of us feel fairly comfortable that we are the dominant species on the planet. But what measurable thing makes us human? Tool use? Warfare? Monogamy? Love? Depression? Enjoyment of the society of like-minded individuals (with apologies to Jane Austen)?
When Jane Goodall revealed that chimpanzees waged war on one another, many were shocked to have another species invade a sphere thought strictly the purview of humans.
Humans Are Animals
Here’s a myth I want to dispel. Humans aren’t different from animals. We are animals. Each character you write about is an animal. Humanity is a nebulous ideal and can be represented by characters other than humans.
So, let’s get to some nitty gritty science ideas that can help you break out of the human box when designing characters. How can you make a new species that’s interesting, different, but understandable and relatable to your readers? Let’s talk differences.
Many animals have senses — sight, smell, hearing, olfaction, touch — that outstrip our own. Most people are familiar with the idea that dogs have a sense of smell that far outstrips ours, but many people don’t realize the diversity of animals that have sensory systems far superior to ours. Much like children unaware of the double meanings of words used by our parents, we sense only a portion of the world around us.
Most animals have the ability to see. Light enters our bodies, and we have specialized cells and tissues that change when that light hits those cells. That is the basis of all sight, from jellyfish that floats in the ocean, to a hawk circling above a field and searching for a tasty mouse in the grass.
Light is type of energy; we perceive it as having color and brightness. Our eyes have two types of cells that allow us to see color; rods and cones. Rods are active at low levels of light, so they allow us to see in the dark. Cones, which are active at brighter light levels, provide color vision. Special proteins in rods and cones, called opsins, help us distinguish between different colors. People who are red-green color blind, for example, lack the opsin that distinguishes these two colors.
What if an animal had different opsins in their rods? Could they see color at night? What if an animal had another opsin? Could they see colors we can’t?
The answer to that last question is yes. Birds have additional opsins that allow them to see beyond the wavelengths of light that humans get to enjoy. Other animals that can see UV light include butterflies, bees, salmon, and reindeer.
Sound provides a different realm. Relatively few animals can actually sense sound, a fact that surprises most humans partially because we use sound to communicate so thoroughly, constantly, and urbanely. Why?
In part, because we live on land.
Anyone who has been to a loud beach or swimming pool has experienced the apparent decrease in volume when you dunk your head (with your accompanying ears) under the surface of the water. Sound waves don’t travel as effectively through water and many animals live underwater.
But there are two fascinating things that fish do to sense their environment. Some fishes use bones along their spine to hear sounds otherwise rendered too faint by traveling through the deep ocean.
Some voracious aquatic predators, including sharks and rays, use a sense that is completely foreign to us as they hunt their prey. They have pits along their lower body that allow them to sense the bioelectricity. Their prey can remain utterly immobile, invisible under the sand, but the prey can’t stop their own brains from working or hearts from beating. So the rays and sharks prey upon that weakness.
Sharks aren’t very nice. But the chubby, pollinating, bumbling honey bee uses electroreception, too. Just like a person shuffling their feet on a thick carpet, bees accumulate static electricity when their wings rub during flight. Some of that charge is transferred when they visit flowers. Bees use electroreception to determine whether which flowers have recently been visited by other bees, so that they don’t waste their own time and energy.
Don’t Limit Your Creations
There’s more to this world that we can see or hear, smell or sense. But that doesn’t mean our characters have to be similarly limited.
Evolution begins every animal with a mistake, an aberration in the genetic code. Most of these mutations condemn their owners to certain death, but a powerful few have created all the terrifying squid and fluffy bunnies of our planet. Next time you design a monster or an alien, make a mistake. Make a thousand. Then see which one survives the natural selection of your story.
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