Review: 'Sunset of Furmankind', by Ted R. Blasingame
Ted Blasingame writes long Furry novels. That’s okay, because they are well-written, very interesting novels. (“Has written”? He’s retired from writing? Yarst!)
Sunset of Furmankind tackles a tough premise. The main character hates bioengineered Furries, and on the first page he murders one. He is sentenced to be either executed or made into one against his will. The reader can guess that he will eventually change his mind about them, but can the author make him a sympathetic-enough character to keep a readership of Furry fans interested in what happens to him until this occurs?
While I recommend buying Sunset of Furmankind in its trade paperback or Kindle edition, Blasingame has also made it available for free on his website. Sunset is worth having a permanent copy for your library, though.
The background: in the late 21st century, six extrasolar planets are discovered, at the same time that faster-than-light travel is developed enabling mankind to reach them. “Initial colonies to each of them suffered high mortality rates due to accidents and sometimes harsh living conditions. While humans are highly adaptable, they were just not physically hardy enough to endure some of the conditions they faced.
Then a breakthrough happened in another field of research that would forever change humanity. Genetic scientists working on a cure for cancer could take a single damaged cell from a patient and correct the aberrations in its DNA, but the trick was getting the healthy cell to replicate its new code in through the millions of other cells in the body. […]
Years later, genetic scientists from the Terran Colonization Coalition soon began tinkering with condemned prisoners in secret and used the McEwen process to combine human DNA sequences with data from other Terran life forms, primarily canine (dogs), feline (cats), ursine (bear) and vulpine (foxes). It was their hope to improve humanity in such a way to give settling colonists an edge on their survival.
The genetic mutations were successful and brought about the development of four new races, the Canis, the Felis, the Ursis, and the Vulps. These new races were able to stand upright as bipeds due to enlarged digitigrade back leg muscles and bone structure. The forepaws had fingers and opposable thumbs for using tools, yet were padded for running on all-fours. The tongues and vocal cords were altered for human-type speech and they retained their human intelligence while also maintaining animal instincts specific to each species. […]
With the success of genetic manipulation, the Anthro Human Colonization Program was formed, and these new races were sent to the untamed colonies of Earth in an effort to see if the changes would give them an edge on survival in the wild environments. The Canis were sent as a starter colony to planet Khepri, the Felis to Bastien, the Ursis to Diamanta, and the Vulps to Javan.
If the test subjects failed, the condemned would be considered an acceptable loss, but if they succeeded in surviving, it would provide new avenues for the overgrowing human population to spread out into the stars, even if no longer completely human.
The experiment is successful, and a call is publicized throughout Earth for volunteers to be transformed into Furmen to become settlers in “anthro-human starter colonies”. Twenty-five years later, Furmen have become reasonably common on Earth between their transformation and their permanent departure as extrasolar colonists on more newly-discovered worlds.
As will happen, there has become a movement on Earth promoting 'pure' humans as the dominant race, but the legislation that was passed at the start of the project continues to protect the rights of all Furs when possible. Despite this, some countries on Earth have outlawed Furs altogether. (pgs. 6-7)
Brian Barrett is one of these Furman-haters. When he kills a Feli, a humanoid mountain lion, his only chance to avoid execution for murder is to agree to become the Feli’s replacement and spend the rest of his life as an interstellar cougar colonist.
Blasingame makes Barrett as sympathetic as possible. Although branded as one of the human-only religious fanatics, he actually killed for a strong personal motive: his ex-fiancée left him for a Feli lover, who was the Furman he murdered. It was months of brooding on his betrayal that caused him to develop a prejudice against all furmen. Like most humans, Barrett has had little personal experience with the Furmen. So after he agrees to accept transformation, Barrett is forced to live among Furmen while awaiting his fate.
Barrett swallowed the lump in his throat and quickly tried to bury the resentment that had forced its way to the forefront of his mind. Upon closer examination of those who walked between the buildings – he was reluctant to call them people – he saw many more anthro humans on the grounds. Some wore shorts and a vest, others had on a short-sleeved, Asian-style garment that hung to the knees and had a split up the back for their tails, and there were even a few clad only in their fur and a pair of shorts with a waistband that dipped below the base of their tails. Many were barefooted, but others were shod in sandals designed for their digitigrade feet. (p. 26)
Barrett and his human guide meet a Feli staffer of the Institute isolated in the Adirondack Mountains where he will be transformed:
Tom stepped up to a counter and tapped a small bell to signal their arrival. The small hairs on the back of Barrett's neck stood up when something came out of a doorway behind the counter and gave them all a pleasant smile.
Although human-sized, the creature resembled an orange-striped, domestic cat standing upright on its back legs. Unlike the wolf outside, Barrett was certain this feline was a female. She wore a lightweight peach-colored garment like some of the others outside seemed to be wearing, with several bangles around her left wrist, but her hips were wider and there were soft curves to her body that could only belong to a woman. Her large green eyes had vertical black slits for pupils, and she looked pleased to see them. (pgs. 26-27)
Blasingame describes the North American facility of the Furmankind Institute and its Felis Wing, and the nine-month transformation and orientation period to get used to their new bodies, and learn about the planet to which they will be sent, in extreme – not to say excruciating -- detail. The human volunteers (Barrett is posing as a volunteer) are assigned to dorms in groups of four. All in Barrett’s dorm – him, Kristen Eisenberg, Dante Capanari, and Jenni Watson -- are to become Felis, but the Institute is for all four Furmans, so they encounter wolfmen, bearmen, and foxmen:
Kristen and Jenni tried not to stare, but they were both fascinated at the sight of the Furs that occupied tables throughout the cafeteria. The common chairs with the horizontal slots in the seat backs near the bottom cushion now made sense to them, as it allowed the furman patrons to occupy a chair without having to sit on their own tails. (p. 44)
(A minor annoyance of the book is the inconsistent capitalization of Furmen vs. furmen. It keeps switching back and forth.)
Barrett’s sentence requires him to take a new name and false history, so from page 72 on he is Jonathan Sunset. The detailed narrative fills pages and pages. Up to page 24 is Barrett’s story as a murderer in prison. Pages 25 to 113 show the Institute and Barrett/Jon’s developing relationship with Kristen, Dante, and Jenni. Pages 114 to 378 cover their slow nine-month transformations into Furmen in clinical detail:
She [Jenni] did so at the same moment that she pulled her covers back, and she immediately saw something under the sheets with her. She felt a brief instance of fear at the strands of a yellowish material before she realized what she was seeing.
In disbelief, the woman reached up to her head and put a hand upon her scalp. It was completely smooth and the naked skin felt mildly tingly beneath her fingers. Although she had known that the hair of the volunteers would be replaced by fur, it had never occurred to her that the hair would simply fall out. (pgs. 119-120)
Unrelated to the pain of transformation, other behavioral tendencies were surfacing among the Furs. The Ursis volunteers were lethargic in the cold weather, even though they would not require a seasonal hibernation like the bears from whose DNA was harvested, but the Canis volunteers, particularly the two becoming wolves, were enjoying the chilly temperatures. Likewise, the Vulps did not mind the winter weather, but those of the Felis Wing preferred to stay indoors reclining near the fireplace.
For the first time since the transformations had begun, the volunteers experienced changes on a daily basis that were more than mere topical alterations. Their softened skeletal systems suffered increasing aches and pains from slowly elongating limbs of bone, tendons, blood vessels and muscles, and each person had to put out a great effort just to get out of bed each morning. The temptation to remain in bed was great, but despite the weakness, the doctors made them all get up and walk around periodically to keep atrophy from settling in. (p. 140)
Jenni and Kristen had already made the best of the situation concerning their new claws, as it presented them with new extremities to decorate with nail polish. Jenni had covered hers with a subtle pink polish, while Kristen had used scarlet.
Of all the recent changes, however, the one that seemed to delight Dante the most was the growth of feline whiskers. Not only did he think they looked cool sprouting from both sides of his face, but the sensations they produced was almost intoxicating to him. Dr. Renwick had informed him that their purpose was to help him navigate in dark and narrow places. Dante thought he was pulling his leg, as he had never heard of that before, but when the physician pulled up a video on cat senses that profiled the whiskers, the younger man confessed that he had been ignorant of this part of a feline's makeup. (p. 142)
The botanist [Kristen] gritted her teeth, clutching at her ankles and trying to muffle the screams that wanted release. Although she had seen cat feet all her life, she had never really taken a close look at their design. When the reformation was complete, she would be walking on the equivalent of her toes with what was left of her heels rarely touching the ground. It was an odd concept, but no matter what she thought of it, the stretching and remolding of her bones and the surrounding tissue was accompanied by pain. Fortunately, it was not constant pain, but every time a bout hit her, she could practically feel the bones and muscles moving into place. For now within the [space] station, she was thankful she did not have to currently walk on the digitigrade extremities that her feet were becoming. (p. 171)
Sunset of Furmankind is much more than a study of the volunteers’ physical changes. The novel builds a social picture of the Institute, gradually pulling back from Jon to focus on all four of the Felis Wing dorm-mates; later expanding to include all sixteen of the transformees (four each of the four species) plus the Institute’s administrative staff. The cast experience personal dramas, social bonding, deaths, and more, leading to their “graduation” as full Furmen and assignment to a new extrasolar colony.
If this is Blasingame’s final novel, he has ended his literary career with a spectacular flourish, including his commission of an excellent cover painting by Ashley Leuthardt [katanimate on deviantART and Fur Affinity].