In which we are introduced to our five protagonists, the nature of the galactic conflict, and the rules governing the rest of the series. Plus a couple of glaring missteps that will be swiftly retconned away.
The Animorphs books utilize that totally rad technique, inescapable in kids' book series of the nineties, of rotating narrators each volume. Book One is narrated by Jake, the most boring Animorph. He is The Leader: the generic white male who has too little personality to fulfill any other role in the group, and therefore gets put in charge by virtue of possessing the Golden Trifecta of Protagonist Traits (whiteness, maleness, blandness).
My name is Jake. That's my first name, obviously. I can't tell you my last name. It would be too dangerous. … I won't even tell you where I live. You'll just have to trust me that it is a real place, a real town. It may even be your town. I'm writing this all down so that more people will learn the truth.
Initially, that justification sort of makes sense if you don't think too hard about it, but as time goes on you have to start wondering: Why use your real first names? Why give us so much detail about your plans, battle tactics, and (as the series goes on) despair and exhaustion and PTSD, when the bad guys can also see this information? This cheesy-ass narrative set-up recurs every damn time, right down to the eye-roll-inducing “it could be your town!” It gets less and less convincing with every book, but the story gets more and more epic so who really cares.
Anyway, Jake and Marco are BFFs. Marco's three personality traits are being short, funny, and Hispanic. He's like Carlos from The Magic School Bus, only with a lot more hidden angst. Marco and Jake are being quintessential nineties pop-culture kids, playing videogames and looking at comic books at the mall. (Jake has a Sega at home, you guys!) They decide to take a shortcut home through the abandoned construction site with weedy Tobias, Jake's cousin Rachel, and sweet little Cassie.
|L-R: Tobias, Rachel, Marco. The 1990s were all about diversity, y'all.|
Cassie and Rachel are another pair of Benetton-ad-appropriately mismatched besties. Respectively: gentle, African-American animal-lover; conventionally beautiful, sassy fashionista. Tobias is the drippy friendless weirdo who gets bullied until Jake tells the bullies to stop.
(See, he's the hero because he's the privileged white guy who tells other privileged white guys not to give nerds swirlies. Jake and Hal Jordan should start a club for boring white guys who are inexplicably the hero when somebody much cooler could/should do their job.)
|I HAVE VERY STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT GREEN LANTERN.|
Jake has a big ole boner for Cassie, who, he thinks, “always understands everything on some different, more mystical level.” Because brown people, especially brown women, are totally ~mystical~ and ~close to nature~, you guys. As a short-haired animal-loving plaid-wearer, Cassie has always pinged the hell out of my lesbiandar, but hey, our protags are 2/5 people of color; let's not lay on the diversity too crazy thick.
(The canon ships are Jake/Cassie and Rachel/Tobias. Zzzzz. I could get behind Ax/Marco, I guess, if that were a thing. Ooh, headcanon accepted.)
Jake drops some light misogyny, and Rachel sasses him good. Later books always call her Xena, but here Jake compares her to Storm from X-Men. Cassie might be the dykey one, but Rachel's the grrrl power archetype. She'll crush the shit out of you with her fierce feminism and look a million dollars while doing it. As a kid, I was in love with Cassie, but now I really love Rachel as well.
So a spaceship lands in the construction site, and a telepathic shape-shifting space centaur with stalk eyes and a scorpion tail (Andalite, for short) drops some exposition bombs on our hapless heroes. Parasitic brain-slugs called Yeerks have invaded Earth and are taking over the bodies of human hosts, or Controllers. Controllers are indistinguishable from non-Controllers because the Yeerks have total access to all of their thoughts and memories, and can replicate their personality perfectly while the host is helplessly paralyzed inside their own body. It's a fantastically creepy premise – Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of The Exorcist.
The Andalite, who is injured and dying, whips out his magic blue box and offers the kids the power to morph into animals. They are hesitant, except Cassie (who, we will never be allowed to forget even for a second, is the offspring of two vets and totally hearts animals) and Tobias (who seems to have a mysterious intuitive affinity with the Andalite!! Could the strange otherworldly kid possibly have some as-yet-unknown kinship with the alien?? Find out in The Andalite Chronicles, which we'll get round to reading many, many weeks from now). But – pew pew! YEERK ATTACK! Kind of decides the issue for you, doesn't it?
Captain Expositiontaur conveniently introduces us to the two species that are all enslaved to the Yeerks: Hork-Bajir, who are “walking weapons” covered in blades and horns, and Taxxons, who are giant razor-toothed centipedes. Hork-Bajir were Good Guys, because Appearances Are Deceiving, and their enslavement is a Big Damn Tragedy. Taxxons are Bad Guys and they are disgusting and horrifying and you guys I think I just unearthed the source of my lifelong fear and hatred of centipedes. Their commander is Visser Three, and he is Teh Unspeakable Evils because he is the only Andalite-Controller (gasp, horror, retch). He gloats and is ebil and kills the shit out of the noble Andalite prince who so kindly set our plot in motion. Kids run away from the space monsters, and it's actually really fast-paced and tense, in a pulpy page-turner way.
Now that we know the set-up, it's time for the gang to do the requisite Newly-Acquired Superpowers Exploration scenes to establish Da Rules. Here is what we learn about morphing:
- First, you have to acquire the animal's DNA, which you do by touching it and concentrating.
- Now you can morph into the animal. The physical change is always described in graphic detail, sometimes disgustingly so.
- You experience the animal's consciousness along with your own, and you have to take a moment to tame its instincts. This takes longer with higher-order beasties, but it's a useful happenstance because you can harness these instincts to do shit the animal already knows how to do, like fly or whatever.
- While in morphed form, you communicate through telepathy. Or maybe French – <it's written like this.> (In the French translations, assuming there were French translations, is the telepathy shown by quotation marks?)
- OOPS!: In this book, the morphed Tobias can hear the human Jake's thoughts. This will be retconned out of existence, because obviously it makes no sense. Duh.
- You can morph tight clothes, a swimsuit or a bodysuit, thanks to the Avoid Preteen Nudity Wherever Possible get-out clause of the Contrivance Accords of Fiction-Writing.
- OOPS!: At some point, I recall Rachel morphing herself a new haircut, another ability that will be retconned away. You do, however, lose all injuries, scars, and body-mods when you morph, because you're drawing on DNA. (Some of the really interesting implications of this get explored in the later books of the series.)
- Most importantly, you can't stay in morph longer than two hours. If you do, you lose your morphing power and get stuck in whatever shape you've morphed to. FOREVER.
One of the coolest things about Animorphs books, sadly not replicable in my PDFs, was the little flip-book animation in the bottom right-hand corner: flip through, and you'd see a character going through one of the morphs that happened in that book. So freakin' cool.
|Lizard morph: uncool, but a vast improvement on Jake's boring-ass face.|
Jake's big brother Tom keeps trying to recruit him and his friends to this group called The Sharing. The Sharing is like Bible study group for people whose brains are controlled by alien slugs (so, not far removed from the evangelical Bible study group I used to go to). Yeah, turns out the most interesting thing about Jake is that his big brother is a Controller. Narratively, the function of The Sharing is to set up the primary Yeerk weakness: once every three days, Yeerks need to leave their host bodies and feed on Kandrona rays from their Yeerk pools, otherwise they die.
Master plot of the book: the kids attend a meeting of The Sharing, where they discover that their assistant principal, a charmer named Chapman (a delightful personality even pre-Yeerk, as we'll discover in Andalite Chronicles), is the boss of the local Controllers. Chapman unwittingly leads them to the secret entrance to the Yeerk pool. The Animorphs head to the local zoo to pick up some of their signature morphs – Jake's tiger, Marco's gorilla, Rachel's elephant – and then infiltrate the Yeerk pool to rescue Cassie, who has been captured by Controllers. They succeed, but at the cost of Visser Three learning of their existence. Since only Andalites are known to have the morphing tech, he assumes they are Andalites; this misperception will be the Animorphs' major tactical advantage throughout most of the series. Of course, it also invalidates the whole “I'm writing this because people need to know the truth, but anonymously so the Yeerks won't find out who I am” schtick.
Oh, and Tobias gets stuck in his hawk morph, but he's not too cut up about it.
|Tobias, on getting stuck as a hawk.|
The big moral debate of this book is whether or not the kids should actually get involved in the war, and it's largely driven by their respective family situations. Tobias feels a moral obligation to fight. Marco feels it is his moral obligation not to fight, because his mom's death a few years ago nearly destroyed his dad, and if something happens to Marco he doesn't think his dad could cope. This isn't an issue for poor tragic Tobias, because he doesn't have any family (or does he and it somehow explains his very personal stake in this war??). Jake is on the fence until he finds out that his brother Tom is a Controller, at which point he can't not fight. Rachel is a gung-ho warrior princess, while Cassie is mostly interested in being able to become various animals. All of these conflicts and characterizations get fleshed out further, and become more and more agonizing, as the series goes on. God these books are awesome.
Tobias loves the shit out of his hawk morph, even before he gets stuck in it. <I hate changing back [to human]. It's like going back into a prison or something. I hate it when I don't have wings.> And later: “I'm happy with just my hawk morph. I don't want to be anything else.” DINGDINGDING we have a metaphor for being trans*! Especially when we compare Jake's response. Jake is in dog morph when he learns that his brother is a Controller, and he takes refuge from the horror in the dog's simple emotions. “I didn't even want to morph back into my human body. I knew that I could just let myself go again, and in a few minutes my dog brain would forget why my human brain was sad. … Now I knew why Tobias was so reluctant to leave his hawk's body. Being an animal could be a nice way to escape from all your troubles.” Notice the difference: Jake wants to stay in morph because it takes his mind off his problems; Tobias thinks his human body is “a prison.”
I didn't go into this reread looking for a very simple analogy for the difference between drag and transition, but I think I just found one.
Hey, It's 1996! Pop Culture Reference Log
Here are all the pop culture references I spotted in this book. A couple are fairly timeless, but some of them are almost as incurably 1990s as Seth Green's Nerf commercial.
- Star Trek (this one comes up a lot)
- David Letterman
- Dead Zone 5, a (presumably invented) “CD game we were going to play on my computer” (LOL 5EVA)
- Fantastic Four
- King Kong Vs Godzilla
Next time: Rachel revisits an old friendship, the true horror of being a Controller is revealed, and I have lots of feels.