Review: 'Furry Nation' by Joe Strike
If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong.
I am probably not wrong in my belief that many furs have little idea of how the fandom got started. The furry fandom is based around the appreciation of, and I'll simplify here, anthropomorphic characters. Furs find their way here through that appreciation and are able to join in immediately. This is not a bad thing but it is sad that many of us are unaware of our shared history. As we learned above, if we don't know where we come from then we are lost.
It's not that there has been no attempt to describe the origins of the furry fandom; aside from the crowdsourced wikis (e.g. WikiFur), we had Fred Patten's Retrospective: An Illustrated Chronology of Furry Fandom, 1966–1996 and Perri Rhoades' The Furry History Project. The first is not necessarily in the most easy to use form and both of the latter entries are chronological lists of major influences. Joe Strike's book departs from this format employing a mix of personal anecdotes, extensive research and several interviews with prominent furs to build a far more flowing, narrative history of the furry fandom.
Let's start at the very beginning
In Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea universe, magic gains its power through the use of true names. To know someone's true name potentially means the ability to control them. In our world, though diminished in comparison, words still have power and it is necessary to agree on what we mean by a word before we can use it productively. Appropriately, Strike starts off by defining what he means by the term furry and fur.
A furry human is anyone with an above-average interest in anthropomorphic character, whether or not they consider themselves furry–or have ever even heard of the fandom (a.k.a. "furry but doesn't know it yet");
A furry animal is any animal with any human characteristics, no matter what its origin: entertainment, mythology, advertising, kids' books or adult literature. To put it simply, Furry is about the idea of animals—what they represent in our minds—not their reality.
Strike's definitions improve on the standard definitions in several respects. First, he too recognises the distinction between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism which are both an aspect of the furry fandom – in the chapter at least, although this then fails to make it into the language of his definition. Secondly, he states that a person who meets the criteria for being a fur is a fur regardless of whether they consider themselves a fur or are even aware of the term.
I would accept his definition of a furry human with the simple change of "anthropomorphic character" to "furry character." When it comes to furry characters, his definition is, by his own admission, very broad. I would say overly broad. There needs to be a mix of human and animal characteristics, not just human characteristics applied to an animal (That's where zoomorphism comes in.), and that mixture should create a significant difference to the character. I have previously elaborated in my own definition of furry and will not belabour the point further.
There is one other lexicological point that Strike makes which I hope to see become the dominant convention. He proposes using "furries" strictly for furry characters and "furs" for furry fans. This is primarily to avoid confusion and it is something I can absolutely get behind.
The border is a line that birds cannot see
Not everything is always as clear or well-thought out as his definitions and sometimes it is just wrong. For example, in a chapter on fursuits, Strike writes, referring to Anthrocon 2015:
It was the largest ratio of fursuiters to total con attendence ever—29%
While it may have been the largest total number of fursuiters ever, in 2014, 45% of Eurofurence's 2071 attendees were fursuiters. That ratio grew even larger in 2015, when one month after Anthrocon, Eurofurence had a fursuiter ratio of 46%! If we're only talking about a ratio then smaller conventions might have exceeded even that.
This shows one of the biggest failings of Furry Nation, its insular view. When you are so fixated on the US that you ignore a fursuiter ratio that is 17% higher then clearly it's beginning to hurt the book. Even in the subtitle of the book it says it talks about "America's most misunderstood subculture." I can understand the desire to focus on a specific region, and the furry fandom did originate in the US, however, the furry fandom is now a global subculture. SoFurry, the oldest active furry art site, considering its origins as Yiffstar, is owned by an Austrian. Inkbunny, WikiFur and Flayrah are all owned by an Englishman. Five out of six of Furnet's servers exist outside of the US. The only two live action films produced within the furry fandom, Bitter Lake and Mascot Fur Life, were both produced in Europe. The most popular furry artist on Furaffinity, Wolfy-Nail, is a Russian living in Austria.
Knowing all that, it makes you begin to wonder what else might be missed. So, when reading Strike's generally-excellent chapter about misrepresentations of the furry fandom in the media, one wonders how much is a problem with the media in general and how much is a problem with American media. Media bias is probably an issue worldwide but I do think it might not be as severe outside of the US.
One example of positive media coverage that Strike points out is a six minute Anthrocon report done by NBC News where "the reporter bravely tries on a tail." It is a pretty positive report and that's great but, as with the fursuiters, keeping the focus on the US misses out on even-more-positive, contemporaneous coverage. That same year, ARTE TV produced a sixteen minute long report on Eurofurence where the reporter wore a full fursuit!
Rampart in chase of She wolf pacts, Forged on heat with setting Suns
Another thing that sometimes gives a strange feel is the treatment of sex. The chapter covering yiff is actually pretty good but the comments elsewhere in the book give the sense that, if Strike does not personally dislike yiff, then he is not comfortable with non-furs being aware of it. This is strongest where he criticised the film Fursonas as not helping furry's reputation for criticising Uncle Kage and then showing Bad Dragon merchandise. That may also have something to do with his relationship with Kage and not just the sex.
Notably absent from the sex chapter is almost any mention of bestiality/zoophilia. That's not to say it is never addressed in the book but, despite his chapter on sex beginning with "it would be equally honest to pretend [sex] doesn't exist," there is a bit of dishonesty where he claims that bestiality is "an absolute and 100% no-go in furry fandom." Now, whatever anyone's personal opinion, bestiality is an, albeit polarising and controversial, aspect of the furry fandom.
Bestiality is not an integral part of the furry fandom, that much is obvious by just going back to any of the definitions of furry. However, what Strike tries to ignore is that there is an overlap between them. Some of the public looks at yiff art and sees that it can overlap with bestiality, particular feral work; in fact one feral artist's Fur Affinity page states, "Please keep in mind my feral art for me is absolutely non-zoophilic. Please don't bring up the topic." Even coming from the other direction, the connection is still made. In his essay Why Zoophilia is a Furry Issue, JM notes that one classification of zoophilia by researchers includes furries as a subset. Furthermore, probably the largest work on the topic, Hani Miletski's book Understanding Bestiality and Zoophilia also makes a couple of references to the furry fandom.
Given the fact that the connections between the furry fandom and bestiality are noticed from both sides and that between 13-18% of furs identify as zoophiles, it is clear that it is not a "100% no-go" in the fandom. Further complicating the issue will be those furs who tolerate it, although do not have an interest themselves, and the issue of distinguishing fantasy from reality. While it is certainly possible to draw the necessary distinctions between furry and bestiality, it takes a lot more work than the incorrect statement that was provided. If he was not going to properly address the topic, it would have been better to leave it alone entirely rather than putting forth a statement that doesn't reflect reality merely to try and score PR points.
Foremost is reason. Reason is non-negotiable.
For most of my criticism, the issues are not major detractors from the book. Yes, there is confusion between what is fact and what is opinion and, yes, it doesn't do a good job of seeing the global picture. However, even taking that into account, there is a lot of good content about the media, fursuits, yiff and more that can still be enjoyed, even if the details are not always perfect. But there is one chapter which almost only pulls the book down; the one entitled "The Spirit Is Willing, but the Flesh Is Furry."
This chapter describes certain furs' spiritual beliefs, however it is done in an entirely credulous manner without the slightest critical analysis. This is a problem because those beliefs are not supported by any sort of evidence. When he says the belief that "you're an animal born by error in a human body" is easy to mock, he doesn't bother to go into why that is the case. That belief assumes the existence of souls. It assumes different species have different types of souls. It assumes souls pre-exist and are added to matching physical bodies. It assumes that somehow the wrong soul can be put in the wrong body. There is no evidence to support a single one of those claims.
Now one might say these are just harmless delusions, let the people have their opium, but they don't always remain that way. A recent report tells of a German man arrested for killing his daughter during an exorcism and then trying to revive her corpse with sex. That is an extreme case but Strike also doesn't question the reality behind the beliefs of a Catholic fur he interviews. Last month, it was reported that The Vatican is increasing the number of priests being trained to perform exorcisms. They are training people to treat a condition which does not exist!
I don't know if the lack of critical examination is due to his own beliefs, a wish to appear more tolerant or an American deference to religion and spiritual beliefs. As the late Christopher Hitchens said, "you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and truth in this country if you'll just get yourself called Reverend." Belief in therianthropy and Catholicism are seldom harmful in themselves, but they are not based on evidence and their uncritical acceptance gives the impression that such unsupported beliefs are acceptable. That has consequences. There are those who, against the evidence, promote alternative medicine, deny global warming or the need for gun control or question the safety of vaccines and genetically modified food. It is imperative that we base our beliefs on a foundation of evidence.
The Road goes ever on and on
At the beginning, I said Strike's book creates a more personal and compelling narrative of the furry fandom's origins than was previously available. That is true and that is the part where Furry Nation excels. Whether you are familiar with the origins of the fandom or not, you will still learn something from this book because it addresses everything from a new perspective; not just as a series of dates and events but as the story of various people trying to do what they love.
We don't only learn who did what but why they did it. And, sometimes, a bit about the other paths that might've been taken. Leaving aside my complaints about the American-focused nature of the book, the chapter on Anthrocon was one of my favourites. It was extremely interesting, and a bit sad, to learn about the drama that went on behind the scenes. That's stuff that I had no idea about and which we can still see happening in furry groups today. Instead of just learning that Anthrocon moved to Pittsburgh in 2006, we see how the city actually asked for the convention and the change in Kage's attitude about moving there. This personal aspect is the major strength of the book.
I do think the book is flawed in several areas but the core history of the fandom and the personal stories that are included are strong enough to make up for it. There may be better works on specific aspects of the fandom but Furry Nation is more comprehensive than any of the current works explaining the origins of the furry fandom. Furs will appreciate the personal stories that accompany the history while non-furs will gain a much better understanding of the furry fandom from a source immeasurably superior to hyperbolic mainstream news coverage.
In an ideal world, I would like to see an expanded second edition or a new volume which includes more space for the furry world outside of the American borders and which corrects a number of inaccuracies. Considering how much time and effort this book must've taken I doubt we will see something like that for quite a while. In the meantime, Furry Nation will exist as a milestone in the furry fandom and a clear sign of the fandom's massive growth from where it started as a group of people hanging out at science fiction conventions over 30 years ago.