Christian Schoon spent several years as an in-house writer with the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, CA, before going out on his own as a freelance writer working for various film, home video and animation studios in Los Angeles. After moving from LA to a farmstead in the American Midwest, he now works on his novels, continues freelance for the entertainment industry and also volunteers with groups dedicated to rehabilitating wildlife and fostering abused/neglected horses. His novel Zenn Scarlett will be published in the US and Canada on May 7,and in the UK on May 2; from Strange Chemistry Books. (North American distribution by Random House.)
The reporter followed me into a room that was tropically hot and humid, maybe 85 degrees F. We were in a converted garage on the rural property of the veterinarian who takes care of the animals on my own acreage. When the reporter was far enough inside to make out what was floating in a large tank in the corner, I got a “Whoa!” and a quick step back from him. This is always satisfying.
Digression: my YA SF novel Zenn Scarlett follows the adventures of a 17-year-old girl in her novice year of training to be an exoveterinarian. She’s specializing in the care and treatment of generally large, usually dangerous, wildly fascinating alien life forms. Extraordinary creatures, exotic medical procedures, xenophobic paranoia, disturbing cross-species ESP and annoying romantic distractions ensue…
The reporter had asked about the book’s inspiration. So now we were standing three feet from a ten-foot American alligator named Lex Luthor. This is close enough to see Lex’s pupils dilate and focus on what he clearly perceived as a couple of bipedal food items just beyond his reach on the other side of the low, chain link fence surrounding his tank.
Rewind: since turning from genre scriptwriter and entertainment industry copywriter in Los Angeles to SF novel-writer in the Midwest, I’d started volunteering with several local animal welfare groups. So, in addition to fostering rescued horses on our property, I’d helped our veterinarian’s group rehab and/or re-home other rescued animals from black bears and mountain lions to coyotes, emus, Burmese pythons and crocodilians like Lex. The combination of my life-long geekery toward both science and science fiction combined with an equally well-entrenched animal attraction to make the arrival of my young, exovet heroine seem, in hindsight, inevitable.
Standing there in Lex’s impressive presence and seeing the reporter’s “holy crap!” response merge into “damn, this animal is gorgeous and… otherworldly…” brought home one of the reasons why telling Zenn’s story matters to me. While we can all see exotic and not-so-unusual animals in zoos or on film/video, we Modern Western So-Called Advanced Civ types very rarely get to share one-on-one, close-up, intimate interactions with any non-human creatures other than cats, dogs or the odd ferret. And this is a shame. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that wild, undomesticated animals truly are the aliens in our midst. And experiencing the sort of Otherness they offer is something with a unique and profound value all its own. It’s the value of being drawn out of our own crown-of-creation-wearing, know-it-all monkey-brains and finding ourselves standing neuro-naked before the capital M Mystery of Those-Not-Us. In Lex’s case, Those-Seriously-Not-Us.
In my novel, Zenn’s novice year of studies is nearly derailed when she starts having disorienting interludes when she “shares” the thoughts or, more properly, sensations of some of her alien patients. But she was raised in a house of science, by other exovets, and she knows there’s no evidence for anything like ESP or other fringy paranormal phenomena. Still, something powerful and inexplicable is happening between her and the animals. Or, she’s just losing her mind. It’s well-known that an exovet’s deliberately super-stressful first year of school has driven more than one novice a little mad. Zenn’s sensing of her patient’s interior mental states will bring her into proximity with wild-ass alien-ness that, not surprisingly, will have a story-propelling impact on the way she views not only these creatures, but herself and the double-edged blade this kind of hyper-empathy can wield.
So, courtesy of Lex and his reporter-admirer, we’re ushered back around to what the best SF and F does for us – the much-noted-but-still-worthy-of-note manner in which these stories force us to jettison our standard-issue POV. We may not have Zenn’s ambiguous “gift” of sensitivity to alien consciousness, no matter. While her condition is intriguing and dramatically instructive, we don’t need to be that way. And we don’t all need an Eye of Lex moment to bring us out of ourselves, although I have to say Mr. Luthor is a great one for eliciting precisely this edible-mammal-responding-to-big-damn-reptile-checking-out-mammal reaction in his visitors. Any time we want, speculative fiction, more than any other literary species, lets us step over the threshold into some over-heated, sticky-humid place and find ourselves in the armored, amphibious, monkey-eating presence of a mind with something nameless on its mind. And once we start to seriously consider the fine-grain details of what that something might be, we’re on our way.