Furry People, or Sapient Animals?

Over on Ron Edwards’ comics blog (warning: link probably NSFW), a discussion about the 1970s-80s erotica comic Omaha the Cat Dancer led to this gem of insight about anthro-animals:

I’m familiar with the difference between anthropomorphic character in the Stan Sakai sense, where animal form is simply shorthand for character traits or temperament, and also in the “these are actually different species of being” that may or may not uplifted or magical or whatever versions of animalified people or peopleified animals. — oberonthefool

“Oberon” then goes on to term these approaches as “theriomorphic people” and “anthropomorphic animals,” respectively. I realize now that in Pentra, I keep assuming that the latter is what I’m after, when the former might serve my purposes much better.

I’ve always been aware there are different degrees of animal-ness under the broad umbrella of “anthropomorphic animal” fiction. At one extreme would be Watership Down. The rabbits of the Down have a heightened intelligence over the rabbits we know, giving rise to sophisticated language and culture. But in all other respects, they’re rabbits through and through: they’re rabbit-sized, lack hands capable of fine manipulation, and eat and mate and crap exactly like real-world rabbits do. At the other extreme might be the sort of “cat girls” you see in trashy anime or visual novels, which are basically ordinary people with cat ears and tails attached. (“Ordinary people” with the bizarre anatomical proportions common to such things, anyway.) A setting like Redwall wouild lie somewhere in the middle. Its characters do human-like things such as building structures of wood and stone, but their features are depicted as entirely animal, no human-like faces in sight.

What I didn’t realize until reading Oberon’s comment, though, is that there’s not simply a sliding scale at work here, with “human-like” on one end and “animal-like” on the other. There are actually two philosophical approaches to the idea of characters depicted as part human, part animal, that operate on very different assumptions.

I’ve always defaulted to the Redwall mode, that of “anthropomorphic animals,” not noticing the possibility of an alternative. That scheme tends to a lot of world-building detail, defining the places of all these different species in the world culturally and ecologically. When the inevitable questions arise, like “how did so many different evolutionary branches reach sapience?” or “what happens when a tiger-person and a gazelle-person try to have children?”, those are legitimate topics to ponder. The rabbit hole* leads ever deeper from there. For the Pentra collaborative storytelling game, I’ve sketched out matters like “are there non-anthro horses and rabbits in this world?”, because, well, that’s what you do for a furry setting, right?

The thing is, my answers to those questions have become more and more hand-wavey as I realize they get in the way more than they help. On the matter of inter-species reproduction, for instance: “Well, biologically it doesn’t work, but magic that allows it is both very common and a little unpredictable. So it’s not unusual to see a wolf and a badger get together and have lemur children, or whatever.” In other words, a wizard does it. Which is of course absurd, as soon as you think about it for more than a moment. But the alternative—making a verisimilitudinous set of rules for how things work—would inevitably shut someone down. “This story’s about a lynx family, you can’t play an armadillo…”

But there’s another way to come at it, exemplified by the aforementioned Omaha, Webcomics like Better Days and Original Life by Jay Naylor, and so on. These works aren’t overly concerned with the mechanics of animalism. Rather, the assumption is that the characters are people first and foremost. Human beings, not voles and squid. The animal traits help characters stand out from one another visually and prime us to expect certain character traits (slyness for a fox, e.g.), expectations the narrative can consciously play to or subvert. The dialogue and action might acknowledge the physics of the thing, but only on a superficial level, and often tongue in cheek: a startled catperson’s tail puffing up, an avian character having the last name “Byrd,” etc. This gives the creator freedom to assign whatever species they’d like to each character without any particular gymnastics about how it all works. The animal visages form a filter over a fundamentally human story.

The worldbuilding-heavy approach has its place, of course. Kurt Busiek’s The Autumnlands, or Redwall for that matter, succeed in part by the loving detail they impart on different species, their physical attributes, cultures, and history. When I’m writing stories in the Pentra setting, I have no intention of erasing all the thought I’ve put into species’ respective territories, flavors of magic, and so on. But I now realize that when it comes to a participatory thing like the Pentra game, those are the kinds of creative constraints that stifle rather than inspire. Any given group sitting down to spin a tale in its framework can create mythic or fabled personalities like Br’er Rabbit and Reynard the Fox; species that work more like ethnic groups than taxonomic divisions, like in Jay Naylor’s work; or devise their own cultural and physical setting detail. Those are only possible within the same framework if the game itself assumes an agnostic stance on the furry hypothesis.

* If I may employ a trite turn of phrase for its humor value, here


Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.