Of Rabbits and Rayguns

I’ve been a semi-professional writer for many years now. I published my first short
story in about 1999, and since then have written and published about twenty-
two or twenty-three vaguely book-length thingies (I tend to write a much higher
percentage of novellas than most authors, frequently sold to the public as shorter
than standard books) plus I’ve lost count of how many shorts. While I mostly write
furry and furry SF, I also do horror, non-furry SF, essays, fantasy and even good old
conventional literary fiction. So I know the publishing industry a little, or at least I
think I do.

Over the past year, I’ve achieved my first real landmark success in the David
Birkenhead books, in which a young slavebunny is manumitted and finds success
in a future navy despite all the social roadblocks that lie in his way. Each book in
the series is titled after the rank that David achieves during the course of the story,
from Ship’s Boy to Admiral. Currently my publisher and I are ecstatically selling
well over a thousand copies a week. So far so good and yay for me, right? Maybe.

As I said, I’ve been dealing with the publishing industry—and through it, in theory
at least, the wants and needs of book-buyers—for some time. Over and over again
the “big guys” have rejected my stuff even though in my own opinion many of
my previous works have been better than the Birkenheads. More often than not
I got a rejection letter saying something like “Good work—you’re writing at the
professional level. But we don’t publish talking animal stories.” Then they’d add
nitpicky comments about my personal style that usually were in direct contradiction
to the nitpicks I received the time before. It was obvious that the “talking animals”
were the real problem, especially for my serious furry SF stuff, even though the
science involved wasn’t just clearly justified in the work in question but was
often the root of the theme and the driver of the plot. Without the talking animals,
which in my case were usually rabbits, the book was nothing. And because my
own best ideas most often are equally rooted in furry imagery, well… It was clear
that something would have to give. I could either compromise my art to meet the
unspoken “no furries allowed” rule at the big publishing houses—which their other
comments made clear was what they really wanted—or I could be true to my muse
and accept that I’d never do business with the mainstream book industry.

So I set out to beat the big publishers at their own game and sell furry fiction despite
everything the closed-minded bastards could do to stop me. At this point I had
written three multi-book series that I truly believed were of professional quality
and could sell well if given the chance. (One of these three was the Birkenheads.)
I sent one each to three small publishers (two of them furry-fandom based) and
commenced hostilities against the mainstream. As of today, I can almost claim
victory. The Birkenheads, as mentioned above, are currently selling at a rate well in
excess of a thousand a week and, as I type this, all seven volumes are in the Amazon
Kindle Science Fiction Top 100. Sure enough the other two series are now selling well too, though not at the same blistering rate. I can claim complete vindication and declare victory.

Almost.

There’s still one major thing wrong, which I didn’t anticipate and perhaps should’ve.
While most of the reviews of the Birkenhead books are embarrassingly positive, a
very significant minority of readers apparently are driven to the point of rending
their clothing and gnashing their teeth when, about five pages or so into Ship’s
Boy, they discover (having failed to read the book’s “blurb”, which would’ve
warned them) that they’ve been reading a story told from the viewpoint of an
uplifted rabbit (capital-R Rabbit, in the nomenclature of the series). Something
about this is apparently hideously repulsive to them at the core identity level, to
the point that in their reviews they do things like claim my parents must’ve been
alcoholics. (No, I didn’t make that one up.) Others state that this is proof that I know
nothing of science—apparently ray guns and FTL travel are far more “scientific”
than genetic engineering and species uplift. Some go so far as to call the work
well-written, but say it’s “impossible” for them to get into the character. One even
suggested it’d be a good book if the protagonist had been an alien instead.

It’s easier to relate to a complete alien than a Rabbit?

Don’t get me wrong here. At this point I can gaze serenely upon such reviews and
laugh all the way to the bank. I’m being well compensated for acting as a public
target, and by far the majority of the comments are supportive and positive. I’m not
after sympathy here. Rather, I’m seeking to understand something.

Why exactly is it that some readers react so strongly, even violently, to the idea of a
serious story being told from the viewpoint of a Rabbit?

Usually in these columns I try to offer some sort of insight—possible answers to the
questions I raise. This time, however, I find myself pretty much at a loss. All long-
time furs recall an era when our fandom was seen as something sick and repulsive,
and indeed this period may well not yet be over. For when I read the public Amazon
reviews on Ship’s Boy and to a lesser extent the later volumes of the series, I see
the public’s reaction to furry in microcosm. Mostly these reviews reflect open-
minded support and people who like to have fun, yes. And bless them for it! But I
also see a large minority who for reasons I literally cannot imagine instantly become
totally unhinged at the idea of seeing the world through anthropomorphic eyes. If
you read their comments, it’s like they felt the need to ritually purify themselves
by expressing immoderate outrage and indignation after exposure to such an
unclean influence. Theirs is an attitude that cannot be reasoned with—it goes far
deeper than that. The subject fascinates me; I think there’s real knowledge to be
gained about basic human nature if a way can be found to research the matter
systematically.

And I hope this research someday is indeed actually done. Because only now, after
declaring war on the mainstream publishers and then beating them in terms of sales
do I realize that the real battle is only beginning. The one the publishers knew about
all along, and were rejecting me over. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it’s not their
fight. Why risk having their products plastered with negative reviews that resonate
with John Q. Public despite their inherent irrationality?

The real fight, I’ve learned from all this, is the one that will someday allow everyone
everywhere to understand that it’s okay to experience the universe through
whatever set of eyes they choose. Everything else is merely a subset of this larger
battle, and it’ll be more a matter of freeing people from themselves than anything
else. Combat is only just beginning in earnest, and I’m not a young man anymore.
I probably won’t live to see the end of it. But by golly I mean to get my licks in
regardless!

About Rabbit

Rabbit Is the author of over thirty published furry novels and novellas as well as numerous columns and articles in other furry venues. He's a retired Tennessee auto worker.

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19 thoughts on “Of Rabbits and Rayguns

  1. I have some theories about this, having observed it for some time now even in close acquaintances and friends. There are two completely separate bases for the violent reactions.

    One comes from some dedicated evangelical Christian types, who seem to have been beaten about the head too long with the notion that “man is made in god’s image and all other animals are soulless and inferior.” For these folks, the idea of rational anthropomorphic characters is just plain blasphemous. They may be willing to allow it in stories for young children, but it’s not just an insult to an adult, it’s “against god’s word.”

    The other group have no particular religious objections, and often no religious views. However, they too believe that “talking animals” are purely the realm of children’s literature. Some of these people are among my colleagues in library work. They are so close minded about the subject that they assume immediately that absolutely any animated film is strictly for children. Any of us who have seen “Fritz the Cat” know that this isn’t the case, but these folks would never watch that film to find out. It’s just too embarrassing to them to be seen paying attention to something intended for kids. Obviously, they aren’t children’s lit specialists either.

    Both groups have violent negative reactions to books like “Watership Down” or Rita Mae Brown’s fox hunting mysteries (in which the foxes, horses, and hounds all talk to one another but not to the humans.) The basis of the reactions are different, but the result is the same. The books, which aren’t really children’s books, are obviously offensive and disgusting to them. Either they are against religion or they are just “too unbelievable.”

    I had the misfortune myself of being saddled with a reader of the second sort when I submitted an anthropomorphic novel for young adults to a publishers competition. The jurist clearly had no real exposure to nor understanding of science fiction or fantasy. He/She found the writing to be “excellent” but the subject matter to be “too impossible and unbelievable for a young reader to understand.” All I could say is that this reader, who successfully excluded me from further consideration, had obviously not looked at the popular young adult books in circulation today: vampires, werewolves, angels, and other fantastic beings are in abundance.

    Your own books have, I hope, broken the ice for others as well as yourself. I’m watching to see what happens next.

    1. I think you’re following people’s rationalizations too much. When people’s disapproval comes from reason, it is often expressed rationally and with a level head. The kind of vitriol and outrage or—in its more mild form—incredulity which the author has seen, I have seen, and presumably you have seen, are due to an amorphous, deep-seated discomfort with the subject matter, the actual reason for which is highly personal and irrational and probably not even known to the person himself or herself. The surface rationales developed on all sides often have little to do with the true reasons for the sentiments.

      Also, if I may go off on a tangent, I would like to note that I think that like/hate, comfort/discomfort, and excitement/disinterest are all mostly-separate continua, and that they together form a basis for describing human reaction towards some topic. So, for instance, furries like and are excited by anthropomorphic animals, but the comfort with the idea determines whether they’re a self-loathing furry, a flagrant furry, or somewhere in between. Those publishers who are reviewing the author’s furry novels are disinterested and uncomfortable with the idea, and the politeness of the reply probably has something to do with whether they personally like or hate it. Hardcore trolls care mostly about the trolling, probably don’t like our subject matter much, but are comfortable enough to be knee-deep in it. And then there are the people who just downright lose their shit; these people are uncomfortable with and hate the idea of anthropomorphic animals; their interest in the subject determines whether they only react when it invades what they feel is their territory or actively seek out opportunities to get mad.

    2. Thank you for the kind words, but I see the _real_ icebreaker as Sofawolf’s winning of a Hugo. That was… Remarkable. The best recognition of our fandom possible, IMO.

      1. The above comment was meant for Altivo. Moderator, something is eating and/or moving my posts around this page– when I hit “post” my new text either fails to appear or appears in the wrong section of the page and I get a “file not found” warning. Therefore, I’m going to have to cease replying here until it can be straightened out.

        1. Looks okay to me? Your comment is nested as a reply to Altivo, just like Bersi2’s – yours comes second because it was made later.

          I have come across the “file not found” error myself on occasion. It’s annoying, so let’s hope that WordPress (our hosts) can sort it out soon.

          By the way, this is a fascinating series of comments.

  2. I respect Phil’s analysis and dissection of his detractors’ opinions. But I decided it was only fair to look up these reviews for myself, to see their own prejudices in their own words.
    James Webb is the guy who cited “alcoholism” in his review. The exact line was “It makes me feel like the author was abused by his alcoholic father as a child and locked in his bedroom’s closet for days on end with only his pet bunny for company. I mean what else could explain such a bizarre vision of the future of humanity […]” James is specifically talking about the widespread enslavement of rabbits, and the fact that we are obviously supposed to empathize with these rabbits. Not only is James at a loss to explain what would cause humanity to turn rabbits into human-sized rabbit slaves, but he cannot empathize with the fact that “several of the other characters treat David like an oversized pet” and that David wants one person in particular to “pet him and tell him what a good bunny he is”. James points out that he would gladly keep reading “If David [had] been human”, and that something about bunnies being treated like bunnies but acting like humans makes him sick.
    Rabbit Hill Manor claimed among other things the book showed “appalling science and military understanding”, but he doesn’t specifically reference the rabbits. His remark that there is “no spark of talent evident” shows he is pretty blindly hating on this book; there could be any number of reasons why.
    Bruce Olsen’s claims that the book would be improved with an alien protagonist, and that he didn’t want to read Alice in Wonderland. This is the heart of Rabbit’s essay, of course: the question of why someone can’t judge a story by more than the species of the character.
    Jim Wilson, like James, can’t get past the bunnies-as-slaves point, but also got bothered by the feeling that he was missing some backstory, that there had to be some “space wizard” that was making these “magical bunnies”.
    So ask Phil asks, why some readers react so strongly to reading a serious story involving an uplifted rabbit? I see two reasons: because talking rabbits remind them too much of a fantasy setting, and seem out-of-place in a sci-fi setting; and that rabbits who think and act like both humans and rabbits are uncomfortable for them to think about — an uncanny valley effect, possibly.

    1. One of the things I considered before writing this column was that maybe it was just too “different” for them to digest. But then I recalled that they were SF readers. (Virtually all the books Amazon lists in their “Customers who bought this book also bought” section are SF titles.) SF readers are supposed to be outright _seeking_ the “different, no? In any event, thanks for your comment.

      1. One would think so, but in my many years of experience with readers I have found that a lot of science fiction readers are actually interested in just a single subset of the genre or even just the works or one or two authors exclusively. A devoted fan of, say, George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice novels can well be completely closed to the possibilities of Mercedes Lackey or Alan Dean Foster. And of course, the reverse is also true.

        I do think that in many cases, particularly with male readers, the stigma of “childishness” that they attach to talking animals is the root of the rejection.

  3. The reaction is interesting. I wonder what happens if you posit a fantasy world rather than a science fiction one — my own stories set in Ranea, for instance, where the foxes and wolves and raccoons and such are the rough equivalent of elves and dwarves. Does it become easier to take? I don’t even have a guess. And would it be easier to take if the viewpoint character was a human interacting with the animal people?

    At any rate, one of the most interesting things to me, Rabbit, is that you didn’t mention anyone bringing up the F word, i.e., “I’m not going to read this because it has furries in it.” While the occurrence is decreasing, I still see that reaction show up occasionally, often phrased in head-scratchingly nasty “this is a sin against God” tones.

    1. Fortunately, I haven’t seen the word “furry” used as a pejorative yet in the comments. I’ll note in passing that the books are tagged as “Furry”.

  4. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in reactions since I began showing around my paintings in RL (mostly to people who know nothing about the furry fandom and internet culture, and thus cannot have prejudices against it). Most people have ordinary reactions which vary from positive to unimpressed, but then there is a small percentage of people who are clearly bothered by the very concept of anthro animals portrayed in a positive way and hate it from the second they see it. They seem so deeply unsettled that it shows physically, through facial expression, gestures etc.

    Note the distinction I’m making here: anthro animals *portrayed in a positive way*. Because I’ve noticed that the same people don’t seem to have a problem with the grotesque or very stylized anthropomorphic figures you can find in surrealist or magical realist paintings. Some examples from paintings I’ve seen exhibited first hand:
    http://tinyurl.com/cds4jz5
    (NSFW) http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pictures/l/1253092882/Alessandri-1982.jpg
    (NSFW) http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pictures/l/1253092838/Lorenzo-Alessandri.jpg

    I find the rhinos very appealing actually, but I’m pretty sure most people see them as grotesque caricatures of humans. And I think here lies the key issue.

    Western art history is full of anthro animals which are symbolic and/or grotesque but it’s been an exceedingly long time since animals have been consistently portrayed as something you can emphatize with or even as role models. In Western culture the idea has been eradicated or reduced to a gimmick for kids. But if you try to tackle the same idea with a more serious approach you find out that most people are caught off guard and even scared by the subconscious effects of anthro animals presented the furry way.

    I’m tempted to say that they *cannot belive* that a concept that they have always considered trivial can evoke powerful emotions other than the ones prescribed by cultural norms (contempt for symbols of bad things or condescendence for kids stuff). So they get angry because of the unexplainable unease or they try to rationalize it as dislike for the specific work. However I don’t want to rationalize too much people’s reaction to art. The bottom line is that, in my opinion, such reactions prove that an artist is doing it right.

    1. “Most people have ordinary reactions which vary from positive to unimpressed, but then there is a small percentage of people who are clearly bothered by the very concept of anthro animals portrayed in a positive way and hate it from the second they see it. They seem so deeply unsettled that it shows physically, through facial expression, gestures etc.”

      While I obviously can’t see physical reactions, this is precisely the “feel” that I get when reading the comments that lie at the root of this article. I find your observations fascinating, and thank you!

  5. I find myself wondering if these people would have similar reactions to books like David Brin’s Uplift series. I’m sure there are others to be found out there, not even counting all the “aliens” that are basically cats or other familiar species at their core, regardless of how close a physical resemblance they might bear.

  6. I wonder how many of these people handing out negative reviews about the problems they had with a rabbit protagonist with copies of Redwall or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sitting on their desk whilst a Bugs Bunny cartoon is playing on the TV in the background?

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