Episode 6: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who’s pretty obsessed with science.
Annalee: [00:00:15] And we have our very first guest today, and hopefully not our last guest. We’ll see how it goes.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:21] We don’t burn everything down.
Maggie: [00:00:23] I’m Maggie Tokuda-Hall. I’m a lady you found on the street to talk about animals. Also, a children’s book author and the host of the Drunk Safari podcast.
Annalee: [00:00:35] So, we knew that we had to have her come in to talk to us about today’s theme, which is animals in science fiction and fantasy. And, partly this is something on our minds because the new Jurassic Park movie is coming out. The new Pacific Rim movie came out. Rampage is out, which I’m sure like, .001% of you saw. But, today that’s what we’re gonna be talking about. And, get ready for tooth and claw.
[00:00:58] Intro music plays. Guitar riff over snare with synth organ.
Annalee: [00:01:03] Humans are animals. A lot of these stories are about sort of finding that line between humans and animals, but I think it’s funny when there’s the Aha! Moment of like, but no! Humans are animals.
Maggie: [00:01:17] Yeah, I feel like we make so many different ways of trying to be like animals, they’re just like us, when really what we’re trying to say is like, we’re just animals.
Annalee: [00:01:24] Yeah, exactly.
Maggie: [00:01:25] And like, the way that we talk about animals, too, can be so illuminating about how we feel lines should be drawn between different types of people, as well. Like, we really only talk about animals as a way of talking about ourselves because we’re such a self-centered species.
Annalee: [00:01:40] It’s true. And, there’s a ton of different themes in science fiction and fantasy, and fairy tales, too, which are kind of a subset of fantasy, or maybe fantasy is a subset of fairy tales. But, that are basically entirely about using animals as a kind of metaphor for human relationships.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:59] Yeah, and you know, people are often defined by their relationship with animals in fictional narratives. And, you know, every hero has to have a cute animal sidekick, or has to like, have some animal that he or she interacts with at some point that’s like important to the story in some way. You know, and the more we learn about animals, yeah, the more we realize that everything that we think makes us special is also true of them.
Annalee: [00:02:21] Yeah, animals use tools. Animals have language.
Maggie: [00:02:25] They have funerals.
Annalee: [00:02:26] They have funerals, and they have shared stories. They teach each other about migratory paths and so we know that they have intergenerational education.
Maggie: [00:02:38] Yeah. In some cases they have royalty, and they also—They’ve done studies recently that dolphins call each other by specific names. So a lot of the things that we tell ourselves are like, we’re special are just not.
Annalee: [00:02:50] I’m really excited for the day when we finally are able to actually have a conversation with a dolphin.
Maggie: [00:02:56] Right?
Annalee: [00:02:55] It’s like… yeah, you know we could have been doing that all along if we had just taken seriously the fact that the problem with communication with them wasn’t that they couldn’t communicate but that we didn’t have the tools to talk in the type of sonar that they’re using.
Maggie: [00:03:10] Right, and trying to teach them English, was just like not a fruitful way to get at it.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:14] They couldn’t learn sign language. They don’t have like, you know.
Annalee: [00:03:17] But isn’t that like the perfect human thing, right? That we would be trying to teach them English. Well, that’ll prove that they’re smart if they can learn English.
Maggie: [00:03:24] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:03:24] Yeah, not so much.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:25] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:03:26] So.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:26] And, I’m actually obsessed with the concept of domestication and like the process of domesticating an animal, because I feel like it has a lot in common with the ways in which we’re all kind of indoctrinated into society. And the ways that we’re trained to kind of become members of whatever society we’re in.
Maggie: [00:03:42] Yeah, and totally… I think that it ends up being like a really interesting way of thinking about how we decide certain people or animals are acceptable, and other ones aren’t. Which, I think, is like, a conversation that can go in so many directions, but obviously, like, leads us directly into race.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:01] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:04:01] Yeah, for sure. So, just to have a moment of science geekery before we plunge into talking about race and animals in science fiction and fantasy. Which is that, now, a lot of anthropologists talk about humans being domesticated, too, and that there was this phase in human development, basically right around the time that we start having agriculture and living in houses year round, that humans’ biology changes, the kind of food that we eat changes. And the food that we can eat changes. People in the west become lactose tolerant, and so they’re able to have dairy products from the animals they’re raising. So there is this shift where our bodies change the way animals have. So, just as we’re domesticating animals, we’re also domesticating ourselves, which goes right back to what we were saying about how humans, animals, it’s all kind of the same. But then, we constantly have these fantasies about how do we continue the domestication project with these certain types of animals that just don’t fit in. Such as most obviously, King Kong. One of the earliest stories in this genre. So, King Kong, obviously, as many people have pointed out is kind of a stand-in for kind of Africans, kind of Caribbean people. People in the Caribbean.
Maggie: [00:05:24] They were like pan-brown people. Like, you’re brown, you’re kind of frightening.
Annalee: [00:05:29] Some kind of savage other that comes from a distant place, and that a bunch of white people really want to, first of all put on display, which again, is something that white people in history did with people of color, especially indigenous people at world fairs and things like that. But also, they want to turn King Kong into an upstanding ape.
King Kong Clip: [00:05:53] Well, the whole world will pay to see this.
No chains’ll ever hold that.
We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear.
Maggie: [00:06:03] Well, I think they think of him as a zoo animal, more like, but just like, manageable. Which, like, that’s like as far as they’re willing to assimilate him, and he’s not. Is like, the moral of that story.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:11] Right.
Annalee: [00:06:11] Yeah. He won’t be. And I think that’s something that’s kind of amazing. Like, we see that again and again in these stories, that there is these animals that refuse to be domesticated.
Maggie: [00:06:21] So, that’s actually the central theme of Zootopia. Which is like, just a long metaphor for how we talk about race as humans. But the main question of the movie is that there are predators living alongside herbivores, and a predator is… though they’ve all evolved to be like this wonderful society, may not actually be fit for it. So, it’s like a—their way of talking about race went exactly into that.
Zootopia Clip: [00:06:46] I gotta tell ya, you are even cuter than I thought you’d be.
Ooh, ah. You probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny cute. But when other animals do it, it’s a little—
[Gasp] I am so sorry.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:59] Yeah, and that was actually just a clip from Zootopia.
Annalee: [00:07:02] And I love in that clip of that, where they’re—the word cute ends up standing in for. I think in that case, it’s the N-word, but it could be a lot of different things.
Maggie: [00:07:11] Yeah, it’s—I feel like it’s most directly the N-word, but what’s hilarious to me about it is the script is exactly correct, but they still gave the two major parts to white actors. And so it’s this whole thing about how racism is stupid, and racial profiling is never gonna help anyone, and then they’re like, here’s Jennifer Goodwin and that guy from Arrested Development. They will explain to you what the N-word means.
Charlie Jane: [00:07:35] I was just going to say that cartoon animals have been standins for race or racial concerns forever. I mean, if you ever have a chance to re-watch the movie Dumbo.
Maggie: [00:07:43] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:07:43] That movie is horrifying with all the racial--
Maggie: [00:07:48] The crows.
Charlie Jane: [00:07:48] –The crows, who are basically just like black stereotypes. And there’s a bunch of other stuff in that movie that’s just like like… what are you doing, Disney. And like, I feel like a lot of cartoons from back then. They only show them now with like a huge disclaimer. Like, the classic, like 1940s cartoons.
Maggie: [00:08:03] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:03] But, cartoon animals have always provided a way of kind of looking at race. Looking at different kinds of people by just like transposing them into this other form and kind of—Zootopia is probably the most extreme example of this, but like, trying to kind of make a metaphor for racial otherness or difference. Or, the kind of question of living together.
Annalee: [00:08:24] Yeah, I really liked Laline Paull’s recent novel, The Bees, which is very much in the same vein. Partly I liked it just because she did a great job of actually incorporating a lot of recent science about how bees live, while also turning it into a fairy tale about bees having this kind of ancestral religion. And the main character is a bee who’s a worker bee how is black and has kind of curly fur. And ends up kind of—spoiler—she ends up kind of becoming a queen. Which I don’t think can actually happen in a hive situation in real life, but it’s very clear as we’re reading the book that what she’s dealing with here is that here is a black bee in among all these yellow bees who think that they’re so awesome and pretty and great. But it turns out that the worker bee is the strongest and the most capable of leading the hive. Which, again, of course, that’s not how hives work in real life, but—the queen is not the leader. But, in this case, she is and it’s such a beautiful book. It’s like half Beatrix Potter, half science nerd. It’s just terrific.
[00:09:33] So, one of the other things that happens in stories about animals is that we use them to look at metaphors of sort of class or political strife. Like, getting away a little bit from the race issue. And, one of the books that of course sticks with anyone who’s read it is Watership Down by Richard Adams which is kind of one of those books that you read like in elementary school or junior high and it makes you cry for like a month afterward. And that’s about basically different rabbit warrens represent different kinds of social groups. Different kinds of political systems. So there’s the nice guys lead by Fiver, who’s this kind of religious figure who wants to create social democracy, I think.
Maggie: [00:10:21] He has the vision, yeah.
Annalee: [00:10:23] He has a vision of social democracy—I mean, kind of a social democracy. Something where people are—where the rabbits are all equal, and then they visit one warren where the rabbits are all kind of like lazy consumers who are being destroyed. Or being eaten by humans and then one warren that’s being lead by an evil fascist rabbit who’s very militarized and so we kind of walk through the different types of human relationships that way. And of course, Animal Farm is an even more extreme example.
Maggie: [00:10:54] Yeah, I feel like Animal Farm is the most on the nose, like, you want to talk about animals and politics? Don’t worry.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:02] Yeah. And I think that’s really where the fairy tale thing comes in, because fairy tales have been using animals as political metaphors, as like, these two animals represent two different political positions forever. And, you can go back to like, Chaucer’s like the Parliament of Foules, which is like a poem that had a huge influence on me where there’s like a parliament of birds and they’re debating political topics, but they’re all birds. And a lot of the Grimm Brothers fairy tales have animals kind of having political debates among themselves and it’s clearly supposed to be a very plug and play metaphor for humans.
Annalee: [00:11:39] I literally just was thinking, oh, Democrats and Republicans are of course both animals.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:43] Yeah.
Maggie: [00:11:44] Right. [crosstalk]. Who chose those animals?
Annalee: [00:11:47] I know? Like… donkey and elephant. I mean, to be fair, neither one is great, although elephants are kind of bad-ass.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:54] I love elephants—
Maggie: [00:11:54] I think elephants are amazing.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:55] –although, they’re the elephant party and they’re trying to wipe out the elephants right now, so.
Annalee: [00:11:59] I know.
Maggie: [00:12:00] The irony runs deep.
Annalee: [00:12:01] I feel like. It’s not. And also, elephants are a matriarchy, so, I feel like that would have been maybe good for them to remember.
Maggie: [00:12:08] Yeah. In terms of contemporary fairy tales, there’s right now The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo which was like a Newberry Award winner, but accidentally—or like, interestingly, makes some points about class that I don’t know if they were intended or not. And it’s about a mouse who’s in love with a princess, and spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read or seen The Tale of Despereaux, he doesn’t get to marry the princess even though he loves her.
Annalee: [00:12:29] Is it a human princess or a mouse princess?
Maggie: [00:12:30] It’s a human princess. She’s a lady. And he just—he loves her, and he does the kind of traditional chivalry thing, but in the book, she makes a point to be like, but mice can’t marry humans. And it’s like, kind of an interesting moment of like, you can’t marry up, really, in class. And I don’t think that that was the entire intention, but when you start talking about animals, I think it’s so easy to accidentally say—or incidentally say these things at the same time as just writing a cute fairy tale about a mouse in love with a princess.
Annalee: [00:13:01] Yeah. It’s so interesting. I guess, like, Stuart Little has that same theme because Stuart falls in love with a bird and they can’t really be together even though they’re technically the same size, I mean…
Maggie: [00:13:13] That was less crazy.
Annalee: [00:13:13] And I was thinking like the mouse and the princess thing would be difficult. I mean. Consummation would be interesting. Um. I mean, totally doable, I mean why not. I mean anything can be done. We have machines, okay. But I just—
Charlie Jane: [00:13:27] Just like a giant exoskeleton. Like a mouse in a like a giant mecha exoskeleton.
Annalee: [00:13:31] YES. I don’t mean to like take this Newberry Award winner and turn it into something—
Maggie: [00:13:35] No, this is a book I’m much more interested in, honestly.
Annalee: [00:13:40] I would totally read that, actually. Like.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:41] I would read the hell out of that.
Maggie: [00:13:41] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:13:43] Wouldn’t… and actually that would be a great story about how do you overcome those boundaries.
Maggie: [00:13:47] Yeah, so we already actually have had a mouse mech situation although they don’t consummate their relationship, but in Ratatouille, the Pixar movie we have the rat chef manning a human station basically. And that one’s kind of a funny like way to think about animals because it’s kind of about socioeconomic class but it’s also about human arrogance and believing that we’re like, so special that we could be the only ones to accomplish this sort of like thing that we consider particularly human.
Annalee: [00:14:19] Yeah, and he actually drives the person around. Like, he’s pulling on his ears and telling him what to do and like—
Maggie: [00:14:25] Somehow his hair makes him a full marrionette. It’s logic that I never care to question.
Annalee: [00:14:30] Oh no. It’s great. I also—the thing I also love about Ratatouille is that like rats are always treated as like the dirtiest and the baddest. And they are—they’re like they’re living in the slums of the slums of the slums, you know. And it’s like, and then they triumph. They make the most like fussy white food ever, right. I mean, green food, but made by white people. That’s yeah. So he’s an awesome triumph.
[00:14:57] So, other ways that these kinds of stories deal with human folly. I think Okja is a great example of that. That was like, that’s Bong Joon-ho being upsetting as usual. Yeah, and it’s basically about what we would call Frankenfood, actually. It’s a company that is looking for the ultimate meat source, and they find an animal whose DNA allows—I believe that it’s actually an animal that they find somewhere, but then they enhance its DNA, and it becomes a superpig. So, it’s a pig, but it’s like the size of a buffalo and—
Maggie: [00:15:33] I thought it was like a hippo hybrid when I saw the pictures of it.
Annalee: [00:15:37] Yeah, it’s actually—we never really know because part of it is that the company pretends that it’s an animal that they’ve just found in the deepest forest but we get the sense because it’s a biotech company that they’ve genetically engineered it, and in the process of genetically engineering this pig/hippo/rhino/buffalo creature it turns out that they’ve made an animal that’s really intelligent, too. And so, we learn that through this little girl who’s helped raise one of them, and it’s very much about how humans think that they can create this amazing food source but then their food source is actually a person, you know. Or it’s very much like a person.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:20] That actually makes me think of Jurassic Park which is another story about human folly and kind of tampering with forces of yadda yadda yadda.
Maggie: [00:16:29] Yeah, exactly.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:31] And, you know, Jurassic Park is one of those things where it’s partly a playing God story, but it’s also partly just like about a wildlife preserve and about how we treat wildlife, and like conservation and stuff.
Annalee: [00:16:42] In the same way Okja is about how we treat livestock. What do we do to the animals that we’re raising for food, and how horrific that is. But also, I mean it’s—to go back to the domestication thing, I think it’s partly about that, too. That we’re—how do we incorporate animals into our lives as modern, urban people?
Maggie: [00:17:04] There’s also the questions of how we use animals. And I think Jurassic Park and both Okja kind of touch on that, but my favorite example of that is the trash movie Deep Blue Sea, in which a group of scientists make sharks extra large so that their brains get bigger so that they can extract a liquid from their heads. This is how this works.
Annalee: [00:17:25] Oh yeah.
Maggie: [00:17:25] That will cure Alzheimer’s. And as a side effect, the sharks get smarter and it turns into this like, terrible horror movie. But it’s exactly this theme of like, we thought we were so smart. We thought there was a way that we could use these animals and inevitably, absolutely, we cannot. You cannot tamper with things like that and then not be bitten off the side of a platform.
Deep Blue Sea Clip: [00:17:50] Just what the hell did you do to those sharks?
Their brains weren’t large enough to harvest sufficient amounts of the protein complex. So, we violated the Hartford Compact. Gemini used gene therapies to increase their brain mass. Larger brain means more protein. As a side effect, the sharks got smarter.
You stupid bitch.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:24] That was she’s just a clip from Deep Blue Sea.
Maggie: [00:18:27] My favorite.
Annalee: [00:18:28] Yeah. I mean, it’s funny to me that we constantly, in these movies, come back to this idea that it’s bad to do genetic engineering on animals because it’s playing God. But, yet, it’s somehow okay to be raising them on farms and domesticating them. Like, that’s just natural, even though that also changes their genetic make-up. So, I think, you know, it’s just one of those things where it’s an anti-science moment where, obviously these are movies about genuine problems in how we treat animals. But the problem isn’t messing with their DNA. The problem is horribly abusing them while they’re alive, and treating them literally like garbage.
Maggie: [00:19:03] Well, and there’s also, while we’re on the theme of treating them horribly, Westworld, in the new season, has been using animals now, like the way that they’re popping up. And I’m pretty sure it’s like a visual metaphor for how we treat other—well, the artificial intelligence of the park that is arguably human. And they’re using the animals as a way to kind of visually signify that they’ve lost control there. And so there is something like, it works really well, I think as a visual metaphor for that reason.
Annalee: [00:19:34] But the animals are showing wild tendencies, and like…
Maggie: [00:19:36] Yeah, exactly. That it can’t be controlled, and like—spoiler alert, in the first episode of season two, a bengal tiger randomly shows up in Westworld, and they’re like… that shouldn’t have happened. How did this..? Something’s wrong. And the way that they’re using the animals to show that humans may have been able to create this entire world, but we’re not actually competent enough to control it.
Annalee: [00:19:59] Yeah, exactly. And again, of course, as you said, it’s totally a metaphor for how we try to control each other. And how the humans in the park are not controllable, either. This gets to another big theme in these stories, which is, just having animals be kind of metaphors for human personalities. I feel like, in Philip Pullman’s series, His Dark Materials, the daemons that all the characters have. I mean, that’s the most obvious one. And sometimes actually, a little bit annoying, but it’s…
Maggie: [00:20:28] It’s unfortunate that everyone who is a servant has a dog as a daemon. Like there’s moments like that, where you’re like, aww. That doesn’t seem right.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:37] Oh, wow.
Maggie: [00:20:38] But I do love it as like, it’s one of those things where like the art he made sometimes becomes greater than him because then you can think about that in terms of like, well, what’s my daemon? And then it becomes like a really fun way for kids and adults alike to kind of think about themselves and the people around them. And so, I don’t know.
Annalee: [00:20:54] So, it works in that way, yeah.
Maggie: [00:20:55] Yeah, it works in that way. Kind of the same way that the Patronus works in Harry Potter, where it’s like, there’s—there aren’t any accidental statements about that one that I feel, or wrapped in that one. But, Hermoine and Ron having similarly specied Patronuses tells you something about their fitness to be with one another.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:13] Oh, wow. I forgot about that. That’s so funny.
Maggie: [00:21:15] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:16] I wanted to bring up, you know, in terms of like, people having animal companions that are kind of fantastical, that reflect something about them. The pink lion in Steven Universe is like my favorite. And like, has this really whole complicated relationship. It kind of reflects how innocent and sweet Steven is, that he has this like, friendly lion that never hurts anybody, but also the lion represents his mother and all these mysteries, and it’s like, a complicated metaphor and the cutest thing ever.
Annalee: [00:21:41] It’s also a portal. Which I think is really interesting. Going back to what you were saying, Maggie, about how this is a way for us to—for people to think about themselves. You know, it’s like it becomes a portal through which you can kind of journey and then look at yourself from another perspective. And that’s totally how he uses Lion. It’s like he dives inside of his own lion, and then—but it’s—which sounds creepy when I say it, but it’s actually quite beautiful and cute and sweet.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:07] There’s actually a YouTube short that you should all watch, everybody out there, of like the lion just trying to get into a bunch of boxes. It’s just like a minute long. Can the lion fit in this box? Can he fit in this box? Anyway.
Maggie: [00:22:20] The unadorable version of it is the lying cat in the Saga series. Um, who travels with this assassin and I feel like is kind of an extension of his personality. Like, he’s like a no-bullshit, incredibly competent assassin and recon gatherer. And he has this cat with him who’s able to tell, and is also kind of a portal into himself, as well, because the lying cat will tell him that hey’s lying, as well. Like, he’s not immune to its services.
Annalee: [00:22:46] Yeah. It’s like he’s literally got a bullshit detector just going around with him, yeah. And the only thing that the cat ever says is “Lying.” If you’re not lying, the cat will just be quiet. And you can actually hear it, like that is—it sounds almost like cats are saying that when they meow anyway. Like, when my cats talk to me pretty much that’s all they say is, “Lying.”
[00:23:08] “I promise I’m gonna feed you.”
[00:23:13] The kind of dark side of this, I think, is the Planet of the Apes series which, it’s kind of about it being a metaphor for personalities. It’s also a little bit about some of the other stuff that we’ve talked about. The sort of socioeconomic issues, racial issues come up in a lot of the Planet of the Apes stories. But it is also just a story about how if humans were replaced by another type of animal, that the same kind of personality problems that we have as people getting along with each other might crop up again. Because some of the issues that the apes have, especially in the new trilogy, really are just issues around jealousy, issues around leadership. How do you-how are you a good leader? And how do you deal with trauma? How do you deal with residual trauma from being abused? And that’s one of the big issues. Some of the apes have been horrifically abused by humans and just can’t ever imagine reaching any kind of detente with them until they’re just all fucking dead.
[00:24:13] Because geez, you know, if I’d been tortured like that, I’d probably kill all humans, too.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:16] One thing I love is like the dog in the movie Coco, who goes on this amazing journey. I feel like in some way, Dante the dog has a more fascinating journey than Miguel, his human companion, because by the end of the movie, Dante has been transformed into this sort of beautiful rainbow spirit creature, and Miguel basically goes home and is almost the same person that he was at the start of the movie, except now he’s fixed his family. And, I love that this is sort of this metaphor in the background about like how, just being along on this adventure can transform you.
Annalee: [00:24:48] So, okay. Let’s talk about one of the cheesiest and most ancient themes in these kinds of stories, which is humans vs. nature, which I feel like we’ve already been deconstructing that through this whole episode, when we’re talking about how humans basically are animals, animals are us. And yet, we keep wanting to have this fantasy that somehow we are different and better and more awesome, which is why we gotta kill all the snakes on the plane. We have to fight against the giant out of control monster, whether that’s a monster from another dimension sent by aliens who were trying to terraform the earth? I’m not really sure what’s going on in Pacific Rim.
Maggie: [00:25:27] Oh, yeah.
Annalee: [00:25:28] No, no, go ahead. What were you thinking?
Maggie: [00:25:29] I thought you were talking about Starship Troopers, and I was like, no, no, we went and bombed them first. Then they bombed us.
Annalee: [00:25:35] Right. Well, that’s like, often the case, you know. That we start it, but like… So, Starship Troopers is another great example. Tell us your feelings about Starship Troopers.
Maggie: [00:25:45] I love Starship Troopers. I saw it on my 13th birthday in the theater.
Annalee: [00:25:50] That’s awesome.
Maggie: [00:25:51] And it was like, deeply upsetting to me at the time. And I think one of the things… first of all, that movie only gets better over time. It’s like a—I didn’t recognize it for what it was when I first saw it, which was like a brilliant satire of jingoism. At the time I was like, whoa, this is very upsetting. And I think at the time what was so upsetting to me, and what’s upsetting about the humans vs. nature in general theme, and the reason why we always revisit it is because there’s nothing more upsetting than being like, I need my own perfectly controlled little universe and I’m just trying my best, and having anything come and ruin that. And we use animals as being a metaphor for that and it could have just as easily been bad luck, like could do the same thing in a story. Could function the same way. But in Starship Troopers, it’s like, definitely a case of we were trying to invade too far into the galaxy. We took a step too far and now we are at war with these hyperintelligent bugs who have a similarly stratified society as we have.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:51] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:26:52] Yeah, and I mean… and this does kind of go back to—it is a humans vs. nature thing, but it is also about colonization. And about race and the fact that they call these creatures bugs. It’s very clear that that’s supposed to be a kind of a racist term for what are basically sentient creatures and who can’t possibly be bugs because they evolved on another world. So, they’re something else.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:14] Yeah, and I think that just as the line between humans and animals is sometimes blurry, the line between aliens and animals is frequently incredibly blurry because there’s so many stories about meeting creatures on another planet and just thinking that they’re animals and then realizing later that they were actually intelligent. I think there’s an episode of Futurama where they start eating these creatures called Popplers and later realize that they’re actually really smart. And Fry ate a bunch of them.
Annalee: [00:27:42] And the Little Fuzzy books, John Scalzi just wrote one of them, but they originated in the 1960s and that was very much about like, oh, we thought that these little fuzzy creatures that we could eat were just I don’t know, mice.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:57] They were just critters.
Annalee: [00:27:58] Delicious mice. But then, now they want to marry the princess so, um. It’s really important that we… And so I feel like yeah, we get a lot of these tales that are kind of about aliens, kind of about animals where we have to just fight and kill them. It’s an incredibly… like it’s a genre that goes back really far, with like Jaws. The Birds. I think King Kong could even be considered part of that.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:21] Birdemic. Don’t forget Birdemic.
Annalee: [00:28:24] Birdemic. Don’t forget like Sharktopus, which is definitely in the tradition of—
Charlie Jane: [00:28:28] Exactly.
Maggie: [00:28:28] Who could forget Sharktopus.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:30] Mega Shark vs Super Gator.
Annalee: [00:28:33] I love Sharktopus, and actually I like Mega Shark vs. Super Gator, too. But also, in the 1950s we had all of the giant animal movies where again, sort of stood in for other issues, but it was at bottom about how humans are better than animals. We can outsmart them, and we can kill them with no problem.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:53] I think it’s only in the last maybe hundred years that we’ve no longer been at constant risk of being eaten by animals on a fairly regular basis, most of us.
Maggie: [00:29:03] The fact that The Birds ends with them just deciding not to attack humans anymore is my favorite of this genre, or like the most intelligent, where it’s just a reminder that they can. Just like. A terribly frightening thing to do, but also kind of the smartest in terms of treating these themes. I mean, there are so many things in real life that we do that I feel like we’re going to be horrified by, like eating cephalopods, or the way that we’ve killed dolphins. Where we’re like, clearly dealing with like incredible intelligence.
Annalee: [00:29:33] When we start to question the boundary between human and animal, then we kind of end with these other boundaries, like intelligent and less intelligent, and so. Like, for example, I don’t eat cephalopods because they’re probably going to be friends and a lot of us don’t eat dolphins for the same reason. Why do we privilege that? Why do we just—why do we privilege, oh, well these are animals that are possibly like humans, but you know, eating a chicken or a fish, like, no big. And I mean, I’m guilty of the same thing. I definitely don’t feel a lot of compunction about eating shrimp. And whereas I would—it hurts my heart to like see people eat cephalopods. Because I’ve seen cephalopods hang out and try to escape being killed and it’s an upsetting thing.
Maggie: [00:30:19] I think, for me anyway, because I’m a person who does those mental gymnastics daily, and I’m completely comfortable with it. It’s a selfish thing, where it’s like, oh if they somehow remind me of myself, then I’m not gonna eat them.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:31] Right.
Maggie: [00:30:32] But like, I don’t look at a chicken and feel a sense of kinship, so I’m like, you are delicious.
Annalee: [00:30:37] Yeah. I feel total chicken kinship. That’s the weird thing. I mean, it’s not that I don’t eat them, but like. I see chickens hanging out, and I’m like, that’s me, just kinda hanging out. Like, poking on the food. Like—
Maggie: [00:30:49] It’s not a thing I can philosophically defend. It’s only a thing that I’m like, yes, I’m aware that this is a personality defect. But it’s a very ha-ha, human thing. I think to those gymnastics to do, and what a lot of these stories address are the like, the ways that we do this, that are arbitrary or unfair.
Annalee: [00:31:06] Yeah, Okja, I think, does a great job of that. And I think, probably all of us sitting here at this table would eat synthetic meat if we could, right?
Maggie: [00:31:14] Oh yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:14] Yeah. In a heartbeat.
Annalee: [00:31:17] If I could just have something that was like grown in a vat and you know tasted like chicken, I’d be like—
Maggie: [00:31:22] Gimme that vat.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:24] Yeah. No, totally.
Annalee: [00:31:25] Then, I’d just be free to hang out with chickens and I’d never have to say, I’m sorry about all the times I ate your friends.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:33] Yeah, but one thing I wanted to bring up real quick. In like—there’s a bunch of Star Trek episodes where everyone suddenly starts devolving and turning into animals. Like Worf turns into like, a raccoon or like Picard is turning into a lemur, and…
ST: TNG Clip: [00:31:48] Within the next twelve hours, you’ll begin to exhibit the first signs of your eventual transformation.
And what will that be?
I believe you will also de-evolve into an earlier form of primate. Possible similar to a lemur or pygmy marmoset.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:07] You know, there’s another episode where like Captain Janeway and Tom Paris over-evolve and turn into like lizard people and have sex.
Annalee: [00:32:15] They turn into sort of slime creatures, yeah. I forget what they were con—
Charlie Jane: [00:32:17] They turn into slime little grubs and have sex and make babies, and the babies are still there at the end of the episode. They’re just like, welp. We’re gonna leave our babies on this planet and never talk about them again.
Annalee: [00:32:27] Our hyper-evolved human—I did like the fact though, the idea that humans would eventually evolve back into like giant grubs though.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:33] Yeah, it make sense. It makes total sense. And like—
Annalee: [00:32:38] I’m assuming there was like a speciation event at some point, like?
Charlie Jane: [00:32:40] Yeah, and that was actually what I was gonna bring up, which is that one of the main concerns in a lot of science fiction, especially lately, is the question of humans speciating. And like, the X-Men franchise is about human speciating. There’s a lot of other, like, post-human stories that are about like, what happens when we’re no-longer human and do these post-humans view humans the way that we would view cows or—
Annalee: [00:33:03] I mean, in the series Altered Carbon, is kind of about speciation, too. Because we have some humans who can live for a really long time and others who can’t, and they’re essentially turning into two separate species. I mean, they may not be biologically different but they are different.
Maggie: [00:33:17] I feel like there’s a lot of young adult novels that cover this in different ways. Like, there’s the Pretties, Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld where there’s like a strong division between people who’ve had huge amounts of plastic surgery, and that also like amp up their ability to move quickly, make decisions fast. That, and I feel like the reason that teenagers love thinking about these things are the same reasons I do, which is that it does beg questions about like the way that we allow certain privileges to function.
Annalee: [00:33:47] Westerfeld’s stuff really is about being domesticated, because they become more obedient, I think, too, when they get the brain surgery, right?
Maggie: [00:33:55] Yeah. Well, they basically get invited to these great giant cities where all the fun stuff is happening, like living in the wilds in the trees to like into a city. So it’s like a very direct domestication thing, yeah.
Annalee: [00:34:08] Interesting. So, this gets into one of my favorite ideas in science fiction which is animal uplift where—I mean we’re kind of talking about human uplift with speciation, but then there’s a whole genre about animals being given either through technology or through some kind of genetic engineering they become human-equivalent. So, they’re like Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, or they’re like the animals in We Three which is like Grant Morrison’s comic, which will make you cry. Guaranteed.
Charlie Jane: [00:34:42] 100%.
Annalee: [00:34:42] Do not read it unless you are comfortable crying wherever you are. So, these are animals similar to Rocket Raccoon, who, through cybernetic implants, a cute puppy, a cute kitty, and a cute bunny. Sorry, I just shouldn’t say that. They’re adorable. Um. I am not a bunny, so, I’m going to call them adorable. They become human equivalent. So, this becomes like an even more sort of turbo-charged version of the story of domestication, I feel like. Because often these animals are—they’re uplifted to be used as slaves, just like the apes in Planet of the Apes.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:16] And, you know, part of what’s fascinating about these uplifting stories, is that they never become human. They might become human equivalent, but they still have their own personalities and their own drives that are not the same as ours, and that’s kind of where the friction often enters into it.
Maggie: [00:35:33] One of my favorite examples of that is Snowball on Rick and Morty in episode two where Jerry puts too many batteries in the thing that will help him become more intelligent and makes this dog like a hyperintelligent cyborg. And he ends up just like rounding up all the dogs and taking them to another planet because they can no longer be with humans.
Annalee: [00:35:53] Yeah.
Maggie: [00:35:53] I feel like if they were—if they could—
Annalee: [00:35:56] That’s the immortal moment where Snowball has finally realized what’s happened to him, and he goes into Summer’s bedroom and says, “Where are my testicles summer?”
Rick & Morty Clip: [00:36:05] Where are my testicles, Summer? They were removed. Where have they gone?
Oh, wow. That’s an intense line of question, Snuffles.
Do not call me that.
Snuffles was my slave name. You shall now call me Snowball because my fur is pretty and white.
Annalee: [00:36:26] Summer’s like in bed, like, I’m sorry. Um, yeah. That is actually one of the best, despite it being just a goofy satire, it’s actually one of the best animal uplift stories ever. I’m also a big fan of Robert Repino’s novel Mort(e), which is a really radical uplift scenario where every—it seems like almost every domesticated animal on earth is uplifted somehow. We don’t quite understand how. Mort(e) is a cat, who’s uplifted and they just go on a rampage to kill all the humans. And they gradually replace humans and it’s really interesting because it’s—they’re struggling not to replicate the problems that humanity had. And so a lot of the book is them trying to figure out, well, where was it that humans went wrong? And they kind of decide that it was religion but maybe it was something else, and we never quite. I mean, it’s a trilogy, so. It develops over time. But it definitely is a really dark vision of how uplift would work.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:30] I feel like in the years to come the question of extinction is going to become much more important in stories about animals and in stories about humans because we’re going to see species getting extinct. Species that we actually take for granted as like, being among us. And it’s going to become more of a topic of, I feel like it already is becoming more of a topic where part of what we see in animal stories is the question of like, will they be able to survive as a species or as a cluster of species.
Maggie: [00:37:59] Yeah, I feel like every—all the best versions of talking about animals beg the question of like, how arrogant are we and how long can we stand to be this arrogant. And I think Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Talk to Animals? Is like a great current questioning of exactly that theme. And I think extinction is gonna beg—is already laying it bare for us how much damage we’ve done and how much of it is already irrevocable. So, I look forward to in a terrible way, the kind of fiction stories that are borne of that as people start becoming more aware of how many of the species we’ve already lost.
Annalee: [00:38:38] And also how much these kinds of extinctions will reveal how humans are dependent on animals and how we aren’t the shepherds and the bosses of them. We are in a co-dependent, in the best sense, relationship with animals. We exist in a food web with them, and if animals start dying out, that threatens our existence. Not just because we eat animals but because also animals help create an environment where we can grow plants, too, and where we can have food. And so, as animals go extinct, I think one of the fantasy scenarios is well humans will be left on some sort of barren world without animals, but the fact is no. We—again, we are animals, too, so the more that we drive animals to extinction, the more that our actions drive them to extinction, the more that we will also decimate our own population, and the more we will suffer from starvation and disease and habitat loss. So, where the animals go, so go human animals. And, I think you know, I hope that science fiction and fantasy can come up with some scenarios that allow people to think about that in a way that’s positive and not just a dystopia.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:56] Yeah, and I want to close by just mentioning a much maligned film, Avatar. In which, you know, the theme of animals being having driven extinct on earth is brought up explicitly and the question of whether we’re gonna preserve this rich biome on this other—the moon Pandora is like the central question, and it’s, you know, there’s issues with it, I understand, but I think that as the sequels come out over the next umpteen years, it’s gonna keep pushing that conversation forward in a way.
Annalee: [00:40:27] We need to be a little bit more humble about all of this stuff and maybe stop thinking of ourselves as being the apex golden creature and remember like, you know, we’re just one little piece of a big old food web and like, not even the most important part by far. So, you mentioning extinction made me think about how the episode of Black Mirror, Most Hated in the Nation, which is my most loved episode of Black Mirror is actually really about extinction, because bees go extinct and then in order to maintain the ecosystems of the planet, humans invent these little robots that are bees that can then be reprogrammed and then become the emissaries of death. And so, but that’s what I love is that the cascade, sort of cascade of horrible effects starts with the extinction of a keystone species. Which, again, bees. Way more important than humans for the globe.
Maggie: [00:41:24] True. True. I mean, if we’ve learned anything from Deep Blue Sea or Jurassic Park, it’s that we are not fit to completely replace our ecosystems and I feel like that’s like the best place I can end my contribution here.
Annalee: [00:41:42] You have been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct. We’ll be back in two weeks, with another episode. And thanks to Veronica Simonetti at the Women’s Audio Mission for editing and producing skills. Thanks to Chris Palmer for the music. Thanks to Maggie Tokuda-Hall for being our first guest. And, if you like us please write a review on Apple podcasts. It really helps us. Bye.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:06] Bye.
[00:42:08] Outro music plays. Synth over snare followed by guitar riff.