On the Origin of a Species

Our current age is unusual, in that we are the only species of human on earth. For most of our history, we have shared our planet with some interesting evolutionary cousins. I love the thought of how that might have felt – to be walking in a forest, and encounter something that was shaped roughly like you, but also deeply, profoundly alien. What would they have been like, had they survived to an historic age? What kind of society might they have created? And how would that have changed our own identity? This is the main premise behind my debut novel, The Wolf, set in a version of ancient Britain where multiple species of human have survived the Ice Age, and gone on to set up their own society.

This idea first came to me as a child, when I realised that every animal of comparable weight seems to be stronger, faster and toothier than we are. That got me wondering about a race of humans who were the wild equals of the deer, the lynx and the wolverine. What would they have looked like? How would they have behaved? So the Anakim – the main alternate race of people in the book – were born. Developing them has probably been the most enjoyable part of writing The Wolf.

It was many years later, during my studies in anthropology, that I discovered why we seem so physically hopeless. When we started farming, we domesticated ourselves just as efficiently as we did cows, sheep and crops. In the blink of an eye (anthropologically speaking), we grew drastically shorter. Our jaws retreated, our brains shrank, our bones became much less dense, and our faces grew charmingly fragile and expressive. We are a domesticated version of Homo sapiens, physically akin to our ancient ancestors as a dog is to a wolf.

That idea fascinated me, and the Anakim are partly inspired by how human beings once were, thousands of years ago. They are taller, more rugged, and more robust. But how could the Anakim have built a complex society, and yet retained their wildness? There seemed to be two options. Either, they did not develop agriculture, and so were never subject to the selective pressures which caused our domestication. Or, they had a social structure which counteracted the effects of agriculture and sedentism, and rewarded high levels of physical robusticity and aggression. I couldn’t choose between these ideas. So I took them both.

Wolf Map Revised Final.jpg

The world of the Anakim, coastline modified by a colder climate and lower sea-levels

In one of my wilder flights of imagination, I thought that maybe that aggressive social structure would have unforeseen consequences. For good measure, I therefore gave the Anakim plates of rust-coloured bone armour beneath their skin. The idea is that their society is so ancient, and so war-like, that they have evolved innate defences to spears, bows and arrows. The rust-coloured bone is due to its high iron content, which was also inspired by nature. There are several species of shrew which have blood-red teeth because they’re so full of iron for added strength.

However, physical differences are easy. Much more challenging, and more interesting too, is how the Anakim might have been cognitively. It is difficult to know where to start with this, as your brain is shaping your thought-patterns, even as you try to abstract yourself from them. For inspiration, I turned to the ancient cousins about whom we know most: Neanderthals.

One of the prevailing theories for a while has been that Neanderthals had limited ability to understand symbolism. I think this is wrong, but it’s an idea with interesting consequences. If symbols meant much less to the Anakim, it would change their art (if they had art at all) and perhaps make them physically incapable of developing reading and writing. And what would the result of that be? They’d need a formal means of memorising information. That’s where the idea for the Academy – a sisterhood of historians who commit to memory all Anakim history – came from. They’d need it to maintain a powerful sense of identity, and store all the knowledge that would enable them to progress as a society.

Another interesting idea came from the fact that Neanderthals lived in very small home-ranges, which we know from the isotope signatures in their teeth. They tended to travel very little, while modern humans of the same period were dying hundreds of miles from where they were born. We seem to be something of a pioneer species, with a mindset adapted to long-distance locomotion, which makes sense anecdotally. How many people do you know who don’t enjoy travelling? But I suspect the Neanderthals didn’t. And that got me wondering again about how a species who did not enjoy travelling would have thought about their home-range. Presumably they’d have been unusually attached to it. There might be a new dynamic there, where your home becomes as important as your family. And how would you feel when you then travelled far away from it? Like homesickness, but multiplied tenfold.

The Neanderthals and ancient humans gave me some interesting starting points for physical and mental differences. After a while, other facets of Anakim cognition and society started falling into place. In the same way that characters begin to take on a will of their own, and the story changes because you realise that you’re asking a character to do something that they never would, I developed a strong sense of what the Anakim would and would not do. They would be very austere. And obsessed with wilderness, which was in some way holy to them. Without writing, memory would become very powerful to them. And maybe that would be connected in some way to the land in which they lived.

And eventually, though I’d intended to make them as otherworldly as possible, I started slightly falling in love with these people. They haven’t got everything right, but it seemed to me that by and large, they have a much better sense of perspective than we do. They don’t care about money. Most of them don’t care about status. They only want to be fulfilled, and recognise that is best achieved through self-discipline, rather than self-indulgence. The fact that their symbolic understanding, and ability to read and write is poor, made them kindred spirits. As a dyspraxic, a hopeless artist and someone who didn’t learn to read until very late, I imagined myself fitting right in on that front.

Almost last of all came the name for these people, which I ended up finding in the Bible. It mentioned several giant races: the Rephaim, the Nephilim and the Anakim. I’ve always wondered whether Biblical stories have their origin in cultural legends. Perhaps the story of Noah and the flood is based on some kind of cultural memory of the catastrophic rise in sea-levels after the Ice Age. I wondered the same about these giant races. Maybe (just maybe) those are based on some distant cultural memory of the Neanderthals, or Denisovans – a prehistoric species of man like us, but somehow other. I liked that idea, and the nod it gave to the Neanderthals. The Anakim they became.

With the Anakim society constructed, there was one big question left. How would they react, when they encountered other humans, and vice versa? In The Wolf, I like to think I am not so much making stuff up, as trying to explore the underlying principles of our own world. So what evidence is there for what happened in the past when two human species encountered one another? It seems that interbreeding was pretty common. Modern humans carry DNA from Neanderthals, Denisovans, and probably one more unidentified group of humans. But though interesting, that doesn’t tell us too much. Hybrid children did exist, but under what circumstances they were conceived will likely never be known. There seem to have been more problems with the male offspring than the female offspring though (something else I borrowed for the book). The fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans are both extinct doesn’t tell us much, either. We could have outcompeted them, rather than massacred them. Or their demise might have been more related to a rapidly fluctuating climate, than our arrival.

I had to turn to more contemporary evidence. When modern human groups rub alongside each other, they often exhibit signals to demonstrate allegiance to their own group. The human mind seems to like clarity, and contrast, and when cultures feel threatened, they tend to respond with a renewed display of unity. So the Anakim, and their modern human neighbours might take that to extremes, not being merely different cultures, but different species altogether. They identify themselves by the fact that they are not the other. Stubbornly, the Anakim do not use personal adornment – that is something those other people do. Likewise, the modern humans detest wilderness – that is disorder, inherent to the Anakim. Unfortunately, putting these species together in the same land, the only outcome I could foresee was conflict. But maybe the result would also be greater unity between races of modern human. With this great external threat, perhaps we would focus more on our similarities, rather than our subtle differences.

Developing the Anakim was fun, but it also put a lot into perspective. We are a creature like any other, and there were once many more like us. They were not worse at being human than we are. They may very well have been our cognitive equals (even our superiors). They were just different, and as a species, we too came very close to extinction. We survived more through luck than skill, something we might do well to remember.

This post originally appeared as a Big Idea for https://whatever.scalzi.com/wolf-banner-cold-edge-4.png

26 responses to “On the Origin of a Species

  1. Love your first novel and am usually not a fan of either fantasy or alternative history. But Wolf reads more like the kind of historic fiction I love, you create such a cohesive, fully realized world and such compelling engaging characters. It’s more like reading Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales than most fantasy and also has some of the appeal for me of the early seasons of the Vikings TV series which I loved and forgave for historic jumbling and huge plot holes until the best actors and characters left the building and it became too stupid and humorless (as best exemplified by the writers’ choice to turn Lagertha into a mean spirited, charmless and extremely dense brute) for pleasure. I was very surprised to discover how young you are given the quality of your insights into the human condition. You obviously have a long and successful career ahead of you as a novelist and I look forward to the next in this series and all your future endeavors.

    • Hi Felice,

      Thanks so much for your kind words, I’m so delighted you enjoyed! Historical fiction is actually my favourite genre and I was very much hoping to produce something similar for The Wolf. The Bernard Cornwell Saxon series is also one of my favourites, so I’m thrilled it reminded you of that. Next book is out in June, fingers crossed it doesn’t disappoint!

      Warm regards,

  2. Leo, just finished THE SPIDER. Just like THE WOLF I was sorry to see it end!
    Now we have to wait- another year? – for your next instalment. This is when I want a time machine for a few minutes.
    You need to make pendants of the book titles! I’m sure they would be popular!
    If you need extra proof readers, I’m happy to help, haha!!

    • Hi Merv – that’s so great you enjoyed them both! Really makes my day to hear. Yes I’m afraid it’ll be another year before the sequel (tentatively titled THE CUCKOO) will be out. Would love to get it done faster but going to have to combine writing it with quite a bit of studying in the meantime. I have every confidence i’ll be blessed with another beautiful pendant-worthy cover from my publishers though! They’ve nailed them so far…

      Warm regards,

  3. Leo, just finished The Wolf and The Spider is in the mail. Love the characters, the premise, and the story and will recommend it to everyone. Keep up the great writing!

  4. Leo, I seriously cannot tell you enough how thankful I am that you’ve created such a wonder series. I read The Wolf and The Spider within the span of a month and I am so ready for the next book! I really couldn’t put it down. I just wanted to say, keep doing what your doing, totally loving what you have so far!

    • That’s so kind Briesa! Makes all the difference to hear you enjoyed. Halfway through the first draft of The Cuckoo now, hoping to have the full manuscript polished off by the summer, and this provides some excellent motivation.

      Warm regards,

  5. I purchased the wolf on a whim, liking the short description on the back and the eye-catching cover. I finished it in one sitting and bought the spider the next day, it took me 3 days to finish due to pesky life commitments, please for the love of god do not make me wait until 2021 for the next installment!

    • I’m so delighted to hear this! Although it isn’t good for my medical studies motivation – I’m supposed to be putting off writing and focusing on the looming exams, and this kind of thing makes me very much want to go back to writing. About halfway through a first draft at the moment so we’re on target to beat 2021!

      Warm regards,

  6. Hi Leo!

    I just bought your books ‚The Wolf‘ and ‚The Spider‘ and have read a couple of pages so far. It‘s right down my alley and I‘m really enjoying it! I have read your comments about a third book being in the making. Do you know how many there will be? Will it be a trilogy or will there be even more? I just don‘t want to read them too fast and then have to wait long months or years for the next adventures of the characters!

    Have a good day!

    • Delighted to hear you’re enjoying! It’s a trilogy and we’re hoping to have the final instalment done this year. It’ll certainly be in the order of months, but I really hope it isn’t years! Really hope you enjoy the rest.

      Warm regards,

      • All around the wolf and the spider were great books. I listened to them on audible while working and I find that I can visualize the Anakim and the great battles between the legions and the southerns. Again great books and can’t wait til the next installment.

      • Great that you enjoyed! Been so pleased with the audiobooks, Matt Addis does a great job. I’ll endeavour to deliver The Cuckoo soon!

        Warm regards,

  7. Just finished The Spider.
    Really enjoyed it , my two favourite writers are Bernard Cornwall and Joe Abercrombie.
    You remind me of both.
    Can’t wait for the next one.

    • Thanks so much Grant – they’re two of my favourites as well, so that’s high praise indeed! Delighted you enjoyed.

      Warm regards,

  8. Absolutely loved both books!
    I’m not a big reader but these books changed it all for me. I felt a big resemblance to the Anakim since I myself love the nature, live in the forest and my mentality is quite similar to theirs.
    Can’t wait to read the Cuckoo!

    • That’s what I like to hear! And jealous you’re living in the Forest, sounds splendid. Nearly done with a first draft of The Cuckoo so hope it shouldn’t be too much longer.

      Warm regards

  9. Leo,

    Hello! I finished The Wolf last night and I cannot speak highly enough of it! I was totally engrossed in your story and far more invested in the characters than I have been in any other book for a long time. I just love it and I am so happy to discover that there is a sequel! I will be reading it too as soon I can get my hands on it.

    The world you have created is so fascinating and unique to anything I have read before! I was intrigued by the idea of the Anakim and the way their society is set up. I enjoyed reading your article here because it helped me see more of your vision for them and your orignal ideas for them.

    Also the characters are all fleshed-out beautifully. It was so lovely to see how Roper grew and changed and made realistic mistakes. I especially enjoyed reading Keturah’s scenes. Her relationship with her dad is similiar to my own relationship with my dad and I really liked their rapport. Keturah is such a strong female character, but she remains feminine and lovely. That is how you make a strong female character.

    As a female I have never really enjoyed reading battle sequences — they become tedious for me with jargon and technicalities — and I much prefer to read chapters of political plotting and complex dialogue. That being said, I was in awe of your battle sequences! I read the last battle in chapter 22 last night and I was literally on the edge of my seat worried for Gray! You even made me worry for Pryce when he fought Garett and Uvoren (Pryce is my special favorite). I understood everything that was happening in the battle and I could envision it clearly — and yet it was still complex and multilayered. It was just glorious!

    I have and will recommend this book to all my friends!

    Thank you so much for writing this book! I look forward to reading the sequel and any other books you write in the future!

    • Hi Laurel,

      Thank you so much for taking the trouble to write your kind message, it was a real pleasure to read. I’m always especially delighted to hear when people have engaged with the characters – it really brings them alive for me and provides great motivation for writing Book 3 (first draft just finished). Hope very much you enjoy The Spider!

      Warm regards,

  10. I read the wolf in a day, I just could not put it down. I devoured the spider in a day and a half only because I was forced to put it down because of family obligations for a few hours. Something told me as I ripped through the pages that I was going to be forced to wait to savor the last but I just could not stop reading. I hope this series does not end with the third book. Please Please Please jump back in time I would love to hear more of the Anakim and their beginnings in this land. All the glorious wars before Roper and all the hints you threw at us of the Anakim wild past and struggle to get to this place they are now just have my mind writing those stories too. I have not enjoyed a trilogy this much in many years. Thank you for such a tremendous read! When you can jerk tears out of me over the pages in a book that says a lot. Your world feels so real.All the characters in this story are fantastic!

    • Thank you very much for your kind words, it’s always wonderful to hear when someone appreciates the hard work! I fear there’s still a little way to go on The Cuckoo but the first draft does exist, and polishing is always the easier bit of the job. Hope you don’t have to wait too much longer!

      Warm regards

  11. Am I going to be able to get The Cuckoo for Christmas this year? I’ve been a good person. LOL

    • I’m so sorry to disappoint – it won’t be ready for Chistmas (though I have no doubt you’ve been a good person!) Still working on the rewrites, looking like early next summer. Very keen to get it right, so hope your patience will stretch that far!

      Warm regards,

  12. I just finished The Cuckoo, it was outstanding and is one of the only books to ever make me cry. I’ve followed this series since 2018 and I found this conclusion satisfying, if depressing. I’m so glad you write this trilogy and wish you all the luck with your future endeavors.

  13. Pingback: On the Origin of Another Species | The Cold Edge·

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