Opinion: Do rabbits need a reason?
In my review of fluffy’s Unity Book 1: Ascent, I mentioned in the first line that I was dubious about furry science fiction. I gave that book a positive review, despite it being furry science fiction, because it was good science fiction. In concluding my opinion piece on furry criticism, I added as an afterthought that I am also dubious about the value of furry prose.
In both cases, Phil Geusz seemed to take these assertions as personal challenges. To the furry criticism piece, he suggested I try Watership Down, a book I was – to put it mildly – already familiar with. As readers had given me plenty more suggestions about what I could spend my spare time with that were not as friendly, I did not give it much thought.
But Geusz was more effective with his response to the Ascent review, offering up one of his own books in defense of the idea. I immediately plumped for another rabbit book, The First Book of Lapism, based on an earlier review by Fred Patten.
I chose this book for a variety of reasons, but the main one is the basis for this piece. Geusz’s story about a rabbit based religion is another good piece of furry science fiction, and it illustrates a need for “justification” in furry writing.
The furry prose problem
I apologize off the bat if this section of this piece comes off as a defense of my earlier piece, but it is important to remember that when I wrote that I was “dubious of furry prose,” I was talking about furry as defined by the piece, which was “fetishistic funny animal.”
This definition was not accepted by … well, I don’t think anyone accepted it, actually. Then again, no one proposed a rival definition at the time. Of course, “anthropomorphic animal” was raised, but that isn’t a genre; that’s a story element. (In fairness, I guess there’s no reason why a fandom cannot form around a particularly interesting story element; there is no rule about what fandoms can or cannot form around.)
Phil Geusz’s story The First Book of Lapism features a future religion, Lapism, where the adherents to the faith voluntarily bioengineer themselves into the form of big, bipedal bunnies. In other words, it is a science fiction story that features anthropomorphic animals as a story element, so it is of interest to furries.
I am not particularly dubious about this story being prose, because its genre is science fiction, not “funny animal,” fetishistic or otherwise. I am okay with the talking rabbits in Geusz’s prose story because they add something; in fact, they are integral to it. If you took out the Lapists, there would be no story.
Conversely, the anthropomorphic animals in a funny animal story do not add to the narrative itself; they add visual appeal to the story, as I pointed out in my first piece. This is fine for justifying a funny animal comic strip or animated movie, because these are visual media. Prose is not.
Now might be a good time to bring back my three rules of “funny animal”:
* Note: I have softened quite a bit on this rule; the sentence “Bipedalism is a must.” would probably be omitted if I had written the original piece today.
The third rule is the problematic one for prose. Without justification, the use of funny animal characters can quickly become confusing to readers. In theory, a good reader should go along with the story and imagine the characters as walking, talking foxes or whatever it happens to feature. But often they will not, unless they are given a reason to.
As an example, I present this blog post from Penny Arcade, in which Jerry Holkins – co-creator of “Twisp and Catsby” and “The Cardboard Tube Samurai” – reacts to Kyell Gold’s stories and “literally can’t hold an image like that in my head, which is a failure of my imagination.”
The point I am trying to illustrate is that, for most people, if you present them with a prose description of funny animals, they just will not get it. Note that Holkins works in a visual medium; if I were to describe such bizarre characters as those linked to above, most people would not get it. But draw them out, and they work, because we can see them.
This is not to say funny animal level anthropomorphic animals have no place in literature, but the decision must be justified; for the reader to get them, there must be a reason for the funny animals. Even if a particular reader feels they “can’t hold an image like that in their head,” they will be more likely to make the effort if the writer gives them a reason to. And that reader may find that they underestimated their imaginations.
Justification can be symbolic, in which the animals are used metaphorically; it can be a neat science fiction or fantasy explanation for why the world is the way it is; it can be as simple as making the story about what life would really be like for a bipedal cat in a world of bipedal mice. It really is not that hard, and adds immeasurably to the reading experience.
And though it is unnecessary for mediums with visual appeal, it even adds value to funny animals there.
The furry science fiction problem
I said justification can take the form of a neat science fiction explanation, but let me be clear: if you are writing furry science fiction, it really does need to be a neat explanation.
For example, I once got into an argument over the idea of justifying bio-engineered animals in a story by saying they were used a super-soldiers. Right off the bat, this plot device has the glaring flaw that adding claws and fangs to a soldier really doesn’t equal the killing power of giving another soldier a semi-automatic rifle. Sure, G.I. Fido has a great sense of smell, but it’s not like he’s going to smell a sniper round coming. That’s granting that an animal engineered for one or two traits will come out looking anything like it started out as (thanks, fluffy, for that insight!).
Okay, so, what if it’s an ethical thing? It’s unethical to send out soldiers to die in the battlefield, right? So, like, the bio-engineered animals (who will, of course, be called “subhumans” throughout the story) are there to make sure “real” humans aren’t killed in war. And then there can be a lesson at the end about how these “subhuman” soldiers really are just as human as their “real” human commanders after all.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The lesson is always the same; it’s unethical to produce a species for the purpose of fighting our enemies. In other words, the solution to an ethical problem is unethical. That doesn’t work. (The conversation got really weird here because the guy I was arguing with pointed out maybe the guy doing the bio-engineering is unethical. So, why is he worried about ethics?)
In conclusion, against the scenario of bio-engineered animals, we have no real benefit from what would probably be a costly procedure; if the army were ethical – besides the whole “war” thing – they wouldn’t do it. An unethical army has cheaper, more practical tactics at its disposal.
I am being more than a bit mean here. The premise is not as bad as I make it out to be; the problem is that it is an old premise that has been done to death. That’s why I can point out all its problems – I’ve seen it in science fiction again and again (maybe as bio-engineered animals this week, robots next week, mostly human super soldiers the week after next, but always the same). A lot of furry science fiction shares this problem with a lot of science fiction in general. It's not that it’s all been done before; it’s that many furries are unaware of this.
Way back when I published my first piece, Geusz was right there reminding me of this. You have got to do your homework. You have got to read a lot of different stuff in a variety of areas (and watch and even play nowadays) to see what has come before. Otherwise, you face something worse than unoriginality; unoriginality you think is original.
Geusz’s Lapism stories are actually original. They have a science fiction justification for furry rabbits living in human society that is clever; it is very hard to come up with a logical reason for people to turn themselves into animals, or to turn animals into humans. Yes, we furries might like to see that happen, but is it really necessary? (It better be, because the next question is “is it really ethical?”)
By making it a religious act, Geusz cuts through all that in one fell swoop. It’s based on beliefs, rather than logic. These people have faith that turning into a rabbit is the right thing for them to do. As a religion, their beliefs are protected by law across most of the civilized world, so the government cannot ban what they are doing — and a character mentions that all other forms of animal bio-engineering are banned in America. Finally, it sidesteps the ethical question by presenting itself as an ethical choice; Lapists are not concerned with the afterlife. They want to be better people; it would be unethical for them not to become rabbits.
I cannot be 100% certain that Geusz practices what he preaches — and I’m not talking about Lapism. But I believe he is not being hypocritical when he told me to read more furry. The guy obviously reads a lot of furry, science fiction, furry science fiction and, if his own output’s variety of genre is any indication, whatever else he can get his hands on. He’s done his homework, and it shows in his clever take on genre themes.
The greatest thing about The Book of Lapism is that, when it comes down to it, it is really a book written by a guy who likes rabbits, plain and simple. But, instead of just sitting down and writing a book about anthropomorphic rabbits, he decided he was going to have a reason for his rabbits. He came up with a great reason, and because of that, he also got to say a few things about religion and what purpose it serves us.
Do we need a reason to write about rabbits? Yes. Sure, if you like rabbits, that’s reason enough by itself; but if you really like them, shouldn’t you make sure they get your best when you do?