Review: 'Claws and Starships', by M. C. A. Hogarth
When the results of Earth's genetic experiments fled their makers, they took their own name as they left humanity behind; centuries later, the Pelted have spread into a multi-world alliance of cultures and languages, cribbed from Terra or created whole-cloth. Claws and Starships collects six stories of the Pelted, ranging from the humor of a xenoanthropologist on the wrong side of mythology to more serious works considering the implications of genetic engineering in a far-future classroom seeded with the children of those laboratories. Come stamp your passport and visit the worlds of the Pelted Alliance in all their variety! (back-cover blurb)
If you want to say that I have a conflict of interest reviewing this collection as I wrote the afterword to it, go ahead. I have been a fan of M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Pelted Alliance” furry science fiction stories since I discovered them in YARF! and other furry fanzines in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I included one, “Rosettes and Ribbons” from Yarf! #58, January 2000, in Best in Show, the first anthology of furry fiction. I was glad to see this first collection of Pelted short fiction, along with six illustrations by the author, in an e-book in December 2011, and I felt honored to be asked to write this afterword, for this new trade paperback edition in June 2013.
Claws and Starships consists of the novella “A Distant Sun” and the five short stories “Rosettes and Ribbons”, “The Elements of Freedom”, “Tears”, “Pantheon” and “Butterfly”. These are the Pelted stories that do not feature Alysha Forrest, Hogarth’s feline-based Karaka’An woman, the main character in the series. The first Alysha Forrest stories were rewritten into Hogarth’s novel Alysha’s Fall (Cornwuff Press, September 2000), and she has starred in most of the Pelted short fiction since then.
But there have been these six other stories that show the Pelted universe is more than just Alysha’s adventures. Claws and Starships packages them together neatly for the fans of the Pelted universe, and of really good furry interstellar science fiction.
The first story in the collection “A Distant Sun” is also the longest story in it, and a good introduction to the interstellar Pelted Alliance of the 25th century. Kellen Grove, a fox-based Seersa, is a teacher of ‘ethical history’ at Silvergate Academy. The reader learns, along with Kellen’s students, the history of Earth’s bioengineering experiments – the real history.
These are details adults don’t share with children, for good reason. The creation of another sapient life form is an event fraught with ethical dilemmas. The solutions originally proposed and implemented for the first gengineered creatures on Terra were not always the best ones, and examining them is often cause for thought … and nightmare. You are no longer children. It’s time for you to examine our shared history: its atrocities and tragedies as well as the positive outcomes that have become our birthright. That is why this is a difficult class. (pgs. 4-5)
Along with the history lesson, this is the story of Kellen: his physical difficulties as a thick-furred Seersa, his emotional difficulties as a historian and his growing romance with Margeaux Davis, a Karaka’An feline and one of his students.
The protagonist of “Rosettes and Ribbons” is Peli (Pelipenele) Argentson, a young foxine Seersa archaeologist who has just graduated from college and is on her first dig as the assistant of Dr. Edisse, her Asanii former professor. The Pelted are not the only intelligent beings in their area of space; several planets are inhabited by sapient natives. They are on Aren, where the native Aera are investigating their own origins. They are at a local dig assisting the Aera archaeologists led by the Aera female Dr. La’aina.
Two Aera stepped in, a female and a male with a bundle. Both were near or exceeded six feet tall if she was any judge, which made her feel self-conscious about her own short stature; the female Aera was colored a glorious bright orange and streaked across the muzzle with brown, her mouth and throat a shocking white. Her long ears sported tufts that hung almost to the back of her head and large, golden hoop earrings with thick red stones. The female had arresting blue eyes, the same color as the wrap around her hips that served as her only clothing, wearing her white chest hair in the heavy shag that most Aera favored. The tiny wings at her ankles were white, tipped with brown. (pgs. 66-67)
The male is Du’er, Dr. La’aina’s subservient mate. As the dig progresses, Du’er subtly romances Peli (who is flattered but not interested); then when they are discovered (which he is counting on), he makes it look like she is pursuing him. In Aera society, this is grounds for a duel to the death with Dr. La’aina, who is considerably larger than Peli and a skilled duelist. Fleeing Aren to avoid the duel would leave Peli in disgrace and ruin her career before it starts. She must think of a way, not just to win the duel, but to prove her innocence. The story contains several mentions of Peli’s tail, and of how uncomfortable her thick fur makes her on hot Aren.
“The Elements of Freedom” features Carevei EarthHunger, a Tam-illee Pelted (another foxine, but not as thickly furred as the Seersa), a wolfine Hinichi Pelted ambassador and the native Ciracaana. Hogarth has described them on the MCAH Wiki as “Very tall (nine feetish?) centauroids with catlike lower bodies and foxlike faces.” They were gengineered by other Pelted, given their own planet, and left to develop their own primitive culture. Carevei, an offworld seismologist in one of Ciracaana’s two sophisticated cities, has discovered a fault line beneath a village that will soon break into a devastating earthquake. When the centauroid villagers refuse to move, Carevei is sent to convince them. To do that, she must give up her modern science and accept their animistic culture.
“Pantheon” is a card game. This story opens with two young feline Harat-Shariin women; the striped tigraine Dani and the spotted cheetahine Renya. Renya has never lost at Pantheon. Never! She joins the interplanetary Homeguard to get away from Harat-Shar’s masculine-dominated society. She enjoys the equality of the Homeguard, but she is just another cadet aboard one of many space vessels. She wants to distinguish herself on her first voyage, so when she learns that their ferocious lionine captain, Commander Kerov, also plays Pantheon, she challenges him to a game. But he has also never lost! This is not the best way to catch the attention of your commanding officer.
“Tears” is the shortest story in this book. Can Paul, a human man, awaken love in Milara, a foxene Tam-illee woman? Paul has a plan – but not what you’d think.
In “Butterfly” The butterflies on windswept Hinichitii seem like “living flowers that danced on cold winds rife with pollen.” (p. 164) Jared and Geneviive, wolf-based Hinichi brother and sister, are waiting at the spaceport to meet Noelle, the sister that they have never seen.
“My God,” Geneviive whispered.
She was tall as a needle-tower, her grace evident even through the heavy tunic and breeches. The wind teased the edges of her unlined cloak around her boots. Her oval face held a human’s alien beauty, but her coloring owed everything to the Hinichisene, for she was one of the rare wolves-of-all-seasons. The colors of her face and hands and tail flowed like liquid paint from the crisp cool of winter’s white through spring’s ocher and yellow-brown to summer’s deep browns and finally to the gray and black of autumn. Hoarfrost-pale, her eyes only slightly recalled the blue that had bred true through Dahrengard’s last six generations … and her hair curling around her throat contested with the snow of the highest peaks and won purer to do justice to the equally white, black-tipped Mother Mary ears, a pattern acclaimed among the Hinichi for its loveliness. (p. 167)
Jared and Geneviive are the new Lord and Lady-sister of Dahrengard Heights, and Noelle is their co-inheritor. They have come to the spaceport to welcome her to a home that she has never seen, a rich home by Hinichi standards; but Noelle coolly doubts that she will stay. They show her around the castle-fortress of Dahrengard, and the castle staff offer her loyalty and friendship; but Noelle isn’t sure.
Why was she raised away from her homeworld, and cut off from her parents, siblings, and heritage in the first place? The answer to that is central to whether she will accept Dahrengard and the wolf-world of Hinichitii, or return to space.
The six stories in Claws and Starships have been available as individual Kindle e-books and booklets since the e-book technology made them possible, but this collection of them all together is long overdue. The collection emphasizes the wealth, variety and extent of the Pelted Alliance worlds more than any single story. In literary terms, 200 pages of Maggie Hogarth’s colorful, evocative writing is more than worth the shelf space. Get it.