Thursday, December 07, 2006

Explaining Vampire Physiology

(I always enjoy good expository dialogue, especially about the biology of other species, so I try to write it the way I like to read it. One of my very favorites in that "vein" is Dr. Weyland's lecture on "how nature would design a vampire" in Suzy McKee Charnas' THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY. An excellent recent book that portrays an interestingly worked-out vampire species is Octavia Butler's FLEDGLING. Here's an example of information feed about the physiology and psychology of an imaginary race from one of my books. This is an excerpt from DARK CHANGELING, the first-published novel in my "alien" vampire series. Roger Darvell has just met his mentor, the vampire elder Volnar, who in this scene begins to answer Roger's questions about their species. Sylvia is a young female vampire Roger has known for a short time.)

"You started late," said Volnar. "Most of us acquire our psychic talents in our early teens -- as you did, didn't you? -- but start needing human blood soon thereafter, around sixteen."

"Children don't?" said Roger. He'd had trouble visualizing an infant or toddler feeding on a human adult.

"Of course not," Volnar chuckled. "Babies are born with two needle-like teeth -- the only time we have those absurd rattlesnake fangs beloved by Hollywood -- to feed on the mother's blood as well as her milk. You didn't, thanks to your human half. At weaning, three or four years old, we lose the fangs and switch to raw meat, milk, and animal blood."

"Makes sense," Roger said. "Growing children would need the calories in solid food."

"In early adolescence the ability to digest it disappears, when we lose our wolf-like incisors and canines, to be replaced by a more human-appearing set for drawing blood inconspicuously. It's a good thing you didn't undergo those changes, or you could never have passed for human."

"I'm still baffled about the way you manipulated me. Why this `experiment,' leaving me to flounder through those developmental stages alone? Why did you care whether a hybrid was `viable'?"

"Quite simply," said Volnar, "because we aren't replacing ourselves. Long-lived predators have to breed slowly in comparison to their prey, to avoid overrunning the food supply, but in recent centuries our low reproductive rate has become a crisis. Females more often than not go into estrus without conceiving. The incidence of miscarriages has increased, too."

Roger set down the brandy and stared at him. "You're looking for new blood, aren't you?" He winced at his unintentional pun. "You think human DNA might revitalize your gene pool."

"Exactly." Volnar smiled as if pleased at his quick comprehension. "Some of the elders consider it contamination, but I've overruled them. Including the ones who make derogatory remarks about `lap dogs pretending to be wolves.'"

Roger felt his chest tighten with anger. Though he wasn't sure he wanted to be a wolf, he didn't care for the proposed alternative.

"Some of them," Volnar continued, "cite the fable of the Ugly Duckling, which they think ends on a note of unwarranted optimism. What kind of a swan could the creature become, crippled by a barnyard fowl's conditioning?"

"Are you deliberately trying to goad me?"

"Only preparing you," Volnar said, "for the hostility you're sure to encounter sooner or later. Not that it's universal. Most of those who know about your existence either tentatively approve or are indifferent."

"The nay-sayers have a point," Roger said. "Do you happen to have read Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson?"

"Actually, no."

"Two boys are switched in infancy, half-brothers, the son of a slave woman and the son of the mistress of the house. When they reach adulthood and the truth is revealed, the young man who's grown up thinking himself a slave suddenly becomes the master's heir. One might expect a Cinderella conclusion, but that doesn't happen. The slave turned master proves utterly unfit for the station to which he was born."

"You don't have to apply that pessimistic tale to yourself. You've done better than that."

"Oh, have I? Not from my viewpoint." Roger took a deep breath, then coughed when he inhaled cigar smoke instead of fresh air. "How can you stand that blasted thing?" He wondered whether the smoke was a test of his willingness to accept Volnar's domination. When he'd cleared his throat, he said, "What you've made me is a misfit among both vampires and my human peers."

"On the contrary, you've done remarkably well, considering how you were forced to `flounder,'" Volnar said. "Not unlike Tarzan in Burroughs' novel, who, after being reared by apes, as an ape, taught himself to read and eventually functioned not only as a civilized man but as an aristocrat of the most civilized nation on earth."

"A pulp fantasy," Roger said. "Real-life feral children more often become mental and emotional cripples."

"That didn't happen to you, however," said Volnar, "so I suggest you stop wasting energy on resentment."

"But I haven't turned out like Tarzan. More like a badly socialized puppy."

"In what way?" said Volnar.

"Well, I understand that if you take a puppy away from its mother and litter mates too soon, it doesn't know how to behave like a dog. On the other hand, if you leave the separation too late, the pup can never fully adjust to life with a human master. Either way, you have a maladjusted dog."

"It's true that there are critical periods in our childhood and adolescence -- times of imprinting, as with ducklings. The adaptability of young vampires is a double-edged weapon."

Roger stood up, too restless to hold still. "Sylvia has a fear of religious objects -- that's the kind of thing you mean, don't you?"

"Yes. Her advisor was too lax. She was exposed to excessive human influences. She almost thought, in her mid-teens, that she was human. Then she drifted the other way and picked up a cluster of absurd superstitions about her nature."

"Then I'm not the only child whose upbringing you people royally fouled up." He simmered with tension, half tempted to take a swing at Volnar just to discharge it.

"Learning how you've dealt with your highly specialized problems may help us avoid mistakes with future generations." Volnar rested the cigar in an ashtray and strode to Roger's side. "Don't let anger blind you to the possibilities, young man. This stage is only the beginning. The next is to breed you with a female of our species."

Roger jerked away from the elder's outstretched hand. "What? Do you think for one minute I'd consider that? Creating another child to suffer what I've gone through?"

"He or she wouldn't suffer the `identity crisis' you've had," Volnar said, walking over to pick up his unfinished cigar. "The child will know his or her nature and destiny from the start. I'll serve as its advisor myself."

"All the more reason why I'd run miles to avoid the whole thing."

"Nevertheless, I do expect you to consider it," Volnar said. "I've contacted a young woman, born in the 1880s, who has proven her fertility. She conceived more than once but miscarried each time. With you as the sire, perhaps a pregnancy might --"

"Not interested," Roger cut him off. "I can't condone any more of your damned experiments. And what makes you think this woman would accept being forced into mating with a -- a halfbreed?"

"Not forced! Our women choose their own mates, subject to veto by the elders, to prevent inbreeding. I've already explained your background to her, and she is enthusiastic."

"She may like the idea of being a reproductive machine for you, but I don't!" He almost wanted to rush out of the room and drive away, but the need to learn as much as he could stopped him.

"Juliette doesn't fit that description in the least. She teaches English at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and writes historical romances under a nom de plume -- far from a mindless breeding machine. However, she does want a child, and her next estrus is due fairly soon. Think it over."

"I don't need to think," Roger said, baring his teeth. "I'm absolutely sure that I don't want to serve as sperm donor to a woman I've never met in support of a project I don't believe in."

Volnar said, "Aren't you curious, if nothing else?"

"What do you mean?"

"Many of our males live out their first thousand years -- or more -- without once being chosen to mate. This may be your single chance to experience fully consummated genital sexuality."

The notion disturbed Roger, though he couldn't say why; he certainly felt no physical urge for the act Volnar alluded to. "You keep mentioning estrus, as if vampire females went into heat like --"

"Dogs? Wolves?" Volnar's lips quirked in amusement. "They do, and male vampires can consummate the sexual act only when stimulated by a female in heat. Mating lasts through an entire night of repeated copulation. If an unwanted conception occurs, the woman can mentally compel her body to eject the embryo." He became more serious. "Not that this problem comes up very often anymore. We do need your genes, Roger. Your potential hybrid vigor."

No comments:

Post a Comment