Archive for December, 2009

Animorphs – why it is awesome, and why my future children will read it.

December 7, 2009

I recently found a place that has every single book of K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series in PDF format (http://animorphsforum.com/ebooks/), and after finally reading all the ones I never did because the library didn’t have them and I was too cheap to buy them at the full price, I came to the conclusion that that series of my childhood is pretty much the best children’s book series ever and is much better children’s entertainment than most of the crap out there today (I mean, seriously, talking sponges and SPARKLEPIRES? What is up with that?). Thus, I decided to write this blog post detailing exactly why I like this series, and why it is good. To get you up to speed on just whiskey tango foxtrot I’m talking about here, the following is a brief rundown of the plot and an explanation of the terms.

The story begins with five teenagers (Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco), who find a crashed alien ship. Its pilot, Elfangor, informs them that he’s an Andalite, whose race is at war with the Yeerks, a race of parasitic slugs who can take over others’ bodies by entering their head and controlling their brains. Elfangor is dying due to injuries, but before he expires, he gives the kids a unique Andalite technology – the power to transform into any animal they have touched so that they may fight an underground guerilla war, aided by the fact that the Yeerks will think they are Andalites. But the power has limits – anyone who stays in morph for over two hours is locked in that morph, with no way to change back. Also, the Yeerks have already infiltrated a sizeable chunk of human society and have much more advanced technology than late-90s Earth.

Great writing ensues. Why is it great? The reasons listed below.

1. Internal consistency. Applegate has a set of rules for how her universe works, and those rules stay consistent throughout the series, with the negative consequences sticking. For example, Tobias broke the two-hours rule near the end of the first book, which gets him stuck as a hawk until book 13, in which he gets slightly better after an incident that involved a being who can alter reality, and even that change still fit within the rules of the universe.

Tobias: (narrating) I didn’t ask what the Ellimist meant. I knew. I had acquired my own human DNA. But it was just a morph. If I stayed in my old human body I would be trapped there forever. Never again to morph. Never again to be a hawk. Never again to fly.

Said being is also subject to another set of rules that he cannot break, only find loopholes around. That’s right, even freaking Deus ex Machina has rules and limitations on what he can do.

2. Flawed main characters who are not always right. I think today, we are way too concerned with validating the young’uns, which leads to too many fictional works where characters are right and have no faults (or worse yet, have faults that are depicted as strengths.) The example that comes most to mind is Avatar – don’t get me wrong, I loved that show, but the ending was pure Deus ex Machina. Anyways, the decisions that happen in Animorphs are pretty much what you can expect from a bunch of average American teenagers who are told they have to fight a guerilla war. A lot of mistakes are made that have actual consequences. The final arc of the series is actually kick-started by Jake making two bad decisions that result in their secret identities being outed and his family being taken. There is a trope called “what the hell, hero,” in which a character who is supposed to be the good guy engages in morally ambiguous behavior that makes the audience say “what the hell.” Let’s just say Jake starts pulling a LOT of these near the end. Even better, he gets called out on it.

Jake: [Visser One]’s a prisoner of war. We don’t kill prisoners.
Visser One:
(mockingly) No, of course not. You merely destroy ground-based pools and kill thousands. Add that to another seventeen thousand on this ship. All defenseless, unhosted Yeerks. Slaughtered. But you don’t kill prisoners.

What the hell, hero.

3. Gray and gray morality. The thing about real life is that no one is 100% right or 100% wrong. Animorphs reflects that beautifully. The central conflict, that between the Yeerks and the Animorphs, has always been portrayed as “Yeerks bad” – up until book 19, in which the reader meets an actual Yeerk who points out that Yeerks in their natural state are blind immobile worms whose lives suck unless they can control a host body.

Karen (Yeerk): It’s what we are. We’re parasites, you humans are predators. How many pigs and cows and chickens and sheep do you kill each year to survive? You think being a predator is morally superior to being a parasite? At least the host bodies we take remain alive. We don’t kill them, cut them into pieces, and grill them over a charcoal fire in our backyards.
(Later)
Karen: (bitter and resentful) Don’t act so surprised. We aren’t all the same. See? You believe the Andalite propaganda about us. According to the Andalites, we’re nothing but evil slugs. We don’t deserve to be free, flying around the galaxy. We’re just parasites.

After that point, the Yeerks became what I feel is the ideal fictional villain – the audience can sympathize with them and understand where they’re coming from and maybe even concede they have a point, yet still be opposed to them.

3a. On a similar thread, the thing about real life is that no one is 100% good or 100% evil. Animorphs loves subverting this. Ax (an Andalite cadet that joins the main characters) points out that every sentient species has some skeleton in their closet, and events in the series make it a point that there’s usually a reason for those skeletons to be there. While the Yeerks are imperialist body-stealers, to them what they do is no different from what humans do to pigs and chickens – we’re predators, they’re parasites; neither of us can help what we are. The Taxxons, giant cannibalistic centipedes who are one of the few races to voluntarily be enslaved by the Yeerks, are also perpetually hungry – they go crazy at the sight of flesh and will eat themselves if they’ve been wounded. The whole reason they volunteered to be enslaved was that they hoped having a Yeerk in their heads could control the hunger. The Howlers, a race of living weapons that have wiped out several sentient species…you’re just going to have to read book 26. According to the various alien characters, we humans have the worst track record in the universe for peaceful coexistence with our own kind. As for the Andalites, the Cavalry upon which humanity’s survival rests?

Alloran: You fool. You coddled them. You trained them. You showed them the universe. You showed them all the things they could not have, living here on this planet of theirs. You even built them portable Kandronas and thus freed them… (Quoting) When a commander has become incapacitated due to injury or mental defect, his subordinates may relieve him.
Seerow:
What mental defect?
Alloran: (harshly) Stupidity. The stupidity of kindness. Charity to potential enemies. You’re a fool, Seerow. A soft, sentimental, well-meaning fool. And now my men are dead and the Yeerks are loose in the galaxy. How many will die before we can bring this contagion under control? How many will die for Seerow’s Kindness?

They’ve also tried to wipe out an entire species so the Yeerks would not be able to use said species as host bodies. What the hell, hero? (Do you see a trend here?)

4. K. A. Applegate did the research. The woman wins biology forever for accurate depictions of like a hundred species in the series. What more, she does a very good job illustrating the various awesome capabilities of nature’s creatures. If you took out the “alien invasion” aspect of the series, you’d basically end up with a text-only version of Zoobooks. Along with that, it’s not just the typically badass animals (lions, tigers, bears, eagles, etc) that get to shine. Some of the main characters’ most useful morphs are less glamorous things like flies and roaches – they’re small and hard to notice, and so extremely well suited for sneaking into places. Many other books highlight a particular animal that is useful for a certain task – bat for when they have to attack a target in an underground cavern, beaver for construction of dams, duck for sustained long-distance flight. One of my favorite parts is this little gem in the 9th book.

Visser Three: This is the best you could do, Andalite scum? Such a terrifying beast you’ve morphed!
Cassie: (narrating) He laughed at the chubby, cat-sized black- and-white animal in the box. Laughed at the way I stood with my back to him, tail raised, looking over my shoulder.

Visser Three soon finds out just what kind of terrifying beast a skunk really is.

5. Realistic depictions of what child soldiers forced into a secret war actually means. Gone is this idealistic image of a couple of plucky teenagers with attitude being able to take down hordes of bad guys on their own and come out smelling fresh as a rose. Repeated constantly is the notion that the kids by themselves will not win the war – all they’re doing is slow the Yeerk invasion long enough for the Andalite fleet to show up. Every time the main characters come out of a major battle, it’s covered in the blood of their enemies and themselves. It should be noted that every time the kids get the help of adults they can trust, they are much more effective, a stark contrast to many series in which the adolescent protagonists easily defeat older and more experienced opponents for no reason. Also, mentally and spiritually, the war is never easy for the main characters, and everyone starts feeling the pressure as it drags on. Jake develops a thousand-yard stare. Rachel gets more and more addicted to the rush of battle. Tobias, due to being stuck as a hawk, has to adjust to being more bird than human. Cassie’s moralizing gets more ambiguous, and is implied to have become more of a means of convincing herself of the righteousness of the group’s actions, although it takes careful reading to notice. Marco becomes more ruthless and concerned with the bottom line. Ax is relatively well-adjusted of the cast, although he’s also the only one with any amount of military training. War sucks for those involved, even if it’s justified.

Chapman: So, Loren, Daddy went nutso, huh? Another whacked-out ‘Nam vet? I guess some guys can’t take it.
Alloran: Have you ever been to war, human?
Chapman:
Me? No. Of course not. That war’s over.
Alloran: Then be quiet, fool. Those who have been to war understand. Those who have not have no opinion worth hearing. Even those who return from war may never really come home.

By the bittersweet end of the series, everyone bears psychological scars from the conflict, because as William Tecumseh Sherman so wisely noted, “war is all hell.”

Overall, Animorphs is a series that’s written very intelligently. It teaches many good lessons and has excellent character dynamics and humorous dialogue, but most importantly, it’s an excellent springing board for teaching critical thinking. And that, in my mind, is what children of today need the most.

But why so serious? Let’s end with a humorous quote.

Jake: I figure this ship is going like, what, twenty miles per hour? Figure an hour, and that puts us twenty miles out, right?
Rachel: (points finger at her forehead) Jake’s a total mathematical genius. One hour at twenty miles per hour. Right away he figures out that’s twenty miles.