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Opinion: Do rabbits need a reason?

Edited by GreenReaper as of 21:54
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In my review of fluffy’s Unity Book 1: Ascent, I mentioned in the first line that I was dubious about furry science fiction. I gave that book a positive review, despite it being furry science fiction, because it was good science fiction. In concluding my opinion piece on furry criticism, I added as an afterthought that I am also dubious about the value of furry prose.

In both cases, Phil Geusz seemed to take these assertions as personal challenges. To the furry criticism piece, he suggested I try Watership Down, a book I was – to put it mildly – already familiar with. As readers had given me plenty more suggestions about what I could spend my spare time with that were not as friendly, I did not give it much thought.

But Geusz was more effective with his response to the Ascent review, offering up one of his own books in defense of the idea. I immediately plumped for another rabbit book, The First Book of Lapism, based on an earlier review by Fred Patten.

I chose this book for a variety of reasons, but the main one is the basis for this piece. Geusz’s story about a rabbit based religion is another good piece of furry science fiction, and it illustrates a need for “justification” in furry writing.

The furry prose problem

I apologize off the bat if this section of this piece comes off as a defense of my earlier piece, but it is important to remember that when I wrote that I was “dubious of furry prose,” I was talking about furry as defined by the piece, which was “fetishistic funny animal.”

This definition was not accepted by … well, I don’t think anyone accepted it, actually. Then again, no one proposed a rival definition at the time. Of course, “anthropomorphic animal” was raised, but that isn’t a genre; that’s a story element. (In fairness, I guess there’s no reason why a fandom cannot form around a particularly interesting story element; there is no rule about what fandoms can or cannot form around.)

The First Book of LapismPhil Geusz’s story The First Book of Lapism features a future religion, Lapism, where the adherents to the faith voluntarily bioengineer themselves into the form of big, bipedal bunnies. In other words, it is a science fiction story that features anthropomorphic animals as a story element, so it is of interest to furries.

I am not particularly dubious about this story being prose, because its genre is science fiction, not “funny animal,” fetishistic or otherwise. I am okay with the talking rabbits in Geusz’s prose story because they add something; in fact, they are integral to it. If you took out the Lapists, there would be no story.

Conversely, the anthropomorphic animals in a funny animal story do not add to the narrative itself; they add visual appeal to the story, as I pointed out in my first piece. This is fine for justifying a funny animal comic strip or animated movie, because these are visual media. Prose is not.

Now might be a good time to bring back my three rules of “funny animal”:

  1. The majority of the characters must be anthropomorphic animals. Humans are allowed, and a human character can even be the protagonist, but they must be a distinct minority. Animal characters must be presented on the same level as any human characters.
  2. The level of anthropomorphisation should be both physical and mental. Bipedalism is a must.*
  3. The genre of funny animals is not science fiction, or at least not hard science fiction. Anthropomorphisation should not be explained — at most, it should be vaguely hand-waved, as with fantastic "magic" or the ever popular soft sci-fi catchall, a "virus." That said, funny animals can be applied over a basic framework of soft sci-fi, like the space opera.

* Note: I have softened quite a bit on this rule; the sentence “Bipedalism is a must.” would probably be omitted if I had written the original piece today.

The third rule is the problematic one for prose. Without justification, the use of funny animal characters can quickly become confusing to readers. In theory, a good reader should go along with the story and imagine the characters as walking, talking foxes or whatever it happens to feature. But often they will not, unless they are given a reason to.

As an example, I present this blog post from Penny Arcade, in which Jerry Holkins – co-creator of “Twisp and Catsby” and “The Cardboard Tube Samurai” – reacts to Kyell Gold’s stories and “literally can’t hold an image like that in my head, which is a failure of my imagination.”

The point I am trying to illustrate is that, for most people, if you present them with a prose description of funny animals, they just will not get it. Note that Holkins works in a visual medium; if I were to describe such bizarre characters as those linked to above, most people would not get it. But draw them out, and they work, because we can see them.

This is not to say funny animal level anthropomorphic animals have no place in literature, but the decision must be justified; for the reader to get them, there must be a reason for the funny animals. Even if a particular reader feels they “can’t hold an image like that in their head,” they will be more likely to make the effort if the writer gives them a reason to. And that reader may find that they underestimated their imaginations.

Justification can be symbolic, in which the animals are used metaphorically; it can be a neat science fiction or fantasy explanation for why the world is the way it is; it can be as simple as making the story about what life would really be like for a bipedal cat in a world of bipedal mice. It really is not that hard, and adds immeasurably to the reading experience.

And though it is unnecessary for mediums with visual appeal, it even adds value to funny animals there.

The furry science fiction problem

I said justification can take the form of a neat science fiction explanation, but let me be clear: if you are writing furry science fiction, it really does need to be a neat explanation.

For example, I once got into an argument over the idea of justifying bio-engineered animals in a story by saying they were used a super-soldiers. Right off the bat, this plot device has the glaring flaw that adding claws and fangs to a soldier really doesn’t equal the killing power of giving another soldier a semi-automatic rifle. Sure, G.I. Fido has a great sense of smell, but it’s not like he’s going to smell a sniper round coming. That’s granting that an animal engineered for one or two traits will come out looking anything like it started out as (thanks, fluffy, for that insight!).

Okay, so, what if it’s an ethical thing? It’s unethical to send out soldiers to die in the battlefield, right? So, like, the bio-engineered animals (who will, of course, be called “subhumans” throughout the story) are there to make sure “real” humans aren’t killed in war. And then there can be a lesson at the end about how these “subhuman” soldiers really are just as human as their “real” human commanders after all.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The lesson is always the same; it’s unethical to produce a species for the purpose of fighting our enemies. In other words, the solution to an ethical problem is unethical. That doesn’t work. (The conversation got really weird here because the guy I was arguing with pointed out maybe the guy doing the bio-engineering is unethical. So, why is he worried about ethics?)

In conclusion, against the scenario of bio-engineered animals, we have no real benefit from what would probably be a costly procedure; if the army were ethical – besides the whole “war” thing – they wouldn’t do it. An unethical army has cheaper, more practical tactics at its disposal.

I am being more than a bit mean here. The premise is not as bad as I make it out to be; the problem is that it is an old premise that has been done to death. That’s why I can point out all its problems – I’ve seen it in science fiction again and again (maybe as bio-engineered animals this week, robots next week, mostly human super soldiers the week after next, but always the same). A lot of furry science fiction shares this problem with a lot of science fiction in general. It's not that it’s all been done before; it’s that many furries are unaware of this.

Way back when I published my first piece, Geusz was right there reminding me of this. You have got to do your homework. You have got to read a lot of different stuff in a variety of areas (and watch and even play nowadays) to see what has come before. Otherwise, you face something worse than unoriginality; unoriginality you think is original.

Geusz’s Lapism stories are actually original. They have a science fiction justification for furry rabbits living in human society that is clever; it is very hard to come up with a logical reason for people to turn themselves into animals, or to turn animals into humans. Yes, we furries might like to see that happen, but is it really necessary? (It better be, because the next question is “is it really ethical?”)

By making it a religious act, Geusz cuts through all that in one fell swoop. It’s based on beliefs, rather than logic. These people have faith that turning into a rabbit is the right thing for them to do. As a religion, their beliefs are protected by law across most of the civilized world, so the government cannot ban what they are doing — and a character mentions that all other forms of animal bio-engineering are banned in America. Finally, it sidesteps the ethical question by presenting itself as an ethical choice; Lapists are not concerned with the afterlife. They want to be better people; it would be unethical for them not to become rabbits.

I cannot be 100% certain that Geusz practices what he preaches — and I’m not talking about Lapism. But I believe he is not being hypocritical when he told me to read more furry. The guy obviously reads a lot of furry, science fiction, furry science fiction and, if his own output’s variety of genre is any indication, whatever else he can get his hands on. He’s done his homework, and it shows in his clever take on genre themes.

Justifying justification

The greatest thing about The Book of Lapism is that, when it comes down to it, it is really a book written by a guy who likes rabbits, plain and simple. But, instead of just sitting down and writing a book about anthropomorphic rabbits, he decided he was going to have a reason for his rabbits. He came up with a great reason, and because of that, he also got to say a few things about religion and what purpose it serves us.

Do we need a reason to write about rabbits? Yes. Sure, if you like rabbits, that’s reason enough by itself; but if you really like them, shouldn’t you make sure they get your best when you do?


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Well said, cross.

If anyone else can provide examples of original, well-justified furry fiction, I'd be very grateful.

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I think if I have learned anything from years of writing, reading and observing what sells, it's that the only justification art needs is that someone likes it. If it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you; if it works for someone else, then you can stare at it all you like and argue that it shouldn't work, but you won't accomplish anything. :)

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Seriously? You're bringing those rules back again? I was kinda hoping I'd got rid of those ages ago.

I've pretty much already had this argument with you so I'm not sure I'll accomplish much here but I'll try again. I still don't think it's necessary to justify having anthropomorphic characters and I don't think you'll alienate readers by including them. If a reader can't imagine the characters as furries but the story is good then shouldn't they be able to derive enjoyment anyway? If one can imagine that then wouldn't it just improve the story?

Furthermore I don't think you've shown that people can't imagine anthropomorphic characters. One blog post is hardly representative and doesn't even say that not picturing the characters ruined the story. With that gone it seems like you're attacking this straw man spectre of the unjustified anthropomorph haunting people's literary dreams. Going against your view is that anthropomorphic stories are often very successful, not only as children's books, and have been with us for a very long time. Many tribal stories are based around anthropomorphic animals and the Redwall series is highly acclaimed with no obvious justification for including furry characters.

The justification can certainly be good for a story and, in certain contexts, it might be essential but I don't think it's anywhere near as important as you claim. If anthropomorphic characters don't add to a story that's one thing but, as long as they aren't taking away from it, I don't see what the problem is.

PS: I'm quite upset you say no one provided a rival definition of furry at the time when two weeks later I put my proposal for a definition of furry up.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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The problem with this whole "justifying furries" argument is that it tends to conflate two very different questions.

  1. Why did the author choose to use furry characters?
  2. What is the in-story rationale for the characters to be furry?

These are two entirely different questions. In my Ranea stories, for instance, the bottom line answer to the first question is that I like anthropomorphic animal characters and I was tired of "high fantasy" that presented endless variants on medieval settings with arcane, mysterious wizards and elves, dwarves and hobbits alongside the humans, and wanted to skew each trope a little. So: a more Victorian setting, magic which is treated more like an engineering discipline, and furries alongside the humans.

But the second question is actually a lot thornier. In certain stories it would certainly be important to give the rabbits a reason. The Book of Lapism is one of those stories. Donnie Darko, though, not so much. And what about Out of Position? Little of what Kyell Gold writes can be called science fiction, nor does he take the time to "justify" choosing to use animal-people. Yet just about every chapter of one of his stories shows us how their version of our world -- and it's definitely an "alternate Earth" setting -- is subtly (and not-so-subtly) different because of their furriness. Lee and Dev don't "need" to be fox and tiger, yet the fact that they are absolutely matters to the way the story is told.

Ultimately, this is an argument which is oddly peculiar to furry fandom, as so many of our arguments seem to be. Some of our stories are going to remain only targeted at the fandom, and that's probably okay. But I've already demonstrated to my own satisfaction, at least, that I can show most of the Ranea stories to non-furry audiences and they're not going to go "what's with the talking animals?" They're going to get that the Vraini and Melifen are that world's equivalent to elves and dwarves. And nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and goes, "Wait wait wait. How do you justify the hobbits? Where did they come from? Wouldn't this story work just as well if Frodo was a human? You're just writing it this way because you have a fetish for hairy feet, aren't you?"

— Chipotle

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Actually, I decided to not reply to comments in general to this story with a couple exceptions; the issue of Kyell Gold is one of only two things I'll reply to. It deserves a bit more time than I could give to in the article, or right now, for that matter. But I'll reply better later, anyway.

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I think I need to say that Kyell Gold is probably not a good example to pick on; first off, Holkins, as a straight (his long running comic strip alter-ego bromance notwithstanding), probably had as much problem with the "gay erotica" part of Gold's writing as the "furry," so you have to keep that in mind. Holkins just really isn't the right audience for Gold. It really wouldn't be fair to Gold or Holkins to ask for much more than what Holkins already gave.

And, furthermore, it's a bit unfair to use Gold as an example of unjustified furry, because, though I have still not read any Gold (that straight male thing again), I have read all of Fred's reviews of Gold's work, and I cannot recall a single time he used the phrase "funny animal" to describe one of Gold's books (and Fred uses the phrase "funny animal" far more pejoratively than I do). As you point out, the world of Gold's books are different from our world because of the characters being animals. That is justification enough; Gold is doing something with his animal characters. I'm not asking for much. Too many furry writers are writing stories (and too many furry publishers are publishing stories) that don't even extend to that level.

Well, there's the "Kyell Gold" post. I can tell you were all holding your breath. The only other thing I'll reply to is if that one anonymous idiot who keeps trying to badmouth me about "definitions" shows up, I reserve the right to pelt him with witty bon mots. Or call him an asshole. Whatever works.

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I think authors should have to justify everything about their characters, every part of them must be a certain way for a purpose. Like why have a black protagonist when the character would be just as effective as a white guy? Clearly there must be an important reason that the protagonist is black because they aren't white.

Of course I'm being sarcastic here but this is my point...

It's a human thing to expect to relate to characters, if a furry writes a furry character that non-furries can relate to then they are a damn good writer. What I was portraying with my above phrase is that we tend to relate to our own groups before thinking of another, so the protagonist will always look like us unless otherwise specified, and if we are told otherwise right away there is the chance of shutting off someone who doesn't hold that trait right off the bat.

Here's a very recent article about characters in the hunger games. Alot of fans of the book were complaining when a black actress was cast in a role "they felt" was more "characteristically white":

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Or to cite an s-f example that is not as notorious as it should be, Khi to Freedom, by Ardath Mayhar (Ace Books, May 1983). The protagonist, future interstellar space scout Hale Enbo, is described somewhere well into the novel as a very black African, which certainly caused me to do a momentary double-take – he is shown on the cover as a Flash Gordon-like Caucasian – but since his race doesn’t affect the story any, I didn’t worry about it.

Some years later I was briefly in correspondence with the book’s cover artist, Stephen Hickman, and I asked him why he had painted Enbo as a white man when he was so clearly described as Black? Hickman said that he had never read the story. At that time, it was Ace’s policy to just dictate over the telephone what they wanted a book’s cover to look like – in that case, a space explorer sitting in a tree with an animalistic but sexy alien lioness-girl – so that’s what Hickman painted, and it was accepted. No one ever told him that the space explorer was a Black man, so he “naturally” assumed that he was Caucasian.

Fred Patten

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And of course Samus is a guy.

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Examples of original, well-justified furry fiction?

Hey, this is what we used to discuss in the “Gallacci groups” around Steve Gallacci at the s-f & comics conventions in the early 1980s.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams.

Aldair in Albion, by Neal Barrett, Jr.
This review is pre-Internet. GreenReaper, do you want to reprint this in Flayrah?

Aldair in Albion, by Neal Barrett, Jr. Frontispiece by Josh Kirby. NYC, DAW Books, May 1976, 205 pages, $1.25; SBN: 0-451-UY1235; ISBN: 0-87997-235-1.

It’s not easy any more for a s-f author to come up with a totally fresh plot. Most new fiction relies on variations of familiar themes. How successful it is depends upon how adept the author is in making old ideas seem new, or in making his writing so interesting that the reader is caught up even though the outcome is predictable. Aldair in Albion is a considerable success in the latter case.

The story is related in the first person by Aldair, who is (when we meet him) a student in a primitive community reminiscent both of the northern Roman frontier and of medieval European college towns. It is immediately revealed that Aldair and his compatriots are not human, although they believe themselves to be. There are also references to forbidden ruins and mysterious godlike forerunners. In other words, Barrett makes no secret from the outset that he’s working another variation on the Genus Homo/Planet of the Apes theme, and that he doesn’t expect the climax to be nearly as big a mystery to the reader as it is to Aldair. But it doesn’t matter, because the interest in the novel is not on what will happen but on how the events will affect Aldair and his friends.

Aldair is a bit of a prig, interested in learning and intolerant of social distractions, which include religious restrictions on topics he wishes to study. When he is accused of witchcraft and must flee Silium (no great hardship since he had already reached the limits of permissible scholarship), he falls in with a barbarian warrior who has likewise just escaped captivity in the town. Although Aldair and Rheif are natural enemies, both are commonsensical enough to see that it is to their mutual advantage to help each other as long as they are going in the same direction. But fate – and Aldair’s insatiable curiosity – keep leading them astray. As they drift through new cultures, Aldair learns new facts about the history of the world, and they pick up more acquaintances among those who are dissatisfied with superstitious dogma about the origins of creation. Finally Aldair and Rheif make the forbidden journey to the island god-home of Albion in search of the final answer. And even though the reader will long since have guessed what it is, Barrett tells it very powerfully and movingly.

The novel succeeds through its strong characterizations, its brisk pace, its colorful settings, and its giving the reader a slight sense of superiority over the protagonists without in any way making them seem stupid or inferior. Best handled are the characterizations, especially the almost reluctantly-growing friendship between Aldair and Rheif, who by rights should slay each other on sight. (When they meet Aldair is wearing boots made of the fur of one of Rheif’s kinsmen, while Rheif has doubtlessly eaten some of Aldair’s relatives.) Barrett also convincingly handles the tricky task of manipulating an essentially comic-book cast of talking, clothes-wearing animals and making the story seem like real science fiction rather than fantasy. I was going to object to some of the nomenclature – surely parallel evolution wouldn’t be so close as to duplicate names like Albion and Niciea – but he thought of that, too, and plausibly explains it in the climactic revelation.

Aldair in Albion isn’t going to win any awards and it makes no pretensions at any seriousness or depth, but I can’t remember when I’ve sat down with light leisure reading and enjoyed it more. I may say that I’m delighted to read in Locus that Barrett is working on a sequel. Highly recommended, especially for junior-high and high-school libraries or wherever there is any demand for fresh variations on the Planet of the Apes theme.

Delap’s F&SF Review #20, November 1976, page 29.

New Coyote, by Michael Bergey.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell.

Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper.

Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon.

This will do to start.

Fred Patten

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I tend to live by your rules as a writer. Well, some of them. Others I delight in willfully trashing.

But, even though I am one to justify everything, I worried that readers still wouldn't be able to hold in their minds what kind of human animal each of my hundreds of characters were supposed to be - especially since I absolutely refuse to slip in unnecessary reminders. And, besides, Furry is a very visual oriented fandom. Even if I put the reminders in, I had a feeling most Furries wouldn't care unless they could see the characters.

But, no biggie. I just hired an illustrator. Which is something Furry writers have been doing since . . . since forever. No law at all that says a written format can't be made visual.

BTW, if you've not read my stuff yet, please do. It's not like I've been reviewed anywhere in all these years. I'd love to hear about all the rules I'm breaking.

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No, I've not read your stuff yet. I tend to not read stuff that I cannot hold in my hand; paper books. But I will try to make an exception for your books.

Bernard Doove is another author who hires lots of illustrators. I was not reading his stories for a long time while they were only online (since 1995), but since 2005 he has been repackaging them into novels and collections printed by CreateSpace, with the illustrations in them. I have reviewed most of his books for Anthro or for Flayrah; but I could have been reading them for free all along -- and getting the illustrations in color.

Fred Patten

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Well, you could always print a couple of episodes out if you wanted to read away from the computer screen.

The thing is, those who follow my stuff while it's being serialized online have the opportunity to influence the development and outcome of the story. At the point where I start collecting it into books, then it will just be another series of books like any other. I think those who wait for the books will have missed a special opportunity.

Alternatively, if there are any Furry periodicals out there that would like to license the serial, I'm always willing to entertain offers.

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Are there any Furry periodicals out there, period? The great Furry periodicals of the 1990s like Yarf!, PawPrints Fanzine, FurryPhile, Mythagoras, etc. have all disappeared. Yarf! was the last to go, in 2003, when the cost of postage rose to more than the publisher could reasonably charge. (Fang, Claw, & Steel outlasted it, but FC&S was limited to lycanthropic fiction.) Today the very few Furry periodicals left are annuals, and usually Furry erotic specialty periodicals, because that is all that's being written today. That includes the periodicals formatted as books like ROAR. Correction; Allasso is semi-yearly. (A pox on "bi-annual"!) And few if any of those ever licensed their fiction. The ones that paid at all paid for first publication rights only; I think that most authors donated their stories for the prestige of seeing them in print.

Fred Patten

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I don't think there are any furry periodicals of greater publishing frequency than Allasso. I think Reynard's Menagerie was two or three times a year, wasn't it? But it only lasted a few issues.

Paying magazines have always been pretty rare in the fandom. Other than Mythagoras (which I suppose I can say lasted all of five issues, if I count Zoomorphica and Mythagoras Vol. 2's solitary issues), there was... hm. Reynard's again, but I don't think it lasted very long at all. The American Journal of Anthropomorphics, but it didn't last as long as Mythagoras did. :) And, of course, Sofawolf's titles, but their remaining serials are annual-at-best as you've noted.

I think the audience size is big enough to make a commercial small press magazine viable now in a way that it might not have been even five years ago -- the problem is really finding people with enough free time and energy to put into doing something like that.

— Chipotle

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Will be doing something similar with my story when it's ready, hope to be around next year sometime.

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“Renard’s Menagerie; The Journal of Anthropomorphic Fiction” was quarterly; four issues in 2007 and four issues in 2008. I wrote a book review column during the last year. Their website is still up - - so you may be able to buy the eight issues from Fox Cutter. You can at least see the cover art.

The American Journal of Anthropomorphics was 95+% individual art pages and -5% fiction, as I recall.

Hmmm - GreenReaper, would you like to reprint my Renard's Menagerie reviews in Flayrah? I still have the computer files.

Fred Patten

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