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The Anthropomorphic Review
Updated: 4 hours 17 min ago

Death, memory and elephants: Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk

Tue 1 Mar 2016 - 11:00

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard
by Lawrence M. Schoen
384 pp., $25.99 hardcover (ebook, $12.99)
Tor Books, December 2015

Furry books have popped up here and there in mainstream fantasy and science fiction.  Most often, the furries are aliens (C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series) or denizens of a fantasy world (Steven Boyett’s The Architect of Sleep, Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series). Occasionally we get uplifted animals (David Brin’s Startide Rising). Rarely do we get to see furries realizing their own society in a science fiction setting.

Enter Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, a new novel by Lawrence M. Schoen, in which Fants—anthropomorphic elephants—inhabit the planet Barsk, the only source of a drug that allows certain gifted individuals, “Speakers,” to speak to the dead. The Fants are generally despised by the rest of the races of the galaxy, all anthropomorphic Earth-based animals with names mostly derived from their Linnean genus name: Nonyx for cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), Cans for dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), and so on. But the drug, koph, is highly desirable for obvious reasons, and when one of the Fants dies after discovering a secret about koph, the Alliance, the governing body of the known universe, sends a mission to Barsk to find out what the secret is.

The story is told mostly through Jorl, a Fant Speaker, and Pizlo, a six-year-old albino Fant. Jorl is one of the few Fants who has been off Barsk, having served as an Ensign in the military branch of the Alliance, and so is one of the few who can speak effectively to the Alliance’s mission. Pizlo is an illegitimate child, and as such is not recognized by society, but he has a peculiar rapport with Barsk’s moons that allows him to see certain aspects of the future.

Barsk-cover-400

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot of the book, which is well constructed and engaging. Schoen dispenses information with excellent timing to build the world as the reader follows Jorl and Pizlo through the book, leaving enough questions unanswered to make the narrative compelling without shrouding too much of it in mystery. The dilemmas facing the protagonists feel real and crucial, and there are seldom easy answers to them.

Where Barsk really shines is in its world-building. The planet itself feels real and lush, as do the societies Schoen has constructed. Furry readers will enjoy the presence of a different mix of species than are found in most furry novels: foxes appear only off-screen (I know, what’s with that?) and wolves, tigers, lions, raccoons, and rabbits are scarce. There’s an otter girl, but the other main characters are the Fants, a bear, a yak, and a sloth. Schoen does a nice job of using the species to enhance the characters in familiar ways, and though furry readers may find he doesn’t spend as much time describing the fur and forms as they’re used to, the anthropomorphic aspect of this book is quite well done.

The other aspect of Schoen’s world-building centers around the powers of prescience and speaking to the dead. The latter is explained through “nefshons,” particles generated by every living being that persist after that being’s death; the former is never scientifically explained. But a large part of the book revolves around certain individuals with the gift of prescience setting down paths for others to follow after them, and the question of whether the future has been set for you or not.

Here is where the book, for me, stumbled a little. The prescients can see things like “it is important to go to this place,” or “it is important to tell this person this thing.” Certain gifted prescients can see more, and on occasion, when more than one prescient is trying to study the same event, they interfere with each other, preventing one from seeing it clearly—but this is only mentioned once, as a way to prevent an antagonist from getting information. There are some very good themes in the book about free will versus carrying out a set future, but at times it feels like some of the characters are moving through a pre-written play, and several movements in the middle of the book are driven by prescient messages telling the characters to go to the right place. To Schoen’s credit, the most critical choice is indeed left up to a main character and is a gripping part of the book, and the characters do often struggle with the prescient messages they receive, and honestly the whole matter didn’t bother me until I was thinking back on it; it didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the story at all.

Similarly, the tricky topic of speaking with the dead is generally very well handled, from the emotions of the Speakers to the experience of the dead themselves. In Schoen’s world, the dead can interact when called on and can form new memories—a dead person summoned multiple times will remember the previous conversations, though none of the time in between. And Fant society has incorporated this into its thinking in some ways; there is a ritual whereby Fants who feel themselves ready to die journey off to do so in private (as in the legend of the Elephants’ Graveyard). There are a couple places in the book where characters retain a fear of death that seems at odds with a society where the dead are accessible, albeit with a little more work—as if one of your friends traveled to Mars and you could only communicate with them by going to a NASA building and paying a lot of money to use their satellite bridge. But on the whole, this culture is well thought out. And of course, in any fiction where death’s impact is reduced, there must be a fate worse than death, and Schoen does not leave that unexplored.

My major complaint about Barsk is not a story-critical one. Jorl and Pizlo and two or three of the other characters are well-drawn and fully realized, but many of the side characters don’t have much attention paid to them, and the villains are by and large not much more than villainous (“you have something we want and we are going to take it”). The anti-Fant sentiment is similarly one-dimensional: they’re gross and hairless. (This prejudice is explained late in the book, but I still think that even if the underlying bias is physical, people have ways of cloaking that in different concepts.) There are a lot of different ways in which people view the other; not just physical, but societal and cultural as well. It would have been interesting to see a couple of those sprinkled in: Cans thinking about how weird it is that the Fants are solitary, with no pack concept; speciesist myths (“I heard that they run around that backwoods planet naked!”); cultural biases (“they don’t even have proper hygiene,” or “they never look you in the eye when they talk to you”).

Overall, Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard is an imaginative, engaging story, and it’s terrific to see another furry book enter the F & SF mainstream, especially as well done as this one is. It’s a great read, and furry readers can only hope that Schoen isn’t done with the Barsk universe.

Categories: News

Traveling to The Furry Future

Tue 23 Feb 2016 - 11:29

The Furry Future
Edited by Fred Patten
Cover Art by Teagan Gavet
446 pp., $19.95 (ebook, $9.95)
FurPlanet Productions, January 2015

The Furry Future collects nineteen short stories imagining how furries might come into being, whether created by humans, or discovered as aliens mankind must now learn to live with. Furries in science fiction settings offer a wide variety of ideas and approaches, and this anthology, edited by Fred Patten, does a good job mining different veins.

Fiction within the fandom that features a mixed population of anthropomorphic and human characters often centers on the idea that furries are a servant/minority class without equal rights. The protagonists are making their way through this world, either struggling to make sense of it, fighting for better treatment, or just trying to survive the abuses of the ruling class. The problem with these “fursecution” stories is they’ve been told many times before, and worse, they’re fairly easy to get wrong. Many of us reading these are minorities moving through a world where we aren’t treated equally—I’m a politically active black gay man, for instance—and too many fursecution stories show an insufficient grasp on the realities of this situation. It deeply matters to me, on a personal level, that these stories illuminate an understanding of what that’s like. While some of the stories in The Furry Future are stories featuring integrated societies, a fair number are stories about segregation and prejudice, and they work well only some of the time.

“Distant Shores” by Tony Greyfox features an astronaut forced into suspended animation to escape a catastrophe. She’s discovered by a terraforming crew of anthropomorphic animals, and learns the nature and consequences of all the scientific advancements that happened while she was under. The furries she meets are living, breathing people. Their temperaments are widely varied, and their past experiences push them toward extreme action when she arrives in their midst. In addition to being different species, a lot of the crew members come from different cultural backgrounds—their language is peppered with non-English terms. When the human protagonist discovers just why the members of the crew behave the way they do around her, it’s genuinely exciting to see how things play out—everyone, even the antagonists, come across as sympathetic and understandable. It’s a complicated situation that Greyfox navigates deftly.

The Furry Future cover

Watts Martin’s “Tow,” about a woman who underwent a series of genetic modifications to make herself a human-animal hybrid called a totemic, is another story that deals with humanity’s reaction to the new and frightening head on. Martin uses a style that often creates a distance between the point-of-view character and the action around her, but the protagonist’s vulnerability (and investment) in her situation is palpable, making the stakes fairly high despite her physical advantages. And “The Analogue Cat,” by Alice Dryden, tells a tale of a brand-new creature who exists in the border between the old world and the new. It’s told in second-person perspective, in a way that works astonishingly well. Dryden uses the voice to create an immediacy and emotional impact that sneaks up on you.

Not all the stories serve the tension between humans and newer sapient animals as well. Michael Payne’s “Emergency Maintenance” features a pair of furry detectives, set in a world where their kind is chafing at the bonds set for them by their human creators. While they’re allowed independent lives and some autonomy, the setting calls to mind the Jim Crow South; certain citizens might be legally free, but there’s a long way to go before they’re considered “equal.” Yet the detectives spend much of the story trading thinly-veiled barbs about their human patron while he’s standing right there. Living in a world where being a second-class citizen is ground into you all your life shapes your psyche in distinct and fundamental ways, and the way Chelisse relates to her boss and the humans around her rings false. Even so, the closing sequence, where Chelisse speaks with her pastor about an existential crisis, is effective, and a few of the plot elements are intriguing.

In “Experiment Seventy” by J.F.R. Coates, a created furry hides with a human good samaritan from a supposedly sadistic creator. We spend most of the story engaging with the awkwardness of first contact and learning more about the brief and tormented existence of this experiment. When the final confrontation comes, though, it’s a letdown. The creator’s revealed attitude only provokes more questions. MikasiWolf’s “The Future is Yours” features a human threatening to blow up his personal life and career due to a vague hatred of people enhancing their physical features and/or becoming furries. His actions are so extreme that it points to a near psychotic aversion to the concept, but his reasoning is never satisfactorily explained. Worse yet, his girlfriend only exists in the narrative for the sake of catalyzing his behavior.

On the “new furry” side of the anthology, “A Bedsheet for a Cape” from Nathaniel Gass is a winner. It essentially serves as an endearing origin story for a furry superhero. Arf is a wonderful character, and the ramifications of his adoption by Tarla and her family are fascinating. The handling of these new creatures by their creators makes sense even though it’s horrifying, and Arf’s slow climb from “living instrument” to “free-thinking person” is a joy to read. I’d love to see a novel set in this world.

“Lunar Cavity” by Mary Lowd details a furry alien/human collaboration that significantly changes both parties. The concepts on display are a virtual buffet of neat science fiction ideas that would be well-served in a longer epic, but she roots the action firmly in the psychology of her two protagonists to give us solid ground with which to navigate the world. The imagination and sensitivity on display here are impressive. Likewise, “Evolver” by Ronald W. Klemp features furry aliens and humans working together to solve a mystery about their shared origin. It leans into the differences between humans and aliens through well-realized characters, thoughtfully-created settings and crisp writing.

The post-human or non-human stories are the most exciting in the anthology, though. For me the jewel of the collection was Dwale’s “The Darkness of Dead Stars.” It’s a nasty—in the best possible way—bit of existential horror that seeps under your skin and stays there long after the story ends. A bio-engineered race of naked mole rats are trapped inside a ship searching fruitlessly for a life-sustaining planet in a universe approaching its heat death. The ship is slowly but steadily succumbing to its advancing age, and an entire level has been abandoned to a malicious entity the crew picked up in its travels. The story is richly atmospheric, almost oppressive in the way of great horror, and there’s a lot going on in the subtext that makes it worth reading again and again.

“Thebe and the Angry Red Eye” by David Hopkins is another bleak tale, and a wonderful way to close out the collection. An astronaut crash-lands on a Jovian moon after a failed expedition; his life is built around the things he must do to survive, and the extremity of the situation is such that the strain might be driving him insane. Again, the writing is powerful here, drawing you in to the desperation of our nameless protagonist and immersing you in his loneliness and ever-present fear. At what point is the effort needed to keep living too great a price to pay for the quality of life you have? Like most great science fiction, Hopkins imagines a scenario that pushes that question to its extreme. It’s a brutal, but beautiful, story.

“Trinka and the Robot,” from Ocean Tigrox, is a story about what happens when a new society rises from the ashes of the old. The tone of the tale makes it feel like young adult fiction, but that’s not a handicap; Trinka is a wonderful protagonist whose bravery and optimism provides a nice balance against the (justifiable) fearful conservatism from the rest of her tribe. This short story reads like the prologue to a series of novels that I would totally buy; hopefully, there’ll be more coming in this setting.

There are a half-dozen excellent stories here, another half-dozen good ones, and only a few that don’t land well. Most of the problems with the stories that didn’t work were the same: humanity wasn’t illuminated well enough through the concept, especially in the cases where they shared (or dominated) a world featuring other sapient people. With real-world racial issues splashed across recent news cycles, it’s disappointing to see stories that miss the opportunity to explore the mentality and motivations of these prejudices carefully. It would be wonderful to see stories that try to deeply understand the people who perpetuate these abuses and/or the minority populations who must endure them.

However, the best stories in The Furry Future imagine a future where both humans and anthropomorphic animals grapple with the complications of their existence in meaningful ways, drawing the realities of their environment into their personal lives and reflecting them back through their actions. No matter how far we advance technologically, or how different we may be physically, we still have to deal with the same foibles and problems we always have. The stories that do this best are ones I’d recommend to non-furry science fiction fans—they’re that good.

(Disclosure: Watts Martin, one of the contributors to The Furry Future, is Claw & Quill’s head editor.)

Categories: News

Gods are people too, and so are people: God of Clay

Tue 24 Nov 2015 - 12:12

God of Clay
By Ryan Campbell
Cover Art by Zhivago
259 pp., $17.95 (Kindle, $5.99)
Sofawolf Press, September 2013

With the release of Forest Gods, the second title in Ryan Campbell’s Fire Bearers trilogy, it seemed like a good time to catch up with the first book, God of Clay. I’m only sorry I left it so long, because I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

When the young god Doto discovers that the legendary and feared fire bearers are close by his forest home, he hopes the information will stir his father, Kwaee, to leave his temple and come exploring. Instead, Doto is commanded to bring one of the fire bearers to Kwaee.

God of Clay Cover

Driven from their old home by drought, Clay’s tribe has settled next to a forest. Here, at last, they can rely on the rains, even if the forest itself is filled with dangers and forbidden to even the bravest hunters by King First Claw. Clay, unlike his brother Laughing Dog, has absolute faith in the gods of his people and the stories passed down by the Teller, but he never expected to be snatched from his village by a leopard-like god he’s never even heard of.

As the two get to know each other, both must reevaluate what they thought they knew—Clay about the gods of his people, Doto about the Fire Bearers. Doto comes to realise that the fire bearers are unlike anything he has encountered before, neither gods nor animals. Clay has to sift through the tales of his tribe, sorting truths from distortions and guesses. 

Their journey through the forest brings them closer, but there is a time limit on their acquaintance: not only is Kwaee waiting for them at the end of the trip, with an implacable hatred of the fire bearers that Doto is now starting to question, but Clay is slowly succumbing to a wound Doto is forbidden by divine law to heal.

Doto and Clay are both fairly simple souls. Each has been brought up, Doto by Kwaee and Clay by the elders of his tribe, to believe that the world is a certain way, and they step beyond those boundaries with trepidation. Not so Laughing Dog, Clay’s brother. 

Named for the hyena, which for Clay’s tribe may be a good or evil omen, Laughing Dog has his own opinions of the gods and he is unafraid to share them, even when a refusal to back down from his stance means banishment. He spends most of the book apart from his brother, yet his actions have already affected Clay’s own path, and there is no doubt that they will meet again as the trilogy continues. 

It is obvious from the moment he appears that Laughing Dog is doomed, that his nemesis will catch up to his hubris. Yet the manner of his doom is startling and terrifying, and it is impossible not to feel sorry for him. Though he descends ever deeper into horror, he fights it all the way down. 

There’s a timelessness about the setting; it could be far in the past, an alternate present, a future following the fall and rise of modern civilisation, or even another planet. Yet although the geography might not anchor the world of Clay and Doto in a recognisable place and time, Campbell’s prose grounds the reader firmly in the world. 

Clay’s village is painted in such rich colours that I felt I knew exactly what it would be like to pass the fence and walk among the huts, while the desert Firelands are redolent of vastness, loneliness, hunger and thirst. There’s also a definite sense of the world beyond the horizons known to Clay’s people, just as the humans’ world is outside the experience of Doto. 

The most loving descriptions, however, are saved for Doto’s forest. Here is an environment teeming with life, from tiny insects up to ancient trees. This has been Doto’s home from birth, and everything in it—flowers, fruit, vines—does the young god’s bidding. But as he starts to see things from Clay’s point of view, he begins to recognise the strangeness and the dangers.

Doto has grown up with powers far outside human experience, but is almost entirely ignorant of life beyond the forest, just as Clay is fearful of what lies within it and of the gods. And although Clay has grown up surrounded by family, he is just as lonely as Doto. God of Clay is largely a story about friendship across different cultures.

Not to say that there is no action or peril. Clay in particular is vulnerable in the depths of the forest, but there are dangers for Doto too, while Laughing Dog’s arc has him facing dangers both natural and supernatural. This first book reaches a satisfying conclusion, but I was left with a sense that there were greater adventures and a wider world yet to come. I can’t wait. 

God of Clay and Forest Gods are both available from Sofawolf Press. God of Clay is also available as an ebook. 

Categories: News

Slow popcorn: The Rise of the Red Shadow

Sat 15 Aug 2015 - 12:03

The Rise of the Red Shadow
By Joseph R. Lallo
Cover Art by Nick Deligaris
439 pp., $2.99 (ebook), $16.00 (trade paperback)
Amazon Publishing Services/CreateSpace

From the 1950s up through the 1980s, the paperback original dominated genre fiction. Some became undeniable classics—the Ace Science Fiction Specials included the first publications of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore—but most aimed less at dazzling critics than at presenting rousing adventure tales. They might rarely be your Favorite Book Ever, yet if you got hooked on an author—or a series—you’d grab title after title.

Unless you’ve got the next Dresden Files, though, major publishers aren’t interested in those kinds of titles anymore. This has opened a gap for self-published and small press ebooks to fill. Series like Annie Bellet’s The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and, closer to home, Phil Geusz’s David Birkenhead septology would fit beside 1980s stalwarts like Diane Duane and Alan Dean Foster. Amazon and Goodreads are full of well-loved series—far more than there were in the paperback’s heyday, and once inflation is accounted for, at lower prices.

One of those series is Joseph R. Lallo’s The Book of Deacon, a trilogy starting with a novel of the same title. The Rise of the Red Shadow is a standalone prequel described as “Book 0” of the trilogy, telling the origin story of one of Deacon’s side characters: a “legendary assassin and mythic hero” named Lain, a malthrope—an anthropomorphic fox.

Rise of the Red Shadow cover

The story opens as slavers tracking down a runaway discover his body next to that of a female malthrope’s, evidently having killed one another in a struggle—likely to protect her young kit. Humans consider Malthropes to be monsters:

Stories told of them carrying off children and raiding livestock. The creatures were the villains of more than their share of bedtime stories, and were always a safe thing to blame for your problems if you weren’t happy with your lot in life. One of the few things that the north and south halves of the continent could agree upon was that wiping the creatures out would be an improvement. Thus, a price had been put on their heads—or, more accurately, their tails. Slicing the tail off an adult and handing it in to the authorities would net you a small fortune in entus, the silver coins that lined the pockets of the more well-off Tressons.

This passage simultaneously reveals both a virtue and vice of the writing. The milieu has been extensively developed, its breadth and depth rivaling sword and sorcery classics. (Lallo’s Tressor is more reminiscent of Lankhmar than Middle-Earth.) But in countless passages like the one above, the story pauses for a moment to give us background. While introducing readers to a complex and unfamiliar world is always tricky, it sometimes feels like Lallo has avoided the “As you know…” problem by constantly stopping to hand us reference cards.

The reward for young malthropes calls for capturing them alive; the slavers give the baby to a plantation owner as a “discount” on an older, sightless slave. Over the course of the novel’s first act, Blind Ben finds himself the de facto caretaker and defender of the “mally” as the young fox rapidly grows and, to anyone paying attention, shows himself to be at least as smart as any of the humans around him. When the plantation passes into the hands of the original owner’s incompetent son, he takes his own business failings out on his slaves—including the aging Ben. Stricken by sorrow that turns into rage, the nameless malthrope becomes a one-fox revolt against his masters.

Without delving too much farther into spoiler territory, the rest of Red Shadow follows the malthrope through distinct episodes in his life as he seeks his purpose in life, focused on the words of his mentor Blind Ben: “without a purpose, there can be no worth.” Sorrel, a female malthrope he meets shortly after his escape, teaches him about his race and how to survive outside of human society in feral fashion; a network of legally-sanctioned assassins who act as bounty hunters affords him work, but also sets up a nemesis in the criminal kingpin Duule; a mysterious land of refugees hidden behind a cave of legendary danger leads him to the perfection of his fighting talents. Along the way, Teyn—as Sorrel names him—picks up both his new name and his nickname, the “Red Shadow.”

Some of the supporting characters—most notably the volatile Sorrel, but also Ben and the fairy Fiora—pop off the page. The stoic and emotionally stunted Teyn is well-drawn, but while he develops tremendous prowess and gains important insights, his character arc doesn’t have much curve to it. The villains are appropriately mustache-twirling but stay flat, with one exception: an early scene introduces two generals in “the kingdom formerly known as Vulcrest” and tells us of prophesies that clearly set them in opposition to Teyn. This is a great sequence, defining their characters quickly, setting up intrigue, and priming us for a fantastic faceoff. If that faceoff arrives, though, it doesn’t happen in this book. The novel ends without Teyn being aware of their existence.

The disappearing villains—presumably major players in the full trilogy—signal a problem for anyone coming to Red Shadow cold. The novel’s payoff is clearly meant to be Teyn coming into his role as Lain for The Book of Deacon. To readers who are already fans, this may be enough, but that payoff isn’t in this book. Each of Teyn’s adventures has its own set of tensions and thrills, and each ends with an important epiphany that shapes his outlook. Yet there’s little urgency to the whole affair. He does what he does until events make it impossible for him to keep doing that, then he does something else. He has long-term goals, but he’ll get to them when he gets to them. The story is less a quest than a picaresque; you’re curious what happens next, but you rarely feel like you can’t put the book down until you know.

While this makes it hard to recommend The Rise of the Red Shadow on its own, it’s good enough to inspire interest in The Book of Deacon itself. Lallo’s prose is solid—infodumps not withstanding—and, again, the worldbuilding is impressive. (Tressor may not be a world you’d want to visit, mind you; while it may not qualify as “grimdark,” not a single character in Red Shadow has a happy life. Teyn’s circumstances may give things a more dire pall, but the opening scenes of The Book of Deacon don’t paint any more a hospitable picture.) Even though I found the novel slow, it brought back fond memories of going through fantasy paperbacks like popcorn during my high school and college days.

Categories: News

The Vimana Incident, or what really happened on the Moon in 1939

Wed 4 Mar 2015 - 21:24

The Vimana Incident
By Rose LaCroix
Cover Art by NightPhaser
208pp, $9.95
FurPlanet Productions, February 2015

The Vimana Incident features alternate history, time slip, and a deliberate homage to one of the most respected names in science fiction. By her own admission, author Rose LaCroix has set herself some ambitious goals with this novel. Has she bitten off more than she can chew?

The Vimana Incident

The cover by NightPhaser is rich in tiny details and psychedelic in design, recalling the more out-there covers of science fiction from the 1960s. But where those fanciful images often bore no resemblance to the contents of the book, everything pictured on the front of The Vimana Incident is imbued with significance.

The action opens in an alternate 1939, where instead of preparing for war, the big players on the international scene are vying against each other in a space race. Flamboyant fox Edward ‘Red Ned’ Arrowsmith is an engineer and a civilian, but he finds himself pressed into a top secret mission to the Moon with another civilian and three military lunanauts.

The five are sent to investigate a mysterious spacecraft which appears to be Terran in origin, yet built using technologies far in advance of anything known on Earth. When Ned finds a way in to the craft, he and three of his companions—stag Robert Hawthorne, Russian hare Viktoria Aksakova, and Ned’s American opposite number Tom Ingerholt, a wolf—find themselves whisked not only into the future, but along an alternate timeline.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ned starts having disturbing dreams about a figure from history, Godric of Hereford. And with four creatures flung together far from home and out of their element, Ned’s homosexuality becomes an additional source of tension. When the foursome reaches the planet Enkidu…but here be spoilers.

Until this point, the story has been relatively slow. We get to know the characters, the frequency of weird happenings gradually increases, and there are rich, loving descriptions of both the alternate past and the technology of the future. Shortly after the halfway mark it starts to gallop along, with Ned caught up in more and more confusing and surreal situations and the timeline switching from the 12th century to the late 1940s in a world where the second war happened after all to a future ahead of our time, but before the far future Ned visits in the spacecraft.

Confused? You might be, but Rose LaCroix has the plot firmly in hand, bringing everything—or almost everything—together for the conclusion. It’s an enjoyable and exciting ride; Ned’s vanity and fragility are all too real, making him an appealing character, and the dialogue feels convincing for the various periods yet retains plenty of snap.

The various periods have been well researched (and the alternate timeline is convincing), but all this knowledge is borne lightly, without too many infodumps. Okay, there’s a biggish chunk near the start about the British aeronautical industry, but I am unlikely to complain about what is essentially a paragraph of plane porn. There are lots of nice touches, like the airship which takes Ned to the USA in an early chapter. The word chosen for the international spacefarers is ‘lunanauts,’ to distinguish from the American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts of our own reality.

It’s mentioned that Red Ned’s character is based on codebreaker and computer scientist Alan Turing, but he fits well among the eccentric-genius British aeronautical engineers of the interwar period—like Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bomb used in the Dambusters raid, on whom I based a character in my first published furry story.

The Vimana Incident forms part of a story cycle that starts with The Goldenlea and includes the adult novellas Basecraft Cirrostratus and Escape from St Arned, along with the upcoming The Linen Butterfly. Vimana, the most recently released, is the first I’ve read, but all are also suitable as standalone reads. I could guess a little of how the canon ties in just from the reviews I’ve read of the other books, and undoubtedly I’m missing a lot more clues that would be obvious to someone who’s read the lot.

In her introduction, LaCroix mentions the inspiration she took from the life and work of Philip K. Dick. I did find some similarities of theme—an alienated protagonist, a trippy feel, multiple realities—but I wonder if I’d have picked up on these if I hadn’t been told to look out for them. To be fair, I’ve read a few of Dick’s novels but nowhere near everything, nor am I that well up on the author’s biography (took some drugs; wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is about my level).

Rather, the author who came to my mind throughout The Vimana Incident was Nevil Shute, the favourite novelist of my late father. Shute, whose best-known works are A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, mixed accurate and detailed accounts of aviation (he was an aeronautical engineer before his writing career—I’m sorry—took off) with fantastical elements, and wrote several stories in which present events echo, and are intruded into by, those of the past. (If that tickles your fancy, try An Old Captivity, The Rainbow and the Rose or In the Wet.)

At 208 pages, The Vimana Incident is a short novel (or a long novella), and there were places and themes I’d have liked to have seen explored more fully. After a gradual start, the tipping point is reached and events and lives start tumbling past with increasing rapidity, though this adds to the dreamlike, disassociated feel.

All my nitpicks are small ones involving slightly clunky sentences or matters of pedantic detail—and if I can accept that the main character is an anthropomorphic fox, it seems churlish to complain that the presence of turtles is unlikely in an English river.

Has LaCroix succeeded in her ambition for the novel? From a reader’s point of view, she has created a satisfying and intriguing story. I looked forward to the next chapter while I was reading it, and I’ll certainly be reading it again. Whether she has produced a work of the quality she herself wanted, well, only the author can say, but I’m reminded of that annoyingly ubiquitous quote about shooting for the moon and missing to land among the stars. The sphere of furry writing can only benefit from this breed of originality and its lofty aims.

This review is of a proof copy given by the author.

Categories: News

Exploring Abandoned Places

Mon 9 Feb 2015 - 12:23

Abandoned Places
Edited by Tarl “Voice” Hoch
Cover Art by Kappy Rayne
Interior Art by Silent Ravyn
346 pp., $19.95 (ebook, $9.95)
FurPlanet Productions, November 2014

Tarl Hoch’s Abandoned Places isn’t the first furry horror-themed anthology,1 but the genre includes relatively unmined territory for anthropomorphic fiction. More intriguingly, many of the voices presented here are relatively new to the scene, or at least to the anthology circuit. Hoch himself may be best known in the fandom as one of the co-hosts of the Fangs and Fonts podcast. Authors include novelists Ryan Campbell, James L. Steele and Ben Goodridge, as well as a few authors known more for explicit work, like Rechan and Kandrel.

Before I start: a digression. Writers and critics sometimes talk of agency, a term of art which refers to how much control a character has over their own destiny. A protagonist must actively make a decision that leads to the climax. It may be a bad decision, it may be a good decision that fails, but it’s a decision. In horror, characters may spend a lot of time reacting to the horrific, but that doesn’t let them off the hook: “run from the monster until you get eaten” doesn’t count as agency. (Except perhaps for the monster.) I’m going to come back to agency when talking about some of these stories.

Abandoned Places Cover

While you’d assume the theme of Abandoned Places is exactly what it says on the tin, Hoch allows for wide latitude. Right out of the gate Rechan’s “Empathy,” a short and effective riff seemingly inspired by the popular lore (if not the true facts) of the Kitty Genovese murder, lets you know some territory ahead is more metaphorically than literally haunted.

Kandrel‘s “Rainfall” is a fascinating mystery/survival story wrapped up in a science fiction dystopia; with solid plotting and characters, it punches far above its word count class in world-building. “Prospero,” a hard sf piece by Patrick Rochefort presented as a letter—after a fashion—from an uplifted lab animal sent out in an exploration craft that wasn’t intended to come home, is an absolute knockout not just for the Big Idea but for the craft of the writing. If there’s any original piece of short fiction that FurPlanet’s published that they need to get in front of mainstream award committees, this might be it.

Other stories also feature strong narrative style, refreshing to see in furry work. David Ramirez’s “Who’s to Say,” a slow and surreal meditation on a serial killer and his latest victim, drips style (and bodily fluids). Adam Riggs‘s “Sleepwalking” captures a Poe-esque Victorian feel well, and the Big Idea it’s built around is the kind the phrase “delightfully creepy” was coined for. “World’s Biggest Dragons,” Ryan Campbell‘s contribution, turns a sad roadside attraction into a horrifying spectacle in a fashion Stephen King might be proud of.

“Piping,” Hoch‘s own dark sci-fi novelette, calls to mind several other stories—one might describe it waggishly as four parts “The Thing” to one part “Avatar.” Despite being the longest story here it would benefit from being longer; there’s not enough space to lift some antagonists from cliché, and a pivotal character relationship feels rushed. Roland Jovaik‘s “One Shot of Happy,” a revenge tale that would slot neatly into a noir anthology, is grim even by the standards by the rest of this collection.

Ben Goodridge‘s “Scratch” is a post-apocalyptic take on werewolves; the setting gave me a distinct feeling of watching a first-person combat video game, but the story’s strong enough. Bill Rogers‘s “Belief” sticks close to a canonical interpretation of the Abandoned Places theme, a clever ghost story that reads like a spooky campfire tale.

Ianus J. Wolf‘s “All That Glitters” has a Huck Finn by way of Clive Barker vibe and skirts questions of agency by setting up a battle of wills between those easily corrupted by evil and those desperately trying to resist; he does a good job with characterization (even if I’m a bit on the fence about the dialect). And among the many stories that involve a literal abandoned place, Tonin’s “Under the Mountain” stands out by recognizing that the most dangerous monsters in abandoned places may be the ones we bring in ourselves.

Other stories in the volume are less successful, though—and the problems all reflect the “A” word.

“The World Within” has a wonderful setting and a terrifying villain, but one suspects author John Lynne most wanted to tell the tale of a Faustian doctor bringing unintentional doom to a Titanic-class steamer, and wrapped it in an implausible framing story to fit in theme. The plot simply moves the protagonists from room to room as they find back story fragments. Then they run from the monster until…

While I appreciated the Lovecraftian style of Tyler David Coltraine’s “Stared Too Deeply,” it’s never clear what the main character wants, even superficially. A twist is surprising, but affects neither the protagonist nor the course of the story. Once the terror starts, he has nothing to do but observe. (And run from…)

James L. Steele‘s “The Cable” presents an amnesiac protagonist waking up in a ruined lab/hospital with a cable plugged into his head connected to a mysterious and still-functioning machine. He explores the facility, finding a menagerie of failed experiments. And that’s mostly it. This story is long on atmosphere but short on much else; while I often advocate for enigmatic and open-ended narratives, this one left me more annoyed than pleased.

Lastly, Taylor Stark’s “Darwin’s Future” starts with the premise that Darwin discovered DNA—somehow—and suggests this leads directly to apocalypse through a series of unconnected vignettes about bioweapon-based world wars and anthropomorphic soldiers. It’s ambitious but underdeveloped and jumbled, it’s a stretch to connect it with the anthology’s theme, and I’m not sure what readers are supposed to take away from it all.

Knowing that Abandoned Places had an unusually long gestation period, I’m hesitant to suggest it needed more editing. Many of the pieces here, though, could have used a polishing pass: pruning passive constructions, finessing dialogue, improving sentence flow. And, yes, I think a few of the stories would have benefited from further revision.

So if pressed to give an Ebert-style thumbs up or down, which way would I point? Despite my complaints, it’d have to be up. The best pieces are excellent—and even if not all the stories are effective, it’s gratifying to see more genre-stretching in furry fare. Given a choice between a little overreach and playing it safe, I’d take overreach every time.

  1. As far as I know that honor goes to Will Sanborn’s Alone in the Dark in 2008. 
Categories: News

Five Fortunes, an anthology of novellas

Sat 10 Jan 2015 - 13:16

Five Fortunes
Edited by Fred Patten
Cover Art by Terrie Smith
415 pp., $19.95
FurPlanet Productions, January 2014

This anthology is a collection of five furry novellas, each about 80 pages long. The theme? All the main characters are taking steps forward to choose and shape their own futures. I’ve read work by all of the contributing authors before, but for most of them it’s been a while, so I was curious to see what their recent output would be like.

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“Chosen People” by Phil Geusz:

This is set in a universe previously established in Geusz’s story collection, The First Book of Lapism, which I haven’t read, but there’s enough exposition here that it’s not a problem. Lapism is a new religion in the U.S. in which people can have themselves bio-engineered into anthropomorphic rabbits, as a statement of peace, kindness, and striving for personal betterment. The procedure is expensive, and has been mostly limited to people with very high incomes. (Supporters who can’t afford it wear ears and tails.) Still, enough people have made the transition that they’ve started their own upscale town in Nevada called Oaktree Village.

The protagonist is Juniper, a world-champion marksman who’s made the change to Lapism and has been hired as the Village’s new sheriff. While still being relatively new to this level of responsibility, he’s professional, approachable, and outgoing. (Small nit-pick, I never got an impression of his age.)

Part of the story involves character- and universe-building, plus a crime to be solved. Juniper is also faced with a more long-term problem: the surrounding communities resent the Lapists’ higher economic bracket, and many Lapists are starting to feel superior and isolationist. So the sheriff makes a dedicated effort to integrate himself not just into the local community, but into the surrounding communities as well.

The main excitement, however, comes from having to deal with an unexpected, local emergency. With a lot of people’s lives threatened, I was very much caught up with how Juniper managed his situation. Nicely tense! There’s a lot going on in this story. While the crime-solving element was a bit underplayed, Geusz still balances everything pretty well. And furry? Definitely; there are lots of references to how Juniper’s form affects his daily routines, right down to a discussion of shoes, or lack thereof.

“Huntress” by Renee Carter Hall:

This is my top pick from the book! Imagine a more primitive Africa with anthropomorphic lions and wild dogs, engaged in hunting and trading. What impressed me the most was the amount of depth and scope squeezed into this novella – not just establishing the details of the lions’ tribal culture, but how it follows the life of a young lioness, Leya, from her teenage years all the way into adulthood. It covers quite a long period of choices and personal growth.

More than anything else, Leya wants to join the nakaranja, a special caste of nomadic huntresses. But this new way of life also requires sacrifices, and Leya questions whether her choices were sometimes the right ones. Has she lost the chance to fall in love? What happens if she loses those few people to whom she’s gotten close? In a society where the kinds of roles a person can fit into are limited, Leya never quite fits, and the main arc of this story is how she tries to find her place in the world.

I really have to praise the detail that went into this, like the tribes’ spiritual beliefs and mythology. (Although I never figured out what social role an “aumah” held.) I especially liked how the many secondary characters all got more development and depth added to them along the way, with some honest surprises. Leya’s life and her difficulties were very touching and believable, and I say this as someone with a background in anthropology. The ending felt a little too ideal in terms of being able to easily break from societal norms, but wow, her story was really hard to put down.

“Going Concerns” by Watts Martin:

Gibson Scava is a cat with disposable income, who works as a detective for the Ranean Guard. He’s good at his job, but his forthright, independent and (most of all) eccentric nature don’t endear him to his superiors, especially when he’s willing to take matters into his own hands. Annie Swift is a professional accountant who’s recently moved to the city to find work, but her wolf stature and no-nonsense attitude intimidates people during her job interviews. Together, they’re going to fight crime!

Not that they have a choice. Annie was hoping to leave her past behind her (she accused her former employers of illegal activity), but now someone wants her dead. Gibson is working her case, to the detriment of Annie’s patience and sanity. This is essentially a buddy-cop story, two opposing personalities being forced to cooperate to solve a crime. Gibson encourages Annie to participate in his detective work, while also making use of her forensic accounting skills.

Gibson is also constantly flirting with her. On one hand he appears to be serious; on the other it seems to be part of an effort to break down Annie’s walls and make her laugh. For a buddy-cop story this feels typical; in this furry story it feels cliché. I don’t know why… I’ve read other furry stories with one character pursuing another romantically, and I haven’t minded, but in this case there’s something… commonplace about it. I’ve got some kind of subconscious bias here that I don’t know how to articulate. But honestly, I don’t think anyone else will have a problem with it. Regardless of my brain, to remove this element from the narrative would cause serious damage, and vastly reduce the tale’s charm.

Seriously, this is the most downright fun story to read in this anthology. Gibson is entertaining and quite the character, but he’s no clown. He’s deeply concerned with stopping criminals and keeping Annie alive. Underneath the comical elements, there’s genuine danger and tension at a whole bunch of points. The combination works really well. I feel kind of sorry for the Ranean Guard; the law and bureaucracy are more of a hindrance than help, at least when it comes to organized criminals who know what they’re doing. This is what propels Gibson and Annie into taking unexpected risks, and it really fuels the story.

When it’s all over and settled, there’s the potential for Gibson and Annie to have future adventures together. I definitely look forward to that, if more should appear! Also, I should mention that Watts Martin’s writing in the fandom goes all the way back to the early 1990s, a time when furry fiction was much scarcer. His stories were certainly among the better ones at the time, and his skills haven’t diminished since. So if you’re interested in reading more of his work set in the world of Ranea, I can definitely recommend one that was very popular during the fandom’s early years: A Gift of Fire, A Gift of Blood (revised in 2013).

“When a Cat Loves a Dog” by Mary E. Lowd:

This is set in the same world as Lowd’s earlier Otters in Space novels, in which Earth is inhabited by anthropomorphic cats, dogs, and a few other intelligent species. Cats are still second-class citizens who are slowly gaining more civil rights. The main character in this story is a cat named Lashonda, who works in a university research lab. Going against social taboos, she legally marries Topher, a dog and stand-up comedian. Both of them have to deal with the resulting prejudice. Topher’s stand-up career takes off, but at the expense of making depreciating jokes about cats. Lashonda’s job suffers due to extreme discrimination by the dog members of the research team she works with.

Despite initially not wanting children, Lashonda changes her mind and begins researching the possibility of adopting puppies or kittens, only to be turned down on all fronts. Finally a long-shot possibility presents itself, involving experimental medical reseach. Lashonda manages to become pregnant, but there’s a high risk of failure, and the stress is increasingly difficult. (Biology fail: the fertility of her offspring is never discussed.) The last third of the story is an emotional rollercoaster about having to deal with unknown pregnancy complications.

Things take an unexpected, dangerous turn when a betrayal by the one of the medical staff puts the whole operation in danger from protests and riots, requiring everyone to flee to the more technologically advanced and more progressive space station run by the otters. Regardless of the changes to the legal system for cats, dog society simply isn’t prepared to deal with new social boundaries.

In fact, I’m amazed this society manages to progress at all. The main cat character (both in this story and in Otters in Space) gets constantly distracted by emotional speculations and daydreams. Dogs seem prone to 180-degree prejudicial mood swings that completely override any intelligence or logical reasoning. The betrayal I mentioned earlier literally comes out of nowhere: a huge wrench given almost no context, caused by a minor character who was barely described, and only occasionally seen. The final conflict feels artificially imposed, with otter society as a sort of Deus ex machina.

That sounds pretty harsh, but if you can forgive the weirdness of this story universe, what this novella really has going for it are two things: an exploration of how prejudice can effect people’s lives, and the psychological stresses of getting pregnant for the first time. For everything else, you need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. I’m no longer fond of this story universe, but I really liked how the conflict gradually built itself up over the course of the narrative; I felt very sympathetic for Lashonda’s situation from start to finish.

“Piece of Mind” by Bernard Doove:

Reviewer honesty: I’ve never especially liked Chakats or the Chakona Space story universe. Now that I’ve compromised my objectivity here, this story is still a good contribution to this anthology, regardless of my own biases.

Arrak is a young Caitian who’s immigrating to the Chakat homeworld and taking on a new job as a geologist. For safety purposes he’s teamed up with a Chakat named Windrunner in case there’s an emergency in the wilderness. Aside from Arrak finding out that a number of assumptions about his new life were wrong, there’s not much character development.

I made some assumptions too, that Windrunner would have no significant negative character traits, that Arrak would fall into a relationship with them by the end of the story, and that Arrak’s integration into Chakat society would solve all his problems. I was right; although the way that the latter occurred wasn’t quite what I’d guessed. Good curve-ball, Doove! Also, thanks for only one reference to the characters’ breasts; I appreciate that.

The driving force of the story, the part that held my interest the most, was an extended flashback explaining how Arrak ended up immigrating in the first place. There’s a nice bit of world-building going on here, and Arrak is truly the victim of the universe dealing him a bad hand.

Growing up on the Caitian homeworld, Arrak discovers he’s a natural telepath. However due to an earlier brain injury, he’s unable to tune out the thoughts of other people around him. To make things worse, Caitian society despises telepaths, to the point of ostracism and violence. Arrak gets some help, except he retains an emotional flaw which gives him away on multiple occasions – despite having years during which he could have practiced more self-control. Suspension of disbelief is necessary for this, because without this flaw, there’d be even less plot conflict.

Still, due to his situation it’s best if he immigrates to an established colony of fellow Caitians who’ve given up on their close-minded homeworld. A Caitian news article describes the colony as being populated by the “bizarre and perverted”, however Arrak “discovered that the colonists were basically people whose lifestyles clashed with the hidebound morals and prejudices of Caitian society”, such as openly gay couples. As a reader, I couldn’t help myself from thinking that the Chakonan settlement sounded more like an escapist utopia for furry fans than a haven for Caitian pariahs.

It’s not essential to have a working knowledge of Chakona Space to enjoy this story, although knowing a little in advance can bring out some extra details. (For example, I’m not sure if the story explicitly mentions that Caitians are a kind of feline.) Doesn’t matter; Doove is a very clear, descriptive writer and I never felt left out. Although between my first and second read-throughs, I went and refreshed my memory as to how he ranks the different levels of empathy and telepathy.

I found most of the story to be rather simplistic; well-written if slightly predictable. Although it didn’t do anything to change my attitudes towards Chakats, I enjoyed reading about a hidden layer within Caitian society, and the tale of Arrak’s tragic background.

There are some notable similarities between Doove’s Piece of Mind and Geusz’s Chosen People. Both involve people entering into a new line of work. Both protagonists show a slightly exagerrated lack of self-confidence, an angsty trope that’s fairly common in furry fiction. Both involve moving into a self-made, partially separate and idealized furry society. But while Doove’s story ends with an incredibly convenient and almost-perfect solution to the protagonist’s problem (if initially a bit awkward), Geusz’s story doesn’t have an easy fix to its underlying conflict. The Lapist society’s relationship with its larger, surrounding non-furry community still looms, and there’s no simple solution. It felt all the more realistic because of it.

Overall:

Five interesting story universes, five very different writing styles, all commendable and engaging in multiple ways, with my favorites definitely being the first three, especially Renee Carter Hall’s Huntress. Good long reads all around; I think the novella format really suits what the authors wanted to express. I don’t have any problems recommending this book as a whole; I really enjoyed the variety, and the positives definitely outweighed any of my quirky personal preferences. Definitely check it out!

(Disclosure: Watts Martin, one of the contributors to Five Fortunes, is Claw & Quill’s head editor.)

Categories: News

Is What Happens Next the right question?

Fri 2 Jan 2015 - 12:00

What Happens Next: An anthology of sequels
Edited by Fred Patten
Cover Art by Sara Miles
424 pp., $19.95
FurPlanet Productions, July 2013

Other than annual awards collections, mainstream fantasy and science fiction anthologies have all but vanished. Furrydom, though, has an infatuation with them. We pump out several a year, nearly always of original fiction and nearly always themed: cyberpunk, Halloween, science fiction, gay erotica featuring farmboy foxes. Whether readers share this enthusiasm for anthologies with writers, though, seems murkier.

In What Happens Next, an anthology from 2013, each story connects to a published story from furry’s past. At first blush there’s a logic to this. What sells most consistently in genre fiction has long been the serial, from E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Kyell Gold‘s popularity is in no small part due to the Argaea and Dev & Lee series. Yet the chances are slim that a reader who isn’t deeply invested in stories produced by furrydom over the last quarter-century will know all or even most of the earlier works. How interested can you be in continuing adventures of characters you don’t know?

Some characters who appear here, like M.C.A. Hogarth’s Alysha Forrest or Gold’s Volyan, are likely known to many—and if not, their earlier adventures have stayed in print. Others, though, may be entirely unknown to today’s audience. I’m not sure if Elizabeth McCoy’s Kintara stories have seen in-fandom print since the demise of PawPrints, and Ken Pick’s Brigit Bunny hasn’t appeared since Yarf! #24 in May 1993. (McCoy has made both old and new Kintara stories available for Kindle.)

What Happens Next Cover

Fortunately, What Happens Next largely ignores the dictates of its title. Many of its eleven stories stand alone, and more than one takes place early in the continuity of related stories. This is less a collection of further adventures than simply new ones. The good news, then, is that this set of stories can serve as an introduction to these characters, authors and worlds. Those who are already fans, though, shouldn’t expect new insights or shocking revelations.

Michael Payne’s rollicking and witty contribution, “Immolation,” is a direct sequel to his Ursa-winning “Familiars” from the Ursa Major Awards Anthology, featuring the squirrel sorceress Cluny and her human familiar Crocker. “The Magi Decree” is an adventure of Chuck Melville’s Felicia, an amoral vixen sorceress, excerpted from an in-progress novel, and shares the series’ hallmarks of serious high fantasy with a cartoonlike facade. Brock Hoagland’s barbarian leopard woman Perissa checks in for “Festival of Vampires”; I confess I haven’t warmed to Perissa after the two tales of her I’ve read, but it’s a solid enough Red Sonja pastiche.

The Ursa-winning “The Monkeytown Raid” presents a dystopian tale of human vs. nonhuman gang conflict featuring—although not focusing on—the psychopathic sable Jack Salem. Roz Gibson’s inventive setting is gloriously ruinous and the violence is characteristically unsparing, but the plot is a bit paint-by-numbers. Kevin Frane’s “False Doctrine,” set in the same world as his Thousand Leaves and The Seventh Chakra, featuring the assassin Montserrat Léonide, who appeared before in the short story “Shadows of Novoprypiatsk.” Haunted, emotionally broken and unglamorized, Léonide is as heartbreaking as she is chilling.

Kristin Fontaine’s Tai-Pan story, “Reflections of Things to Come,” intertwines several slice-of-life stories on the titular merchant spacecraft; the gentle, personal dilemmas faced in the story lose some heft if your familiarity with the cast is minimal. “Second,” the only story that isn’t original to this volume, tells how Hogarth’s Alysha Forrest meets Taylitha, the woman destined to be her second-in-command. While Alysha’s archetypal combination of a relentless drive toward service and a poise far beyond her years is central to her stories, here it verges on the supernatural.

Jenner’s “Pick-Up at Hanging Drop,” the title an allusion to a famous Australian film, is a modern day slice-of-life story, elevated by genuine tension, Jenner’s deep experience with medicine and an unconventional writing style. “Sibling Rivalry” is a sequel of sorts to Kyell Gold’s underrrated Argaea novel Shadow of the Father. Duty and familial bonds run deeply in most tales of Argaea and this introspective story of Volyan, Lord Volle’s elder son, is no exception.

A first contact story between two alien races, McCoy’s “Blackest before the Dawn” alternates its point of view between a (supposed) primitive and one of her advanced captors; both the characterization and the exotic worldbuilding are first rate. Pick’s “Game of Fox and Rabbit” mixes sweeping alien societies with a charming retrofuturism, sadly undone by a future history that doesn’t even try to disguise moralistic harangues about What Modern America Does Wrong. James Cameron’s Avatar is a comparative model of restraint and thematic subtlety.

It’s unrealistic to expect every story in a collection such as this to appeal to every reader, but What Happens Next has a unique value despite its flaws. While the Ursa Major Awards anthology and the hard-to-find 2006 Furry! may be closer to the best of what furry has to offer, What Happens Next is arguably a better introduction to the most popular characters and settings of furrydom’s last quarter century.

Categories: News

Deconstructing his own creation: Nathan Cowan’s Technofox

Wed 3 Dec 2014 - 11:14

Technofox
Novel by Nathan Cowan
Self-published on Fur Affinity
Warning: Explicit (NSFW links)

Nathan Cowan has written four novels and two short stories about the adventures of the Foxforce Four, an all-female, all-vulpine paramilitary team consisting of the leader, Firefox; the computer-whiz, Technofox; the soldier, Silverfox; and the spy, Shadowfox. On the surface, the Foxforce stories are classic pulp action tales—with liberal doses of erotica sprinkled in. But this first impression quickly gives way to a surprisingly deep saga, with ethical ponderings on the relation between creator and creation and an imaginative, biopunk setting created with a scientist’s attention to detail.

Technofox, the second novel in the series, makes a far better introduction to the Foxforce universe than the first novel, Firefox. Firefox takes the standard BDSM erotica plot and deconstructs it, but the novel is so steeped in the trappings of the genre–with whips, chains, and collars on almost every page–that it severely limits its appeal to a general audience. Technofox still has its whips and chains, but uses them to inform the main character’s story arc rather than be the main focus of the story.

Each of the Foxforce novels has been a deconstruction of a different genre. Firefox is a deliberate spin on the babes-behind-bars lesbian erotica genre, and the third novel, Silverfox, is a guns-blazing action story with homages to Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Technofox, on the other hand, resists easy classification at first. The story opens with Foxforce investigating a mysterious assassin known only as “7.62,” named after the distinctive ammo he uses. 7.62’s most recent target was an activist for chimera rights, chimerae like those in the Foxforce Four. Following a lead on 7.62’s identity, the team travels to Atlanta, but Firefox has an ulterior motive for the trip: also in Atlanta is Travis Walton, a human geneticist responsible for designing chimerae, who tormented and raped Firefox during the events of the first novel. Firefox wants revenge and asks for Technofox’s help in killing him. From here, the gears of intrigue start to turn.

It’s not until halfway through the novel that Technofox reveals it has been a murder mystery all along. Cowan spends the first half of the novel interweaving the investigation into 7.62’s identity, the planning of Walton’s murder, and the blossoming of Technofox’s sexual desires and her relationship with Firefox; then he deftly shifts the perspective of the story. Characters and events that initially hampered and distracted Foxforce’s plans become a list of suspects and clues. While this is all going on, the story keeps a strong focus on Technofox’s journey of self-discovery and on the fluid landscape of relationships between chimerae and humans which drive almost all the major events. Even the revelation of the murderer’s identity (normally the climax of such a mystery) is relegated to an epilog.

Throughout all the novels, Cowan seems to be at his most comfortable when world-building. He starts with his base premises—what if this really happened, and wasn’t just a cliché?—and then builds his world up around those ideas brick by brick, leading the reader through each logical connection until they are forced to agree with his grim conclusions.

For Firefox, Cowan designed the Blue Diamond slave brothel and its frightening overlords to reimagine BDSM clichés, but he never travels outside of that one place in the novel. Technofox takes place six months after Foxforce’s escape from the brothel; here Cowan’s world-building takes flight. Having designed Blue Diamond for Firefox, Cowan then deconstructs his own creation to explain what sort of Earth could give rise to such a horrible place.

The results are starkly dystopian. Criminal syndicates are everywhere. Corporations hire their own mercenaries (such as Foxforce themselves). World War II was fought to a stalemate and the Nazis are still a force to be reckoned with. The American Civil War never happened. The free-state/slave-state dichotomy persists into the present day. This last element presents unique challenges for the chimerae of the Foxforce Four, who are considered self-owning in Massachusetts, but must be legally owned by a human when they travel to Georgia.

This bleak world is further reinforced by Foxforce’s abilities. In true pulp action style, the Foxforce Four are all incredibly skillful individuals, quite at home taking down the bad guys with a well-timed headshot. But at the same time, they’re running with limited resources, low personal funds, and laws that hem them in from all sides. There’s never a sense that they are saving the world, just patching it up. They aren’t a team full of James Bonds: they are just four more hands desperately trying to keep the leaky dam from bursting.

The juxtaposition of all these elements almost comes across as a farce: a character named (of all things) Technofox works as a corporate mercenary, fights nazis, and secretly has a kinky lesbian love affair with her team commander? But Cowan plays it all so perfectly straight and serious that it is hard not to be sucked into the drama. He even makes the oddities into one more thing to be explained: if Technofox has to be her official name, then she, like anyone would in her position, just goes by the much less cumbersome and prosaic nickname “Tech.”

Fans of Isaac Asimov will find a lot to like in Technofox, as Cowan’s style is similar. Like Asimov, Cowan tends to write high-dialogue, low-description, and many scenes feature characters arguing over their work with the precision of practiced professionals. This is both one of Cowan’s best assets and one of his greatest detriments. If you are the type of analytical reader who wants to walk through each new concept in detail, Cowan is happy to oblige; otherwise you may feel as though you are watching an episode of CSI where they forgot to use a montage to skip past all the laboratory work. The lack of descriptive details also means that secondary characters blend into a fog of indeterminate forms, all with the same shape, voice, and motivations. Even the primary characters are hard to distinguish by their dialogue alone, although this improves considerably in the later books.

My complaints, however, are few. I consider Technofox to be one of the finest furry books I have read, enjoyable on many different levels: an enjoyable mystery in its own right that’s worth at least two read-throughs to catch all the subtle clues, an intriguing setting that makes us confront the downsides to an anthropomorphic world, thrilling action scenes, and more than a few moments of kinky erotica.

Categories: News

Regrouping

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 20:45

In the original “Welcome to Claw & Quill” article from a year ago I said, with unintentional foresight,

Part of what’s made Claw & Quill tough to get off the ground is that it’s hard to describe just what it is. It’s a magazine for furries—but not a fiction magazine or a news magazine, not art or comics. It’s not about furry-as-a-noun, in the sense of lifestyle and identity. It’s not necessarily even a “magazine for furries” the way most people might take that phrase.

You may not be shocked to learn that this kind of nebulousness makes it tough to write for.

So, after a lot of behind-the-scenes shuffling, C&Q is relaunching using WordPress rather than its own custom back end. The rationale for this is two-fold, both relating to making it easier to generate new content.

  • As much as I like the notion of issues, it’s going to be easier to get new articles up if I don’t have to wait to collect four or five in batches.
  • It’s also going to be easier if I don’t personally represent a single point of failure, bluntly. WordPress allows me to give contributors their own accounts at various access levels. As much as a control freak as I may be, this isn’t going to be sustainable unless I let other people into the control room.

Also, it’s pretty clear the main focus is going to be reviews; that’s what a lot of people have indicated they wanted, and it’s one of the things furry really does need.

I have a few now long-overdue articles to return to and get up within the next few weeks, and new people to start bringing on. I promise there will be more here shortly—and that it won’t be a year between reviews.

Categories: News

Welcome to Claw & Quill (#1)

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 18:45

It’s been promised in this form for about a year and in earlier forms for… well, much longer. But there’s finally something here beyond a placeholder page, and I couldn’t be happier.

2013-10-29T16:47:56-07:00
Categories: News

Pup Fiction (#1)

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 18:45

If you’re looking for mainstream anthropomorphic literature, head for the children’s section. Space Penguins, Ninja Meerkats, and their potential implications for the next generation of furries.

2013-10-29T16:47:56-07:00
Categories: News

Is Furry Fiction Science Fiction? (#1)

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 18:45

The audience for “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy is shrinking while the audience for furry fiction is growing, both inside and outside our fandom. What can each group learn from the other?

2013-10-29T16:47:56-07:00
Categories: News

Nature vs. Nuture in San Iadras (#1)

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 18:45

Malcolm “Foozzzball” Cross starts with the tropes of uplifted animal soldiers and sex toys and produces five brilliant stories in two inexpensive ebook collections.

2013-10-29T16:47:56-07:00
Categories: News

Is Furry Fiction Science Fiction?

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 04:47

The furry fandom originated, according to most accounts, back in the late 80s, when a group of cartoonists got together to share their love of drawing anthropomorphic animals. Many old-time furries cite Steve Gallacci’s Albedo Anthropomorphics as the earliest “modern furry” comic, and Gallacci’s table at a southern California science fiction convention as the focal point that led to ConFurence Zero. Wherever it started, furry fandom diverged quickly from science fiction in practice, if not in theory. Furry tracks at SF cons quickly grew to the point that organizers chose (or, according to some accounts, were asked) to start their own conventions. This began a divide between furry and SF/F fandoms that only grew as furry began to generate its own stories and novels more specifically relevant to its fans.

On the face of it, furry fiction would appear to be inseparable from science fiction. The main characters of furry stories are anthropomorphic animals, creatures that do not exist in the real world. What can that be but science fiction or fantasy? And yet SF/F has been as reluctant to embrace furry as furry has been to return to SF/F. There are SF/F stories with anthropomorphic animal characters, I am often reminded, but they do not seem to be as popular in the fandom as the home-grown furry books.

The central thing that makes a story furry is the quality of its characters. What makes a story science fiction is the idea behind it, the “what if” in a scientific sense. What makes a story fantasy is the worldbuilding (even urban fantasy builds a whole hidden world to graft onto our real one). These are pretty diverse concepts, and it should be easy when you look at them this way to see how a story can be one but neither of the other two–or could be furry fantasy or furry SF (fantasy and SF are traditionally separate, because when you build a new world for your fantasy story, the scientific “what if” loses its context; science fiction is traditionally at least based in the real world and real science).

If your story’s central idea is “how would the world change if everyone became an animal-person,” then that falls into the realm of science fiction (or, some might argue, fantasy, or slipstream; at the very least, it’s speculative fiction). If your story is about a new world in which everyone is an animal-person, then you are pretty okay with fantasy (my own Argaea series is sort of thinly fantasy, because there is no spellcasting nor anything else fantastical–except the characters). If your story is “how hard is it to be gay when society wants you to be straight, and also you’re a fox,” well. That’s not science fiction, and it’s not fantasy: it’s our real world with animal-people dropped in place of human people and the world changed to suit them. Scent markers become important and houses take on different shapes and sizes, for instance. But that’s not enough to make it a fantasy world.

So a subset of furry fiction is SF, and a larger subset is fantasy. But there’s a bunch of furry fiction that is just exploring human stories in the real world without enough fantasy or SF elements to appeal to readers of those genres. This seems to put furry into the realm of plain ol’ fiction, with furries a metaphor for people, or a way to have character types defined. But of course, making everyone a furry is a little far out for most modern fiction as well. Science fiction and fantasy fandoms have the most in common with furry fandom, and yet you can’t get past the fact that many SF/F fans don’t want to read furry stories–in some cases because they’re not weird enough.

I don’t think the fandoms need to merge or aggressively court each other’s fans, but I would like to see more communication between them. Furry is growing while SF/F is shrinking, or at least growing at a slower rate (if you exclude YA and video gamers and TV fans, which the core fandom continues to try to do), and yet the writing part of the SF/F fandom is chugging along just fine.

As furry fiction continues to grow and gain a wider audience in the fandom, I hope furries will look outside to what fantasy and SF are doing. There are some great stories being written in both fandoms, and though SF/F has the more accomplished stable of writers now, furry is on its way up. I think furry writers specifically could bring a lot of wonderful things back to the fandom from the SF/F books that are coming out now, things like cultural diversity and experimentation with literary forms, and sheer breadth of imagination.

Furry fiction has much to offer in return: the diversity of lifestyles in the furry fandom (QUILTBAG1 people are well represented and visible, and that is reflected in our fiction), and a way of reimagining our bodies and identities that is currently only skimmed in SF/F, an association with animal forms that has a rich literary and mythological tradition.

Some SF/F fans I’ve encountered won’t try any furry books–even the SF/F ones–but they’re missing out. Just because you don’t want to read all the books in a genre doesn’t mean you won’t want to read any. My “Dev and Lee” series has gained a pretty nice following among gay romance fans who recognize that at the heart of the story, there are people, no matter whether they have fur and tails or not. Do those people also want to read Kevin Frane’s excellent SF-furry novel Summerhill, which has a very minor gay romance in it? Not so much. But that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the furry books that do appeal to them.

Furry is not science fiction, nor is it fantasy–nor should it be. Furry is its own thing (I have heard from people who say “I just don’t want to read stories without furries in them”), and it has a vibrant, creative fandom. I am seeing more SF/F markets open to furry stories that otherwise fit their criteria, and more furries showing interest again in the SF/F world. This kind of cross-pollination of creative communities can only result in good things for both.

  1. A more inclusive evolution of the acronym LGBT. See Julia Rios’ “Reaching into the QUILTBAG: The Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction” for more. –Ed. 
Categories: News

Nature vs. Nuture in San Iadras

Mon 27 Oct 2014 - 02:45

War Dog & Marginalized Populations
Jane, Jill and Jasie
(Two ebooks, $2.99 each)
Stories by Malcolm Cross
Cover Art by Meesh
Bad Dog Books, July 2013

Anthropomorphic animal characters have been around as long as stories themselves, yet how to justify them–especially if they’re assumed, implicitly or explicitly, to be attractive to humans–has long been a preoccupation in furry fandom. Are they aliens? Uplifted animals? Genetic crossbreeds? Magical constructs? Do we even need to justify them, or is just showing that they’re distinct races–not merely “humans in animal costumes,” as the charge goes–enough?

'War Dog' cover

Malcolm Cross’s two recent ebook-only collections, War Dog & Marginalized Populations and Jane, Jill and Jasie, seem at first glance to positively revel in worn cliché. Genetically engineered animal people created to be soldiers and sex toys. Referring to them as “furries” within the text (and without irony). It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, not only how accomplished these stories are, but how thought-provoking they turn out to be.

The first of the two contains the two stories in its title, while the second contains three stories: “Dick and Jane,” “Jill’s Forty-Ninth” and “Jasie’s New Start.” All of the stories are written in a third person tightly bound to the given viewpoint character’s voice, a style readers of Cross’s recent Ursa Major winner, “Dangerous Jade,” will be familiar with. Like “Jade,” these stories are set in the country of San Iadras, a milieu that seems to possess Dubai’s wealth and Monte Carlo’s licentiousness. The history of the furries is never spelled out, but we can infer the different species were uplifted for different purposes: dogs for the military, rabbits as personal care assistants, and thylacines–a doglike carnivorous marsupial, now extinct–as adult companions. At some point before the stories’ timeline, though, their legal status in San Iadras changed, and they’re now free citizens.

And yes, we’ve seen that rough premise before, in furry fandom at least back to Dave Bryant’s and Ken Pick’s “Wormholes” setting and in sci-fi at least back to Cordwainer Smith‘s “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” But we’ve most often seen these worlds through humans coming to understand that furries are people too. Cross’s viewpoint is that of the furry: designed for purposes they’re no longer subject to, adopted out to human families often ill-equipped to deal with them and now making their adult lives in a society that, while accepting, doesn’t quite understand them.

“War Dog” is the story of one of those adoptions, with a school-age child; while it’s a story of trying to fit in–nearly all stories set in school are–being a human-sized dog among human children is the least of Eschowitz’s challenges. “Marginalized Populations” follows soldier dogs a few years later, trying to find private military work. While “War Dog” is the longest of the five stories and in some ways the most complete, the stories of the thylacines–even with sex scenes which might best be called blunt rather than merely explicit–mine surprisingly emotional territory.

'Jane, Jill and Jasie' cover

These stories are not morality plays of good furries and bad humans; the characters are all complex, even the ones who seem straightforward. (Often especially those ones.) There are several heartbreaking moments–often unexpectedly so, as when Jane (in “Dick and Jane”) breaks down after discovering the relationship she’s in isn’t at all what she thinks it is. Yet none of these stories are tragedies. “Jasie’s New Start” has an unreservedly happy ending. All five pieces arguably end with their protagonists in better places than where they started.

Yet the question of just what a happy ending is looms large in “War Dog” and “Marginalized Populations” and never stays far away in the thylacine stories. Each piece here explores the age-old nature versus nurture question–not to argue for one side or the other as much as to simply make us think about it. After reading these, one can’t help but acutely feel the absence of this in most other stories–and there’s a lot of them in this fandom–built on the trope of genetic engineering. You may be against war in general and very much against the notion of designing intelligent beings to be soldiers, yet freeing them doesn’t stop them from being soldiers. Jane, Jill and Jasie–and their one hundred and sixty-six other cloned sisters, all named “J” and all virtually impossible to tell apart even for one another–are engineered not for fighting but to be party girls. The reader understands more of what drives Eschowitz than he does himself very shortly into his story; the “J” sisters are likewise affected more by their programming than they–at least most of them–understand. It’s not a matter of what they want; it’s a matter of what they must. For the dogs, their design is their dilemma; for the thylacines, their design frequently creates their dilemmas. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

If I have any nitpicks–and frankly this is straining a little–it’s with how similar to our current world San Iadras seems. The train Jasie takes in her story is a maglev and Eschowitz’s story features “smartpaper,” but for the most part the pieces could take place today if we just happened to have genetically engineered animal-people about. This makes the stories more accessible than they might be if the setting were more alien, but it’s hard not to wonder if everyday life in San Iadras–especially in the echelons of high society the thylacines inhabit–shouldn’t feature a few more futuristic touches than we see.

In the works I’ve read by him, Cross shows an extremely distinctive voice, staying so much in the viewpoint character’s head that it borders on stream of consciousness. This can be unsettling or even off-putting; an uncareful reader might dismiss the thylacines as bobbleheads, and the dogs are just as focused in their own ways. But there are few genuine stylists among furry authors and even fewer this good. These five stories are quick but hardly ephemeral, and they’re more than worth their asking price.

Categories: News

Pup Fiction

Sun 26 Oct 2014 - 21:16

Astrosaurs. Cows In Action. Ninja Meerkats. Spy Dog. If you happen to be under nine, you’re spoiled for choice in the anthropomorphic literature department, with a range of sci-fi, adventure and action stories starring a whole zoo of creatures. There’s even alternate history: the Spartapuss series explores a feline Rome ruled by Emperor Catligula, while Beowuff, by the same author, applies the principle to doggy Vikings.

You may already have guessed that none of these works take themselves terribly seriously. Expect an onslaught of appalling animal-related puns and silly names (the leader of the Pigs in Planes rejoices in the name of Peter Porker, while the ranks of the Space Penguins include Fuzz Allgrin and Splash Gordon). The action usually revolves around a crack squad of heroic critters saving the day with their collective abilities.

Anthropomorphic animals in children’s stories are nothing new, of course; it’s a tradition going back as far as the Victorians and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The current crop is faster-paced and less subtle than the gentle, whimsical humour of classic children’s furry stories–less Wind in the Willows, more fart jokes–and aims at a slightly higher age bracket. Traditionally, talking animals who wear clothes and exhibit other human-style behaviours belong in the nursery, like old friends Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Rabbit. The new breed of furry books, although they could of course be read aloud by a kindly adult, are designed to be consumed autonomously by kids who are already blossoming as readers. Who has a nursery these days, anyway?

If you’re not a child yourself, have none of your own, and don’t work with children, this seething mass of furry lit has probably passed under your radar. Pity.

Admittedly the plots are simple and most of the jokes are obvious, as well as groanworthy. Grown-ups might prefer something more substantial (like a reading from Dr Seuss?), but there are still chuckles to be had, and the accompanying illustrations are cute enough to be enjoyed by the discriminating furry reader. After all, a childlike sense of joy and wonder is one of the most attractive aspects of our fandom. It’s fun, too, to spot the gags put in for the adult reader, or perhaps just for the author’s personal amusement: seven-year-olds are unlikely to know why titling a chapter “Biker Bears from Ma’s” is funny. I’ll cheerfully admit to laughing out loud in my local bookshop at the Ninja Meerkats’ encounter with the Delhi Llama (can you guess his species, and where he lives?).

So much for the adults, but what about the target market? The fact that so many of these series exist, and that they run to so many volumes (kids in this age group like to know what they’re getting, and to collect books in a series) suggests that they’re doing pretty well, and this can only be good news.

Although many come to the fandom through cartoons or artwork, literature like Watership Down, the Redwall novels and the Animorphs series can claim a share of the credit too. It may be a few years before we see the effect, if any, but it’s nice to imagine young fans creating their own original characters based on the world of Beowuff or the Astrosaurs–many a first fursona has been based on a beloved book or animated film, after all. If you have small people in your own family, or your friends have started to sprog, why not seize this opportunity to get the next generation pointed in the right direction?

Categories: News