“From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were; I have not seen / As others saw; I could not bring /
My passions from a common spring…”
wrote Edgar Allan Poe (1), although very few fantasists haven’t felt like that on occasion. It’s a genre that traditionally appeals to the odd and the misadjusted. Fiction about other worlds will be more attractive to those who find their world somewhat lacking.
So, a small digression, as it’s been a while since I wrote about… insects, for example (2). I put forward the following as a reasonable touchstone of the way most people seem to see insects.:
I like insects. I find them aesthetically pleasing. I’m not alone in this, but it’s decidedly a minority position, occupied by me and Jean Henri Fabre (3) and a handful of entomologists (5, 6). There’s an Oxfam advert on the screens at the moment where various words from papers take on a life of their own and turn into centipedes or moths or similar, before we come across an enormous injustice-monster that is disposed of by people gobbing sparks at it. Well, all very well, but it relies on the viewer making certain associations. You’re probably not meant to watch and think how nice the creepy insects look.
Empire might be carving itself a new niche. Forget pretty butterflies and industrious bees, in fiction insects show up mostly as expendable villains – see the implacable insect enemy in Swainstone’s Year of Our War, for instance. Insects, in their infinite variety, tend to end up symbolising slavish uniformity, a mindless advance and urge to increase (7). Insects and robots, although these days, with AI being fashionable, robots are traditionally accorded more humanity, and possibly even representing the future of humanity (8).
But insects have a role to play in literature. They show us the dark side of ourselves. There is a particular literary tradition in this, and it is an Eastern European one. Man as insect. Insect as man. I think it’s the variety and specialisation of insects that opens the doors for this: forget all that valedictory business about eagles and lions as wonderful expemplars of human virtues (11), we all know that it’s the flaws that maketh the man, that heroism and virtue can only shine against a background of darkness. Because insects live determined, conventrated, single-minded (or mindless) lives, they become another kind of exemplar, for all the things that we cannot deny, but would rather not say about ourselves.
Poor old Gregor Samsa wakes up as a beetle (12), and receives some fairly shabby treatment from his nearest and dearest.
In The Insect Play the brothers Capek have their tramp protagonist act as a voyeuristic commentator on the bitter, murderous struggles of the insects around him, the fickleness of butterflies, the genocidal wars of ants, the bug-eat-bug world of carnivores and parasites (and snails with speech impediments). It’s worth a note that los bros Capek are better known for their RUR, a very early take on (decidedly unfriendly (13) ) artificial intelligence, which gave the west the word ‘robot’ in the first place.
If you really want to twist your brain, find a copy of Viktor Pelevin’s Life of Insects, a supremely disorienting piece of work where characters shift seamlessly between the insect and the human. After finishing the book the reader is prone to scrutenise his fellow human beings, like the narrator from The Island of Doctor Moreau, wondering if one can see the bug beneath the skin.
There’s quite a heritage of the insect not as Other, bus as Us, in our worst moments -six legs bad = two legs worse. Of course, I’m dragging the tradition from the satirical into the fantastical with Empire, but it’s interesting to note (especially after Pelevin, whom I only discovered recently) that others have been inspired to show the finger of man and the claw of the insect reaching towards one another like a distorting mirror of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I may, of course, be the first to find some positives in amongst the negatives.
Two legs good. Six legs better?
(1) From Alone
(2) ie. the way people view insects, not the way insects view the world. There probably isn’t a bee somewhere painting its honeycomb black and complaining that its mother doesn’t understand it.
(3) Father of modern entomology, who combined a fluid writing style and a rigorous scientific method to demonstrate, frequently, just how mindboggling stupid insects are. One of his more spectacular experiments involved firing a cannon at some cicadas. (4)
(4) Also one of the few times he was wrong. As the cicadas didn’t flick an antennae at the sound, he claimed that the fabulously noisy insects were deaf. In fact they hear extremely well, but they have no interest in any sound not being produced by a cicada.
(5) Originally typed “entomologeists”. Who you gonna call?
(6) Possibly fewer than you think. I was disappointed to discover at University that a large proportion of insect study is preparation for doing away with as many of them as possible. It’s a bit like seeing Bill Oddie going after the rooks with a shotgun.
(7) It’s apparently a little understood fact, in creative circles, that most insects aren’t social. The social insects, however, are lauded by naturalists as the apex of insect evolution, and why not? They are famers, builders, slave-takers, war-makers, all the things that make them the insects most like us, and yet they are used to often to symbolise being alien and facelessly inhuman.
(8) The word for this is, I think, “transhumanism”. I refer my honourable friend firstly to the cartoonist Dresden Kodak (9) who makes a continuing case for the idea of humanity’s onward evolution, and secondly simply to the very sympathetic way that intelligent machines are often portrayed in fiction these days – they have gone from being either the terrible but fallible oppressor or the slavish and devoted servant to being something more mature and intelligent than the mere human – Ian M. Banks is one of the chief exponents of this, of course. I do wonder if one reason that the film I Robot didn’t satisfy was that the whole muderous mechanical idea is so out of fashion, so very 20th century. (10)
(9) Read the blog entry at the foot of the comic at http://dresdencodak.com/cartoons/dc_040.html Then read the rest of the site.
(10) Or, if you prefer, so very 2001 – and it’s telling that a certain amount of the follow-on to that plays apologist for bloody-handed Hal’s actions.
(11) In the case of lions, especially, notably inaccurate. Four decades of nature documentaries have exposed them as lazy, inept, misogynist child-killers.
(12) usually cockroach, but if I have this right the word Kafka uses has no specific species denotation. In fact I’ll stick my neck out and say that I think the strict translation is “vermin”, although I’ll wait for Tiwla to correct me on this.
(13) but, depending on how you read the play, not unjustifiably unfriendly. The revolt of the robots, whilst genocidal and desstructive, is a revolt of slaves against vastly cruel and callous masters.