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Best in Show: Fifteen Years of Outstanding Furry Fiction
edited by Fred Patten
Sofawolf Press, 456 pages

Ursula Vernon
Best in Show
Fred Patten
Fred Patten is one of the founders of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization. He has written articles that have appeared in Starlog and Animation Magazine and is currently working as director of marketing and publications at Streamline Pictures.

ISFDB Bibliography
Sofawolf Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

Here is a collection of stories from a whole sub-genre of fantastic fiction of which most of you have never heard. "Fifteen Years of Outstanding Furry Fiction" the subtitle says. Well, did you know there was a devoted, if small, following for anthropomorphic science fiction?

By some standards I've been involved with science fiction fandom for a long time. Long enough that I might qualify as one of the tribe elders. Still, there are those who would think of me (if they thought of me at all) as one of the youngsters.

Fred Patten, the editor of this new collection of anthropomorphic short stories, is to me one of the senior members of the SF community. When I first became active in SF fandom in the 60s as a teenager, he was already there. If I joined an amateur press association, Fred was a member. When I went to a Los Angeles Worldcon in the early 70s, Fred was there. When interest in Japanese manga and anime began to increase in North America in the 80s, Fred was involved. And when anthropomorphic fandom began to coalesce, also in the 80s, Fred was part of that as well.

In his introduction, Patten offers the opinion that he discovered SF " the dawn of the Golden Age of s-f books." Of course, everyone's Golden Age occurs when we are young, but Fred has an important point here. In the early 50s, science fiction began to be published widely in book form for the first time, instead of mainly in shaggy-edged, blotter-paper-with-splinters, sensational-cover-illustrated pulps magazines. This was significant because it made science fiction and fantasy available to more readers. Stories published in book form would continue to be available, since the books would be archived in libraries, unlike the essentially ephemeral magazines.

When furry fandom got started in the early 80s, I remember it as focused almost entirely in comic books, such as Omaha the Cat Dancer and the small press comic book explosion that started with Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles. There were also anthropomorphic fanzines and amateur press associations. I wasn't aware of it, but Fred points out that, in addition to the comic book stories, there have also been many text short stories published, many of high quality, and the purpose of this book is to present those stories in an accessible format, so they can be read and preserved outside of the relentlessly ephemeral environment of small circulation amateur magazines and internet websites.

In Fred's useful and interesting outline of the history of anthropomorphic SF, he mentions several classic short stories, such as Fredric Brown's "The Star Mouse" and L. Sprague de Camp's "The Blue Giraffe," as well as examples of well-remembered novels, like H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau. Fred doesn't mention several other examples of stories critical to the history of anthropomorphic fiction. Or at least they seem central to my own interest in this type of story! Andre Norton's books were some of the earliest science fiction and fantasy widely purchased for public libraries, and introduced whole generations of young readers to fantastic fiction. All of you who know her work remember that many of her stories involved intelligent animals who communicated with the human protagonists and participated in the plots in a very human-like manner. Another story telling media which contributed to my interest in furry fiction are the funny animal comics of the 50s and 60s, like Carl Bark's Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, Walt Kelly's Pogo, and all those other comic book critters!

To some extent furry fans (myself included) seem to assume that this type of story is a modern invention. Yet fairy tales, myth, folk tales, every oral story telling tradition in most cultures rely heavily on anthropomorphic characters. A qualification could be offered that in modern furry fiction, the stories are intended for adults rather than in children, but then it is probably also true that the idea that myth and folk tales are the provence of children is a modern concept, and in their own times these stories were intended for every listener.

Many books use lots of white space as a design element -- and maybe a way to make it seem longer. There is no wasted space here! With only about an inch at the top of each story for the title and byline, the stories start right off. The editor and publisher obviously tried to include as much content as possible. Best in Show is a great recreational reading value! Many of the stories include illustrations, also reprinted from the story's original publication, and these are an added value as well.

Another valuable resource in the book is a bibliography of furry fanzines and a review of furry internet sites. These are the places these stories originally appeared, and while the paper publications will be hard to find, many of the internet sites are still accessible.

The stories are grouped by categories, types of stories characteristic of most anthropomorphic fiction. The first section is "Furries and Humans." Brian W. Antoine's "To the Magic Born" concerns magic and family values in a mixed species marriage in a satisfying manner, though you should be cautioned that the story is overwhelmingly sweet and heart-warming. I know some of you feel you are allergic to these qualities.

Lawrence Watt-Evans is one of the best known writers in this collection, and his story, "Foxy Lady" deals with a situation which is, frankly, central to a lot of furry publishing: sex between humans and anthropomorphs; inter-species miscegenation. Here, some dweeb wins a foxgirl on a TV quiz show. The prize is product placement, of course; a new, expensive "product." Our protagonist, needless to say, falls for the fox and eventually accepts her as an equal. Meanwhile, society and the government also have to come to terms with the anthropomorphs' humanity, as opposed to the status of animal-slave. This story really isn't pornographic or salacious, but it does hint at the erotic content that is common in some furry stories.

Many of you have been informed of the perverse nature of furry fandom by the media attention given it by the television show CSI and the magazine Vanity Fair. Sexual interest in anthropomorphic characters, I insist, is not the only dimension in this sub-genre, but certainly the most sensational one.

I sell comics at science fiction conventions. Not exclusively furry comics, by any means. But over the years, I've found that SF fans frequently read and collect furry comics, and I also think that small press comics in general are under served by distributors and stories, so there is often an unsatisfied demand. I once had a fascinating and frightening conversation. A potential customer (I don't remember if he bought anything... and remember that customers are always right!) says, "Have you ever wanted a girl friend all covered, head to foot with... fur? And... with a prehensile tail?" I'm not sure how I replied, maybe, "Ah... well, I like ducks!"

Once you get past suspension of disbelief surrounding anthropomorphic characters, hard science fiction stories work rather well. "The Color of Rain" by Gene Breshears describes suppression of furry slaves involved in interplanetary mining, and a conspiracy to prevent an investigation of abuses. "Crucible" by Kim Liu and "How George Miles Almost Saved the World" by Watts Martin both deal with furry revolution. Obviously, the dynamic of a slave relationship with anthropomorphic characters is central for many of these stories. "Canis Major" by Michael H. Payne again uses an interplanetary location and a oppressed anthropomorphic population, but adds a swashbuckling female doggie-assassin to create an adventure. While not slavery, certainly inequality is the theme in "Snapshot from Fayetteville" by Mick Collins, where a human has a stressed social relationship with a foxgirl who lives in a morph ghetto. "Wings" by Todd G. Sutherland involves slavery, but focuses on a close bond between a doggie-nurse and her seriously ill ward. Slavery also shows up in "Respect the Sea" by Jeff Eddy, a historically sound pirate story where a wolf lends his olfactory prowess as a source of intelligence. "The Boar Goes North" by Matt Posner is a fantasy adventure in which the boar is a larger than life mercenary who teams with a cat to save some human women from slavers. Good plotting, surprises, and strongly drawn characters suggest the potential for more stories about the boar and the cat, and in fact Patten mentions that there is a sequel.

Section two deals with stories in which there are no humans, "Living Apart: Furry Alternate Worlds." It seems like a natural, in stories which don't involve human characters, to set things up to study the nature of the characters that do appear. We'd call it anthropology, if it were about humans. "Port in a Storm" by Robert K. Carspecken concerns a group of scientists surreptitiously studying an alien planet's aboriginal (and anthropomorphic) population. In "Rosettes & Ribbons" by M.C.A. Hogarth the setting would be called an archaeological dig (if it concerned human history). A young student is dragged into a deceptive love triangle with the native scientists. "Recruiting" by Elizabeth McCoy is more hard SF, space opera in fact, but informed by the fact that the characters aren't human, and motivated in part by animal instincts: pack behavior. "Rat's Reputation" by Michael H. Payne is a charming The Wind in the Willows-like fantasy of a rat's recognition of comfortable family ties. "Whimper's Law" by Craig Hilton is a furry detective story, where a protagonist-mastermind displays Sherlock Holmesian-like investigation and deductive reasoning. This story, with a few concise strokes, manages to depict a justice and legal system which is radically different from any human model. "Beneath the Crystal Sea" by Brock Hoagland involves another assassin, teamed with another pirate, but this time in an outlandish fantasy with sorcery and exotic treasure. "Secret Weapon" by Allen Kitchen is an amusing set up for a little joke; but hey, it involves well characterized dragons, so you can't ask much more of a short story. "Mercy to the Cubs: A Tale of the Furkindred" by Chas. R.A. Melville deals with gangsters, politics and killing. I was a bit uneasy with the resolution; it was credible, which made it hard to accept the redemption of the character who attempts a murder. "Messenger" by Mel White is straight-up sword and sorcery, in fact it centers on a sinister magic sword, with a clever bit about oral storytelling which saves the day. "Castlefall" by well-known novelist Jefferson P. Swycaffer uses goats vs. wolves to tell a brief medieval warfare epic. "Repas Du Vivant" by Axel Shaikman is an amusing but far-fetched fantasy with a veneer of space opera, literally Alice Through the Looking Glass in space.

Section three is about "Transformation." This is of course a potentially fascinating topic, but one in which Patten apparently didn't find many nominees. Phil Geusz's "Graduation Day" is just fine, however, presenting details in the work of a volunteer guidance counsellor, a partially morphed human-rabbit, as he tries to find post-high school employment for a group of variously morphed youngsters. The other stories in this section involve were-creatures. "Top of the Mountain" by Ben Goodridge presents werewolves as they might be seen by humans in a peaceful relationship, as shaman or healers. "Find the Beautiful" by Tim Susman tells of a kid's obsession with wolves, and settling for something a bit different. I don't want to reveal the punch line of the final story, but I will say that "Little Monster" by Tom Turrittin involves two fearful types of characters: werewolves and dentists.

Obviously anthropomorphic stories can be as diverse as any sort of fantastic fiction with human or alien or magical characters, and also in many cases furry stories might work recast with non-anthropomorphic characters. One has to wonder, why do some readers find furry stories particularly appealing?

Even as a youngster I wondered why I enjoyed Donald Duck comics so much when clearly the duck could have been just a regular bad tempered single (human) parent trying to raise his three mischievous "nephews." But that would have been so mundane! And maybe not as funny. For Donald, being a duck was part of who he was and part of his character's appeal. Everybody likes ducks; I always pause when I cross the bridge over the creek to watch the ducks, and you do too. Of course, the Donald Duck comics, the best ones, were brilliant and funny because of the genius and craft of their writer/artist, Carl Barks.

Anthropomorphic stories are appealing for many people, to begin with, because animals are the object of considerable fondness. We all are, or know, people who just love dogs, or cats, or wolves, or snakes -- you name the species.

Animal characters provide an abstract symbol or metaphor which allows writers and readers to more closely examine human situations, by way of making that consideration just a bit abstract, and thus more objective.

And anthropomorphic stories, furry fiction, can be just a whole lot of fun.

Copyright © 2004 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

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