The Evolution of Dragons, by Rachel Hartman, Author of Seraphina
Editor's Note: Open Rachel Hartman's young adult fantasy novel, Seraphina, and slip into a completely original world where dragons and humans have lived together for forty years -- until a sinister plot threatens to disrupt the peace. Here, Hartman discusses the inspiration behind her dragons and explains how both comics and science played pivotal roles in the creation of her debut novel.
When people ask about the inspiration for Seraphina, what they usually want to know is how I came up with my dragons -- unemotional, mathematically minded creatures that can take human shape. Luckily, the fossil record is clear, and I can easily trace their evolution.
Ten years ago, I was drawing a comic book that I'd intended to feature dragons. Alas, I found the beasts difficult to draw; they looked like dreadfully proportioned dogs. I decided they could take human form purely as a drawing expedient, to make things easier for myself.
Little did I know how many ideas would spring from this simple act of laziness.
In my comic, a dragon scholar and a human woman fell in love. They could not be together; the reasons seemed obvious. Aside from the not-inconsiderable ick factor, they were separate species. It would be like cats marrying dogs; you're not going to get any "pittens."
A friend kept bugging me, though. "When dragons become humans, are they human all the way through? Are their brains human? How about their cells?"
She was hinting at the possibility of half-dragons. I rejected the idea as ridiculous (also: icky), but it niggled at me. How far inside did the transformation reach, indeed? And what were the implications of that?
Years later, I learned about Sensory Processing Disorder, and suddenly everything clicked. SPD has to do with how the brain prioritizes and integrates sensory input. Everybody's brain does it a little differently. Some people find clothing textures irritating or noises too intense. If these differences are taken to the extreme, however, they can be debilitating. Some children require eating therapy, for example, because they cannot tolerate different textures of food.
This got me thinking. What would it take to integrate a new set of senses? To go from scaly, insensitive dragon scales to smooth human skin, or from the keen eyesight of an apex predator to pathetic human eyes (which can't even see infrared)? A dog that can't smell is effectively blind; our noses are surely inferior to those of dragons. A dragon would have a lot to adjust to while in human form.
The sensory issues were only half of it. What about emotions? In their natural shape, dragons wouldn't need them. Emotions are a touchy-feeling mammalian thing, useful for social cohesion and raising our young. What would it be like experiencing that new brain chemistry for the first time? Emotions can be difficult enough to manage for those of us with a lifetime of practice. Dragons would need strategies and discipline to keep from getting overwhelmed.
From this grew the dragons' repressive culture, with its conflicted stance on humans and human-brain byproducts (such as art). And where there is repression, there will be some who cannot abide it -- such as Seraphina's mother, who let herself be human right down to her cells.
Damn propriety. Forgive me, St. Clare.
I stepped forward and took him in my arms. He was exactly my height, which surprised me; my awe of him had made him seem taller. He emitted a whimper of protest, or maybe surprise, but wrapped his arms around me and buried his face in my hair, half weeping, half scolding me.
"Life is so short," I said, not sure why I was saying it, not even sure if that was really true for someone like me.
We were still standing there, clinging to each other, our feet ice-cold in the snow, when Orma landed on the next hilltop, followed closely by Basind. Kiggs lifted his head and stared at them, big-eyed. My heart fell.
I'd told him I had no devices. I'd lied right to the prince's face, and here was the proof: the dragon I'd called, and his dimwitted sidekick.