The Quality of Mercy

by Catherine Wells

In the evolutionary process, when does an animal cease to be an animal and become a person? Or in more concrete terms, what behaviors or mental processes separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom?

This is a question that has intrigued me for some time, as evidenced by the fact that the first draft of “The Quality of Mercy” [on sale now] was written some thirty years ago. What indicates a creature—Terran or alien—is “sentient” or “intelligent” or “self-aware” or one of the many other terms we use to try to pin down this vague notion of what makes us unique.

In its original written version, “The Quality of Mercy” was about a researcher studying a borderline species on a distant planet, a species whose personhood was up for debate. The real conflict, of course, was between the two human characters, one a warrior and the other a scholar. Side note: the warrior was originally Soln Shipner, whom I plucked—tattoos, braids, and all—to use in my novel Beyond the Gates (Del Rey, 1997), and in its sequel “Builders of Leaf Houses” (Analog, December 2015), which won the AnLab Award for Best Novella that year. The resolution of the conflict in the original story was rather predictable.

Another side note: my first rewrite of this story was as a spec script for Star Trek: Next Generation, with Worf as the warrior. Like every other idea I pitched to the good folks at STNG, it received a polite no-thanks. It then sat in my files for a number of years. Never give up on an interesting idea.

By the time I came back to the story last year, I had learned a few things. For one, I had learned that “warrior” and “scholar” are not necessarily a recipe for conflict. In fact, my research for the novel “Macbeatha” (Desert Moon Press, 2014) revealed that in ancient Celtic culture, nobles were both warriors and scholars. A Celtic noble was expected to be literate (in Latin, at least), to know mathematics, and to play a musical instrument, as well as to lead a warband. The same is true of several other ancient societies: a gentleman was expected to display both military and literary prowess. Think of the samurai in Japan. Think of ancient Rome.

So there is a longstanding tradition of a warrior-scholar, which continues today. Check the bios of our early astronauts, who were military pilots, for the number who held advanced degrees. I picked up on this with the character of Soln Shipner, who had both a doctorate in taxonomy and a full command of martial arts. So in approaching a rewrite of this story, I had, if not a new perspective, a more full-bodied perspective on the character of the warrior.

I also researched the term sentience, which I used in the first two iterations, just to make sure it was the correct word. It wasn’t. Apparently, as with so many things, there are degrees of sentience. I tried a number of other terms: self-awareness, cognizance, consciousness, intelligence—none of them really captured, in their technical definitions, that thing which distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Then I stumbled across a field called cognitive ethology. Cognitive ethology is the study of the mental experiences of animals in their natural environment, an attempt to measure the level of consciousness/sentience/self-awareness. I chose it not because it nails the concept I was after, but because it dives right into the question. If we were to encounter an alien species, how would we know if it was an intelligent animal akin to chimpanzees and other apes, or a primitive person akin to homo sapiens?

I poked at the field of cognitive ethology looking for behaviors or symptoms a researcher might point at to say, “See, this is a sign of consciousness/sentience/self-awareness.” What are the measures of cognitive ethology? Language? Culture? Morality? If you know scholars, you won’t be surprised to learn there are competing theories. What would Dr. Jezzaida Rath be looking for as she studied the zohr? And what would she find?

Well, of course, I’m not going to tell you here. Let’s just say that, as with so many weighty things, there is no definitive answer.

So now I had a researcher in cognitive ethology going to play Jane Goodall with an alien species that might or might not be considered people, and a warrior-scholar assigned to set up her camp who was . . . what? Not a Klingon, not that curious blend of Viking and Pict that became Soln Shipner, so what was he? A special forces vet, of course. Bearer of a tattoo that marked him as someone not to mess with. In my mind—though not in the text of the story—he was a progenitor of Soln Shipner, one of the future founders of Nechtan’s Way, a cult whose members were expected to teach at university, do field research, and challenge their rivals to combat. The kind of guy you want around when your planet gets cut off and technology crashes and you have to rely on your survival skills and a strict code of ethics. Logan Graham.

Why a Scot? Hm. Remember all that research I did for “Macbeatha?” It may have left me a little biased. And wouldn’t you know, when I went back and read some of his dialogue, I could heard that faint Scottish burr.

So now I had my two main characters, my evolving species, and—left from the original story—an outside threat. But the resolution? Let’s just say that thirty-odd years have curbed my self-righteousness. Who needs to learn mercy, and how that mercy is expressed, can be as slippery and diverse as measures of cognitive ethology.

Catherine Wells is the author of numerous novels and short stories of speculative fiction, including the AnLab Award-winning Best Novella of 2015, “Builders of Leaf Houses.” For more about her books and short stories, visit

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