Email to Frank Wu
This was a transition piece, something I did when I decided to stop writing science fiction (at least for a while), and start doing science fiction art. I had been struggling with drafting a story I called "The Snow Leopard Finds His Sense of Balance" - which is a title I still hate, which gives some indication of the unfinished nature of the story. But... I had worked out the characters, the plot, the intricacies of the science... But, even though I read through two books on how to write science fiction, I couldn't find a convincing way to tell the story, couldn't find a POV, couldn't find a suitable structure.. I struggled for months before I gave up and started doing art. This was in July, 1997, and almost all of my artwork on this website was done in the time since then.
Because I won't be actually writing the story for a while (if ever), I thought I'd share the gist of it:
The story involves returning captive-bred animals, especially endangered ones, to the wild. A difficulty in doing this is that zoo-born animals are usually too dull and stupid to survive in the wild; they don't know that humans are generally dangerous; they don't know how to find food or mate and care for their young. (One captive wild cat didn't know enough, after giving birth, that she ought not CHEW on your babies.) To overcome this obstacle, human volunteers study up on everything an animal will need to know in the wild, and then the mind (inc. the new knowledge) of that person is transferred into the brain of the zoo animal.
The method of mind transfer? An army of nanobots is injected into the human, slip past the blood-brain barrier and then tri-dimensionally map the myriad millions of neurons and neural connections. The neurons within the brain of the subject animal are then rearranged to match this pattern. (Care must be taken to retain patterns of the animal responsible, for example, for muscle control and autonomic functions (many of which actually reside in the spinal cord). Some resolution may also be lost if the area of the animal's cerebral cortex is significantly smaller than that of a person's.)
Animals with human minds transferred into them are released into the wild in pairs. They mate, and, it is hoped, produce viable offspring. (These young, of course, are genetically normal animal babies - the mind transfer alters only the brain cells and doesn't change the gonadal tissues or DNA.) After the offspring are taught what they need to survive and are old enough to be on their own, the paired animals are retrieved. The animals are returned, and memories of the adventure are transferred back into the human volunteers, whose bodies have been placed in stasis (suspended animation) in the meanwhile.
The story resolves around a fellow who, along with his girlfriend, volunteer to study snow leopard behavior and have their minds transferred into snow leopards, which are then released into the wild (the Himalayan mountains in Nepal). The two humans will be in snow leopard form (while their human bodies are in stasis) for almost three years. During this time our hero (in snow leopard form) is mostly solitary. This is because food is scarce, snow leopards ranging far and wide in lonely isolation, pairing up only to mate and then separating. The snow leopards learn to track herds of sheep, to follow scent travels and do all the biological things snow leopards do. All the stuff adult snow leopards teach their young. Meanwhile, our hero is alone for the first time in his life, and he does a lot of thinking. He thinks about his family and his childhood, and especially his control-freak conservative mother. His girlfriend is the opposite: knee-jerk liberal, a free-spirit.
As the story begins it is time for him to stop tracking the herds of sheep, and start tracking the female snow leopard. Mainly he uses his keen sense of smell. A male snow leopard can sniff a pile of female snow leopard scat and tell how recently she was there. He can smell grass she has lain in, and tell when she will ovulate. He starts following her tracks, and the claw-marks she has left on bushes and trees to mark the path.
As he follows her, knowing that soon she will be ready to mate, he thinks more about how much he loves his girlfriend and misses her. After a long search, he finds her, and tries to mate. She rebuffs him again and again, claiming she's not ready. Much frustration ensues. Finally, they mate, and then separate. This is the way it must be, as the females raise the young alone and food is too scarce for two large predators to live together. Still, he cannot leave the wild and return home; the deal is that both animal-people must be in the wild for the whole period - otherwise everyone would want to be the males.
Now, having achieved his main purpose of finding and mating with the female, our hero wanders the wilderness, basically just trying to survive and stay alive and kill time until the scheduled pick-up two years hence.
As he wanders the frozen wilderness month after month, he does a lot of thinking. About his girlfriend, about his mother. He grows to hate more and more his mother and her dominance and control over his life. The anger bottled up for years (decades?) because he was "the good boy" bubbles to the surface and explodes out of him. He gets angrier than he ever has, with an anger that surprises even him. He just explodes. One particularly cold and harsh day, after failing to tackle his favorite prey, the local "blue" sheep, he flips out. Angered by memories of his mother, he ventures further downhill than he has gone before, leaving the mountain for a small village. He wanders into town, frightening small children, terrifying mothers. He finds a goat in a pen, and slaughters and eats it. Then, even though he is no longer hungry, he is still so angry that he rampages through the village, slaughtering all the sheep and goats he sees. Covered with blood from his rampage, he stumbles back up the mountain.
Two long years later, our hero and his girlfriend (still snow leopards) meet at the rendezvous point where they will be retrieved. In this time, they have had almost no contact, and, while our hero knows that his girlfriend successfully gave birth to snow leopard cubs (he had found their scats), he doesn't know how they fared. He does know, though, that by this time, the cubs have been taught what they need to survive and should have grown old enough to set out on their own.
All he can think about is going back to civilization. It feels like he's been out camping for three years, and he wants to go home. All he wants is a warm fire, a hot chocolate and his girlfriend returned to human form.
Again he has to track her down and the two snow leopards meet.
While unable to talk (snow leopards make a sort of chirping sound, but they find it insufficient for communication), they find that they can communicate by scratching messages in the dirt. He writes excitedly about wanting to go back home, and return to his human form. To get out of the cold and drink hot chocolate and fall asleep curled up with her in front of a fire. She interrupts his ramblings with sad news. The cubs are dead.
She tells him how the local villagers (sherpas) had apparently arranged hunting posses in the mountains. She was wounded by them once, but got away. She met them again later, while out teaching the cubs the basics of stalking, jumping and hunting. She escaped, but the cubs were killed. It was so ironic, she thought. The villagers are so poor, a rare snow leopard pelt would be worth a month's wages. An adult leopard. A cub, being so small, would be worth almost nothing.
At that moment, our hero realizes that the posses out to hunt the snow leopards were organized after he had slaughtered all their sheep and goats. They were after him, when they hunted her and killed the cubs. The deaths of the cubs were, in a way, his fault.
While he is still pondering this, she tells him that she doesn't want to go back. She wants to stay and try to have cubs again. He is sick of being a snow leopard, sick of the ice and cold, and wants to go back and drink hot chocolate. Then she tells him that she can't go back. She has nothing to go back to. The idea was that, upon their return to civilization, their minds and memories would be transferred back into their human bodies, which had been kept in unconscious stasis.
However, she had injected a slow poison into her human body just before her mind was transferred into the snow leopard host. She has no human body to return to. She sees neuroxerography as the ultimate solution to the overpopulation problem. All the other solutions proposed are too ghastly (war, famine) or unworkable or impracticable or not universally morally acceptable (birth control). With the neuroxerography, human beings can return, in masse, to the wild. The Master Neuroxeroxer, in a way, becomes a Moses, leading to a new world. So, she wants to stay a snow leopard. She wants him to, too. She chews into her paw and digs out the transmitter the scientists use to track her, spitting it on the icy ground. At that moment, our hero realizes he never even wanted to be turned into a snow leopard in the first place. More than that, he realizes for the first time that all his life he has allowed himself to be controlled and dominated by his girlfriend in exactly the same way he had earlier allowed himself to be controlled by his mother. Their political views are diametrically opposed, but their need for control, their knee-jerk responses to issues, and, most importantly, their need to have him toe the line on particular issues and ways of thinking, are exactly parallel.
Horrified, our hero dashes to the rendezvous point, leaving the Himalayas and the female snow leopard behind. At the pick-up point, he is retrieved and brought back to the laboratory. His memories of his adventure are successfully transferred back to his human body, and he vows never to allow himself to be controlled by another person ever again. Meanwhile, the snow leopard is returned to its cage. Its mind is restored to its former condition, and all of his memories were meant to be erased from it. However, when he says goodbye to the snow leopard, he realizes that there is still a little part of him inside its mind, some part of his personality and being, that will be trapped in a squalid little concrete box behind bars forever.
Email to Frank Wu
Image (c) 2001 Frank Wu