Beasts is the second novel I read this summer in Otherwise, the omnibus collection of John Crowley’s three early works. It pictures our own near-future world, in which resources are scarce and politics have taken a drastic shift. One of these shifts, which gets at not just politics but involves a recent scientific accomplishment: the government has created human-animal hybrids, the most successful of which are lion-human hybrids called leos. Now the powerful Union for Social Engineering (USE) wants to study them, categorize them, eliminate them from the world’s accounting.
The novel draws together three thick, complex threads. First is from the point of view of Loren, who used to rear peregrine hawks before his funding ran out. He is given the education and training of a wild, intelligent young man named Sten and his cousin Mika, in order (he gradually discovers) to fit them for the constellations of government. The second describes Genesis Preserve, a community that has drawn itself apart from the violent world:
Utterly self-contained, it replaced what it used of Earth’s body exactly, borrowing and returning water and food by a nice reckoning. And yet the air was troubled by its mass; stuck up into the sea of air like an immense stirring-rod, it could raise and distort winds wildly. Once a year or so a vast pane of amber-tinted glass, faultily made, was sucked by wind from its place and went sailing out over the Preserve for hundreds of yards before it landed. When that happened, they went out and found it, every splinter, and melted it, and used it again.
This community sees itself as loving the earth, in harmony with it, hurting nothing. But when the crisis comes, their pristine isolation may have served to cut them off from the earth rather than letting them really know it.
The third thread is from the point of view of an indentured servant (essentially a slave, as her contract can be bought and sold) named Caddie, who is given over to serve a leo named Painter. At first, his nature, his goals, his personality (his animality?) are completely hidden from her because they are so other. These are not people in furry suits; Crowley does not sentimentalize or patronize. This is alien; this is animal. But as Caddie spends more time with him, forging her way deeper into the wilderness, she and the reader begin to understand better what Painter’s life and plans are all about.
The work of the novel is to weave these three threads together, warp and weft, man and animal, animal and man. The thrust of the novel — the place Crowley puts all the weight of his astonishing prose and the force of his ideas — is to convey the isness of the animal-human hybrids: the leo, the kingmaker Reynard, the dog Sweets. He writes from their point of view, consciousness and instinct, animality and personality mingled, and he also writes about the deep, intimate, troubling reactions they awake in humans. Meric, one of the men from Genesis Preserve, observes the leos bathing in the river and laughing in the sun:
Meric, estranged on the bank, felt dirty and evanescent, and yet privileged. He had wondered about the girl, how she could choose to be one of them when she so obviously couldn’t be; how she could deny so much of her own nature in order to live as they did. He saw now that she had done no such thing. She had only acceded to their presence, lived as nearly as she could at their direction and convenience, like a dog trying to please a beloved, contrary, wilful, godlike man, because whatever self-denial that took, whatever inconvenience, there was nothing else worth doing. Inconvenience and estrangement from her own kind were nothing compared to the privilege of hearing, of sharing, that laughter as elemental as the blackbird’s song or the taste of flesh.
Usually, when this type of question arises in a science-fiction novel, it is phrased, “What makes us human?” Clones, robots, mutants — who is a person? In this book, it’s aslant. What makes us human, yes. But what makes us animals, and is that equally sacred? What do we have the right to call monstrous? Can someone be a slave to an animal? Is that different from being a slave to a human being, and why? If we use animals as test subjects, can we use an animal-human hybrid, who has awareness and can talk to us and has a family? What if we classify him as having a low IQ and no loyalty to the scientific community who created him? Can we test him, then? What is education and training for, if it unfits us to be free?
Loren teaches Sten and Mika how to think about politics, how to know monster from man, how to identify an assassin, how to tame a hawk, but the cousins are as wild as hawks themselves, judging justice and mercy on their own terms. Sten, in a moment of rebellion against Loren’s teaching, sets the hawk free, knowing that once he has tasted the air, he will never return to a master’s hand. It’s only then that the three threads begin to converge: human politics, Genesis Preserve, the pride. This novel considers who will inherit the earth: the King of Beasts or the lords of creation. It’s a marvel.