SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
The Animals in That Country By Laura McKay. Scribe, 2020.
A lot of us—certainly those of us who own pets—often wonder just what animals really think, whether about us, each other, or the world around them. I spent much of my time reading Australian writer Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country (Scribe, 2020, $16.95) with my cat Clara on my lap or sitting near me on my couch; she mostly slept, as cats do, but from time to time she’d be watching me or looking out the window at a bird or squirrel. Like many pet owners, I kept a running dialogue going in Clara’s voice as well as imaginary conversations between the two of us. It’s all unbearably cutesy. Nonetheless, our interest in animals and their reactions to the world has resulted in innumerable works of fiction, many of them poignant, from Charlotte’s Web to Watership Down and more. However, whether beautifully written or comically meant, these kinds of works present animals as having inherently human kinds of voices and concerns—animals as, basically, people with fur.
What McKay has brought us is something very different indeed. In one of the most unusual apocalyptic novels I’ve ever encountered, we learn in the most fateful ways that animals are, in fact, profoundly different from us. They aren’t wisecracking, or goofy, or offering nuggets of wisdom to us naïve humans. Instead, these creatures—even my Clara—are so very different as to be almost entirely alien. And although the struggle to communicate with alien species is a common theme in science fiction, we normally define improved communication as being advantageous to us, as a necessary step towards greater understanding and harmony with other beings. McKay shows us that what keeps us sane and comfortable is the fact that we CAN’T understand what these creatures—many of which share our close and intimate spaces—are thinking and feeling. Learning that might well drive us insane.
McKay’s protagonist is Jean Bennett, a deeply imperfect woman—a divorced grandmother who works as a tour guide in a wildlife park. Generally distant from others (including her mostly absent son and her coworkers), Jean’s two major emotional relationships are with her granddaughter Kimberly and with Sue, one of the park’s dingos. Jean’s life—and the life of the entire country—is fatefully upended when a pandemic emerges, a flu that allows humans to understand the verbal and non-verbal communications of animals. (It begins with mammals, but in more advanced cases people start to understand birds, and even insects.) What one might think would be a delightful Doctor Doolittle-style fantasy instead becomes a horrendous human nightmare. People kill or abandon their pets and livestock, unable to bear their strange and enigmatic ways of speaking. They perform self-trepanning to stop the endless noise. They commit suicide out of guilt or an inability to process the growing onslaught of alien minds inside their brains. (In one powerful scene, masses of people walk into the sea and drown after hearing the calls to them from a pod of whales to “Come home. It’s late”—whether this is deliberate provocation to suicide by the whales or merely a horrible misinterpretation is left to the reader, but it provides another example of the sheer alienness of animal language and incomprehensibility of their motives.)
Jean’s son succumbs to the zooflu, and runs off to the south with Kimberly, obliging Jean to follow along with Sue. The two venture off into a crumbling human society, in which people are isolating themselves for protection from the disease. The relationship between Jean and Sue is both rich and strange, oscillating between mother/daughter, friend/friend, and guardian/protected, with each one sometimes taking on each role. It is through Sue that the reader gets the most powerful and immediate sense of the complexities of human-animal communication. For example, Sue (who speaks almost entirely in the present tense) refers to Jean by multiple names, including Queen, Bad Dog, Good Dog, Good Cat, and most interestingly, Yesterday (as opposed to Kimberly, whom Sue calls Tomorrow). These all imply that Sue is capable of deeper levels of understanding that we might imagine, being able to cast the same being into different identities—a human trait that drastically rethinks our conception of animal thinking. Jean and Sue have a relationship of equals, which is ironically healthier and stronger than nearly all her relationships with other human beings. It’s fascinating to witness, especially with McKay’s brilliant use of language in giving voice to Sue and other animals.
But even so, McKay never lets her readers lose a sense of unease, because she knows full well that these animals—even Sue—are NOT human. That they generally cannot be understood or negotiated with in any way we would easily recognize. That though many of their lives have been defined by their relationship to humans, they are their own beings, with their own desires and fears. We hear it in the menacing voices of circling birds asking “How long will it last? Not long, not long”, in rats hunting Jean in deserted houses: “NEW BLOOD”, and in pigs crammed into trucks who have spent most of their lives in darkness: “It brings the sun…Is there more?” Animals is a truly brilliant book, not only in giving strange and meaningful voice to the voiceless and in expanding our conceptions of our place in the natural world, but in pulling no punches about just how unnerving it would be to really know what animals are thinking. Perhaps I’ll just be satisfied with my own interpretation of Clara’s thoughts; I’m not sure I really want to know what lies behind her watchful eyes and contented purrs.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.