Define Sentient

Kage Baker was not very fond of most animals. Or people. She had a fine impartiality about it.

The animals she did like, she liked as individuals. She’d probably have been just as fond of Momma’s dog Oliver if he’d been, say, a fat balding accountant in a golf shirt rather than the fat, balding beagle-Labrador mix that actually did save Daddy and Jenny from a club-wielding assailant one evening. Or maybe not. Kage didn’t like humans all that much anyway. She did admire Ollie for his devotion to duty, though.

My point here is that she judged animals the same way she judged humans: on a case by case basis, and with basic distrust. That distrust could be allayed by the demonstration of positive character traits, and she didn’t really count being fur-bearing or bipedal as all that important. If you were a good … thing … she was fond of you regardless of your species. It just wasn’t that easy for anything to get Kage’s trust to begin with.

She had a broad definition of what constituted human, though, along with a blanket suspicion of her fellow sapients. She disliked monkeys; she never wanted to see the apes when we went to the Zoo.  They made her nervous. Then she read all the Jane Goodall she could find while researching chimpanzees, and figured out why: Kage came to the conclusion that the great apes were people. That upset her, in precisely the same way that child abuse did. She began to protest the use of primates in experimentation; she espoused the idea that they should be honoured guests in zoos, given refuge rather than put on display. She wrote Hanuman, whose hero is an Australopithecine and whose foster-parents – whose very real society is inaccessible to him – are chimpanzees.

She liked a couple of dogs. She liked a couple of cats. She loved birds – well, parrots, anyway, who are very clearly some sort of people. One of her deepest relationships in life was with Harry, our Lilac-Crowned Amazon parrot. He was privileged to sit on her shoulder while she wrote; and, when he was bored, to climb down and swing on her braid. Sometimes he would lie comfortably in the hood of her hoodie, cradled between her shoulders and the back of her chair, grooming and singing.

Charles Darwin observed, in On the Origin of Species, that the intelligence of animals would be found to differ from Man’s not in kind – but merely in quantity. We all think the same way; humans are just especially good at it. But many things are nearly as good; some are just as good, and some may even be better than we are. And as Kage, who agreed with Darwin, commented, “God help them when we find them. Nothing will infuriate Homo sapiens like discovering they’re not Number One.”

Being a science fiction writer, she approached the idea of the alien with some interest. However, being Kage – for whom human never had been a shape, but a state of mind – she ultimately decided that there were no aliens. She made the Little Grey Guys a kind of human. She felt that Aspergers and autism were probably just variations on a theme, harmonies on the melody that is “most people”. She wrote fantasy where demons collected china, and sorcerers belonged to social networks. When someone at a Convention asked her why she didn’t write about real aliens – about BEMS, or Martians, or lizard men – she replied honestly: “Because I don’t see any. I just see people in different shapes. Either none of you are aliens, or all of you are.”

Poeple at science fiction conventions loved that remark. That was because most of them didn’t realize she meant it. It wasn’t a friendly pose or a knee-jerk liberal humanism, either. If nothing else demonstrated that, it was that despite seeing just “people” everywhere, she still didn’t like most of them.

She decided she wasn’t going to be one of those authors who constructs some amazing alien civilization in her stories: because she couldn’t see any aliens.

Personally, I think there is a great First Contact plot there – it’s an objectivity so broad and deep, Kage would have been more likely to object to the Alpha Centauran ambassador because he liked country music, than because he was a hive-minded invertebrate with a dozen limbs …

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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5 Responses to Define Sentient

  1. Tom says:

    Suspicion. Yep, there surely was a large dollop of it. Took me a while to realize it was the generic response of a shy person with a very different worldview.
    I tend toward the “We’re all aliens” side.


  2. Kate says:

    She was very, very shy, Tom. As well as suspicious. You were one of the acquaintances she came to trust, though. She was very inclined to trust someone who knew all the words to “Sixteen Men On A Dead Man’s Chest”!

    And maybe we are all aliens. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Our species has been shown recently to be more extensively hybridized than ever suspected, after all.


  3. Trapunto says:

    This explains so much about why I love her books!


  4. Kate says:

    Trapunto – yeah, there’s a unique worldview peeking through Kage’s stories.


  5. widdershins says:

    Yeah … it does add another layer of complexity .. might have to just read In The Garden Of Iden again, and get caught up in Kage’s web … again.

    I read that Blogger was having a major ‘spit the dummy’ (pacifier) moment recently too. Do you suppose they’re communicating behind our backs?


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