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.


Luc2 said...

I wonder if you've read the Assassin series and it's continuation the Tawny Man series by Robin Hobb? She uses telcoms who are bonded with some humans who have the Wit, and I think it contains some scenes where the animal has strong influence over the human.

And the Assassin-series does contain a human who is bonded to a bear, a big bear.

Maria Zannini said...

I love the idea of familiars, but it does seem too easy to fall into cliché. You brought up some good options though. I especially like your story about the familiar having a vested interest in her host's survival. Brilliant!

writtenwyrdd said...

I like your hawk familiar with the agenda. What you might do is have that tendency in their background, with the human going about his magical life and danger-seeking behaviors with the familiar in conflict with him. There is a really neat problem for your protagonist to handle: getting the hawk to sit on its claws instead of creating more trouble by interfering.

I really like your points here. The white horses in Valdemar do occasionally influence their riders, but overall they are slavishly devoted to being guardian angels on occasion and talking horses the rest of the time. Every little girl probably wanted a magical white pony, but it is a trope that's gotten overdone. Likewise talking dragons.

The Dragon and the George might interest you, though, becuase as I recall the dragon is the one in charge there! Also Robin McKinley's new book about dragons--Dragonhaven, I think? Too lazy to look it up now.

At any rate, in terms of magical talking critters, I like your objections and have thought a time or two that the animals never get to be in charge. I hadn't considered how to twist the trope for my own self as of yet though. Might have to put on my thinking cap...

Kadzar said...

Your endosymbiotic animal companion reminded me of my Kelbians, a mushroom-shaped species who communicate by sending thoughts directly into someone's brain (they have no mouths). Anyway, they also each have a cylindrical being grafted to their backs as part of their coming-of-age ceremony. This has only ever been a concept, and I'm still not quite sure what function the symbiote performs.

CSS said...

Animals with a strong influence over the human immediately made me think of A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, which is about men who are bonded to wolves. They experience lust at the same time as the wolves, and also anger, so if two wolves are fighting, the men bonded with them will also fight.

I like the idea of telcoms, and I like your ideas for disrupting the cliches even more.

Anonymous said...

I have a talking animal (red fox) in my current WIP and she is no slouch. Sharp wit and in her first appearance complained to her "owner" (for a lack of a better word) that she had left the lid of the toilet down. Since foxes don't have hands, it was hard for her to go to the bathroom.

Xenon Oxide said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Polenth said...

The issues with telepathic pets are what inspired me to have a cockroach companion. They have plus sides... they don't eat much and they're easy to carry around. A pretty white pony or a dragon might seem cooler at first, but I'm sure they'd lose their appeal come mucking out time.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Luc,

I tried to read the first book in Robin Hobb's Assassin series and couldn't finish it. Maybe it was the first-person POV, which is fairly unusual in fantasy.

Good to hear that she did something different with familiars, though of course that makes me want to come up with other, bigger and more frightening animals that can be used as familiars. :)

Marian Perera said...

Hey Polenth,

The cockroaches in Sri Lanka (and in Texas too, for that matter) are large brown THINGS that fly. Just the thought of them makes me want to hide.

I appreciate the imagination behind that kind of familiar, though. Honestly, I could take any kind of creature except a roach - a tarantula or rattlesnake would be cool.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Maria,

Glad you liked the post! After I'd put it up, I realized there was one great example I'd forgotten - the daemons of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Those books keep the "magic animal friend" coolness while still being fairly realistic. IIRC, one man's familiar was a dolphin, so he was a sailor and couldn't leave the ocean. Plus, the explorer's familiar was a hare rather than something dashing and exotic, which is another nice touch.

And it does make a difference when everyone has a familiar, rather than this Mark of Specialness being bestowed on the protagonist alone.

Marian Perera said...

Hey writtenwyrdd,

I'm planning a story where the animals do get to be in charge - in fact, humans are little better than their slaves. Which is kind of pushing the limits of the familiar concept, but it's going to be fun to write.

And I like the idea you mentioned, of having the protagonist's problems complicated by the fact that he has to deal with his familiar fighting him every step of the way, even if she doesn't do so overtly.

I think I read The Dragon and the George some time ago - isn't that where the hero is changed into a dragon and he learns that in his new world, humans are referred to as "georges"? I can't remember what happened in the story, though, just that bit of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing a fantasy novel where humans and sentient sailing ships are each other's telcoms. The relationship between the two is quite equal (well, it depends on both ends of the relationship)and any can be in charge. In fact, in my story, the ships get unexperienced human telcoms and they lead the relationship, at least for a while.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Anonymous,

Have you read the Liveship Traders books by Robin Hobb? They have a similar concept - sailing ships are quickened by the life-force of humans and achieve sentience, though I'm not sure how closely they're linked to the humans as a result.

Anonymous said...

I read part of it, and I think I handled the concept a bit differently: my ships have their own society and they are in fact artificial intelligences sent on the planet by ETs as an experiment. They can communicate with each other by radio and by their one and only human (I leave out the details, but it involves a device that reads brain waves).

Marian Perera said...

OK, you had me at "my ships have their own society". :)

I love alien societies, and one made up of intelligent ships is something I haven't encountered before. That's got a lot of potential.