by Frank LeRenard
It’s one of those extremely difficult, often tiresome, and seemingly ubiquitous questions in furry fiction: why use anthropomorphic animals and not just humans? And I see all manners of mental acrobatics going on amongst all of us in trying to answer it. We’ve come up with some decent excuses along the way: simple stylistic choice, a means to bring up complicated issues like racism without offending, etc. But it’s a tough question to answer effectively, because in the end the reason may simply be that we think anthro animals are cool.
But there’s a sort of hidden tradition embedded in furry lit, something a bit more penetrating and philosophical than what usually comes to mind.
So, we homo sapiens spend an awful lot of time trying to understand ourselves. All of the so-called great literature of our day seems to be focused on that nebulous concept we call ‘the human condition’. I’m sure part of this quest stems from the general idea that humans are super special, something new and interesting in the universe, the most intelligent creatures of Planet Earth and masters of all that surrounds us. So in our sometimes overly simplistic thinking, we try to reconcile that idea with the well-known fact that humans also often act like completely irrational beings, fighting and killing over stuff like jealousy or love or power (so-called ‘animal’ things), and this confuses us and makes us ponder what truly makes us human.
But really, as time has gone on, a lot of things have become clear. For one, we aren’t the center of the universe. The universe, in fact, has no center because it exists as a kind of geometry for which a center is impossible to describe. We’re not the center of our own solar system, either; the sun is. And the more we study our neighbors, those other ‘lower’ species that inhabit this little planet with us, the more we start to realize that we’re even pretty closely connected with all of them, too. We share many behaviors with other animals: crows can use tools, elephants display empathy, octopi can figure out how to open jars even if they’ve never seen one before. Maybe the time has also come for us to admit that we’re not the center of the Earth’s ecosystem either.
So what do we as a species do in this new realm of apparent purposelessness? It seems a bit of a depressing existential quandary to deal with. But, you see, this isn’t the only way to think of it. Because in this realm, what’s really happening is that we’re finally starting to perceive the ‘other’.
One of the most famous photographs ever taken was an incidental one nabbed by Bill Anders in 1968 while he was on the moon, which was later dubbed ‘Earthrise’. He admitted that getting the shot wasn’t even in the plan at the time; just one of those moments where you turn around and think to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I should take a picture of that’. But it resonated deeply in the public. It was the first picture of Earth taken from another world. A first outside look at the place where we all live, a giant blue marble set against a deep black backdrop, a splash of color juxtaposed with the dreary cratered grayness of the moon’s surface. Earth in its proper context.
But the topic here is anthro characters in fiction. You see, it’s hard to build a complete picture of something if you’re living inside it. This is as much true for humanity as it is for the Earth or the Milky Way galaxy. The fact that we are the only species we know how to communicate with on a fundamental level is problematic in that respect, because we can never really gain an outsider’s view of our own species. And so we’re left with this conundrum, this constant effort to learn more about ‘the human condition’ by peering at it through human eyes.
But fiction is bigger than that, because it relies on this thing we have called ‘imagination’. Maybe we can’t see ourselves as we truly are from our current vantage point, but we can always pretend. In our imagination, we can sit back and take the long view, look at the Earth from the moon.
There are other options than anthropomorphized animals, of course. Aliens, magical beings, robots, etc. But at some point, if you get too far out there, the whole picture just starts to look like a barely visible blue dot amongst billions and it loses its impact. You don’t want to get so far out that you can’t even find the thing you were supposed to be trying to understand. Who knows how aliens might even think? Do they have bifocal vision, hearing organs, stomachs? Do they see better in visible light or infrared? Do they see different wavelengths as colors? Do they communicate through speech, chemical signals, vibrations in the ground, what? And robots can pose a similar problem, assuming we’re the ones programming them; they either have this simplistic, binary manner of thinking that ends up generating seemingly bizarre solutions to common problems (see: a modern robot trying to enter a car; there’s a video of this somewhere), or else they just end up thinking themselves superior and take over the world.
But I already mentioned that there’s a nice midpoint that’s readily available: other animals. They’re different, but we have common ground. We know they exist, too, and we’ve taken some time to study them, so you don’t have to start completely from scratch. Plus, we all evolved through fairly similar pathways, even think in similar ways about certain things, yet our biologies and brains are distinct. It works out very well for the imagination, as a little spark to step out of the realm of being human, but not so far that your whole audience (who is, until further notice, always going to be human themselves) can’t relate to it. Why not exploit this? Because talking animals are kiddie stuff?
Of course, that’s the point I’m making. They aren’t, or at least they don’t have to be. You want to explore ‘the human condition’ like all great literature is apparently supposed to do, you do it from the outside. And there’s this great resource sitting right beside us that we can exploit for that purpose. Use it.
Or else just do it because anthro animals are cool, I guess.