Q: Who is your favorite animal companion (pet, familiar, etc) in SFF?
A significant number of genre stories features character’s pets or animal companions. From Loiosh of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books to Snuff from Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October to Hedwig from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, animals can be companions, pets, or near equals to their “owners.” Who is/are your favorite(s)?
I thought for a second this would be an easy question to answer. Many seconds later, I decided I was wrong. More than a few animal companions sprang to mind, but most of them were from television or movie franchises, and all of them deeply annoying—how do you pick a favourite out of things you only hate? Cartoons were the worst for this: Slimer from Ghostbusters, Snarf from Thundercats… being tooth-grindingly awful seemed to be a prerequisite, I was starting to think I’d have to go for Dino from The Flintstones. And then there’s the bubbly affectionate beasts of live action shows: Muffit the Daggit (for god’s sake, just nameit) from the original Battlestar Galactica; the Tribbles from Star Trek; Wes Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Deadpan.
Movies and books didn’t fare much better. The spirit animals from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials were okay, but there’s no way I’m going for Harry Potter’s owl or one of the Ewoks. To claim Chewie would be offensive, and labelling Dune‘s sandworms as pets is a bit of a stretch. Then there’s all those apocalyptic canines that inevitably crop up: the one that talks to The Young Don Johnson in the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog, nope; the one that jumps out of an explosion in Independence Day, definitely not… but then it hit me.
My favourite animal companion is Molly, the “irish rust dog” from David Wong’s John Dies at the End.
In many ways, Molly is both of those clunking stereopocalyptical dog-buddies rolled into one, with a strong dose of Lassie to boot. If she’s not communing telepathically with the hero (or with a Lovecraftian godhorror that wants to end or enslave all humanity) then she’s eating things she really shouldn’t out of the trash, while apparently oblivious to her imminent and explosively messy death and all the trauma that will cause her poor owner. Or levitating. I don’t recall her ever bringing news of an accident down at the old mine, but she has been known to drive pick-up trucks to the rescue of her friends, sometimes, possibly, while taking on the form of Fred Durst.
She’s a deliberate melting pot of animal sidekick clichés, which make the moments that she plays host (on occasion literally) to the completely unexpected all the more jarring and effective—but when it comes time for her to take a starring role in the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, she’s back on vital cliché duty, doing what no-one else possibly could to save the world. Good girl.
So there you have it: Molly’s my pick. Lucky she sprang to mind, actually, because my fall back option would have been a toss up between Arugo, the free-spirited horse from Shadow of the Colossus, or Gurgeh, the protagonist from Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games. Yes, Gurgeh’s a human, but he’s also a citizen of the Culture and is followed around by an intelligent drone, and we all know who are the masters and who the charming-to-have-around hairballs in that relationship…
I admit, I’m a huge sucker for pets in SFF. Especially in Urban Fantasy. In fact—and I’m only half-joking here—if you are a UF protagonist, being the proud owner of a cool cat or dog is almost compulsory, and bonus points from me if they have a super power to boot.
Almost all my favorite animal companions are from this genre. Harry Dresden probably has two of the most well-known pets in urban fantasy: Mister, his huge grey cat who has been around since the beginning is famous for knocking over visitors by bowling into their knees, and Mouse, the Foo Dog with divine origins that Harry acquires later on. Harry has it pretty rough throughout the series, so it makes me feel better knowing he has the love of his two loyal pets to depend on.
For dogs with supernatural abilities, I also love Toby from Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. This feisty little pup can sense magic (making him a frequent participant in Peter’s magic experiments) and sniff out ghosts. Who needs a Ghost-O-Meter when you’ve got Toby?
Oberon, Atticus O’Sullivan’s Irish Wolfhound from The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne also deserves a mention. The two of them communicate telepathically, and they have the most hilarious conversations. I’m also jealous of Atticus’s abilities to shapeshift, which he sometimes does so he and Oberon can run alongside each other when they go out hunting through the woods to burn off steam. I mean, what an awesome way to hang out with your dog.
Anyway, I can’t finish without giving some love to the cats too, and a couple that I want to mention are Medea, Mercy Thompson’s tailless calico from the series by Patricia Briggs, and Captain from Kristi Charish’s Adventures of Owl series, who’s actually quite a recent addition to my menagerie of favorite UF pets. Let’s just say he’s extremely useful in a fight against vampires!
Jim Butcher has an uncanny ability to write animals who appeal greatly to fans of that particular kind of animal and even those who are fans of others. Dog lovers and cat lovers alike thoroughly enjoy both Mister and Mouse from the Dresden Files books, the former for his quintessential catness, the latter for his loyalty and badassery (and hilariously excellent voice in one particular instance).
Butcher continues this with the cats in The Aeronaut’s Windlass, his recently released quasi-steampunk novel. (I’m not quite certain that Rowl and his fellow Spire cats qualify, given that they’re a fully sapient species who, not unlike Chewie, could give you a Really Bad Day for calling them “animals,” but I’m going with the general shape here.) Interestingly, it’s surprisingly easy to dismiss Rowl’s impressive combat skills as being jazzed up for fiction, but Butcher does an excellent job of representing the fact that many people hold cats to be, pound for pound, perhaps the most effective predators of their type. In the end, let’s face it: Rowl et al are cranky, supercilious, dismissive, earth-shatteringly self-absorbed, arrogant…and in all other ways very Cat, which is an automatic draw for a vast swathe of readers.
Speaking of ass-kicking felines, this cannot pass without a nod toward Greebo of Pterry Pratchett’s Discworld books. In the interest of saving space on this page for everyone else, here’s a link to the Discworld wiki entry for the critter: http://discworld.wikia.com/wiki/Greebo Suffice it to say that no matter what Greebo is doing at the moment, he’s doing it well, with style, gusto and a massively f***-off attitude.
Most delightful by far, however, is Oberon from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles. His intellect and abilities have been enhanced by Atticus’s Druidic magic, yes, but he’s still “just” an Irish wolfhound. His enthusiasm, the uncomplicated pleasure he takes in so many things, his heartfelt and not unthinking loyalty to both Atticus and Granuaile, the hysterically lovable snark that Hearne gives him, the surprising competence that keeps coming out despite the clown demeanor: these all cement Oberon as the SF/F animal you’d most like to have with you day in and day out.
I tend not to pay a lot of attention to pets and animal companions in fiction. I suppose my issue with them is that all too often they are simply a plot device. As soon as you see that the protagonist has an animal companion you know at some point it’ll get hurt or killed and that’ll be the emotional pivot driving the character to do something.
That said, Pip the minidrag from Alan Dean Foster’s “Humanx Commonwealth” books is easily my favourite ‘animal’ companion. She was a character in her own right, not just a crutch for the author.
Alaspinian Miniature Dragons resemble flying snakes—which was cool at the time and would now give me nightmares—and are telepathic empaths. They also spit venom corrosive enough to eat through titanium and toxic enough to kill humans in under a minute. How cool is that? If I’m coming off as a squeeing fanboy it’s because I’m flashing back to grade seven.
The bond between Pip and Flinx (a sporadically empathic young boy) while perhaps perfectly targeting adolescents, was both beautiful and deeply emotional. Minidrags only bond with humans they find worthy, and they’re damned picky. I suspect I discovered these books at exactly the right time. I was eleven years old, had just moved, and was attending yet another school where I knew no one. Never terribly outgoing or sociable, stories of a bond with a loyal and empathic friend were very appealing. Alan Dean Foster’s early books were pivotal in my discovery of SF/F and love of escapist literature.
I used to think Alan Dean Foster was the King of Novelizations. He wrote the first and best Star Trek and Star Wars books. He wrote novelizations of the Alien movies, the Transformer movies, The Black Hole, The Thing, Krull, The Last Starfighter, and more than I can possibly remember. His novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is due out in January 2016.
Actually, he is the King of Novelizations.
If a dog is supposedly ‘Man’s best friend’, then I guess I must start with those. They are an almost constant companion in SFF – from Toto in The Wizard of Oz to Kazak the Space Hound in The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut), but I think my own personal favourite is Nathaniel, Towser and their ilk from Clifford Simak’s novel City. In Cliff’s book, the future is when humans leave Earth, expanding out into the universe, but leaving Earth under the faithful stewardship of his companion, the dogs. The devotion of the dogs and their supreme loyalty and sacrifice to keep the Earth in good condition, for when the humans return, is noticeable from the start. The book begins with
“These are the stories that the Dogs tell when the fires burn high and the wind is from the north. Then each family circle gathers at the hearthstone and the pups sit silently and listen and when the story’s done they ask many questions: “What is Man? they’ll ask. Or perhaps: “What is a city?” Or “What is a war?”
Nathaniel is the dog who has been adapted to talk, remains on Earth and ensures that the Earth is kept in stewardship for the humans. He is intelligent, dependable and loyal – the sort of companion I would want at my side, and I guess that’s why I remember him so much.
In a later tale in the fix-up novel, I also remember Towser who moves out with his scientist owner to Jupiter and helps solve a mystery of some missing humans there. Eventually the reason is discovered, the humans have adapted into ‘Lopers’ to live in the new conditions and discovering a whole new environment have stayed. In a supreme act of loyalty, Towser, like his owner, agrees to also transform (I guess these days we would say ‘uplift’), leading to telepathic communication between the species.
I read this book over thirty years ago and it has stayed with me, despite reading thousands of books since. I guess that this is because, when I was younger, this idea that our pets would remain ever loyal, that they would assist Mankind’s expansion out to the stars resonated strongly with me, and it has been an abiding memory of this book to this day. Cliff’s love of the animal was so strong that he dedicated City ‘In Memory of Scootie, who was Nathaniel’.
From the worlds of Fantasy I’m going to also briefly include Jim Butcher’s Mouse from the “Dresden Files,” a temple dog whose loyalty to Harry is absolute, even though his defence skills are often just to sit on an enemy until they give up.
Moving on to other species, then Dolphins must also be mentioned as potential space pioneers – not only in, for example, Arthur C Clarke/Gentry Lee’s “Cradle” series, but my own favourites are David Brin’s intelligent Neofin dolphins in Startide Rising / The Uplift War. In David’s books, the survival of both Humans and dolphins on the planet of Kithrup depend on each other whilst bigger events pan out around them. What strikes me most in the books is the way that both species work together – there’s an intelligence, a great dialogue and sense of humour running between them which comes across really well – partners in travel across the galaxy.
For animals of a fictional nature, my favourites have to be Dragons – I have lots of favourites of these. The issue is whether you go for a nasty, scary one (a la Tolkien and George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” for example) or do you go for ‘nice’? A tough call – I nearly went for Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” dragons, but in the end Toothless from Disney’s How to Train Your Dragon (and Cressida Cowell’s original books) wins it for me. Faithful, loyal, brave, the ultimate ‘best friend’.
If dogs are ‘Man’s best friends’ then I guess Cats are the antithesis of dogs. Perhaps less loyal, more calculating and intelligent, I understand that the general maxim is that they decide to be your companion, not the other way around. Most recently I’ve liked Jim Butcher’s Rowl in The Aeronaut’s Windlass, who is someone – sorry, something – you’d want by your side in a battle.
For those readers of an older persuasion then Diane Duane’s Book of Night & Moon is a winner, as too perhaps Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song. In Diane’s book, the cats are feline wizards whose responsibility is the governance of New York City at Grand Central Station. As the meeting point of four world-gates, it is a difficult and demanding responsibility. I can see Rhiow, the leader of the group, as an early version of Rowl, albeit of a different gender! On a bigger, more badass scale, then I guess you also have C J Cherryh’s Chanur cats or even Niven’s Kzinti, powerful enemies but dependable when on your side.
Of course, in science fiction we have animals that are truly alien. Those of a cute yet endearing persuasion on my list would include H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzies (or, more recently, the reimagining by John Scalzi) and top of my list, Gizmo from Gremlins. Loyal, brave, and willing to sacrifice himself for you, providing you don’t add water or feed him after midnight.
Good friends, loyal companions – these are who I would prefer to have by my side should humans not be around.
My all-time favourite has to be Pan from Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” I love the idea of dæmons, which for those unfamiliar with the series are a bit similar to the patronus in Harry Potter in the sense that they’re a sort of physical embodiment of a person’s soul in the form of an animal. Unlike patronuses (Patronusses? Patroni?), the dæmon isn’t conjured magically; it’s a constant companion throughout a person’s life. It walks and talks and behaves independently, but can’t be separated from its human without drastic consequences for both.
A particularly meaningful feature of dæmons is that they start out as shapeshifters, changing their physical form at will, but as the child ages, the dæmon “settles” into a permanent form. It’s a wonderful take on the bittersweet process of maturing into adulthood. It’s also a clever way to show inner conflict and changeability, which Pullman uses to great effect.
While I love Pan, the coolest dæmon in the series is definitely Stelmaria, Lord Asriel’s companion. I mean, come on – a snow leopard? Yes, please. And speaking of panthers, another of my faves is Guenhwyvar from R.A. Salvatore’s “Drizzt” novels.
Do I really need to explain this? Black panther. Astral black panther.
I think my attachment to Guen is actually closely related to another icon of geek culture, Transformers. Drizzt and his little black panther figurine reminded me a lot of my eight year-old self carting around the Transformer’s black panther, Ravage. The 1984 incarnation of Ravage is one of my all-time most memorable toys. Small, sleek, easily concealed in pocket – I took it with me to school, the playground, everywhere, and no one was the wiser. I had a kind of Calvin and Hobbes thing going with that panther, so when I came across Drizzt and Guen, it definitely struck a chord.
Going back to dæmons, patroni, and animal incarnations of the soul, the Starks’ direwolves have to get a mention here. And while GRRM didn’t invent wargs, he did take the concept to new and interesting places. The relationship between Bran and Summer, or Jon Snow and Ghost, is really interesting, not least because it’s so mysterious. Personally, I like my magic best when it’s a bit otherworldly and unfathomable, and both Martin and Pullman do a great job with that. Like the dæmons in “ His Dark Materials,” the direwolves in “A Song of Ice and Fire” tell us things about the Starks that we wouldn’t otherwise know, including foreshadowing important events.
Building on that thought, I have to give a plug for Rudi from my latest novel, The Bloodforged. The troubled relationship between Liam and his distressingly aggressive wolfhound provides a lot of the humour in Liam’s sections, but it also echoes Liam’s overall character arc. He’s forced to get Rudi as a symbol of his royal bloodline, so he ends up projecting his insecurities with his newfound role as prince onto his relationship with his dog. Rudi can smell that fear, and he doesn’t respect it. That dynamic changes over time, though, in ways that tell us a lot about Liam’s development as a character. As with Pan or the Starks’ direwolves, Rudi’s behaviour gives us a window onto what his human companion is going through – as well as providing some important foreshadowing.
The last one I’d mention is Skie, Kitiara’s blue dragon in the “DragonLance” series by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. Like Guen and Drizzt, this one’s a pretty nostalgic attachment for me. Kit and Skie just looked so badass in the Larry Elmore cover art for Dragons of Winter Night. In fact, if I’m remembering it right, that cover is actually what drew me to the series in the first place. My thirteen year-old self wanted to ride a dragon so badly, especially if it came with that blue dragonarmour. So while in hindsight that relationship is actually pretty weird and maybe even a bit creepy, they still make my list.