Panelists: Rachel Manija Brown, Cora Anderson, Janni Lee Simner
Please forgive or correct any errors made in these notes. They were typed quickly and in shorthand, and I made them legible and comprehensible as best I could. But they are not 100% complete or accurate.
R: What was your introduction to the idea of companion animals?
J: Pern! And imaginary friends when I was growing up
C: The She-ra horse! When I was six, I had an imaginary friend who was a winged unicorn named Starlight with a rainbow mane, who could turn invisible and go to school with me. Oh, and Pern also.
I used to think up lists of names ending in -th. I mostly had blue and green dragons - the sidekick dragons. I always liked the sidekick characters. Also, I used to tame wild animals when I was a kid. You can tame a feral cat in about six months, if you’re patient.
R: What is the appeal of a companion animal (telepathic or not)?
R: I was obsessed with animals, and you get into an
empathic communion when you sit for hours with feral cats. Telepathy goes right to the heart of that. Also, there’s a powerful draw in the idea of a creature that can understand you perfectly. At least, there is when you’re as a kid.
C: There’s something about creatures that not only understand you but love you regardless. Pern dragons never say 'fuck this noise, I'm outta here,' no matter what you do). McCaffrey has said Pern is inspired by the feeling, as a five-year-old, of getting a pet. You want the pet to be a perfect friend, and it just wants to be a cat. It's what you want from a childhood pet, then a boy/girlfriend, that you can’t have. It’s the wish fulfillment that something can understand you completely.
J: As an outcast child with no close friends until later, imaginary friends always were there for you and also wanted to do what you wanted. Best friend + subservience.
R: Should we jump into subservience?
C: The Heralds of Valdemar. In those, the Companion will in fact repudiate you and leave. The Pernese bond is unbreakable. In other ones, the animals don't have human morality. The Companions are metaphors for guardian angels; they won't condone serial killers. It’s a different type of relationship.
R: Don't forget they are sparkly magic white horses.
C: It’s the dream of a horse, not a real horse.
J: When I first rode a horse, I was disappointed. They weren't flying!
R: Judith Tarr said Anne McCaffrey based dragon Impression on watching humans with young horses. Of course a real horse is much more rebellious.
C: And can't talk.
J: But then you can believe they understand you perfectly. If they can’t talk they can’t contradict that feeling.
R: Going back to the idea of companions as metaphors for other relationships…
J: Childhood wish fulfillment animals. I get much less interested when it becomes metaphors for adult relationships, but fiction seems more interested in that.
R: Romantic relationship with everything but the sex... and sometimes they do include sex, hopefully not with the animal. The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik has dragons in the Napoleonic wars. Those dragon-human relationships are very much like a good marriage, complete with falling outs, but if the humans have sex, it doesn’t affect the dragons, and vice versa.
C: I've read the first book - that's the one where the relationship is seriously romantic. Another rider treats his dragon as an aircraft, and the dragon just wants to be loved. The rider gives it more baubles and thinks that’s all it needs. It’s classic unrequited love, complete with pining.
J: Most bondings happen with adolescence. It’s a stand in for coming of age/romance.
R: Before the panel we were talking about Ariel
, by Stephen Boyett. It’s maybe not that good of a book objectively, but it’s interesting. The hero is a teenage boy in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has been replaced by magic. He bonded with his unicorn when he was twelve, when the book starts he’s nineteen. The virgin mythology is real. They fight sometimes. It’s definitely a romantic relationship. But he can't have sex with anyone, woes. At the end he does, and the unicorn leaves. It’s clear that unicorns are better than sex.
C: And then there's Pern, where you have to have sex. [Audience indicates that they’ve almost all read Pern.] When the dragons do it, so do you. NO EXCEPTIONS!
J: You are forced to the dragon’s schedule. How do they feel when the humans are still at it?
R: The Pern books actually mention that. I think it was meant as id wish fulfillment, but it comes across as problematic, McCaffery used just enough realism that it seems creepy.
C: She's said in interviews that these are not romantic relationship, but in the books, the dragon’s partners are almost always the humans’ partners. So, you start getting sex = love. It makes the concept of choice more problematic.
J: Also one-sided.
R: Pern has very contradictory canon. The dragons are color-coded by gender. Green dragons are always ridden by men, and they’re always female. The only dragons with female riders are gold, and they’re extremely rare. So most dragon-mating would also involve men having sex with men. But it took 10 books for McCaffrey to be explicit about that.
C: I totally didn't notice that when I was nine.
R: I think the dragon mating is meant to be the wish-fulfillment of being utterly swept away by passion. It’s an appealing fantasy, but the execution highlights the creepy aspects: rape is love
C: There’ve been thousands of discussions about this. There’s the 70s trend of romance novels that start with rape. One theory is that in society where it's not OK for women to want to have sex, it's an out so that you don't feel like a “slut.” [Sarcasm scare quotes.] It can be a safety net if you don't own your own desire. Is the dragon mating flight the same thing? “It wasn't me, it was the dragon!”
R: Animals are close to nature, so it may also be the romanticized idea of that. You don’t have to worry about social restrictions. Let’s just all bone!
J: Do any books go the other way? Where the animals and people have to discuss whether they want to have sex?
C: Arrows of the Queen
, sort of. A girl is bonded to stallion. Sex is not stigmatized and they are not compelled to have sex when the other, but they can tell. “Could you warn me next time? I'm in the middle of something, and then really?” They negotiate the timing.
R: The C. J. Cherryh Finisterre novels. (Rider at the Gate
) We should discuss these more when we get to parodies and dark takes. On this planet, animal life is telepathic and empathic, and can overwhelm humans. Certain people can bond with night horses and put up mental shields. Sex transmits both ways. But it’s not overpowering, you can go with it or not. There’s one scene where the rider wants sex, and the horse is bored.
C: If your companion animal is comparable intelligence to you, what does it mean that the human is the decider?
J: Except in Valdemar.
C: It’s not always the case, but most often. Dragons have no choice in Pern. They have to do what they are told to do, no exceptions.
J: A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
There’s a flying unicorn and a boy; neither are making solo decisions.
Audience: In Pern they are bonded, but choices are built into the environment
C: In Temeraire, dragons are human-level smart but subservient. Later in the series they start trying to get voting rights.
R: In other parts of that world dragons are equal to humans, or even superior.
R: Wolf companions are interesting because authors tend to use older research that turned out to be incorrect. The concept of the alpha wolf comes from wolf behavior in zoos. In the wild, the wolf pack is actually a family: a breeding male, a breeding female and pups. It’s not about constant fighting for dominance or rape.
J: A happy family of wolves. I want to read that.
C: Ya'll can talk about sex, I'm talking about Jhereg
. It’s got a snarky flying lizard. AND IT’S AWESOME. It’s extraordinarily loyal, but will tell you that you're stupid. It’s much more realistic, like real friends. Not a creepy “I love you forever and everything you do is awesome.”
J: So you need your perfect friend companion, and your companion who will give you advice and call you out.
: Mogget and the
R: A kind of subversive version is Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody
. Who is whose companion? Sirius the Dog Star is a powerful being in the form of a tiny dog. It’s told from dog’s point of view, and the girl is actually called a “companion.”
C: Other books where the animal is the POV character?
J: Maybe the Valdemar short stories?
A: The Princess and the Bear
C: Does the bond need to be magical? I was explaining to my mother-in-law what I was doing at Sirens and since she doesn’t read fantasy, I explained what a bond animal was. She is blind and has a guide dog, and asked whether her guide dog was a ‘bond animal.’
J: Even in fiction it’s not always a magical bond, now that you mention it.
R: Sure. Pern is what first comes to mind, but Robin McKinley is next. She has very emotional relationships with non-magical bonded animals. She also has service animals. If you look at Deerskin
and The Hero and the Crown
, there are points where the heroine is badly wounded or sick, and her horse or dog acts as her service animal.
J: In Tamora Pierce’s books, everyone ends up with animals. They’re not always magical.
Audience: Have you read the Mountain's Call series by Judith Tarr, with the horses? (The Mountain's Call
; under a pseudonym.) I loved Pern, but not so much for the sex issues. I read Valdemar, but the companions a bit too much – it’s a great relationship if you fall in line. In Tarr’s series, she really nailed the perfect horse relationship. No one is in charge. There are Gods in horses bodies, but they act like horses.
J: Tarr has a YA book, House of the Star
, with magical horses. [Under a pseudonym.] The protagonist asks the horses why they need humans. The horse says humans can think around corners.
Audience: No one was better than anyone else. No subservience.
J: You get something bigger than the sum of either.
C: Question time!
Audience: Friendships vs. Partnership? Dealing with Dragons
R: I didn't think of those because I would think of them more as two characters, not an animal companion.
C: In those, the human is the companion animal.
Audience: Back to sex! There are books with deep romantic but non-sexual bonds with animals. Everyone avoided using the word asexual. Is that conscious, that the human is in an asexual relationship? Or is it just bestiality avoidance?
C: In most examples the characters do have sex, just not with each other. I hadn’t considered the idea of bond animals as asexual relationship. That’s a good thing to think about.
R: Yeah, it’s interesting. I didn’t think of it because the partners are usually sexual, but with others.
J: That would be a good opportunity for exploration.
A: It could be a model of an asexual partnership.
A: Zoo City
, by Lauren Beukes, is a book where you only get a companion animal if you were bad. If people saw it, they knew you did something wrong.
R: We didn't get a chance to talk about it, but there’s a little subgenre where the animal companion is a part of you, a manifestation of your soul. Zoo City
actually had a little take on The Golden Compass
included as a fake academic paper.
Audience: There’s the Firekeeper series. (Wolf Captured (Firekeeper)
) Would that count as companion animals? Girl raised by wolves. She can't remember who she is. One of the wolves is her best friend. They even have thoughts of 'if we were the same species, we'd be together' but it's not weird. They can speak, but not telepathically; the way wolves speak. Is that a companion animal?
J: Raised by wolves is a trope on its own.
Audience: She thinks of herself as a wolf. When she’s found by humans, she insists she is a wolf. Her relationship with the wolf does become romantic but not sexually. It’s an example of a romantic asexual relationship.
J: There’s a wide range of ways of dealing with this. It hasn't been explored enough.
R: If ya'll go write it, there are lots of places to explore.
J: The animals are always the good guys.
R: No! If you want to see evil companion animals, read Sheri Tepper’s Grass.
The companion horse are evil aliens. The Cherryh books I mentioned earlier have a parody of the special girl with a special bond. It doesn't go very well.
Audience: Recommends Yuletide fics that were dark interpretations of Valdemar