Transformation as Wish Fulfilment

The idea of sudden change is a powerful one.

We all wish for things to be different, in a big way or a small way. We look inwardly and wish we were different. And we look outwardly and wish the world were different too.

The idea that we might transform into our furry self is compelling, if not actually possible. But it’s an idea we can explore in art: in visual art, and with fiction.

Transformation is a major theme in the novels and short stories of Phil Geusz. His worlds are ones where human people are able to choose, or perhaps be gently persuaded, to become an animal-person. Geusz explores the transformation process and its consequences on a personal and societal level.

Some of you will know Phil better for his non-fictional contributions to [adjective][species] (here). If that’s the case, I’d encourage you to explore his writing through the examples that I offer in this article. Even if you’re skeptical of the value of science-fiction or genre fiction in general (and, personally, I am), Phil’s stories are valuable for the way they will manipulate your furry self, and make you feel a step closer to a world where a furry transformation just might be possible.

I’ve selected three stories, all of which might be categorized as ‘early’ Phil Geusz. Geusz refers to these as TF (as in ‘transformation’) stories, and you can read some background on his universe creation process here.

Cheetah’s Win, short story published in Anthrozine #23 (2009), free (http://anthrozine.com/stry/cheetahs.win.html)
Pelton, short story published in 2003, free (http://tsat.transform.to/stories/pelton.html)
The First Book of Lapism, 2001, (http://anthrozine.com/stry/drama.class.html)

These stories are written by a furry, and for furries. They are well-regarded within furry (Ursa Major nominations abound) but never found the wider success of some of Geusz’s subsequent work, notably the David Birkenhead series. There are a couple of reasons why these TF stories are unlikely to gain traction with a general audience.

Firstly, there are artefacts in the language that betray Geusz’s origins as a TF fan. He uses terms that will be familiar to insiders, but are jarring to those without a grounding in fandom spaces. My biggest gripe is with Geusz’s free use of neologisms like ‘gengineering’ (a contraction of ‘genetic engineering’): it’s simply not a term in widespread use.

Neologisms can have a place in science fiction writing, perhaps most notably employed by some of the post-WWII greats like Heinlein and Dick. But these words are used to help set the scene, to reinforce the values of the fictional universe. (For example, ‘Gengineering’ might make sense, as a term, in Huxley’s Brave New World.) This is useful when the story is set in the future, because it helps the reader understand how society’s priorities might have changed in the intervening years. But Geusz’s work is set (give or take) in the present day and in the real world. I suspect that a strong editor would have gently excised such neologisms.

Secondly, these stories deal almost exclusively with the idea of ‘becoming’ a furry. Phil is a strong enough writer to know that transformation is not a plot in itself, and so his stories take place in a world where furry transformation is something that happens within a wider story. He is then free to explore the challenges faces by our heroes.

Pelton, for example, is about a declining small town that receives a big investment from a furry who wishes to establish a real-world furry community. The story follows the town’s first elected furry mayor, who is torn between his wish to be taken seriously, and his wish to express himself as a furry:

“Yet, this was the first time that I’d ever suited on city time, the first time that I’d ever tried being Mayor while also being a rabbit. It felt wrong, at a very deep level. But then, it also felt very right. The total effect was horridly disorienting.”

 

Cheetah’s Win follows a baseball player who undergoes genetic engineering to save his career, and ends up finding a happier version of himself. He offers advice to a friend interested in undergoing their own procedure:

“It just might be good for you, too. Get you out of your own skin, help you loosen up a little.”

 

And The First Book of Lapism is about a religion made up of people who choose to become rabbit-people:

“Once he had opened his eyes as a rabbit and seen the world through new and gentler eyes, he’d known instantly that the universe could never be the same for him again. As a rabbit, he strongly believed, he was a far better person than he could ever have been as a human.”

 

In all three stories, human characters become furry characters, and the effect is has on them is mental as well as physical. You could call it a spiritual transformation, and it will sing to many furries about their own wishes, their wish to be a better version of themselves.

This is an exercise in wish fulfilment. It’s powerful stuff if you happen to be predisposed towards the basic concept.

There is a good, if unlikely, comparison point with Geusz’s writing: E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey. James’s novels also have their origins in fandom, Twilight in her case. Her novels have been tightly edited to remove any direct association with their source material, but they are still geared towards fulfilment of the same wish: the wish of (some) women to sexually submit to a powerful man*. (James, as it turns out, has a slightly larger potential market than Geusz and his furries.)

* as far as I can tell without actually reading the books

In both cases, Geusz and James are catering to a ‘what-if’ instinct, that magical idea that something could change in the snap of a finger. And the attraction to transformation is not limited to furries (or Twilight fans): it’s everyone.

Unfortunately, it is rare for one’s fortunes to turn on a penny. And it can be easy to wish for instant change, and that can make it easy to feel bad about what you have.

The relationship that people have with money is illustrative. The perceived value of money changes, relative to the amount of money you already have. If you are broke, £5 is a big deal—not so much if you’re a millionaire. And if you’re a millionaire, another million means a lot—but it’s trivial to the billionaire down the road.

Everyone wishes for more money. We all think there must be a point where we would have ‘enough’, but there never is. Take for example this article, which looked at five people of wildly varying income: the poorest wished for enough money for shoes; the well-off wished for enough to have a private doctor.

The moral here (other than the potential evils of money) is that there is no such thing as a good place to be. We are happy when we are getting better, otherwise we are unhappy. It’s an unavoidable feature of human nature that we are, by default, kinda sad. It’s probably something that has driven us a species, makes us strive for more even when we are safe and fed.

For another example, consider the challenges of body image. Most people, if asked, are fretful about being in poor shape. In fact, the only people who are happy about their body are those who are currently losing weight, or possibly becoming fitter and stronger.

The incredible thing about this is that body image, positive or negative, barely correlates with actual body shape. Fat people and thin people are generally unhappy with their body… except if they are in the process of improvement, at which point fat people and thin people are generally happy about their body. It’s the process of improvement that makes us feel good.

This, by the way, is why your social media feeds are so obnoxious. They are full of people either (1) complaining about their body, or (2) telling you that their diet is amazing / that they have spent the last two hours at the gym. It’s rare for people to be happy with things as they are.

This means that the causes of personal happiness are usually quite different to the causes of personal unhappiness. Happiness is usually about the process of change, whereas unhappiness is usually about the state of stagnation (or change in the wrong direction).

Transformation literature takes advantage of our desire for instant change. A switch is flicked, and a happier version of the world appears.

Unfortunately, this reinforces the natural (but wrong) idea that, to be happy, something must change from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Everyone thinks this way, and it can drive depression because the desired change might be something difficult, or something that takes a long time to occur. And so it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless because the change isn’t foreseeable.

In reality, it’s the process of change that brings happiness, not the change itself. It’s a subtle but important difference, because it means that happiness comes about quickly: it’s about the action, not the outcome.

It’s another—yet another—quirk of our human brains that we must negotiate. It’s not easy, and don’t we all wish for a simple world where we could just be happy.

Sadly such a world does not exist. But we can take joy in stories that allow us to imagine it, if only for a while.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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9 thoughts on “Transformation as Wish Fulfilment

  1. Science fiction terms, such as “gengineering,” are born when they are coined by some author. Why not Phil? I was not rattled by his usage, nor did I have trouble grasping it even before he explained and defined it farther in The First Book of Lapism. I’m not a transformation geek, either, though Phil’s writing has certainly brought me to a greater appreciation of the genre.

    Not all of us feel so much need for change, either. I might indeed choose to try living as some sort of anthro-animal chimera as an experience, but only if it were reversible and the change were not horribly painful. I long ago came to terms with who I am, and learned not to care about people who find that objectionable for their own reasons. This does not, however, mean that we can’t learn a lot from our own fantasies or those of others.

    Phil’s gengineering would come under immediate and violent attack from social conservatives and religious fundamentalists in today’s United States. In fact, if his fiction were more visible to such groups, they would be condemning it loudly as well, just as they have done with Rowling’s Harry Potter. That alone is enough to make me pay attention to an author’s work. Sometimes I find it lacking in significance, but other times it fits with my own world views and experiences. Phil Geusz’s writings definitely fit into the latter compartment.

  2. >Transformation literature takes advantage of our desire for instant change. A switch is flicked, and a happier version of the world appears. Unfortunately, this reinforces the natural (but wrong) idea that, to be happy, something must change from ‘bad’ to ‘good’.

    It might not be right all the time, or it might even be wrong most of the time for most people, but it’s not that hard to find people who achieved a substantially better life after a single important change. Switching to a more desirable career, moving away from an abusive partner or a shattered family, moving to a city, moving to the country, moving to a richer nation, and so on. Also for people with a technical/scientifical mindset being in the condition of doing their trade is often a big factor when it comes to personal happiness, and I suspect this has to do with the popularity of wish fulfillment themes in sci-fi literature and sci-fi themed TF literature.
    But it’s not that which is holding back TF literature from a broader audience IMHO. Bad TF literature portrays change as too easy and devoid of conflict, just like bad literature of any kind eschews conflict to give to the reader nothing but wish fulfillment. This article brought to my mind “Anna Karenina” which is a wonderful commentary on this topic (among other things): one of its two storylines is a tragedy of misplaced hopes and maladaptation to a harsh reality, the other is a wish fulfillment fantasy with a clear religious message. Interwoven together they balance perfectly to make one of the best novels of all time, but the Nikolai Levin storyline would be considered an unbalanced novel or even a bad religious novel if it were a standalone book.
    I think Phil Geusz’s work is if anything too problematic to gain a big audience, and at the same time there lies its literary value compared to a lot of sci-fi and TF fiction. The good ending is in sight but getting there is hardly ever easy. Comparing it to “50 shades of gray” sounds unfair to me since that kind of stories are popular because they don’t contain any serious conflict. If a furry TF story will ever achieve world popularity you can stand sure that it will be the cheesiest, most serious-conflict-free wish fulfillment fest you have ever seen… and if you count “Avatar” as furry, well… it already happened.
    I’m also a bit curious about this point:
    >[…] skeptical of the value of science-fiction or genre fiction in general (and, personally, I am), […]
    Maybe you could elaborate on it in a future article? Since a good deal of furry art is genre fiction this seems an important topic to discuss.

    1. Hi Scale, terrific comment. I love Anna Karenina, and I wish I’d thought of it while over the time that this article took to come together. Anna’s story is a perfect, tragic example of the potential folly in wishing for instant transformation. And I think Levin’s story can be seen as a positive exploration of how to manage the difference between desire and reality, at least in the philosophical way he deals with the failure of his book on farming.

      You’re also spot on when you point out that fast transformations can occur. Having said that, I don’t think I ever quite ruled that out. I’m going to take refuge in my language throughout the article, which I think leaves that semantic door ever-so-slightly ajar.

      I appreciate your curiosity in my opinions on sci-fi and genre fiction in general, but I’m not sure that my personal lack of interest is ripe for discussion here on [a][s]. An awful lot of furries enjoy science fiction, and much of it has undoubted value well beyond the empty calories of, say, Mass Effect books. If I were to go out of my way to point out why it’s not to my taste, I suspect I’d be engaging in the worst sort of my-art-is-better-than-your-art wankerism. Goodness knows we get accused of that often enough here at [a][s] as things are.

      1. Yes, there is more than mere wish fulfilling in Levin’s tale – I was thinking about the ending paragraphs of the book and the fact that after the initial rejection nothing really bad happens in his relationship compared to Anna’s. I wonder how he would have fared had he happened to marry Emma Bovary. :-]
        I also see your point about the discussion of sci-fi on this blog. If you are interested and have time I wouldn’t mind discussing that particular point privately though (PM “scale” on Furaffinity). For what it’s worth I’m not a big fan of sci-fi either: I have read only a handful of books in the genre, most of them far from mainstream stuff, and in my mind things like franchise novels or space operas are categories on their own since their goals are fundamentally different from speculative sci-fi. I guess I take the term “science fiction” literally as fiction which uses science as a plot device, as in actual believable science or science philosophy.

  3. I just wanted to thank you guys, especially JM, for taking my scribblings so seriously!

    I think that TF is a very deep metaphor in that all of life is a transformation, from our first adult teeth toour first gray hair to the final, fatal cancer. We all experience ongoing bodily change to one degree or another, and are constantly in the act of becoming someone and something else. I’m amazed more authors– and readers!!– aren’t exploring this metaphor of life more thoroughly.

  4. I’m not sure that any of the cited works were substantially edited by others. If they had been, a strong editor might have chosen to excise every word which wasn’t a proper noun or in the dictionary.

    But a good editor knows their intended audience. The readers of Phil’s stories would likely understand the intended meaning of the word gengineering, especially given the context of the stories. As such, its use is suitable and adds to the character of the story.

    I find social media is most useful to me as a method for one-to-one communication which others may listen into if they wish to; and as a means of gauging general feeling about specific issues. Paying close attention to the personal lives of the average online “friend” has never seemed particularly valuable to me.

    Judging by the fandom’s composition and apparent tendencies, we need more books about animal men who wish to be women and submit to powerful creatures of either gender.

    The linked PDF about income equality was a good read. I agree that a big part of happiness is to make “enough” that you do not have to worry about bills. But what is “enough” depends on your needs and expectations. If you can manage to keep going out to a moderately priced restaurant for brunch as a treat, it may be much at all.

    Sadly, it may not be enough to have enough money, or even to be getting more – to be happy, some need to have (or at least think they have) more than other people, at least in their local group. Winning the lottery by yourself is seen as better than everyone in your social circle winning, even if you all get as much as you could ever spend. The same applies to fitness, popularity, and other measurements of success – they are relatives, not absolutes.

    1. I’ve never asked Phil about his editing practices. It was a conversation between the two of us that provoked this article, however I wrote it without any input from him: I didn’t want to pull any critical punches because of our friendship. Perhaps I went a bit far the other way; it’s not really possible for me to tell.

      Anyway, if Phil is writing that clearly and vividly without an editor, then it feels miraculous. Even writing here on [a][s], I always use an editor, and it always makes a big difference to the finished product.

      I’m glad you liked the article on income equality. I’m guessing that you, like me, are one of those furries to be in that fortunate position to be able to afford the odd luxury – that brunch, perhaps. Having been impoverished in my younger days, it’s easy for me to see how I got things wrong then. At the time, it felt like I’d cross a line and I’d be satisfied: I now know that’s not quite true. As you say, these things are relative.

      1. My earlier stuff was edited by fandom-volunteer types who, like myself, were learning the ropes. When I look back on these works from today’s perspective my soul screams out to give them another, more thorough editing. (Especially “Pelton”.) This is natural enough; we grow over time and learn better techniques.

        That said… My current works are _still_ being edited by fandom volunteer types who are learning their trade at the ground floor level, because even with recent successes professional editing is so expensive as to be financially impossible. Sofawolf, IMO, is editing their products at a pro level at this time and again IMO this is the single biggest reason why they’re pre-eminent among the fandom’s publishing houses. Of all literary-related skills, editing seems to be the most difficult to develop and nurture. That said, fandom-editing has to date proven far more effective than what I’ve seen from low-budget “professionals”. At any rate, let the world be advised that no one is more painfully aware than myself of a need for better editing in my works. I’ve torn my hair out and rended my clothing over it, and _still_ can’t make it happen.

        As for the word “gengineering… In point of fact I first encountered the term in mainstream SF in the 70’s. Though I can’t recall for certain the author who first used it in work which I personally encountered, I suspect it was Larry Niven. Since that time I’ve seen it used in “science fact” columns a few times, mostly notably in the 80’s, and sort of presumed that like Asimov’s “robotics” it’d found it’s way into standard English. (For my .02 if it hasn’t it darn well should’ve.) Perhaps I’ve been stealing all this time when I thought the term was fair game? If so…. Sorry! I didn’t mean any harm!

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