Thursday, April 16, 2009
I’d read Limyaeel’s rant on telepathic animal companions - telcoms for short - some time ago, but when I thought about it just now, I had some ideas for reviving this fantasy cliché.
To sum up a couple of points in the rant, too many telecoms are used for their coolness (so they’re wolves, cats, pretty horses or even prettier birds of prey) or their convenience (so they function when the protagonist needs them and retire politely offstage when he doesn’t). They also don’t cause him too many problems with their own needs or personalities.
Which got me to thinking. What are some ways to make telecoms really different?
1. Strong influence over the human
I haven’t often seen this in fantasy. Usually, the telepathic animal is an extension of the human in some way, so the human controls the animal. The sole exception to this in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, for instance, is that when dragons rise in mating flight, their riders are overcome by lust too.
But this isn’t too common an event. What about something that happens all the time – for instance, you feel hungry when the cat bonded to you is hungry? It could even go further than that – for instance, if your wolf decides to take down the nearest mastiff to prove that it’s higher in the carnivore pecking order, could you find yourself on the verge of challenging the mastiff’s owner to a duel?
It would require a lot of personality and training to be the dominant one in such a relationship. Maybe a kind of survival-of-the-fittest system operates and weak humans end up being the virtual slaves of their telcoms (or worse, killed in situations like the duel). That might dissuade a lot of people from trying to get a telcom, or from thinking that an animal familiar means coolness. No, it means constant vigilance and iron control.
2. Plans and schemes of its own
The human can be the one in charge and can decide what to do, but why can’t the animal companion have its own ideas of how they should do it? Or its own goals and purposes? Those could even be a subplot in the story.
I wrote a story some time ago about a young mage who received a hawk familiar as a gift from a goddess and was very pleased, because it showed how Special he was. The familiar, by the way, was bonded to him so that she would die if he did.
Since she had a very healthy sense of self-preservation, she did everything she could to make sure he wasn’t involved in any kind of danger. If, for instance, he dallied with a feisty swordswoman, the familiar would have tried to secretly murder her. Whereas if he’d fallen in love with a pregnant seamstress, the familiar would have loved her, and would have insisted they settle down and get married.
At the time, the story didn’t really go anywhere because the familiar kept shooting any potential adventure in both feet, but if I picked it up again I’d focus more on the characters involved and the novelty of a familiar who had her own plans for the human.
3. Dysfunctional mindset and personality
I must admit, the first thing I thought of here was to make the telcom snarky. Which means it’s been done before, and a quick revisit to the rant confirmed that. But there are so many other psychopathologies that could be tried. For instance, extreme aggression, vanity (e.g. a telepathic Persian cat which insists on being groomed even if you’re half dead from battle wounds), manipulativeness, cowardice or pride (e.g. always trying to one-up the human).
Go for the rest of the seven deadly sins here if you can get away with it. Lust was a definite factor in the character development of the sentient capuchin monkey in Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, though in his case it was more of an attempt to break out of his programming than because he was attracted to anyone.
4. Unusual animals
I don’t think I’ve ever come across a bear familiar – and I mean a grizzly bear, not a cute little koala. Or an ostrich. Or if those are too large, even a mouse might be useful under some circumstances. I’m dating myself horribly with this reference, but if you’ve played the original Prince of Persia and been stuck on Level 8 until the Princess’s pet presses the floorstone, you’ll know what I mean.
And while I’m not sure how feasible this is, I’d like to see an endosymbiotic animal companion that lived inside the human’s body until it was needed for something. That way, it might not need telepathy – when its physical systems were once again linked to its host’s, the host would be aware of its memories and they could converse.
I just wonder if it would emerge like those chest-bursting aliens.