• Fiona McIntosh: Voyager Author of the Month

    Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons. Her website is at www.fionamcintosh.com.

    Her latest book, The Scrivener's Tale, is a stand-alone and takes us back to the world of Morgravia from her very first series, The Quickening:

    About The Scrivener's Tale:

    In the bookshops and cafes of present-day Paris, ex-psychologist Gabe Figaret is trying to put his shattered life back together. When another doctor, Reynard, asks him to help with a delusional female patient, Gabe is reluctant... until he meets her. At first Gabe thinks the woman, Angelina, is merely terrified of Reynard, but he quickly discovers she is not quite what she seems.

    As his relationship with Angelina deepens, Gabe's life in Paris becomes increasingly unstable. He senses a presence watching and following every move he makes, and yet he finds Angelina increasingly irresistible.

    When Angelina tells Gabe he must kill her and flee to a place she calls Morgravia, he is horrified. But then Angelina shows him that the cathedral he has dreamt about since childhood is real and exists in Morgravia.

    A special 10th Anniversary edition of her first fantasy book, Myrren's Gift, will be released in December!



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Kim Falconer: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Part I The Science of Sentience

What is sentience? Is it sapience, intelligence, consciousness? The definition can blur between self-awareness, compassion, identity, ability to suffer and also to adapt, judge and change. Sentient entities are generally considered deserving of moral rights, respect, and freedom. Do these qualities belong to humans only? If not, where do we create distinctions?

It’s interesting to watch the answer shift over time. Not long ago the question was do these qualities belong to all humans? The line then was drawn between skin colour and gender. Once those issues are resolved we ask can sentience belong to animals? Plants? Machines?

The answer is a problem of both science and philosophy, at least in the Western world. In Eastern Philosophies, it’s simpler because there we find sentience a quality of all living things. It’s a given. That’s why there are no Buddhist chicken farms. But in the West, we call such concerns for animal rights anthropomorphism—attributing human emotions to non-human beings.

Kim with new foal Storm

Kim with new foal Storm, photo by Candida Baker

When a mare is separated from her foal, she runs up and down the fence line, whinnying for days, sweating, pawing the ground, going without food or water. If we say she is anxious, tormented, desperate to find her baby, we are anthropomorphizing. I think it’s more the other way around. When a human mother is anxious for her child she is exhibiting emotions like the horse, passed to her through the process of evolution. Mothers have been worried about their children long before the first human stood up and said, ‘I am.’

I am. Self awareness. Consciousness. Sentience. These are all ideas explored in speculative fiction where machines can think for themselves, animals can become spirit guides and trees are warrior allies. Like other Voyager authors I have looked at sentience in The Spell of Rosette through JARROD, the temple cat familiars and other animals. Tolkien’s subtle uses of non-human beings, especially eagles and trees, paved the way for us. These alternate forms of sentience not only move the story forward, they add spirituality, a connection to nature, to the divine.

Hence there is perhaps less Speciesism—the assignment of worth and rights based on species alone—in SF/F than other genres. At least we are free to investigate human verses non-human thought. Asimov’s I, Robot, and many Star Trek episodes, challenged sentience through holographic and android circuitry. Data’s autonomy comes under question as he stands trial for his rights in The Measure of a Man and Voyager’s EMH struggles with copyright issues when he attempts to publish his first novel. Initially his book was released without accreditation. The legal issue questioned whether The Doctor was an “artist” within the meaning of the laws that granted rights to control the dissemination of intellectual property. – Author Author. I’m guessing the HC Rights Department would not want to unravel that case!

Do you have a favorite novel or film that grapples with these notions? What makes sentient plants, animals or machines ring true? Tips on writing non-human sentience in Part II (to be posted on Monday 16 February).

Kim lives in Byron Bay and runs the website Falcon’s Astrology as well as a website dedicated to the Quantum Enchantment series. She is the author of The Spell of Rosette and the forthcoming Arrows of Time.


15 Responses

  1. Hi Kim,
    I really enjoyed this post! Thank you! I think it’s a topic that becomes more and more relevant as humans become more aware of their environment and how our actions impact on animals around us. Not to mention technology becoming more sentient – I, Robot is a great example! My favourite book ‘The Silver Metal Lover’ by Tanith Lee is another example, feature a girl who falls in love with a robot – and it really raises the question of what it means to be a living, thinking creature.
    I once read a short story – I believe by Anne McCaffrey (who wrote the Dragonriders of Pern stories) about a group of humans who colonised a planet. They found no people living there and they settled, and tilled the land, cut the fruit and crops that were there and ate them. And then later, great trees grew all over the land and eventually, the species native to that planet hatched from the trees. And where the humans had eaten without thinking, the species were malformed, missing legs and tongues and eyes and so on. It was a very interesting look at what it means to blissfully (and ignorantly) steamroller your way through life without thinking about those around you. As I recall, at the end of the story the humans gave back parts of themselves to make up for it – the narrator’s tongue included.

    I think what makes sentient creatures ring true – for me – is a sense of humanity about them – as you say, anthropomorphising – the feeling that I can connect with them, and also in reversal that they can feel what I feel as a human animal – whether that be pain, joy, excitement, sorrow, and so on. I’ve cried much harder over the deaths of animals (or mixed immortals for that matter) in books than humans in some cases. And books like Watership Down by Richard Adams also share a special place in my heart.


  2. OO I love you mentioned Star Trek (am a nerd :P).

    One example I like (though I’m terribly afraid) is zombies. In few movies/books, the undead can regain their memories, their sense of self. The traditional zombie seems utterly emotionless, the only reason for moving at all being of survival and the search for food (braaains!), but sometimes they become aware of who they were.
    Similar to Cybermen and occasionally Daleks, they are stripped of emotions and memory, forced to serve.

  3. Hi Nat,

    Thank you for your lovely and insightful contribution to this topic. I love that you mention Adams’ Watership Down! That story was much in my mind as I wrote this piece on sentience. And I remember a short story about trees that were eaten—I think it was Anne McCaffrey too (sounds like a world she’d create). Does anyone know for sure? It’s a poignant example.

    I agree that non-human beings need a point of connection to the reader—a feeling of commonality that we can relate to. As readers, we need to care, we need to engage. I loved Fiver in Watership Down, Treebeard in LOTR, Mnementh in the Pern series, Black Beauty in Anna Sewell’s only novel, Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild . . . so many more. But the common thread is all these are stories I could immerse in, and the non-human characters had my heart!

    That’s the key – to capture the heart. Thank you for emphasizing this.


  4. Thanks Kim, this is a great topic!!
    I love the exploration of sentience, and I’m particularly intrigued by the notion of NON-human sentience. Is it possible for the human imagination to create an intelligence that is completely foreign to us? What makes us think that non-terrestrial intelligence would think like we do or emote like we do? Could it be that alien and human sentience are as different from each other as Hungarian and Cantonese?
    Peter F Hamilton tries to create a really alien intelligence in his book Pandora’s Star, and I reckon he comes close. Though it’s interesting that one feels very much the distant observer (and he has chosen a quite impersonal style in writing these “characters”)
    One final random thought – isn’t it sad that so many adults will happily read to their kids about talking bears and piglets, or take them to movies featuring talking cars and robots – but wouldn’t dream of reading s/f or seeing those movies on their own. They are missing out on so much, poor babies!!!!

  5. Interesting Nyssa,

    The zombie becomes engaging when it regains emotions, memories . . . a sense of self. These might be ingredients for creating a sentient being–bird, fish or fig.

    Memory seems to play a strong role in self-awareness, even though memory can be selective at best. It’s not so much knowing what happened that makes us aware, but knowing something happened even if it isn’t exactly ‘true’.

    And then their is amnesia — which doesn’t preclude sentience but does complicate the story! I played with notions of memory and the loss of it in Strange Attractors — Book #3! I found it a rich ground for storytelling.

    Thank you for dropping by!

    🙂 Kim

    (I come from a long line of Star Trek Nerds myself!)

  6. Janette!

    You pose a good question here. Can we write a form of sentience that is outside our experience? Can we even recognize it? Do we even recognize it!

    To portray something the writer must have a relationship to the thing they want to portray–a participation mystique of some kind–otherwise it is like the blind woman talking about Red. She may describe the metaphors of Red–passion, danger, anger, assertion, Mars, blood, life, libido–but can she show us Red? If we are all colourblind as well, can we know Red by reading about it?

    Sentience in this way is linked to language–apt that you compare Hungarian and Cantonese. It makes the point.

    I agree that if dismissing the realms of SF/F for reasons of ‘maturity’ denies our own imaginations and sense of wonder. Long live the mystical ‘What if’!

    Great to have your voice here.

    🙂 Kim

  7. “DO we even recognize it?” !!!

    The comments get even better than this amazing post!

    Thanks, Kim, for lots to think about. As usual. 🙂

  8. And isn’t it wonderful that as children we do not even have to put these things into words, we are able to just believe that all creatures can communicate, feel and think? As a child, almost every part of life can be what we as adults call ‘fantasy’ – and yet it doesn’t have to be packaged up neatly and labeled. And as adults it’s interesting to note the way we describe things – especially the untangible … ‘the wind wailed’ … ‘the sea rose menacingly’ … ‘the day was cheery’ … all humanising elements for what we cannot quite touch/change.
    NB on the zombie front AND relating to amnesia – I’m reminded of another story I read (I think it was Anne M again) about a man who was recovering in a hospital after his spaceship was blown up and it turned out that in fact his body had been cloned from a small fragment of his body that was left. This isn’t so much about sentience then as carried memory and identity – but they are all related themes. Is there a single part of you that is only yours, I wonder?

  9. 😀 MM nerds

    I was just thinking…if emotion/sense of self is neccesary to sentience..

    I have this book called Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman which describes where some people have had to have the amygdala of their brain removed. It describes how they can communicate, but they no longer recognise people and become indifferent. They lose all recognition of feeling, and feelings about feelings. All forms of passion are related to the amygdala. In animals, it’s removal can mean they lose the urge to compete or cooperate, no sense of social order, emotion blunted or completely absent. Even tears are triggered by the amygdala.
    The amygdala is also responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ instinct!

    Maybe that’s the science behind zombies?

    😀 This topic is FUN!

  10. Great point on the way we give ‘personality’ to the elements–wail, cheer, menace. They were once, of course, manifestations of the gods!

    Good question about amnesia, and cloning. What makes us distinct? Is it our memories? What if we have someone else’s? Are we them? Or is there a part of us that remains ‘us’ no matter what?

    Did anyone see the film The Prestige? It explores these ideas and still haunts me.


  11. Nyssa,

    Now it’s getting very interesting. Are we spiritual beings residing in physical bodies (‘we’ being human and non-human life) or does the brain, in this case the amygdala, determine our essence?

    If we have an amygdalaectomy have we lost our ‘being-ness’? or has it gone elsewhere? Is the comatose patient sentient? The lobotomized? What about a mental disability that renders the human’s IQ below a raven’s? Is one sentient and the other not?

    I am loving these insights you are all bringing! 🙂

  12. Hi Kim,

    I am a nerd of Star Trek, Dr. Who and anything in science fiction and fantasy. One author by David Eddings and his wife has used “the Will” and “the Word” for the human to change into a wolf or a bird and a wolf to human; well a picture in ones mind as well. I am not sure if this is sentient/sentience, but I did enjoy how they spoke to each other, that is Belgarath and the she wolf who turns out to be Polgara’s mother. It also shows that the instincts between the human mind and animal mind; to hunt a rabbit or not to hunt.

    I know of a few people with mental disabilities and they are authors, literacy agents and own their own businesses. So it is interesting to see where this goes; yet, I can think of one which touched on this and its by Russell Kirkpatrick’s first trilogy, Fire of Heaven. Well I did see it in that trilogy and its my second favourite of all the books I have read.

    The Spell of Rosette is just divine to read, well I just started reading it and I am hooked from the first few pages.

  13. I loved that part of Edding’s where Polgara’s mother is the wolf–and Polgara shifts to Owl as well. These kinds of changes allow us to blur the boundaries between the mind of the human and animal–As you said, we can explore what that ‘is like.’ I’m big on shape shifting myself!

    I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin right now and last night I came to the part where the writer in the story is talking about his idea for a SF novel. A race of ET’s come to earth. They are composed of crystal and think that things like themselves–eyeglasses, windowpanes, paper weights etc are the earthlings. They report back to the home world that Earth was once a highly organized civilization that now has no intelligent life.

    As Anais Nin said, We don’t see people as they are; we see them as we are.

    I am delighted you’re enjoying Rosette! Thank you for your dropping in to contribute!

  14. What a fabulous list!

    Thank you, Russell. I am honoured to be included!

    🙂 Kim

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