The best novels about animals becoming sentient

Who am I?

In addition to writing novels, I’m a humanities editor for Oxford University Press. So, I’m interested in the political and theological implications of non-human intelligence. I wonder how people would react to such a revelation. Some would be fascinated by this radical new perspective. Others would be horrified at what they perceive as a transgression against nature. I’m also drawn to this topic because I still vividly recall the entertainment of my youth, which regularly featured anthropomorphic animals. Sometimes they’re just cool or funny. But on occasion—like with The Secret of NIMH—they raise profound questions of identity and rebellion, even for an audience that is too young to understand.


I wrote...

Morte

By Robert Repino,

Book cover of Morte

What is my book about?

The “war with no name” has begun. The instigator is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who have raised an army that will wipe out the humans and build a new utopia. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.

Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions. But his true motivation is his search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will lead to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the ultimate fate of all the earth's creatures.

The books I picked & why

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O'Brien, Zena Bernstein (illustrator),

Book cover of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Why this book?

Like many members of my generation, I came across this story through its film adaptation. It wasn’t until I began writing a middle grade novel that I finally gave the book a try. The simplicity of the story pulls you in: humble field mouse Mrs. Frisby needs help, and her only hope lies in a nearby rat colony. As she descends into their eerily civilized community, we learn that this is not another cute novel for children about anthropomorphic animals. The rats are the product of an experiment designed to enhance their intelligence. Their newfound ingenuity has gifted them with culture and science, but also with greed and politics. To save her family, Mrs. Frisby must learn to navigate this treacherous world, even if it means becoming more like the rats. 


Animosity

By Marguerite Bennett,

Book cover of Animosity

Why this book?

The animals in Bennett’s graphic novel do not gain sentience gradually, nor is their experience hidden from the rest of the world. Instead, animals all over the globe one day “wake up” and begin to wage war on humanity, and each other, creating a state of upheaval that few can comprehend. It’s that boldness and sheer shock value that I found most appealing. Like all good stories about animals gaining sentience, this one toys with the idea that non-human intelligence is some sort of affront to the natural order. At the same time, the story is grounded in the love between 11-year-old Jesse and her dog Sandor, who has sworn to protect her on a perilous journey. I enjoyed bouncing back and forth between affection and horror. Maintaining that balance is no easy feat!


A Beautiful Truth

By Colin McAdam,

Book cover of A Beautiful Truth

Why this book?

A childless couple adopts a chimpanzee named Looee, and you already know from reading that sentence that it will lead to trouble and heartbreak. After a few pages, I didn’t care. In McAdam’s skilled hands, the inevitable sadness doesn’t matter, because the delicately handled point of view perfectly captures a doomed creature trapped between two opposing identities. In contrast, we also meet Podo, an alpha chimp at a research facility seeking to test the intelligence of primates. Podo is fully ape, but he is turning into something more. Their paths soon join, taking them deeper into a gray area between human and animal that I had never seen rendered on the page so vividly before. 


The Only Harmless Great Thing

By Brooke Bolander,

Book cover of The Only Harmless Great Thing

Why this book?

The structure and style of this book might make it the most challenging on my list, but I think it’s worth the effort. Bolander’s novellette takes two obscure events from a century ago and weaves them into a unique alternate history. The first event: a group of factory workers die of radiation poisoning in New Jersey. The second: an Indian elephant is deliberately electrocuted at Coney Island. From there, a community of elephant matriarchs forms an uneasy partnership with a team of scientists. In my day job, I edit articles by historians, and I’m obsessed with our imperfect way of preserving history. The matriarchs have a solution! Through the ages, they cultivate a treasure trove of stories that form a bulwark against the persistent misremembering of the past.


Tomorrow

By Damian Dibben,

Book cover of Tomorrow

Why this book?

Though there is a supernatural element to this story, it features a dog named Tomorrow who learns about the real world in the most mundane way possible: by hanging around too long, and experiencing the inevitable loss that we all face. After his master injects Tomorrow with an immortality elixir, the two are separated, and the dog waits over a century for his companion to return. Along the way, he witnesses historical events, while meeting animals who live the innocent life he once enjoyed. By the time Tomorrow resumes his search, he is a changed dog, a person in every sense of the word, though his identity remains rooted in loyalty and love. This book makes you wonder: can you hold onto those good things after life has chipped away at you for so long?


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