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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

 

Scary dolphins

My second novel, In Great Waters, treats of the subject of mermaids (as many of you know, and if you don't, oh boy are you missing a treat. Really. Go buy the book. Go on, I'll wait.)

As this rather nice review points out*, I take an unsentimental view of them, seeing them as, well, creatures who live in the sea. And if you've seen The Blue Planet, you'll know that the sea is not a sentimental place. I decided to present them as closer to cetaceans than to fish: if mermaids, or 'deepsmen', as I called them, are social enough to be in any way related to humans, it makes sense to assume that mammals. Which means no underwater cities of pearl or anything like that: for one thing, it's highly unlikely that settling in a particular place would mean anything other than starvation for a large predator, for another you build buildings to keep the weather out and it's a fair bet that somebody who spends their time below the sea surface isn't that bothered about getting rained on, but the main reason was simple: if you're basically cetacean, you need to surface for air regularly. Nomadic, tribal and survival-minded creatures seemed the likeliest. Deepsmen, I reckoned, would be something between chimps and dolphins.

And are dolphins gentle beasties? Well, as this article I just got sent points out, no. If anything, I drew it pretty mild. My deepsman protagonist doesn't get beaten to death in his infancy.

It's an interesting thing: when I was writing Bareback I studied up on the legends a great deal. Partly this was just to check if anyone else was doing what I was doing, which nobody seemed to be, but it also turned up some interesting facts about the historical origins of the werewolf story: in days gone by, people were actually executed for 'being werewolves' as part of the broader moral panic that grew up around witchcraft. Werewolf stories tend to be correspondingly harsh. Mermaid stories, on the other hand, were not something I researched that much; the ones I saw seemed to be rather on the pretty side, which is fine in itself but not the way I write. It's only reading the article on dolphins that it occurs to me where this disparity may come from.

Wolves are land predators; if you were a farmer in 1600, they were land predators that might grab your sheep or your children. We see them close enough to be clear that even if there were magic about them, it wouldn't necessarily be a beneficient, human-serving magic. Wolves have their own priorities, and getting food is at the top of the list, and if serving that interest conflicts with our interests then that's somebody's hard luck, and you just have to hope it'll be the wolf's.

Dolphins, on the other hand, have for most of history only been seen in glimpses, a magical flash of silver at the ship's prow. What happened beneath the sea in the days before scuba and cameras was obscure - and crucially, very few sea animals prey upon humans. A shark may take you, and indeed Jaws made fine fiction out of that possibility, but cetaceans don't have humans on their list of edibles. They may hunt the fish that humans want to eat, but fish aren't like herds: you don't buy and guard them, you just take your boat out and hope to find some, so if a dolphin is competing with you for food it's harder to notice. The result of all this is that the ways in which a dolphin can be aggressive, wanton, violent - the ways, in fact, it can be similar to our worst qualities - were very hard to spot. We could see that they moved in groups and that they liked to play - again, qualities that we share, but among our best qualities - but the darker points of correspondence were, for centuries, below the water-line.

The upshot of new discoveries is that mermaids seem, in many ways, a less fantastical idea than they might once have. Sea mammals, it turns out, aren't really very different from land mammals: all are capable of intelligence, loyalty, play, curiosity and murder. The legend of mermaid as beautiful mystery isn't a bad one, but it comes from an era of limited opportunities to observe; if we'd been snorkelling for our food back in the Middle Ages, it might be very different nowadays.

Will the new research on dolphin behaviour, with its hunting for sport and infanticide, affect mermaid legends of the future? If so, well, remember you heard it here first...



*I've mentioned previously that I try to avoid my reviews, as they mess with my head and are not the best source of feedback, but a cyber-friend pointed me to that one.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

 

First charity Mikalogue


The request from Jarred L. Harris: I'd love to see a Mikalogue in which she reflects on humans. I'd love to see more of how she perceives human behavior, possibly that of the humans she behaves.


The result:

Treatise on Human Behaviour by Mika The Scientific


Observation: Humans behaviour is sometimes feedin Mika and sometimes ignorin.

Hypothesis: Feedin behaviour can be encouraged and ignorin behaviour discouraged.


Experiments to date:

1. Singing the Feed Me Song on its own.

Observation: Sometimes Kit feeds when hearing the Feed Me Song.

Experiment: Sing the Feed Me Song at regular intervals.

Outcome: Kit does not invariably feed.

Conclusion: Ineffective method without backup.


2. Scratching sofa.

Observation: When scratch sofa, Kit looks round, then sometimes feeds.

Experiment: Scratch sofa more.

Outcome: Initially Kit fed. After a few days, moved to ignoring. Then moved to the Squirter, resulting in wet fur.
Conclusion: Ineffective method with negative consequences.


3. Observing the dinner bell, which comes from little box Kit talks into.

Observation: Often Kit hears dinner bell, picks up box and says, 'Hi honey, are you on your lunch break?' Then feeds Mika.

Experiment: Tried singing the Feed Me Song whenever dinner bell box rings.

Outcome: Sometimes Kit says 'Okay honey' and feeds, sometimes says 'Honey, it's not lunchtime' and doesn't feed.

Conclusion: Method bears further investigation.


4. Improving paper and card on the table.

Observation: When Mika plays with paper and conquers (Mika the Mighty), Kit hears noise and looks round.

Experiment: Chew up paper when hungry then sang the Feed Me Song when Kit looked round.

Result: Initially Kit ignored, then moved to the Squirter, resulting in wet fur.

Conclusion: Inadvisable method when Squirter to hand.



Overall conclusion: Humans prove responsive to stimuli, but in limited ways, either due to failings of intelligence or moral character. Strong conditioning may be necessary to shape behaviour for maximum efficiency. Mika The Scientific's Excellent Research Centre open to all offers of funding to pursue further study; will accept cash or kibble.



With thanks to Jarred from his generosity.

Monday, February 15, 2010

 

I've been away from blogging for a while..



...This is why.


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