Monday, November 17, 2014

Animal Biology in Science Fiction: The Color of Distance


Ani and two of her community’s elders are foraging when they stumble upon two seemingly lifeless aliens. They are able to restore one of the aliens to health and what follows is a thought-provoking story of first contact between alien worlds. This is Amy Thompson’s The Color of Distance, a science fiction novel written from perspectives that alternate between Juna (the human “alien” scientist stranded on a foreign planet) and Ani (the Tendu female that found her).

The Color of Distance is a rare science fiction story in that the science focuses on possibilities of ecology and physiology. The Tendu are a sentient species with many physical attributes similar to our own amphibians. They have a deep understanding of the ecology of their planet and they take responsibility for the sustainability of their ecosystems. We learn about their planet’s species and ecological relationships through the eyes and thoughts of Juna, a human scientist that was stranded on a mission to explore the planet. The parallels between the species and ecologies on this fictional planet and Earth are too similar for my critical science brain to believe, but they serve well to foster in us more of an appreciation for the wondrous complexities of our own planet.

The Tendu role as caretakers of their planet’s species is supported by their remarkable physiological abilities. The Tendu have fleshy spurs on their wrists, called allu, that they use to communicate and learn about the animals around them. By sinking their spurs into another animal, the Tendu can learn about that animal’s health, diet, emotional state, reproductive state, and many other attributes. Furthermore, through their allu they can manipulate other animals’ health, monitoring them, healing them, even physically altering them! This is a fun idea, but could this even be remotely possible?

In fact, many species on our own planet already have similar abilities! Many animals produce pheromones, chemical compounds that, when detected by another animal, communicate that animal’s health, diet, emotional state, reproductive state, and many other attributes. Many species (including many mammals and insects) use airborne pheromones, but fish and other aquatic animals can perceive chemicals in the water the same way. It is not much more of a conceptual leap to imagine an animal that can inject a spur into another animal’s body to “taste” chemicals that relate to that animal’s health and emotional state. If that spur were also able to release chemicals and compounds, then this could be a means to influence the receiving animal’s health and emotional state as well.

Thompson’s novel also takes us through the emotional journey of a woman trying to make a life for herself in a new land surrounded by people and customs she doesn’t understand. Her writing regularly left me lost in memories of my days in Peace Corps and will likely resonate with anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living abroad.


If you are looking to curl up with a blanket and a good book, this is a good one! It will get you thinking about physiology, ecology, culture and politics in a whole new way.

Have you read The Color of Distance? Can you recommend another science fiction book that focuses on physiology or behavior? If so, please comment below!

For more animal physiology and behavior in science fiction, go here.

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