From The Traveling Round Table of Fantasy Bloggers

Being Human

Deborah Ross

I think we Homo sapiens have been discussing what being human is and  means since we developed abstract language and probably before that. At first, the driving motivation was undoubtedly how to tell what is us and  not-us. This is certainly a biological imperative at the cellular  level; our immune systems must tackle the question every day, attacking foreign substances like viruses, bacteria, and allergenic proteins, and   it’s also why cancer is so insidious (cells with the right molecular  passwords that nonetheless behave like ravening barbarians). The same  distinctions hold true at the level of the individual, family/clan, and larger, political units. Whether we’re talking about communities or  nations, “us” = “human” = friendly, safe, cooperative, reliable, and  “them” = “something else” = dangerous, untrustworthy, competitors for  limited resources. In this way, “human” tends to be exclusionary and  frictions tend to narrow the scope even further.

In science fiction and fantasy, however, we tend to use the term in a  inclusionary way. Often the words “human” and “person” are  interchangeable. Sf/f writers and readers pioneered the suggestions that   all sapient races think of themselves as people and therefore, “human,”  whatever the biological differences from Homo sapiens. I had a lot of  fun with a race of giant slugs in Jaydium, who insisted that mammals  were incapable of “personness.” The television series Star Trek often  portrayed what Earth-humans and alien-humans have in common, rather than  their unbridgeable differences. (The similarities were undoubtedly  caused in part by the relatively primitive makeup and special effects,  leading to the joke about aliens being actors with funny foreheads.) The  creators of the series also exploited the romantic appeal of the exotic  to generate love stories between members of different species, a  phenomenon highly unlikely to occur in nature but one that had the  effect of demonstrating the shared values of sapient beings. This is an  example of broadening of the use of “human” as a term to include any  beings of similar intelligence and culture that we can understand and  sympathize with.

The inversion of the broadening effect comes up most commonly in  horror: beings that look and sound human but which lack some trait or  motivation we consider so important as to be a necessary part of the  definition of human: empathy, for example, or the capacity for love. A  prime example of this is the vampire, who “walks among us” as if human  but differs in his essential nature. The horrific aspect arises in part  from his blood thirst, but even more from the betrayal of the assumption  of shared humanity.

None of this addresses the question of what it is it we feel defines  human as opposed to intelligent-animal, a question not restricted to  writers of speculative fiction. We can look at the biological  characteristics of Homo sapiens, such as opposable thumbs or a greatly  developed prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for complex moral  judgments and control of social behavior, among other things). We can  look at behavioral traits like language, prolonged rearing of young and  care for the aged, the use of fire and cooking, tool-making, and the  like. But in this larger universe we live in, is it wise to judge  another entity as human or nonhuman based solely on what they look like  or how they act? Is a child born with crippling, distorting defects or  an adult with a deforming disease not still human? What about a person  who has suffered a debilitating stroke and can no longer communicate?  These and many other, similar questions highlight the difficulty of  defining human by observable characteristics.

Instead, we can look to experiential qualities: the capacity for  love, for wonder, for kindness; the awareness of personal mortality and  the “binding” of time through personal and generational transmission of  memory; abstract thought, and so forth. It may well be that animals have  some of these abilities but lack the means (or perhaps the  inclination!) to communicate them to us. We know, for example, that many  species exhibit behavior we interpret as grief, loyalty, and  self-sacrifice. Certainly, cooperation is not limited to Homo sapiens,  and tool- making definitely is not. So instead of emphasizing how we are  different from other creatures in our world, we can focus instead on  how wonderful it is that the things we value in ourselves are not  exclusive to our species. Or, contrariwise, that humanity is not limited  to humans.

Fantasy and What It Means to Be Human

Andrea Hosth

One of the primary preoccupations of science fiction is said to be  the question of what it means to be human.  Seeing ourselves through  alien eyes allows us to see ourselves anew.  It’s a question which is  less commonly associated with fantasy, and yet the sub-genre is equally  ripe for examining the question of humanity through the use of  non-humans.

One of the common positions taken when depicting humans in fantasy  (particularly in fantasy which uses a roleplaying game basis, but also  many less structured works) is that of humans as a middle ground, a kind   of neutral party capable of achieving good, but all too ready to give in to baser impulses.

Other characteristics typically awarded humanity are versatility and  creativity.  Humans can be all things, while other races possess  extremes – age/intelligence combined with sterility.  Strength mixed  with a lack of imagination.  Humans are portrayed as young, vigorous,  spontaneous, a little naïve, courageous, capable of great love and vivid  passions.  It is a very common trope to have the resolution of a dire  battle revolve around a human’s ability to love, or innovate, believe,  or be brave to the point of stupidity.  It is equally common for other  races to be failing, or to “Go into the West” and leave their  territories to humans territories.  Who took up residence in Rivendell,  once Elrond moved on?  Did they drift, dowdy and out of place, among the  echoes of their splendid predecessors?

This frequent positioning of humanity as a versatile and rapidly  improving ‘young’ race does not appear to be a deliberate examination of  what it means to be human (as seen in those novels which attempt to  make a point about humanity by viewing it through alien eyes), but  instead a glorification of the traits humanity currently displays.   Crude and ignorant – but just because of youth!  Comparatively  powerless, but able to think of new solutions to old problems.   Vigorous, a bit chaotic, blundering occasionally, but heading inexorably  upward, natural successors to the world’s bounty.

These are the stories we write about ourselves, the flip side of the  grimdark/grittygrotty species of fantasy, where the narrative itself  rhapsodises about human nature as something special and true and good.

I’ll end, without further comment, with a series of quotes from  Doctor Who.  The Doctor is not always so complimentary, but this has  been the thrust of many of the rebooted series:

” Well, you could do that. Yeah, you could do that. Of course you  could. But why? Look at these people, these human beings. Consider their  potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into  the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than —  no, hold on. Sorry, that’s The Lion King. But the point still stands.  Leave them alone!” – The Christmas Invasion.

” Oh, might have spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas…  and another million as downloads, but you always revert to the same  basic shape: the fundamental human. End of the universe and here you  are. Indomitable, that’s the word! Indomitable! Ha!” – Utopia.

” The one thing you can’t do… is stop them thinking. [He begins  rising upwards angelically] Tell me the human race is degenerate  now…when they can do this.” – Last of the Time Lords.


“And shards of gold flecked violet split the air with sound and fury!  With laughter love and tears I pressed my lips to these spirits, freed  them to walk across the page,”

First Breath, Valjeanne Jeffers

What is it that drives our characters? Their humanity. And this is  more important than their preternatural powers. Their strength. Or what  they look like. It even takes precedence over the wondrous plots we, as  writers, devise. That our characters are human and driven by the same  emotions and quests that drive us as writers, and which drive our  readers– even if they are sociopaths or mad men. The need for love,  shelter, money. The emotions of desire, rage, melancholy…

The same qualities that make us, the writers and our readers, identify with them and love them. Or hate them.

I have created characters so lothesome that I couldn’t wait to kill  them off. And others that I loved so much I used all sorts of plot  machinations to keep them alive. Our characters are spirits who walk  across the page: women and men who mirror our struggles.

What it means to be human


From the beginning of time (and perhaps before time began) the question has always existed: what does it mean to be human?

Humanity lives/exists within a prescribed setting which limits  knowledge, age, joy, the body, sexuality, tribe, power, authority,  dominion, physical movement, movement in time.

As a writer of Christian fiction I grew up with the story of Adam and  Eve which is the first encounter most Christians have with the question  of What does it mean to be human. In that story, man is created but not  yet settled into a specific kind of being. (And in the Christian  mythos, man will not find his true “self” and “being” until the end of  time when time is no more.

Adam and Eve are beings who do not die. Yet they are not really  immortal. They’re in a strange nexus of creation where they are like god  with (some) dominion and some knowledge. But they lack something,  something God apparently thinks is not particularly important. They do  not understand right and wrong.

They have consciousness but are without law or conscience. They have a  blissful ignorance of evil and cannot judge/blame either themselves,  others, God, or the world. For them, it is a world which is neither  immoral or moral.

Despite God’s desire that they remain outside of the realm of guilt  or consciousness of evil, God did make them moral beings. Their one  morality: the freedom to obey or not to obey. They are aware of one thing that they lack: they do not fully  understand the ramifications of evil: disease, death, cruelty, hunger,  toil, meaninglessness, and the thousand ills flesh is heir to. This  knowledge of death is what separates them from God, what makes them less   than God.

But  third agency enters the picture and challenges them to be like  God. The agency tempts them with knowledge of evil, law, conscience,  guilt. The humans take a wager upon themselves. It is possible that  humans can understand evil and not fall into guilt.  Their first  response to eyes opened to evil: shame. Shme about what? Shame in their  comparison to  perfect God. Thus humanity falls from its own perfection  as it aimed for God’s perfection.

There is so much in this story, myth, history. And all fantasy  stories echo it. All these elements are found in fantasy: Humans who  wish to put side emotions and become, robots who wish to be humans,  humans locked way from Eden, humans betrayed by a God, humans betraying  their gods, humans casting off their gods, intrusive deceiving godlike  figures, humans battling death, humans defying death, humans conquering  time, humans failing a task, humans striving, humans ignorant of evil,  humans being dominated by the world, humans dominating the world. All  the echoes are found in fantasy stories and will apparently continue  until the end of time.

Carole McDonnell is the author of the Fantasy Novel , The Constant Tower

Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction an eBook available as an eBook at kindle.

What Does It Mean to be Human: Answering in Fantasy

Warren Rochelle

What does it mean to be human? This is a question I pose when I teach  my science fiction lit class, foregrounding it as one of the perennial  themes of the genre. I have yet to pose this same question in fantasy  lit. When I was thinking about what to write for this month’s post I  found myself wondering why I don’t. After all, as Le Guin says in  “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing,” “the  story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools  invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding”  (quoted in Language of the Night 27). So, why shouldn’t I consider  fantasy as a tool for “the purpose of gaining understanding”—for  understanding something about meaning human?

Science fiction often answers this question with aliens of one kind  or another; how then might fantasy do so with werewolves, dragons, and  elves, fairies, and witches, and other assorted magical beings? As  Vulcans and Martians become ways of seeing and understanding humanity,  through juxtaposition, comparison, and contrast, through reflection, and  in metaphor and symbol, so these denizens of Faerie. Science fiction  also will sometimes posit answers to this question when humans are taken  out of the familiar—the green hills of Earth to the deserts of the Moon  and Mars, the metal worlds of spaceships and space stations, to planets only imagined. When the background noise is gone—the background  itself—then we can often see ourselves as we really are.  So it is when we enter Faerie—the Golden Wood, the haunted house, the gingerbread  cottage, Lantern Waste, or sometimes, the house next door, or in our own   house. Facing the dangerous and/or unfamiliar, confronting the evil  and/or the strange, often demands we be most our selves—or began  learning what being that self means.

All right, let’s start with werewolves, which are of particular  interest to me at the moment as I am finishing up The Werewolf and His  Boy. Are werewolves human? Sometimes. If you prick them, will they not  bleed? Yes, sometimes wolf blood, sometimes human. Depending on the  legend used, they are at least in human form most of the time, or  twenty-odd days out of the average thirty. But what I find telling is  when we look into our reflection and we can, if the light is right, see  into the dark recesses of our souls, the hidden places in our hearts,  and there find the wolf, the beast, even without fangs or fur. Humans  are animals, occasionally, we are beasts. Wrestling with the feral parts  of our nature, recognizing they exist—that is part of what it means to  be human.

For my werewolf, Henry Thorn, he has to sort out both what it  means to be wolf and to be boy: that he both needs to run, to hit raw  meat, to howl, and to cry and miss his mother and to love another human  being.  For Henry, this means loving Jamey, another boy—but that’s  another essay. Henry also finds out more about who he is as a boy when  he finds himself in a den of werewolves, amongst the beasts. Jamey needs  protection and caring for—and Henry learns something more about human  love, and thus about being human. It is through fantasy that I can  explore the answers Henry finds as he also asks and begins to answer the  question of who he is—human boy, wolf—Henry Thorn.

In what might be an iconic werewolf tale, American Werewolf in  London, the question of what it means to be human—or rather, can a  werewolf be human—is answered, no, or not quite, as the beast, the wolf,  is far too strong, the call of the wild, or rather the disease,  overwhelms the unlucky American tourist. He dies a beast. But then, our  humanity is fragile—and the beast is never as far as away as we might  like to think. My werewolf knows the beast is always present—and that if  he remains in beast-form too long, he risks a difficult return to being  human. Perhaps this tension between beast and human, with the beast  sometimes the one in control, is an attempt to explain humans in mobs,  or at war. Surely the beasts were the ones at My Lai, at so many Native  American villages, at Auschwitz.

Fantasy, with its transformations, its wishes, its dreams and magical  beings who are so very much like us and yet so very different, does  present ways to explore answers to the question of what it means to be  human. This doesn’t seem all that surprising as I write this, but until  presented with this month’s blog theme, I hadn’t thought about it this  concretely in connection to fantasy lit. Yet, as Henry Thorn, the  werewolf, is clearly telling me, I have been thinking about it for quite   some time. So, the next time I teach fantasy …


Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary  Washington since 2000. His short story, “The Golden Boy” (published in  The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award  for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001),  Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010), all published by  Golden Gryphon Press. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and  has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His  short fiction has been published in such journals and collections as  Icarus, Collective Fallout. The Silver Gryphon, North Carolina Literary  Review, Romance and Beyond, and Aboriginal Science Fiction.  His short  story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was just published in Queer Fish 2. He  is presently working on a novel about a gay werewolf and his godling  boyfriend and a collection of gay-themed speculative fiction short  stories.

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