The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived—not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.
-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
About the Book
Gene Helfman’s new novel FINS: A Novel of Relentless Satire is available at Amazon. You can also read more about it and Gene’s other books at his website. FINS combines elements of the typical shark horror story with modern science, in a unique, humorous, shark-friendly manner and turns on the theme of the reprehensible practice of finning. Sentient sharks, led by a matriarch, target logical victims. The sharks involved are intelligent, compassionate, maternal, and goal-oriented, in league with a female scientist and an African-American tech wizard, all battling malevolent white guys. Profits from FINS: A Novel of Relentless Satire will be donated to shark conservation.
“A hilarious story from a master storyteller… If you watch Jaws or SharkNado but cheer for the sharks, FINS is for you!” David Shiffman, PhD, Author of Why Sharks Matter
“Gruesome and funny in the same scuba breath…rampant with science, corporate intrigue, and outright gore.” JoeAnn Hart, author of Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival
“…an ingenious work of biting satire… Great characters and a plot line that never drags.” Frederic Martini, PhD, author of Betrayed and Hounded
“… a wonderfully frenzied tale of killer finless sharks and the misfit crew of people out to protect them.” Katherine Maslenikov, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
“…Helfman connects science with fiction to produce a humorous, thrilling shark adventure with a great conservation message.” Gregory Skomal, PhD, author of The Shark Handbook and Chasing Shadows
Chat with the Author
Mary: Tell us about your life and how it all led you to begin writing novels and nonfiction.
Gene: My mother was a word person; she would have scorched Wordle. She was also a ruthless grammarian and encouraged my writing, which she corrected mercilessly. My fascination with the natural world is due largely to my father’s influence. He was the first in his family to attend college and graduated with a biology degree from the University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately, it was during The Great Depression and jobs for biologists were pretty scarce. So he became a social worker and eventually a probation officer. But we spent weekends and vacations hiking and camping and learning from him about plants and animals. He encouraged my interest in keeping live fish and reptiles and also welcomed my childhood fascination with sharks. My mom was never very fond of my live snake collection, which she encountered when picking up after me in my rather untidy room.
I majored in zoology at Cal and even had my own office in the fish collection, maintaining the preserved specimens and preventing the night custodial staff from sampling the alcohol in which the fish were preserved. Upon graduation, I entered the Peace Corps and spent three years in the island paradise of Palau doing fish conservation work, which mostly involved learning from the Palauans about their fish. Contacts I made in Palau led me to a Master’s Degree program at the University of Hawai’i, where I conducted a field study of the behavior of giant land crabs on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. My wife, Judy Meyer, whom I met in Hawai’i, and I got our doctorates at Cornell, where I did behavioral research on lake fishes, again mostly in the field and underwater. Judy, who studies rivers and streams, was hired at the University of Georgia, and I followed. When UGA needed an ichthyologist, I was already there. Over the next thirty years, I taught fish biology, animal behavior, and conservation biology while studying fish behavior, again mostly underwater in St. Croix and Florida cave springs. I also authored a fish biology textbook and a fish conservation reference book, in addition to more traditional research papers.
Mary: Before we get into discussing your newest novel, FINS, tell us something about your other novel about killer whales, Beyond the Human Realm.
Gene: Although I was employed as a fish behaviorist and conservation biologist at UGA, I was captivated by the intelligence and complex behavior of killer whales. My first encounter with an orca was with a captive animal at the Vancouver Aquarium. I was struck by how inappropriate it seemed to keep such a large, active, intelligent, social animal alone in a small pool. That planted the seed of writing a novel around such a creature. My professional responsibilities precluded spending time away from fish, so I started jotting down story ideas in notebooks. I eventually filled maybe ten such orca notebooks while publishing general reference guides on fishes and sharks. When I retired from UGA and moved to Lopez Island in Washington state, I was freed from producing research publications and annual reports. I unearthed the notebooks and started thinking seriously about an orca novel. The Free Willy movies had come out, as did documentaries such as The Cove (about capturing and slaughtering dolphins in Japan) and Blackfish (about Tillikum, the abused captive male orca that killed a trainer in Florida). And then in 2018, Tahlequah, a female member of the local Southern Resident killer whales, gained international attention and sympathy by carrying her dead baby for two weeks and a thousand miles, with help from her family. I recorded an incident with a dead baby orca in one of my notebooks. The confluence of events convinced me to get serious about an orca novel. I eventually threw out all the terrible ideas in the notebooks and wrote Beyond the Human Realm about a captive male orca released into the wild and the people and whales instrumental in his gaining acceptance into orca society. The novel won two national awards in 2022 for animal fiction and is a big hit with whale lovers.
Mary: I guess we’ve all been scared by shark movies in the past. I remember the first time I saw Jaws with my best friend, there was a scene where I got so startled that my popcorn ended up on the row of people behind me. Sharks do have a bad rep, but tell us what you, as both an animal behaviorist and conservation biologist, know about sharks that these scary movies get wrong.
Gene: First, Jaws similarly scared the hell out of me. I was conducting night diving research in a lake near Syracuse at the time, watching fish, and my comfort level was at absolute zero, despite the ridiculousness of being afraid of catfish. But Jaws definitely turned the tables on sharks, from a minor concern to an international panic, and sharks in general suffered. Fear of sharks keeps something like 40% of the population out of the water. This, despite the low likelihood of an attack: about seven fatalities occur annually worldwide from shark bites (one per year in the U.S.). In contrast, we kill an estimated 70 to 100 million sharks each year, mostly for their fins. The statistics claim you’re more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine or coconut or asteroid, champagne cork, electrocuted by your Christmas tree, or die in a traffic accident on the way to the beach, or drown in the water, or be stomped to death by a cow, than be killed by a shark. Sharks don’t fall from the sky, hybridize with octopuses, emerge from the Marianas Trench (no, Virginia, Megalodon is extinct and has been for 5 million years), don’t come in various genetically modified mutant forms produced by mad scientists, don’t erupt from the snow, sand (or your kitchen faucet or Ouija board), come alive from plush toys, embody alien invasions, seek revenge on humans, or commonly target humans as prey. You have a better chance of winning a megamillion lottery than being bitten by a shark.
I’ve been in the water with sharks on many occasions, including around them with a struggling fish on my spear in Palau, and they tend to be very cautious, despite being motivated by blood in the water and easy prey. Peter Benchley, the author of the Jaws novel (which will turn 50 in 2024) deeply regretted the effect his work had on sharks and worked actively as a shark conservationist until he died in 2006. Sharksploitation horror movies, such as Jaws (I, II, III-D), The Meg (I, II), Sharknado (I-VI), The Black Demon, Cocaine Shark, Deep Blue Sea, Jurassic Shark, Doll Shark, Sharkula, Sharkenstein, and so on, are pure fiction. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is designed to frighten more than enlighten, and Nat Geo’s wannanbe entry, SharkFest, is only slightly better because it, too, focuses too much on sharks as threats and less on their critical role as predators that maintain balance in natural ecosystems.
Mary: How does your newest novel, FINS, set the record straight?
Gene: FINS, A Novel of Relentless Satire, is a parody of the sharksploitation genre. I wrote it to fulfill a desire to right a wrong, namely to counter the influence of the hyped, sensationalist, grossly unfair portrayal of sharks in a few novels and far too many sharksploitation movies. My goal in FINS was to show how silly those movies and books are, that they can be easily (but too infrequently) satirized. “My” sharks are sentient, compassionate, maternal, cooperative, and goal-oriented. Admittedly, I’ve taken liberties with biological facts for fictional purposes to make for a better story, although the sentient part may not be far from the truth given sharks have exceptionally large brains for their body size, larger than some mammals. FINS is a fantasy, fiction, not a reference book (I’ve also written the latter: Sharks, The Animal Answer Guide. I guess my boyhood fascination never really died). My objectives in FINS were to get people to (1) recognize that cutting fins off sharks and discarding them while still alive is barbaric and reprehensible; and (2) consider that sharks are not mindless killing machines but important ecosystem components that deserve to be treated as co-inhabitants of our planet with the right to live.
Mary: Why do you think people have to have scapegoats in animals? What’s the psychology of that?
Gene: Examples outside of sharks are big bad wolves and coyotes. I’m not a psychologist, and my opinion on this is worth no more than anyone else’s, but I am a student of animal behavior, including human. My guess is that we like to be frightened when we know in fact there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Few things are more frightening than realizing we’re not as high on the food chain as we’d like to believe. So the fear of sharks, wolves, big cats, etc. is pretty primordial and hence easy material for the story tellers. Horror movies about orcas have been made (e.g, Orca The Killer Whale!) but have not caught on to the extent that Jaws did, maybe because we’ve come to regard orcas in too positive a light. Or maybe the orca movies are just too shoddily produced.
Mary: People kill sharks for their fins, mostly for food delicacies. Your novel addresses this, and it’s reminiscent of heart-wrenching films like The Cove (even though that was about similar plights for dolphins). Have things gotten better in recent years for marine animals, due to public protest and awareness?
Gene: The commercial market for shark fins is primarily Asian, although the sharks are caught worldwide. Fortunately, laws forbidding finning, or of landing fins without the accompanying shark bodies, are increasingly common, both in the U.S. and abroad. Public sentiment against finning has played a large part in motivating policy makers to enact such laws, even in Asian countries. As briefly portrayed in FINS, younger individuals in China and Hong Kong are shunning shark fin soup, with landings decreasing steadily. But shark finning is too lucrative to go away, hence the piracy involved. The press has helped, often reporting any arrests, convictions, fines, confiscations, and jail terms imposed on the perpetrators. Well-produced documentaries about finning and the importance of sharks in marine ecosystems (e.g., Sharkwater, The Barbaric World of Shark Finning, This is Your Ocean: Sharks) have helped create public awareness, Shark Week be damned.
Mary: It’s amazing to see people like you, with scientific knowledge, take on science action through fiction. You have a long list of positive blurbs in the media for FINS, which is impressive. What has this process of writing fiction been like, and will you write more novels?
Gene: I like to think of myself as a successful conservation author. My textbook (The Diversity of Fishes, now in its third edition) has been widely adopted and has always had a strong conservation message. My more specific reference book, Fish Conservation, still stands as the definitive work on the subject, perhaps because it’s so long and broad. My two popular/general reference “animal answer guides”, Fishes and Sharks, emphasize conservation. But I know only too well that nonfiction, especially technical nonfiction, has a limited audience outside of required reading in college courses. I decided to write fiction in part to hopefully reach a larger audience. The transition from writing nonfiction to fiction was anything but seamless. I seldom had to struggle in reference book writing with creating believable characters and a plot with continuity, writing non-wooden dialogue, discarding extraneous ideas (what Stephen King calls “killing your babies”), and overcoming periodic writer’s block. The subject matter and material were always on hand; other workers’ research just had to be massaged into something readable. On the other hand, in fiction, I was less constrained by facts, which frequently could be morphed, or bent, to construct a story.
The process for me was however long and drawn out. As I said earlier, I spent decades toying with the idea of an orca novel before finally sitting down and writing. FINS also has a long history. I originally conceived of it as a screenplay called Undead Sharks. I shopped it around, entered contests, got good reviews, but no one was bold enough to produce it. It languished for close to six years. Meanwhile, I published the orca novel and quickly became sick of marketing it. Writing is fun, but marketing is mind-numbing. So I unearthed the screenplay. FINS emerged because the story was already there, albeit in shortened form due to the page restrictions placed on screenplays. Clearly, it needed to be fleshed out. That was fun. In both books, I use science as a jumping off point. Hence, Beyond the Human Realm was an attempt to bring the amazing world of orcas to a larger audience. FINS hopes to accomplish the same for sharks. My intent is to entice readers to want to learn more.
And yes, I am working on a sequel to the orca book. Slowly.
Mary: I almost hate to ask, and don’t want to spoil your book, but why do sharks attack? It’s not revenge, is it? (tongue in cheek!) Do warming waters have anything to do with it (i.e. plankton at the bottom of the food chain being killed off, etc.)
Gene: Recent apparent upticks in attacks, or incidents, are frequently linked to human behavior as much as shark behavior. As I mentioned earlier, most non-fatal incidents involve sharks that normally feed on fish but mistake a human partially submerged in the water, or a body part in murky water, as something bite-sized. Since most bite-sized morsels in the ocean are fish, a shark will bite, realize it had literally bitten off more than it could chew, and spit it out in disgust (idle speculation there on my part). In Florida, the shark incident capital of the world, and in nearby Georgia and South Carolina, most of these incidents involve smallish (5-6 ft) blacktip and spinner sharks. They also occur near fishing piers, where fishers chum with bait in the hopes of attracting a shark. That’s trouble waiting to happen.
More relevant to human concerns are incidents involving the three species most responsible for serious injury and death: white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks. Here, human behavior again no doubt contributes to incidents. White sharks are now protected on the east and west coasts of the U.S., as is their natural prey, marine mammals such as seals and sea lions. Both sharks and their prey have undergone population increases. So the combined result of reduced exploitation of sharks and an increase in natural prey populations, plus larger human populations, brings people and hungry sharks together. In Hawai’i, where most incidents involve tiger sharks, prey such as sea turtles and monk seals are increasingly abundant, especially the former (as grad students in Hawai’i in the early 70s, we never saw turtles. They have since been protected and are now a common, and welcome, sight). Again, natural predator-prey population cycles are likely to result in more encounters, especially because more people are in the water than ever before in Hawai’i. I know I said many attacks are mistaken identity. Whether this is true for white, bull, and tiger sharks is a matter of debate. All three species feed on large prey items, a size range that includes us. Some evidence exists for mistaken identity because many, if not most, white shark incidents are of the “bite-and-spit” nature, the shark testing the food and rejecting it. Unfortunately for the victim, serious injury is often the result. I am uncomfortable suggesting the same applies to tiger and bull sharks, which have catholic diets and tend to consume their prey regardless.
With regards to climate change impacts, any effects that lead to reduced prey populations, as could easily happen around coral reefs where warming oceans are killing off the base of the food chain, could easily lead to sharks seeking alternative prey, e.g., us.
Mary: Anything else to add?
Gene: I can’t help it, but one could also ask why orcas don’t attack humans? Most orcas, aside from the salmon eating Southern Residents, are predators that forage on a wide variety of warm-blooded prey: seals, sea lions, dolphins, small whales, white sharks (which are a little warm-blooded), moose, sea otters, and anything seems fair game. And yet, throughout recorded and oral human history, there are no known instances of a person being killed, let alone eaten, by an orca. This is a bonafide mystery. Caveat: a surfer was attacked and quickly released off Big Sur in California in 1972; this incident is generally evaluated as mistaken identity, although I find it hard to believe an orca could make such a mistake. This topic is explored at length in my orca novel, from the orca’s point of view.
Mary: Thanks so much for answering my naive questions! I’m learning a lot and hope the readers do too.
Gene Helfman is an animal behaviorist turned conservation biologist turned novelist. With a BS from Cal, an MS from the Univ of Hawaii, and a PhD in Ecology from Cornell University, Gene was on the faculty of the University of Georgia for thirty years, authoring four books on fish and marine conservation and more than fifty scientific papers. He has also published a variety of popular science and related magazine articles (Natural History, Sail, Triathlete, 48 North, Sport Fishing Magazine). A former Peace Corps Volunteer (Palau, 1967-70) and commercial fisherman, Gene spent much of his professional academic career underwater demonstrating that fish are smarter than conventionally thought. In an effort to get the conservation message to a larger audience, he has turned to writing screenplays and novels, on the premise that more people read fiction than nonfiction. His recent novel, FINS: A Novel of Unrelenting Satire (Luminare Press, 2023), parodies the sharksploitation genre while taking a swipe at the abhorrent practice of shark finning. His debut novel, Beyond the Human Realm (Luminare Press, July 2021) won two national awards for animal fiction. It explores a solution to the plight of endangered Southern Resident killer whales of the Pacific Coast (profits donated to orca conservation efforts). Gene and his wife, Dr. Judy Meyer, an aquatic ecologist whom he met in grad school, live on Lopez Island in Washington State, where they are active citizen scientists when Gene isn’t occupied as the sports reporter and photographer for the local high school or busy building infrastructure for Judy’s garden.