Hello, this is Ahriman again, becoming all productive as I get a week’s vacation from work. And/or as I enter the manic phase of my madness. Whatever works.
So today I’d like to discuss an old favorite, a sci-fi book series I started reading around the age of 7, and finished at 12. I am of course referring to Animorphs. For just under 5 years, a new 200 page Animorphs adventure was waiting at the bookstore on the second week of every month. I only learned much later that the latter half of the series was ghostwritten. Anyway, there were 54 main storyline books, a total of 10 spinoffs and specials (including 2 choose-your-own-adventure books) 2 pc/video games (which sucked) a gameboy game (that was basically a rip-off of Pokemon with morphs instead of monsters) and a tv series (which really sucked.) Recently I was moving my collection of old books when I realized that despite not touching them in years, I only had to see the cover to immediately recall the story within. So it’s a sci-fi series, one that I enjoyed as a kid, unlike with Ringo’s books, there’s a wealth of information available about it online, but I figure I’ll go over it anyway, a bit to produce fodder for debates (there were some truly weird aliens in these books) but mostly because I’m curious how the series will stand the test of time.Book 1, the Invasion
Basically the first book is all about introducing the characters and the premise. 5 kids are walking home from a mall one night, they take a shortcut through an abandoned construction site, and witness the crash of an alien spacefighter. Inside, they find a dying alien, the Andalite (think blue centaur with two eyes on stalks and a scorpion tail) Prince Elfangor (Prince is a military rank for Andalites) who tells them that earth is being invaded by parasitic aliens called Yeerks. The Yeerks are like grey slugs that crawl in ones ear then wrap around and seize control of the brain. Yeerk Hosts are called Controllers. Anyway, Elfangor was part of a great expedition to liberate the Earth, but his mothership got blow into scrap metal and he got shot down.
In the hopes that they can accomplish something, he has one of the kids, Jake, retrieve an Escafil Device from his ship (all the alien names in this series are anagrams of real words.) anyways, it’s a small blue box and once all 5 kids have touched it, they gain the power to acquire a creature’s DNA by touching it, and can then shapeshift into that creature whenever they want. One small catch, there’s a 2 hour limit, after which they’ll be trapped in that animal’s form forever. While morphed, they communicate as Andalites do, via telepathy which they call thought-speak. They cannot morph clothing the first few times, and later only skintight clothes, necessitating a number of hidden caches.
After watching Elfangor’s last stand against Visser Three (Visser is a Yeerk rank, typically treated as an equivalent to general. There are 42, ranked by number with lower number Vissers being senior to higher numbers.) Visser Three is the leader of the invasion of Earth, and is also the only Yeerk to ever take an Andalite as his host, thus gaining morphing capability of his own. Visser Three and Elfangor have some serious history, and his personal slaying of Elfangor does a lot to boost his credit as a villain. Visser Three is almost cartoonishly megalomanical, yet can be deadly serious. In virtually every book he will a.) turn into a terrible monster from another world to combat the animorphs (long before I heard of 40K, animorphs convinced me the universe must be a very scary place) and b.) murder one or more of his subordinates for almost no good reason. Yet somehow, he never really seems incompetent, and whenever he enters you know it just got real and the animorphs need to fight as hard as they ever have or flee.
Anyways, after seeing Elfangor die, the kids barely get out of the construction site alive. They spends a day or so playing with their new powers, then Tobias tells them what Elfangor explained in his last moments, that the Yeerks must leave their hosts every 3 days to feed in a Yeerk Pool. This largely consists of absorbing ‘Kandrona rays’ (Kandrona is the Yeerk’s star, but they have a device that artificially generates Kandrona rays) but also of drinking in some nutrients from the brownish sludge the pool is comprised of. Marco suspects that a local community/family group, the Sharing, is a front for the Yeerks. Problem is Jake’s (the de facto leader and 1st viewpoint character) older brother Tom is a member in good standing of that organization. You see where this is going, of course Tom is revealed as a controller. Marco is also able to identify one of the Human Controllers from the construction site, Mr. Chapman, the vice-principal of their school.
The kids head off to the Gardens, a sort of combined zoo and amusement park to acquire some animals capable of combat. Of course these are all dangerous animals, but while being acquired they sink into a peaceful trance and remain so for a little while (long enough to scurry out of their enclosure anyway.) Jake acquires a tiger, Cassie acquires a wolf (and a horse earlier in the book,) Marco a gorilla, Tobias a hawk, and Rachel acquires both an elephant and a grizzly bear.
The animorphs infiltrate the Yeerk pool after Jake morphs a small lizard to spy on Chapman and finds a secret passage in their school’s janitor closet. They find the Pool is an underground cavern almost the size of a small town, with over a thousand people in it and bulldozers and earthmovers constantly working to expand it. The pool itself is brown and about the size of a pond. There are two metal catwalks going over the pool (though they are constantly called piers) one for Yeerks to leave their hosts, and one for re-infestation. The people who beg, scream, cry, try to escape or try to kill themselves when the Yeerk leaves them are hauled off to one side and stuck in cages for an hour or two until they’re dragged to the re-infestation pier. Voluntary Controllers (collaborators, in other words) are not allowed to leave without their Yeerk, but can spend the same time period in one of the various diners, bars and tv dens that are also waiting at the end of the pier. Provided they can stomach all the screaming and begging from the cage area, of course.
However, Cassie is captured by a controller-cop who previously dropped by her farm looking for “some kids who set off fireworks at the construction site.” The other animorphs find a dark corner and morph into their assorted combat-animals, rescuing Cassie and a few other human hosts. Visser Three shows up and mistakes the animorphs for other andalite survivors of the space battle, an impression the kids do their best to reinforce to stave off an investigation that would actually reveal them. Visser Three morphs and eight-headed fire-breathing monstrosity and the kids barely escape. Tobias is separate from the group but is able to escape on his own, however he exceeds the time limit and becomes trapped in the form of a red-tailed hawk. So, for their first reconnaissance mission, the animorphs learn nothing of use, accomplish nothing of substance and are fortunate to escape with their lives.
Also, one of their number is now a bird.
Alright, since the book exists to introduce the characters, and I’ll be mentioning them at least in passing a lot I suppose I should. The books have a rotation of the 6 major characters so everyone gets a viewpoint story at least once in every 10 books. Specifically, in every group of 10 books the first and sixth books will be about Jake, the second and seventh are narrated by Rachel, the third by Tobias, the fourth and ninth by Cassie, the fifth and tenth by Marco, and Ax is always the eighth. So Jake stars in books 1, 6, 11, 16, 21, 26, 31, 36 etc.
Jake is the young man who becomes the de facto leader of the animorphs. He’s Rachel’s cousin, Marco’s best friend, and in a long standing ‘will they-won’t they’ back and forth with Cassie. Before leading a guerilla war against a vastly superior enemy, Jake liked basketball and videogames. His big brother Tom is a high-ranking controller, and freeing Tom is pretty much the core motivation behind Jake, that and not failing the responsibility the others thrust on him.
Rachel is Jake’s cousin and Cassie’s best friend. She is a gymnast and deeply involved in all the great superficialities of being a teenage girl in America, fashion, shopping and teen mags. Her parents are divorced, though her dad visits her sometimes, and she has two younger sisters. Rachel is very gung-ho about fighting the Yeerks, and most of her character arc is built around her growing dark side as she becomes prepared to go further and sacrifice more to stop the Yeerks.
Tobias begins as the outsider of the group, he isn’t really close friends with any of the others, but is pathetically devoted to Jake who once saved Tobias from some bullies. Tobias never met his parents before the start of the series (and there is a very long story there. I’ll get to it.) but has spent his life being shuffled back and forth between a highly negligent aunt and uncle. Of course, in the first book he is trapped as a bird of prey, which he eventually accepts. It makes him more of an outsider to begin with, since he can’t accompany the others on many dangerous missions, but this changes later on.
Cassie is Rachel’s best friend and Jake’s potential love interest. She lives on a farm near town, and her barn quickly becomes the place the animorphs meet to talk and plan. Her parents are both vetinarians, her mom works for the Gardens (local zoo) while her Dad runs a Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic out of the barn, wherein he takes in injured animals found at the side of highways and with Cassie’s help nurses them back to health and turns them loose. Cassie’s extensive knowledge and easy access to animals is typically used to provide morphs to get the animorph’s missions done. She is also highly principled, and the first to object to any morally questionable plan.
Marco is Jake’s best friend since middle school. His dad is a computer programmer somewhat down on his luck. His mother is “dead” (also a long story) and even 2 years later his father is not coping well. Marco provides most of the humor for the books, which is mostly sarcastic and cynical. However, more than any of the others, Marco can be ruthlessly pragmatic. Marco spends the first 4 books complaining how insane and suicidal fighting the Yeerks is, but after his first POV book he finds reason to continue and only complains, at length, that this particular mission/plan
is insane or suicidal.
Ax, I’ll get to when he’s introduced.
The books had a wide variety of aliens. 80% of these were horrific monsters from beyond the stars that Visser Three would turn into. Many of the rest were slaves of the Yeerks. The most iconic and common:
Andalites. The good guys. Most of the time. Will cover a fair bit on their society later. They absorb nutrients from crushed grasses through their hooves, communicate with telepathy, and while their tail blades are not envenomed, they are very, very fast and sharp enough to remove limbs and heads.
Hork-Bajir, one with a female andalite. Also called aliens-as-designed-by-cuisinart, and seven-foot blade monsters. Actually a peaceful race of tree-herders enslaved by the Yeerks and used as shock troops in their war against the andalites.
Taxxon. Almost all Taxxons are voluntary controllers, and they are typically employed by the Yeerks as pilots, technicians and engineers. Taxxons are gluttons, at every moment terrified of not having enough food, unable to control their hunger. If given the chance, they will gorge themselves until they burst. If injured, they will use their last breath to nibble on their own innards. Even the Yeerks cannot control the hunger when they scent fresh blood, so Taxxons tend to go into feeding frenzies. A sentient race that sold their freedom and their souls for food.Book 2: the Visitor
Rachel is worried about a friend, Melissa’s behavior. Since Melissa is the daughter of Chapman, the highest ranking controller they know of besides Visser Three, she convinces the other animorphs to help her infiltrate the Chapman household.
Oh, and they actually they develop some rules to follow in this book, and promptly ignore half of them. The other half will take a while. First are some common sense things, don’t morph where anyone can see them, try not to stay in morph longer than 90 minutes if reasonably practical. No morphing for personal reasons (the first and most frequently broken.) No killing human controllers if it can be at all avoided, though this does not extend to any of the alien controllers who are just as likely to be innocent victims of the Yeerks. No morphing other humans, at least not without their explicit permission.
After this, Rachel infiltrates the house twice alone by morphing Melissa’s cat, and finds the source of her friend’s problem: Daddy is so cold and distant ever since he started managing a planetary invasion. She finds that Chapman has a communication device in his basement for reaching the Blade Ship. Visser three shows off some of those management skills by threatening Chapman with death if he can’t find the “andalite bandits” and morphing a Varnax (predator from the homeworld that wraps it’s jaws around a host and hoovers the Yeerk out) just to intimidate Chapman over the holo-videophone.
The second time Rachel gets busted, thrown into a cat-carrier and taken off to the construction site to meet Mr. Nice-Visser. The other animorphs are able to create a diversion by wrecking a grounded Bug Fighter with an earth mover. For the second time in a row, the animorphs learn nothing of tactical significance, accomplish almost nothing, and are lucky to escape with their lives. The resistance to the alien invader is off to a great start. We do learn that Chapman and his wife became voluntary controllers so their daughter would be spared, and even as a host he can make things a bit troublesome on the yeerks if they renege. Book 3: the Encounter
(Or, I need to stop summarizing everything if I ever want to finish)
Mostly this book is about Tobias personally coming to grips with his new life as a bird-of-prey. In the beginning he is living in Jake’s attic, eating leftover meat smuggled to him. By the end, he has claimed a territory in the woods and hunts his own food. He also discovers a cloaked object moving through the air and killing a bunch of geese. This turns out to be a truck ship, which comes down from the Yeerk fleet in orbit and sucks up large amounts of water from isolated lakes then flies back, taking a long slow cruise through the atmosphere to pick up breathable air each way. The group infers from this that the Yeerks “aren’t like Star Trek” and can’t make their own air and water. They decide to sabotage the truck ship, infiltrating it by morphing trout and coming up with the water intake. Except it turns out the rest of the ship is not accessible from the water tank. Tobias steals a Dracon Beam (raygun sidearm) from a security controller on the ground and shoots up the bridge, crashing the ship.
The rest of the gang also picks up wolf morphs (they’ll use them a lot) and exactly one book after coming up with the rules, Tobias convinces Rachel to morph an elephant and wreck a used-car dealers as a diversion while Tobias freed the dealership’s mistreated hawk mascot. Subtle, but I’m sure it was a worthy cause. For once, the Animorphs achieve something by destroying some enemy infrastructure. We never see any serious effects to the Yeerks from this act (perhaps they had more ships?) but not bad for a first time.Book 4: the Message.
We start with Cassie morphing a squirrel to find out what’s breaking into her barn and killing the animals. It’s a fox. This thrilling adventure over, we can get to the A plot. Tobias and Cassie are having weird dreams about the ocean and a voice calling to them. Since they can’t exactly call a shrink, and some wreckage washes up on the beach with apparently Andalite writing on it, they decide it must be an SOS from a second survivor of the Andalite ship. When they investigate the wreckage they find controllers, and overhear them talking. Turns out Visser Three is also having dreams/visions, and threw a Hork-Bajir out an airlock for disturbing his concentration.
After a few adventures in the life of a dolphin/stowaway, they find the Dome. What’s that you ask? Well, all sizeable Andalite ships are Dome Ships. Andalites, being plain creatures are notoriously claustrophobic. They’ll endure a roof over their heads for a while, if it means they don’t freeze, get rained on or suck vacuum, but only for as long as absolutely necessary. To alleviate this, all Andalite ships maintain a hologram of sky on the ceilings and much of the walls, and their decks are covered with grass. Still, there are limits, which is why every warship intended for long deployments has a domed park so they can run around for a few kilometers under the stars. Naturally, this is something of an impediment to actual combat, but the Andalites have seen TNG, so the dome separates from the rest of the ship when maneuvering is needed. This is what the Dome Ship Galaxy Tree
did, leaving a single crewman, Elfangor’s kid brother Aximili (Ax) in the Dome when the rest of the ship was destroyed, the Dome crashed in the ocean.
Ax is initially suspicious and hostile, but agrees to come with them when the Yeerks start depth charging the Dome. They escape in dolphin form (except Ax who morphs a shark) and are pursued by Visser Three who morphs a ‘Mardut’ sot of a bright red, toothed humpback whale, with a thousand tiny flailing fishtails all over its body to help with locomotion, and three large squirt-bladders for the same purpose. Apparently comes from one of Andalite’s moons. I’m not going to break down and rant about the alien ecologies yet, but its coming. The kids can’t outrun Visser Three, but he is suddenly attacked by a pod of humpback whales (In these books, whales are sentient, just difficult to communicate with, earlier they saved a whale from sharks.) and the kids make it to shore. Ax pledges allegiance to Jake as his prince, then combines the DNA of the four kids to make a human morph that’s a person distinct from any of them.Book 5: the Predator
Ax wants to go home, and report on the destruction of the Galaxy Tree
and that the Yeerks have committed far more resources to the subjugation of Earth than the Andalites ever believed. To facilitate this, Ax will build an advanced com unit to send a distress signal, luring a Bug Fighter, the Animorphs will ambush the crew (one Taxxon, one Hork-Bajir) and Ax can fly the Fighter back to his homeworld.
They pick up some supplies from Radio Shack, but need a Z-Space transponder. Zero-Space, or Z-Space is the FTL in Animorphs. Basically there exists a point outside the universe, which is equidistant to every point in the universe. Ships and transmissions can thus be sent anywhere, but voyages through Z-Space still take weeks or months, longer if Z-Space “reconfigures” itself which it does periodically, while Z-Space com is real time from the other end of the galaxy. There are ‘strategic points in Z-space and the Andalites at least can derive energy from Z-Space. To say the least, it’s treated somewhat inconsistently.
The only Z-Space transponder they know of on the ground is in Chapman’s basement (continunity!) To get it they morph ants but are a.) almost overwhelmed by the ants’ sheer mindlessness and b.) almost ripped to shreds by a rival ant colony. New rule, never morphing ants again.
They put together the transmitter, but the Yeerks are shockingly not taken in, and ambush the Animorphs’ ambush. They are captured and taken still in battle-morph form to the Yeerk Mothership, a powerful jellyfish like spacecraft that will never be seen or heard from again. It turns out Visser Three is entertaining his technical superior and rival, Visser One. One is the one who discovered Earth for the Yeerk Empire, founded the Sharing and is their foremost expert on humanity, so it’s only natural that she’d have next-to-nothing to do with the invasion of Earth. Visser One is also the Yeerk controlling Marco’s previously-believed-dead mother, having faked her death to get back into the wider galaxy. Visser One arranges to surreptitiously release the Animorphs to disgrace Visser Three, and they all go home. Except Ax. Because the universe hates him.