Animalia is the Latin term for the animal kingdom, and the most powerful animal in that diverse group of sentient beings is Homo sapiens. Humans in turn have created new forms of life – or ‘life’ – known as robots. The term derives from the Czech robota, denoting drudgery or forced labour, and was coined in the 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek.
Some robots are builders and some are servants. The latter are still new, and tend to be gendered: the ‘males’ seem often designed to be small and chirpy, the ‘females’ to be attractive. The latter are bland machine-creatures who speak and try to understand. Like the Stepford Wives they have no emotions, we assume, but perhaps the tangles of logical thought they are capable of produce after-effects, some kind of gravel in the system which may be akin to feeling. We know where that thought goes. As Čapek wrote, ‘Robots of the world! The power of man has fallen! A new world has arisen: the Rule of the Robots! March!’
Animals are rarely part of science fiction, but we live in the future now, and animals are still with us. What effect will the age of robotics have on our relationship with them? Will we still breed animals for food and for experimental purposes? Will we genetically enhance our pets? Will robots of the future be animal-based, if the inventors (and investors) can get past the ethics committees? Will we see hybrid machine life, gene-edited lambs singing in Alzheimer care homes, purring kittens kneading preset patterns on human laps, beautiful nightingales and hummingbirds switched on and off at will? We don’t know – but we do know this: we are transcending animalia.
Our lead piece, ‘The Taxidermy Museum’ by Steven Dunn, is part of a longer work made up of a number of fictional interviews, mostly with soldiers, adding up to a surreal and compelling indictment of the US military machine. In this excerpt, a taxidermist explains the process of mounting the bodies of soldiers who have died in war (often, we can’t help but notice, from suicide or friendly fire) in military dioramas. The distinction between humans and animals is erased, and no one really notices.
We end with Joy Williams’s bleak and funny animal allegory. ‘Be not afraid and be not lonely, Wilhelmina thought, but couldn’t bring herself to say it. She wanted to reflect on her pretty piglets but night had fallen and she and her friends were once again hopelessly caught up in trying to comprehend the terrible ways of men.’
As are we all.
In between Dunn and Williams we have a number of dystopian and/or humorous short stories. Christina Wood Martinez writes about a mysterious astronaut landing in a small American town. Yoko Tawada describes a futuristic Japan, a poisoned world without wild animals. Cormac James’s disturbing short story contemplates the destruction of marine life. Ben Lasman imagines professional rat hunters in dystopian America and Nell Zink has written an allegorical tale about immigration and incarceration.
But there is more, of course. Arnon Grunberg embeds himself in slaughterhouses in Holland and Germany, Cal Flyn goes deer stalking in the Scottish Highlands and Aman Sethi investigates rumours about village responses to a man-eating tiger on the outskirts of a nature reserve in Uttar Pradesh. Adam Foulds meditates on swifts and perspective and John Connell remembers life on a small Irish farm. We have three photoessays, poetry and some shorter pieces, too.
Most of the issue is about the transition to the future. But what if you were given a puppy, a tame evolved being, and it revealed its wild nature? Nadeem Aslam tells the story. There were moments of anger, he writes, ‘something electric spilling into the air from him, his teeth bare with hate for me or for what I represented.’
What did he, and all of us, represent? Dominion over animalia, presumably. Displacement and destruction.