Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Humans as masters, as pets.

I know it's not an original science fiction idea, but since we got Number One Dog I've occasionally wondered what it would be like as a human pet of superintelligent aliens, aliens who are as intellectually superior to us as we are to dogs. It's certainly a notion that has occurred to SF writers before.  But there are some real stumbling blocks to the idea:

1) If we were smart enough to know what those aliens were thinking and doing, we'd be them. A writer trying to create the situation would have to come up with things as baffling to us as, say, raking leaves, painting pictures, balancing checkbooks, or writing blogs are to animals. But for them to be inscrutable to humans they'd have to look like nonsense, which would make for a dull story. On the other hand, if they're just doing stuff we do in a smarter way---teleportation instead of driving---we'd easily grasp the reason, if not the method.

2) People aren't dogs. My dogs don't sit around and wonder why I wear clothes, let alone why I make them learn to heel. I would do that constantly as a pet of an alien creature. No matter how frustrating it was, I would keep thinking, trying to learn, trying to understand, because that's what we do. It makes us crazy sometimes, but we never stop. Dogs? Cats? Eh, not so much. They can figure out some things like how to turn on the light, or get up on the counter they're not allowed on, but that's because when their desires are directly affected, they can understand the easy, concrete cause and effect. They keep it simple. (I know, I know, YOUR cat is a Rhodes scholar, but I mean other normal cats, okay?)

3) This is also why stories narrated from the point of view of pets are pure fantasy. A cat is never going to solve a crime. He doesn't understand enough to know what a crime is. He wouldn't care if he did, as long as it didn't affect him. The smartest dog in the world is never going to think like the dumbest human, because their brains are different machines used in a different way. Animals are excellent at survival and certainly get up and at it faster than we do, but they have no imagination. (I began writing this yesterday, but this morning I see the Great Lileks went into the people vs. animals comparison at length.)

Although the dogs don't worry about why I do all the weird stuff I do, they sure aren't dummies. I think they definitely have some ideas about the things and people they encounter. For example, Number One Dog knows that when we're out in the yard and I am saddled with Number Two Dog on the leash, Number One can get away with more crap. He doesn't push the envelope, he shoves it, running into the neighbors' yard, peeing in prohibited areas, ignoring every call and sound effect I can produce. Basically he's always a little bit of a jerk outside, but he turns into a complete teenager when I have the kid. At times like that, he sees Daddy as:



On the other hand, when the kid is acting up inside and making a ruckus, it is sometimes asked of me that I put him in his pen or the crate. Like a toddler he gets overtired and becomes a brat. "Would you put him in the pen?" is the question I get asked more than any other, partly because as big as he is I can still manhandle him as needed. Since Mommy is the boss, you know what that makes me:


At times like that he sees me as the cheap muscle.

So our pets definitely have humanlike perceptions, and humanlike elements about them, as well as definite personality traits. (At least the mammals; I've had little experience with fish and reptiles.) But they're not humans.

Please do bear in mind that I'm a guy who makes cartoons about how my pets think, and when they sneeze I say gesundheit. So maybe I'm not a great one to write about this topic. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And if you know of any writers who actually have carried off the people-as-pets idea well, I'd like to know.
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