I know the main reason I decided to study science at university was to scratch my curiosity bump. ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ were my favourite words. I drove my parents and teachers crazy, I’m certain, until I learnt to read and find my own answers. University was the gateway to discovering the reasons as to why the sky was blue and the grass was green, and the reason why cats have fur and human beings have hair, and a million other questions. I’m guessing that Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov had a similar curiosity bump.
Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov wanted to know all about the reproductive biology of animals, and specialized in the field of artificial insemination and the interspecific hybridization of animals. For those who are unsure what interspecific hybridization means, this is the process of taking to different species of related animals and interbreeding them; this is the process that produces mules – a cross between a donkey jack and horse mare, and produces the less common hinnies – a cross between a horse stallion and donkey jenny. Ivanov was interested in more exotic hybrids.
Ivanov started off interested in artificial insemination for use with domestic breeds of horses. He did sturdy work in this field and was able to develop processes that made him popular with horse breeders worldwide. However, he didn’t stop there. He also sought to preserve endangered species of wild animals, such as the European wisent. He went on to experiment with interspecies hybridization, crossbreeding domestic animals with wild varieties by means of artificial insemination. His aim was to produce commercially viable hybrids resistant to illness and adaptable to the Russian climate, and went on to successfully cross a zebra and Przewalski’s horse. It was here things got a little weirder.
He began to experiment using artificial insemination to create hybrids between animals that would never crossbreed any other way. He went on to create a zeedonk, which is the cross between a zebra and a donkey, a cow-antelope, a mouse-guinea pig and many others. In 1910 he theorized it might be possible to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid. He experimented throughout the 1920s, working with human sperm and female chimpanzees, with a lack of success. When he started asking for human women volunteers, the Soviet government didn’t renew his funding. In 1930, he was arrested when Ivanov and his veterinary institute became the target of political criticism. Two years later, he died of a stroke while in exile in Kazakhstan.
Now, hybrids are a perfect metaphor for use in Steampunk narratives. Imagine if a person who owned a Zeedonk, which is both exotic – like a zebra – and sturdy & dependable – like a donkey. You can use the Zeedonk as an added way to layer the characterization of that person; she could be both exotic and dependable. And as the Steampunk literary genre is sort of a hybrid of Historical Fiction and Science Fiction, and so hybrids could be considered a reliable genre marker. Maybe Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov could have a walk on role.