Monday, March 19, 2012

Five uses for sharks in fantasy

1. Variety

Go beyond the Great White. Sharks come in an incredible range of shapes, sizes, colors and types. As well as the hammerheads, there are thresher sharks, where the upper part of the tail can be as long as the shark itself, and sawsharks have long serrated snouts to slash prey.

Megamouth sharks, as the name suggests, swim along with their giant mouths open to swallow and filter plankton. Cookiecutter sharks are small, but they feed by gouging out round plugs of flesh from larger animals, hence their name. What’s scarier than this? The fact that they sometimes travel in schools.

And the names of milk and angel sharks just sound cute.

2. Scouts

If I lived in or on the sea, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have watching out for me than a shark.

As well as some species being able to detect one par per million of blood in seawater, others have external features that further enhance their senses—the hammerhead’s widely spaced eyes, for instance, or the nurse shark’s whiskerlike tactile organs. Their lateral lines contribute to their hearing.

The most fascinating sensory feature they have, though, is the ampullae of Lorenzini, electroreceptor organs that detect the electromagnetic fields all living organisms produce. I keep trying to imagine what sensing these must be like, how the sea appears to a shark in consequence, and if there’s any way to deceive or circumvent such a sensory system.

3. Weresharks

I rarely read books about shifters—burned out on werewolf novels a long time ago—but if there’s a book about people who turn into sharks, that will be the exception. It would just be a great change from wolves and big cats. One caveat: the weresharks shouldn’t be mindless killing machines to be destroyed in the end or destined for soup. They have too much story potential for that.

4. Despots

But do you want terrifying, thousand-fanged leviathans of the deep? Go for the ocean version of the mob boss.

These sharks patrol a territory and every other creature within it pays tribute by bringing in prey (such as luring unsuspecting humans in?) or sacrificing members of their own species which are weak, ill or which have just pissed off the rest of their shoal. In return, the sharks defend their territories fiercely, especially from rival sharks. Better the devil you know…

5. Submarines

The world is covered with water, or the land is just not habitable. People have to live beneath the sea, but why go to all the trouble of building submersiles that must be maintained and resupplied when the submarine could carry out self-repairs and defend itself?

Living inside a creature that dwarfs a megalodon would be an interesting experience. Such a shark would have to be genetically modified to contain living spaces for humans, and to reroute oxygen to interior chambers. Though a convincing argument would have to be made for the humans being symbiotes rather than parasites on a creature which could do very well without them.

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