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Book Excerpts

From toys to totems, an exploration of how we perceive — and imitate — the animals around us

In this essay from the collection "Mechanical Animals," the author delves deep into the ways that animals inspire everything from brands to high-tech medical instruments

Selena Chambers writes fiction and non-fiction from the swampy depths of North Florida. Her most recent work has appeared in such publications as Literary Hub, Luna Luna Magazine, and Beautiful Bizarre. She’s been nominated for several awards including the Hugo and two World Fantasy awards. 

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor (formerly of Clarkesworld Magazine) and the author of “Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.” He has also written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork and NPR. He’s the co-editor of the anthology “Cyber World.” He lives in Denver.

The following is an excerpt from the essay “Making Totemic Sense” by Mike Libby, from the collection “Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech” co-edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Award finalist for Collection

 Animal forms and movements have been interesting concepts for me to consider when making art. Surprisingly, though, it’s not been a central topic primarily or intentionally, and much like how one inevitably writes what they know, I’ve drawn, sculpted, and fabricated what I know (or want to know more of), and animals have been in the mix more often than not. This phantom interest, perhaps, inspired and is most evident in my specific body of work, Insect Lab, where I customize preserved insect specimens with mechanical components like a grasshopper with spring-laden legs or a spider with slender sewing machine gear for its back end. So, with some effort, I can make you a cool mechanical-ish animal sculpture; I’m not so sure I could make you captivating stories like the writers in this anthology do here. However, I’m glad to offer my varied thoughts and observations on the subject that have been with me since youth to dress the stage for these tales and their explorations. 

Co-editor Selena Chambers.

It’s not just within my studio that I’ve participated with the mechanical animals theme, but nearly everywhere I look, especially in our industrialized society of the 21st century. I’ve seen them in movies, books, art, cartoons, animations, toy stores, pet stores, Radio Shack, comic books, video games, and websites.Within those mediums, I’ve encountered whimsical creatures like: windup mice, robot rats, rubberband bats, clockwork cats, sea serpent kites, spring loaded spiders, wind-spinner hummingbirds, remote control beetles, and transforming dinosaurs! 

Do you remember Doctor Who’s robot dog companion K-9? Or in the Mega Man video games, Rush, the red and pink pixilated pup? I always thought having a pet robot dog would be very cool, even if we didn’t solve space mysteries and have shoot ‘em up adventures together. No hair to brush or clean, no drool, maybe there’d be an occasional oil leak and a leg bolt would require tightening. But maybe I could mute his growls and he could transcribe my voice to text? I could sync him with my phone and apps and music, auto-tune his barks, and he could “walk” himself, if need be, or herd electric sheep (earn a bit of bitcoin while doing it). If androids do dream of electric sheep, it’s fair to say that there would be an electric sheepdog herding them, right?

When I was ten I wanted one of those battery-powered motorized dogs you would see outside Radio Shack, that was leashed to its battery powered remote control, and after a couple of high-pitched barks, would flip backwards, landing perfectly, ready to repeat his mechanical trick. I wanted one not because I wanted a puppy, but because I knew I could likely take it apart with a Phillips head screwdriver, pliers, and some patience. And I did take it apart, and it was spectacular:  plastic gears, a hobby motor, thin-coated multi-colored wires, and an arcane circuit under all that fake fur and plastic body. It was the best $20 my parents ever spent. 

A month earlier, I found a small bird’s foot in a family friend’s yard. We were invited over for a barbecue and, as the sun set and with the adults inside, I was outside being a kid, exploring to the edge of the backyard near the blue pool night light, marveling at this singular bird’s foot I had discovered. Its owner was nowhere near. I couldn’t tell if it was the right or left foot, but I could tell it was still flexible, and if I moved it a little in the leg part, the lower part of the foot and some of the tiny claws would move also, grasping, as if clutching, an invisible branch. “How neat! It still works!” I thought alongside: “How would you like it if someone did that to your severed foot?”

Co-editor Jason Heller.

Somewhere between wonder and respect, I examined the foot like this a couple more times, closely observing the mechanistic activity governing the movement between leg, foot, and claw. So cool! What was so amazing to my young mind was that this little system of functionality contained in the foot was not a man-made design like the plastic action figures and robot toys I had at home, yet it worked perfectly in its soft, rubbery, rigid way. The way it worked was also like how my own body worked. Although smaller, and from a different animal, it was like my own leg and foot… A little…wait, how does my body work? How does any body work? Despite these questions, I did not show the foot to the adults. Before we left, I discreetly returned it—my own catch and release program. I didn’t need the object, anyway, because I now had the thoughts.

The next day I put my thoughts to action and tried to recreate the movement of the foot with the steel hardware of my erector set kit. My awkward attempt was about five times bigger, cruder, clangier, and resembled some strange, shiny appendage from an expandable desklamp’s linked neck more than a bird’s natural foot. It was a satisfying exercise, though, to see if I could clumsily create animal movement with raw materials, and even at 25% visual and physical accuracy.

As I grew up, I learned that humans are always trying to reconcile our relationship with nature, especially with our animal neighbors. It is an integral part of human culture as much as our head is part of our body, my Anthropology college professor once explained. He led the class in a thought experiment where we imagined we belonged to a totemic society. Defined as a group of primitive humans that identify with a particular local plant or animal, they maintain a mystical or spiritual relationship of awe and reverence to it. Totemism occurs mostly within groups where hunting, gathering, farming, or fishing are the economy. This practice of adopting or adapting an animal into a totem happens not only on a social group level, but on an individual basis as well, with the totems’ imagery integrated by a clan into clothes, masks, adornments, textiles, and other cultural tools and ritual fetishes and activity.  

“Mechanical Animals,” co-edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller.

The professor continued to lead the class in imagining being a part of a totemic society,  highlighting that we are primitive and thus likely close to nature, and this nature isn’t a cultivated park in the city with benches and paths and a lamppost, this nature is the entire blanket of the growing living wild world, and these other inhabitants—wolves, deer, birds, fish, snakes, and bees—are all here with us. They look and act and move strangely:  that one has four legs instead of two; that one has green wet skin and webbed feet; that tiny one never seems to touch the ground like we do and stays high up in the trees in groups. They’re all shaped different, move surprisingly, with a peculiar random intentional grace. We can see that one during the day and we hear that one at night. When you talk to them, they don’t listen, despite that one’s big ears. I believe they hear, though they don’t seem very interested in having a verbal conversation of any meaning. 

How do we make sense of this? We admire what they have, what they can do, how they are. Are their abilities contagious? If we attach an image that looks like that animal on an object or ourselves, will we be like them? Will we gain something they have by making an object that looks like them, like a mask or a monument? Can we become the animal, combine with it, or create it for ourselves? Composed of the raw material we have at our disposal, can we appropriate and control them? Would it do as we say, or be motivated by something unknown, or something incredibly basic? Or, if we make an animal of our own, can we then instruct it?  Can we guide it and ride it?

The large enigmatic bird with straight outstretched wings, the mythical Thunderbird, that sits atop an authentic hand-hewn Native American totem pole in the Pacific Northwest is a well known example of a culture appropriating the image of an animal into its art forms to channel power and strength. Correspondingly, through name alone, in the far removed industrialized car culture of the mid-20th century, the Ford Motor Company released their Ford Thunderbird as a line of luxury cars, appropriating the name Thunderbird intentionally as a way to symbolize the attributes of the vehicle, and thus increase sales to the right buyers.

Elaborating on a name and image born of power and strength, Ford simply borrowed the Thunderbird name and associations from its spiritual origins from North American indigenous people. The context is different, the form from totem pole to luxury car is different, their uses are different, but fundamentally there is a seed of belief behind each object that is the same:  to incorporate animal power into the created object. To transmute this object into a Thunderbird! The cars’ chromed-hood ornament directly resembles the original totem with rigid wings outstretched and severe beak in profile, so clearly, this car is channeling the thunderbird’s power (and slyly adapting symbolic marking into brand recognition). 

This channeling of power or energy through symbols and representation is the realm of magical thinking that is the foundation of  totemic belief, and also a staple of many creative impulses, concepts, and practices. I’m not sure what North American indigenous tribes thought of the luxury car named after their totem poles’ top-tier animal for 50 years (the line discontinued in 2005), but the evolution and perversion of the mythical animal is certainly distinct. To date, there have been around 50 automobiles named after animals, from Beetle to Jaguar to Viper, and let’s not forget the Greyhound bus line, the tirelessly running transit system. Even without the jazzy model names, automobile engines are said to have horse power.

How else have we strangely filtered animal form and function (even fictional ones) to various human-centric ends? Our zoomorphic tendencies reach far and wide, and it’s a varied list: Greek mythology gave birth to the winged horse Pegasus, only for centuries later to have Mobiloil adopt the creature’s image as a flat trademarked logo. Animals seen on safari in far-off lands—tigers, lions, camels, and a spectrum of horses—were adopted and represented into romantic Carousel characters in the late 19th century. Carved from wood, saddled, and dynamically painted to attract riders at carnivals, the animals’ exoticisms were tailored to visually enchant as the carousel engine spun and galloped them around. On a smaller and singular scale, tin toys of the early 20th century emulated the simple movements of cute animals in interactive, metal, handheld windup toys:  circus seals, dogs, ducks, and beetles. Locusts of vast swarms, both biblical and animated, persist in natural and entertainment contexts as the Transformers franchise of the 1980s featured the robotic grasshopper character Kickback, known as an “Insecticon.” Kickback was a “bad guy,” modeled in purple, black, and yellow, that could transform from a grasshopper into a robot to perform his missions. The jointed, plastic toy equivalent were made available to thousands of kids at toy stores. I had one, and it was terrific.

Adaptation of animal attributes through man-made technology is more than skin deep and superficial. The swimmer’s suit is an indication of a new trend of design and fabrication of innovative technology, bio-mimicry, the act of designing and producing materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. This practice—with the aid of computer modeling, fabrication on micro and macro scales and volumes, 3-D printing, and numerous other engineering processes and ingredients—is creating new forms and applications daily that go beyond having frog-like flippers with your scuba gear. We can now have a second skin scales of a fish and sticky gloves like a gecko. It has the promise of increased efficiency, decreased waste, reused resources, and all things that would please the likes of Buckminster Fuller, perhaps.

Similarly inspired by shark skin are new materials that help deflect germs that would otherwise stay on plastic surfaces and hospital equipment. Unlike other sea life, barnacles, algae and slime don’t stick to a shark’s body, a fact that inspired engineer Tony Brennan to create materials and products that germs can’t “grab” onto, like catheters and other frequently touched surfaces in hospitals like countertops and light switches. In 2017, engineers at Cornell University have  recreated octopus skin-like materials that can change colors and have flexible volume to innovate shape shifting amorphous forms of camouflage to be used in soft robotics.

Architects now frequently design buildings with “fluid” skins, flexible joints and sweeping curves to work with the landscape and windscape, the way trees and mountains are shaped. We can grow automobile interior seats, consoles, and plastics from fungal spores that grow into pre-formed molds, an easily biodegradable material that accommodates our commodity-dispensable culture. The hardware of tech is not all mushy and gooey; we still like our gears and motors.

At  the University of Bath in 2008, PhD student Rhodri Armour created Jollbot, a rolling, jumping robot. Jollbot is a spring-loaded wireframe sphere that compresses and releases its main spring coil to hop to its next destination, especially when it encounters an obstacle it can’t roll over, making it great for new planetary rovers. The ‘monolithic bee,’ by students from Harvard’s microrobiotics laboratory,  is a small robotic “bee” made of a laminate of thin layers of plastic, copper, insulates, and other materials. When cut and scored, it can be assembled from a 2-D to a 3-D structure. Like a miniature, complex, pop-up book, it’s a lattice work of conductors, armatures, and joints complete with onboard motor and wings fully assembled and ready for flight. This micro-marvel is no bigger than a half dollar. The only problem is giving it a consistent onboard fuel source, like a battery that doesn’t lose charge quickly or weigh it down.

With the mass availability of drones available at your local Best Buy for under $100, it’s easy to see that swarms of these bees might be coming to a neighborhood near you, either in your backyard, or at least your living room. I spotted a metallic bee automata of sorts presented as a cursed talisman on the SyFy show Warehouse 13’s episode “Queen for the Day.” The object which housed this bee is a golden beehive devised by the prop department, taking inspiration from the original beehive artifact that belonged to the first female Pharaoh of Egypt, Hatshepsut, who used it to control human “drones” with the pheromones of real honey bees.

Buy “Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech” at BookBar.
Interview with “Mechanical Animals” co-editors Selena Chambers and Jason Heller.