Review of The Message by

Book cover for The Message

One of the highlights of re-reading this series is the intense 1990s nostalgia it’s bringing back. These books have aged so much, and it’s no one’s fault but the march of time and technology. In The Visitor, Rachel talks in code by inviting Jake over to listen to a new CD. And here in The Message, Jake produces a VCR tape of a nightly news show—kids, I won’t bother explaining what VCRs were, but let’s just say the modern equivalent would be “pulling up a clip on YouTube.”

This technological ennui extends to wider plot points as well. Cassie describes how the Animorphs take different routes to their rendezvous at Rachel’s house, and how they check if they’re being followed. Like spies. And that’s sufficient to thwart human Controllers, maybe—but this was written in a simpler, more innocent time, when we only suspected the NSA was spying on every American. Can you imagine what would happen if Visser Three had access to programs like PRISM? The conversation would go down like this:


Controller-Snowden: Actually, sir, the computer says there is a 96.3% probability the “Andalite warriors” are humans. Children, actually.

Visser Three: What? How?

Controller-Snowden: Well, we have access to petabytes of data, thanks to our infiltration of the human intelligence networks, as well as powerful algorithms that let us mine the data for trends. We’ve discovered a group of four pre-adolescents with a suspicious pattern of activity. They spend an inordinate amount of time in the presence of a red-tailed hawk, and they are often spotted on cameras wearing nothing but form-fitting clothing and no shoes.

Visser Three: Interesting. Well. This was less challenging than I thought it would be.

When I shared a (more condensed) version of this remark with my Animorphs-buddy Julie via Twitter, she wondered if this would be an obstacle to remaking an Animorphs TV show. If they wanted to set it in the present day, then yes, I think it would. But then it occurred to me: this is actually a golden opportunity in disguise. Wait another forty or fifty years, and we’ll be the proper distance from the 1990s that shows set in it will be like shows set in the 1950s or 1960s for us. Animorphs could be adapted into a period drama targeted at children.

You’ll be rich, Scholastic. If you’re still around. If anyone reads books anymore.

I’ll continue to discuss my nostalgia, particularly around the technology portrayed in the series, in later reviews. Now I’ll move on to a second ongoing topic: morphing technology.

This is the kind of thing we can (and people have) spent years discussing and debating on the Internet, so I’m not going to pretend to settle anything here. Instead, I’m more interested in looking at how our understanding of morphing technology develops as the books progress.

The Message is really our first opportunity to explore some of the deeper questions about morphing. It’s notable, firstly, for being the first time the Animorphs acquire multiple new morphs in quick succession. In the previous book, they acquired one, maybe two morphs—and these were a pretty big deal. Now they’re acquiring dolphins and seagulls all nonchalantly like—if they aren’t careful, they might start feeling normal about this whole “turning into animals” thing.

Secondly, the book introduces Ax, who you must all agree is the coolest. (Rachel is still my favourite, but even I will admit that Ax is cooler.) Ax is an Andalite pre-teen, you guys! I didn’t clue into this at the time, because when I first read these I was a kid, so it was just naturally that Ax was a kid. And, in retrospect, the idea of Ax being any more mature than the other Animorphs would have been creepier, I guess. But it only now dawned on me, re-reading this book, how much less mature Ax is than all those other Andalites out there.

Anyway, Ax is a potential new source of information about morphing. He might not know much about the technology (it sounds like he doesn’t pay much attention in Andalite school, alas), but he seems to know the rules. We learn here for the first time that more experienced morphers can acquire the DNA of multiple members of a species—including humans—and then synthesize an entirely new organism. That’s actually really awesome.

And Applegate introduces an entirely too convenient plot device whereby Andalites all have the ability to track the passage of time. So no more worrying about making Tobias wear a watch from now on. Thank God.

Because this is Cassie’s book, however, the best part of the morphing discussion revolves around the animals themselves. She balks initially at the prospect of morphing into a dolphin, because dolphins are higher-order thinkers—intelligent, perhaps on a level close to human beings. Is it right to morph a sentient being? Applegate treads dangerously close to deep questions of the philosophy of mind, the nature of cognition, and embodiment. Are we our minds, or are we our brains? Can we separate our consciousness from our bodies? How, exactly, does morphing change us—we already know that when one morphs, one has to control the animal instincts of one’s new form. So if one morphs a sentient being, will one feel another personality there?

That this is perilously close to what the Yeerks do to their hosts escapes neither Applegate nor the Animorphs. And while Cassie never receives a satisfactory answer one way or the other, eventually she accepts that even if what they do isn’t the most ethical course of action, it is within an acceptable range as a result of necessity.

(I want to point out, however, that while Cassie’s concern about the dolphins is well and good, she never once questioned the propriety of Marco morphing a gorilla in the first book. One wonders if Applegate, or a beta reader, stumbled on to this moral dilemma in between the writing/editing of books 1 and 4.)

The Toast has a pretty solid article on the cognitive philosophy of Animorphs, if that’s the sort of thing you want to read during your break.

I really enjoyed the way they communicate with the whales. Applegate manages to make that seem … well, not realistic—we are talking about people who morph into dolphins, after all—but at least not so fantastical. She essentially introduces children to the idea that there is more than one way to be conscious, more than one type of privileged sentience, and I think that’s pretty powerful.

The last revelation about morphing seems obvious, particularly for those of us who read the series before: if you are injured in a morph, you can unmorph/remorph, and you’ll be fine. The DNA you acquire is frozen, so you always morph into the animal in a fit state. Setting aside, finally, questions about how this works, we can at least all acknowledge that this is convenient for the story.

The Message, then, does a great deal to advance the overall series arc. It introduces a new main character—an alien, no less—and fleshes out a great deal of the morphing mythology. The Animorphs beat Visser Three again, acquire a few new morphs, and have some fun in the ocean. And we get our first adventure narrated by Cassie, whose compassion and attention to detail make her a strong member of the team, a perfect balance to the impulsive Rachel or the overwrought Marco. Even here, in the fourth book, there are blatant allusions Cassie/Jake. (Jassie? Cake? OMG. CAKE. YES. That’s the one.)

Next up is the first Marco book, thus completing the “origin stories” of the five human Animorphs. I’ll talk about comic relief, loyalty, and the abundance of hope that Applegate sows throughout this series. Also: Ax and food, man. Ax and food.


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