Review: 'The Furry Future', edited by Fred Patten
Furry fiction is replete with references to its characters' ears, tails, paws, and how they notice scent in the world around them. While adding to a story's atmosphere, in many cases the characters could, with minor modifications, be written as humans. In The Furry Future, editor Fred Patten wanted to depart from cursory furriness.
This is an anthology of short stories more firmly rooted in science-fiction, not fantasy, in which the existence of its furry characters tries to be relevant to its stories.
"Emergency Maintenance" by Michael H. Payne
Originally published in 1994, this is part of a series of stories being re-worked into a larger novel. Chelisse (a weasel) and her husband Lorenz (a cat) are both anthrops, species bioengineered by mankind. While having some measure of rights, they remain lower-class citizens. Still, they live a little better than most, employed as special agents who deal with emergencies, overseen by a branch of the interplanetary government. The setting is on a distant colony world, whose economic power is now a thing of the past, due to changes in technology. Chelisse is the main character, more hot-headed than her husband and quite willing to leap into action.
The pair have been invited to a celebratory dinner, held in a high-class human hotel that would otherwise discriminate against their kind, not even allowing them to enter. Except it turns out they're really there on a mission, to guard against a possible attack by a radical protest group. With the help of the hotel's advanced artificial intelligence, events take a turn for the dangerous, and what began as a fancy night out turns into something they weren't expecting at all.
"Tow" by Watts Martin
Totemics are humans who have decided to re-shape themselves into anthropomorphic animals, sometimes facing serious prejudice for doing so. Set in an inhabited solar system, Gail is a rat-woman trying to start her own business as a salvage operator in space. She's also coping with living under the shadow of the controversy surrounding her mother's death.
Desperate to land a much-needed contract, Gail lacks the salvage equipment she needs to get the job done. The closest place she can buy it isn't especially friendly towards totemics. Luckily she has a friend on staff who might cut her a deal - and then everything goes wrong. There's a secondary character who becomes very important; I wish they'd had more of a description and set-up, but given this is a prequel to an upcoming novel, Kismet, I assume that's where the character will be given more depth. Regardless, this story reads just fine on its own, and BlackTeagan's cover art for this anthology, depicting Gail at her ship's console, is excellent.
"Experiment Seventy" by J.F.R. Coates
Furries have just been created by a research group, and their first surviving specimen has escaped the lab in a bid for freedom. He finds safety - at least temporarily - but the researchers are suspiciously confident now that their secret is out. Meant as a prequel to Coates' novel Reborn, set 250 years later.
"A Bedsheet for a Cape" by Nathanael Gass
Furries in this universe are bioengineered subjects who exist to serve humanity, and think in a robotic manner. One of them, a police dog, comes to the rescue of a woman named Tarla who's being mugged. When the dog ends up badly injured and disfigured by an anti-bioengineering gang, Tarla takes him to the police station, only to discover that budgetary constraints and a lack of compassion from management make him completely disposable - he's going to be put down.
Tarla must convince the police to let her adopt him, something which no one has offered to do before, nor can anyone predict the consequences. A nice story with light dystopian undertones and a hopeful ending, although I wonder how the dog's previous limitations on autonomy will allow him to do things on his own, like knowing what he can eat. What I liked most in this story was Tarla's new-found awareness of social inequality, although she isn't considering all the complexities yet, at least in regards to her babysitter.
"Hachimoto" by Samuel C. Conway
This story has a kind of "write what you know" feel to it, while still being a believable what-if scenario. The creation of human-animal hybrids has been banned in the United States, so the Japanese have taken the plunge and created hundreds of them. An American scientist approaches a major biotechnology firm in Japan to make a pitch, hoping to receive funding and join the research. A short tale which points out differences in how a hybrid might communicate and judge the world around them. With a dash of mythology; a nice touch.
"Vivian" by Bryan Feir
This short story has a very slice-of-life tone to it. Real-life anthropomorphics don't exist yet; however, the process has started. Mankind's first artificial intelligences have been created by a huge inter-disciplinary team of researchers. Success is achieved when they start the AIs at a very rudimentary stage, and then raise them like children, slowly and carefully. The AIs can interact between themselves and their creators inside a virtual reality environment, where they inhabit cartoon-style animal bodies. The outside world is aware of the research and has mixed feelings about it, but it hasn't become a major issue yet.
Vivian, a young teenage fox AI, is starting to feel the generation gap between her and the newer, younger AIs being developed. Worse are the feelings of boredom and growing isolation she's starting to have. To help, the researchers try enriching her existence in two ways. First she receives a virtual console through which she can interact with the outside world in a limited fashion. Secondly, one of the researchers brings in her younger sister and allows her avatar into the virtual environment, so Vivian has a friend closer to her age. There's not much in the way of conflict in this story, and there doesn't need to be; I found it to be a good exploration of how AI development might proceed.
Disclosure: Bryan Feir is a long-time friend of the reviewer.
"Family Bonding" by Yannarra Cheena
Originally the accidental result of a premature bomb explosion intended for biological warfare, human society has figured out how to deliberately produce human-animal beings, referred to as Bonded people. Not everyone is thrilled with the concept; there's a conservative church whose members devoutly believe in the preservation of humankind as a pure species. And two of them are Nicolas' parents, which makes his life difficult. They're already not happy that he works doing market research with the Bonded, who are common enough that they've become a consumer target demographic.
Nicolas' bigger problem is that his girlfriend Alicia is Bonded, and it's time for him to tell his parents about it. Alicia is quite right to get on Nicolas' case to break the news, but at the same time I find her overly dismissive of how difficult it is for him, to the point that it decreases her sympathy as a character. This story is very similar to gay coming-out stories, although with a furry angle plus a surprise extra plot twist.
"The Future is Yours" by MikasiWolf
This is a departure from the usual prejudicial set-up. Normally we have furry main characters experiencing the prejudice. Instead, this story's main character is the prejudiced human, a cop. And his anger is very understandable - AGAs (Alternative-Gene Augmentees) are like super-soldiers, physically better at everything. Not only is his work partner an AGA, but they're more chummy between their own kind than with normal humans. AGA treatment is optional for being on the police force; however, it's obvious that it's the AGAs getting the promotions, and the human cop feels that being passed over is disrespectful of his inherent skills. His prejudice is starting to have an effect on his work and his private life. Aw man, I feel so sorry for his girlfriend.
The story gets a bit melodramatic in tone, which might not be to everyone's tastes. Still, at heart it's exploring the question of what drives and motivates people as individuals, and society as a whole. Does striving to make the world a better place for all mankind count as a definition of what it means to be human, when some of the citizens doing the striving are technically no longer human?
"Distant Shores" by Tony Greyfox
Jumping into a more futuristic setting, Alayna is a human on a space mission that goes wrong. Putting herself into cryogenic sleep, she's rescued and awoken 120 years later, to discover that science has progressed. Space travel speeds have vastly improved by manipulating wormhole-like phenomena, and genetic engineering has produced GenEng - she awakes as the sole human on a ship piloted by rodents and rabbits.
Although they allow Alayna to gradually come to grips with her situation, she quickly learns that the GenEng are essentially slaves. The only reason they have a ship to themselves is that they're meant to set up a colony world in advance for their human masters, who are following in another ship. Conflict erupts as paranoia and distrust between the GenEng is sparked by Alayna's presence, culminating in events that endanger the whole ship. (Small quibble: If limited to audio, how do GenEng know the species of the person giving them orders?) This story really kicks up the action, and you can tell the author really liked writing the technological side as well.
At five pages long, I wasn't expecting much - and oh boy, was I wrong. Told in second-person narrative style, this is a character-driven short story about an early-model Bengal tiger anthropomorph, who perseveres through years of technological change, always surviving despite whatever indignities the world throws at them, a combination of circumstances that ultimately ... look, just read it, ok?
"The Sequence" by NightEyes DaySpring
With one foot firmly in the cyberpunk genre, this follows the adventures of Jones Fields, a cheetah private investigator on the trail of ancient genetic research. The answers may relate to a myth. Were the intelligent species of the world created by humans over 300 years earlier? Jones' detective work is hampered by two mysterious factions, betrayals and the police. Soon he's in way too deep.
I really wanted to like this story a lot more, but there were so many ambiguous aspects. Maybe this was deliberate on the part of the author to create a sense of mystique, but it left me with too many unanswered questions. If the humans vanished several hundred years in the past, what relevance is the mysterious research conducted only a few decades ago? Are the humans still around, hiding their existence, and if so, how are they pulling this off? What are the deeper ideological principles between the factions, and who are they anyway? Has society come to some kind of implied standstill? Why is Jones even looking for the information in the first place?
I genuinely liked the writing style here, the cyberpunk setting, a hint of Blade Runner, the pace - it's got everything it needs to work, except enough character motivation and a smidge more exposition.
This is meant as a young adult title, which Ocean may later expand into a larger work. I hope so, it's really charming. The village of ferrets doesn't seem to be aware that humans once roamed the planet, but they are aware that they live near a devastated wasteland that they try to avoid.
Not so for Trinka, our young intrepid ferret explorer! Regardless of danger, she embarks on personal research missions with the zeal of an amateur scientist, making drawings, measurements (even creating her own unit of measurement), and experimentally banging things together in ferret-like fashion. And then she activates an ancient robot. This is a fun little tale, and ferret society is in for ... quite a change.
"Lunar Cavity" by Mary E. Lowd
At this point in the anthology, we have our first story involving aliens who are similar to Earth animals, the bat-like Wrombarrans. Although they prefer to keep to themselves as a species, a Wrombarran scientist named Druthel has traveled to a highly-regarded scientific research institute, to recruit human experts and hopefully save his home planet from a world-wide catastrophe.
The story is very much a two-person character study between Druthel and one of the human scientists, Rhiannon. Suffering from a tremendous personal loss of spirit, she doesn't think she can help. Druthel is convinced she can, and must find a way to rekindle her motivation. As it turns out, they have a lot in common, and manage to get quite close, Druthel even taking her flying. The resolution is bittersweet, that's all I can say.
I'm rather perturbed that the solution the scientists come up with - which isn't kept secret from any of the visiting alien races - could be easily weaponized. Pretty much anyone could use it to effectively neutralize entire planetary systems ... permanently. Ignoring that one part of the story, I really liked the Keats, the talking translation birds, they were fun. Plus I enjoyed the little glimpses of an advanced bat society.
"The Darkness of Dead Stars" by Dwale
As the title suggests, this one's definitely dark. A ship crewed by naked mole-rats has been drifting through deep space for generations, endlessly hoping to find a world they might colonize, and they are despairing. Crewman Ben is awakened from stasis to deal with a small side-problem that arose from a recent bit of civil unrest. Except this side-problem requires interacting with an alien creature the ship picked up during its travels, now imprisoned. It's dangerous, cunning and very, very angry.
"Field Research" by M.C.A. Hogarth
More a vignette at seven pages, Kis'eh't is a furred centauroid doing advanced materials research, whose boss fires Abraham, her human assistant, in order to receive grant money from a bigoted donor. Kis'eh't feels deeply offended by the move, and even though Abraham takes it in stride, she must decide what to do about it.
"The Curators" by T.S. McNally
A bit of an exception to the rest of the book; the animal-people in this story don't have a back-story in terms of how they came to exist. Instead there's a historical angle, in which the prey species turned on their predator masters long ago, and enslaved them in turn. Not everyone agrees with this arrangement. Some of the prey species believe in equality, and a group of them have captured a ship and freed its predator prisoners. Unfortunately while doing so, they've accidentally drifted into a forbidden region of space where they're likely to be killed. The mysterious, powerful Curators eliminate anyone who wanders over their imposed boundary. Soon, one person on the ship will find out the reason for the restriction, though at great personal cost.
"Evolver" by Ronald W. Klemp
Seven weeks of travel away from civilized space, investigating a highly unusual distress signal, a spaceship with a mixed crew of anthropomorphs and humans discovers a vessel whose design hasn't been seen for five hundred years. The Evolvers were an alien race who long ago had inexplicably kidnapped (and returned) many humans and animals from Earth. Years later, when mankind managed to travel to distant stars, they discovered that the aliens had used the information they'd gathered. Several dozen anthropomorphic species had been created, scattered across many planets. Humans were reunited with their distant cousins, but the Evolvers themselves (and their motives) have remained a legendary enigma.
Now that the crew has found the origin of the distress signal, they've also realized they might not be the only ship in the neighborhood. When it's over, there are still many unanswered questions about the Evolvers, but this isn't too frustrating; I really liked how this ended nonetheless.
"Growing Fur" by Fred Patten
What happens when a company that's willing to stoop to almost anything tries to come up with a marketable cure for baldness? Not quite what they were hoping for, but consumers adjust to it. A bit of humor from the anthology's editor.
"Thebe and the Angry Red Eye" by David Hopkins
The final story in this anthology starts off bleak, and it only gets bleaker from there. Not entirely surprising, given that the author is also known for the webcomic Jack. This is the kind of story where the bits and pieces gradually form into a larger picture, in this case about a space mission gone wrong, and the main character is having trouble holding on to his sanity. I must admit his narration began to grate on me early on.
I was impressed by the strong, sad ending, punctuated with a simple and powerful illustration by artist Roz Gibson. However the task of reading to get to that point ... it felt like the author was putting a bit too much effort into the bleakness. The situation reminds me of the recent 2015 movie The Martian. While the movie's protagonist is largely optimistic, this is the opposite.
Nineteen stories is a lot of territory to cover, so where to begin? When the theme of the anthology requires the furries to have reasons for being there, the focus falls into a few categories. Two of the categories are how furries came to exist ("Experiment Seventy", "Vivian"), or how folks are coping in the far future with or without humans ("Trinka and the Robot", "Lunar Cavity", "The Darkness of Dead Stars", "Evolver", "Thebe and the Angry Red Eye") - the latter are all in the second half of the book. Two of them, "The Darkness of Dead Stars" and "Thebe and the Angry Red Eye", feel a bit too "cursory furry" to me; however, they also dare to be darker than most of the other contributions by quite a wide margin.
The third and largest category is how different creatures get along - prejudice and class conflict. Many stories cross into all three categories to some extent, but this third category is by far the most prevalent. Okay, you've created furries, they've been pets or slaves or militia or a cheap workforce or whatnot, and may have eventually received more civil rights (or not). After that part of the story's been established, then what?
That brings in the second theme of the anthology - science-fiction and how the furries fit into the future world. It's difficult to do complex world-building in short-story format. You can't spend the whole thing describing furniture and technology interface design. (My expectations may be a bit high due to seeing the trailers for Disney's soon-to-be-released film, Zootopia.) There was also a four-month window for submissions. A bit short, but hey, 19 accepted stories is a very good turn-out! So I'm going to pick out little aspects of world-building that stood out to me.
In "Emergency Maintenance" - boy, it's difficult to avoid spoilers here - there was a potential leap forward in technology that was introduced. Dealing with its future repercussions was not what the story was about. But given that the furries had suffered as tools for humanity in the past, I was impressed by a possible future that the author might not even have in mind. A slightly more dystopian "here we go again" situation. So it wasn't the story itself, but more how I personally imagined a potential sequel.
"Vivian" was light on story depth, but heavy on the science-fiction, in that it was all about following the research team's process of dealing with emergent AI. That was a refreshing take on the creation of furries, moving away from genetic engineering.
"Family Bonding" was fairly straightforward, however I'm glad someone ran with the editor's suggestion from the call for submissions, to try including marketing for furries.
I was happy that none of the stories in this anthology took the slightly over-used "Ha! We slaves have secretly become sentient! Now we rebel!" scenario. "Distant Shores" in particular had a rather unexpected balance of both autonomy and slavery. And what I really liked was that it considered the differences in attitude that later generations of bio-engineered creatures might have, in contrast to their earlier models. "The Analogue Cat" had shades of this too, as well the interaction of a furry construct with a different kind of non-furry construct.
Finally, I enjoyed "Evolver" for its exploration of an alien space, how the characters tried to interact with things outside their sphere of understanding and make sense of it.
On a more general note, I was really impressed with the writing quality in this anthology. Good dialogue, solid descriptions and writing styles across the whole thing. Nothing felt like a dud in comparison to the others; the tone of the quality was respectably even. Due to that level playing field, I think people's personal favorites are going to vary wildly between readers, more so than usual. So if I can offer some general recommendations, well, it depends. A lot of this is guesswork about what other people might like, along with my ambiguous categories.
Action: "Emergency Maintenance", "Distant Shores".
Light-hearted: "Vivian", "Trinka and the Robot", "Growing Fur".
Dark: "The Darkness of Dead Stars".
Tenderness between characters: "Lunar Cavity".
Technological atmosphere: "Tow", "Distant Shores", "The Analogue Cat", "Evolver".
Science-Fictional feel: "Vivian", "The Analogue Cat".
Evocative of a larger story universe: "Emergency Maintenance", "Tow".
Mystery: "The Sequence", "Evolver".
My personal favorites are definitely both "Evolver" and "The Analogue Cat". My next-favorites are a toss-up between "Emergency Maintenance", "Tow" and "Distant Shores". But overall I think this is a really good compilation and a worthwhile read all-around!