Shape Shifting Without Magic

The character Zane lived in my head for years before he became the hero of my book y1 and I knew exactly what he could do. He could control the muscles of his body, and particularly his face, well enough to alter his appearance at will. It seemed theoretically possible to me, and it sounded like an ability that would make for a fun story.

One problem was what to call it. It was shape shifting in my mind, but in the world of fantasy shape-shifting often describes taking on the form of an animal, with the change brought on by a full moon or by a bite from another shape shifter. These are magical changes. The physics and biology don’t have to make sense, because reader and writer have agreed to pretend that a 120 pound girl can turn into a 400 pound lioness, behave as an animal, and turn human again. This is all great fun if you are into stories like that, but it wasn’t the kind of story I was writing.

My favorite shape shifter of all time took the process a step further.  Actor René Murat Auberjonoi’s wonderful character Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine could actually turn into a silver liquid at will, slither under a door or through a crack in the walls, and emerge on the other side as a solid of any shape. Shape shifting doesn’t get much more versatile than that. In fairness, Robert Patrick’s Terminator T-1000 in Terminator 2 could do much the same thing, but with a decidedly more villainous twist. Both were fabulous to watch, but Zane had to stay solid and keep his human body.

normal 1Lucky for me, the Earth we live on is full of creatures who really can do some variation of what I wanted for Zane.  Cuttlefish, octopi and chameleons head this list, as this wonderful TED video on shapeshifters in the real world shows. My version of shape shifting was destined to be less eye-popping, but I hoped that the trade off would be that my reader might wonder if maybe, just maybe, a real life Zane could exist.

Here is an excerpt from y1 which explains much about Zane’s unique talents:

Lack of time was one reason why Zane had never tried out for a school play. Tennis, the sport he had finally settled on in high school, kept him busy, not to mention the real time killer for the college bound of studying for standardized tests, taking standardized tests, and the visiting, applying for, and getting into college routine that has become almost a full-time job for today’s aspiring young person.

There were other reasons as well. His father would certainly have winced. Zane wasn’t all that keen himself to be identified with the theater crowd, mostly because they tended to be a flamboyant bunch, and Zane preferred keeping a low profile. Blending. Which was why, in his own way, he had become a rather good actor even if his style was not particularly well suited to the stage.

He sounded more Texan in Texas, more East Coast at school, more educated on campus, and less educated in a bar. He could carry himself like a preppie, gesture and stand like a rodeo kid, walk like he was from the inner city. He never consciously mimicked people; it just happened. He’d known from early on that his mind was a precious thing. It gathered input, deduced quickly, and remembered well. Therefore, his body’s main job was to protect his mind from harm. He figured that his body had found and developed all the skills it could to do that.

Over the years Zane had been able to find many examples of physical mimicry in the animal world, and he had long since satisfied himself that while he had developed some unusual capabilities for a human, there was nothing magical about him. As an adult he didn’t even believe in such things. He figured that he just had a better mind-to-body link than most and had been gifted with particularly adept fine muscle control, which he himself had worked hard to hone over the years. In the end, there had been a lot of time spent in front of mirrors playing around to get good at what he could do. The results would have astounded his friends and family.

Zane knew that there was one peculiarity about his skills. When the male cuttlefish turns its skin from brown to white to warn approaching males that it is going to fight, the cuttlefish, as far as we know, does not give the process a lot of thought. Perhaps no more so than the man who places his hands on his hips defiantly. But the difference is that the man can choose to do something else with his arms while no one is sure whether the cuttlefish chooses anything. So here is where it got confusing.

Zane did, after all, have a human brain, and making choices was one of the very things his brain had evolved to do. So while his abilities in biological mimicry would often occur without his conscious choice, like a reflex, other times he could and would choose to control them. He could stop changes he felt starting to happen and had gotten better at that with practice. He could undo changes which had already happened, and that seemed to be a little easier. Finally, over the last few years, he had gotten significantly better at learning how to instigate changes of his own conscious choosing. That last ability turned this whole thing into way more than a reflex, he thought, into way more than what the octopus or chameleon could do. It was no longer just a quirk. The things that Zane’s mind could make his body do were a gift.

Certain things of course could not be altered. Clothes, obviously. So Zane often carried a second shirt in his backpack in case he wanted to disappear. Hair of any kind was a problem, made up as it was of dead cells with no ability to respond. So Zane kept his medium brown misbehaved mop cut short and wore hats a lot. Sometimes he took alternate headgear with him as well.

His size could be altered a little, but not as much as he would have liked. Zane guessed maybe plus or minus ten percent. He’d learned to modify his shape mildly. For instance he could make his chin recede more or his shoulders appear broader. But he couldn’t make himself have a third arm coming out of his back. At best, he’d managed to produce a short lump that looked like a tumor between his shoulder blades. He kept working on it on though.

He had always been good with color, as long as it involved pigments contained by his cells. There was no turning turquoise. But it was sometimes convenient to change ethnicity, and occasionally still convenient to turn his skin toward the color of his surroundings if he could manage to get the clothed parts of him otherwise camouflaged.

Afi had asked him if he had ever tried modifying his texture. He hadn’t, but he liked the concept and so had practiced it a little, with some minor success. He smiled at the memory of Afi, a little surprised to notice how thinking of Afi generally made him smile.

For all that Zane had enjoyed the challenge and simple entertainment of learning to better control his gift, tonight would be the first time that he had ever contrived ahead of time to use it to purposefully mislead someone. He recognized that another person might have gone there years ago and done so often. What an ability for a con artist to have. But to Zane, well, misleading was lying. It didn’t feel comfortable. He had neither the need for nor the interest in it.

But tonight he was armed with dual justifications. He had convinced himself that Peter Hulson’s quest for information before he died was something of a noble cause. He recognized that it probably provided a much-needed distraction for a man in a good deal of emotional and physical pain. So he had already resolved to make his reports accurate and frequent. If a little subterfuge was needed to achieve that end, he had decided that he was okay with that.

Then a second incentive presented itself. Earlier in the week, Chloe had invited him to join her and Raven for drinks after work again today and he was kind of looking forward to it. Then yesterday she had postponed the outing. “Raven will be having drinks there without us,” Chloe had volunteered with a shrug, “doing what a girl’s gotta do.”

“What’s that?” Zane had asked a little puzzled. Chloe rolled her eyes.

“When the great and powerful COO of a company wants to take a lowly sales rep out for a drink and stare at her tits for an hour, she goes. I just hope he’s content with staring and doesn’t try to strong arm poor Raven into more. She’s had trouble saying no to powerful men before. I think it’s daddy abandonment issues myself.”

So Zane had come into work today with a backpack containing a shirt he would never wear out in public himself, a hat that classified as the same, and plans to go to the nearby bar and try to sit as close to Neil and Raven as possible. He was thinking he’d go for being a little smaller and darker, with considerably more Asian features. Given his good hearing, he should be able to listen in just fine.

And what if Neil started to pressure Zane’s friend who was a little easier to push around than she should be? The time for assertiveness training for Raven would be later, Zane thought. If he heard anything he didn’t like, Zane was planning to find a way to accidentally knock an ice cold drink on Neil’s lap.

For more information on this subject see:

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus
Chameleon changing colors
TED’s David Gallo

One thought on “Shape Shifting Without Magic

  1. Pingback: y1: Shape Shifting Without Magic | 46. Ascending

Would you like to add your thoughts? Please do.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s