Review by Joel Kreissman
Exploration! That age-old activity. Whether it be exploration of new lands, planets, universes, or mindsets, people have been Exploring New Places for a long time and hopefully will continue to do so far into the future. But why should humans have all the fun? This anthology has stories where furries make first contact with humans, and others where they test themselves against hostile environments, and in yet other stories they make more esoteric discoveries.
The first story, “To Drive the Cold Winter Away” by Michael H. Payne, is one of those more esoteric expeditions. In this one, a simple country mouse learns that his entire world is nothing but the fiction of another, far larger, species, and that music has a quite literal magic to it. When he finds himself stranded in the human world, how will he get back home? This story shows how alien and terrifying humans can be through the eyes of small creatures, even if they mean well. It’s a bit unorthodox, somewhat evocative of Neil Gaiman’s lighter stories, but has an upbeat ending.
Alan Loewen’s “In Search of the Creators” is another story about furries discovering humans, this time in a sci-fi setting. After an exploratory craft crewed by “uplifted” rabbits finds not only signs of the species that created their ancestors, but a small colony, questions arise of how to handle this galaxy-shaking discovery. I appreciated the nod to lapine mentality as fear-motivated, being descended from prey species, but thought the apparently enlightened nature of the humans on their metal-poor planet seemed overly optimistic. It makes one wonder if they’re not being totally honest with the bunnies.
“The Rocky Spires of Planet 227” is one of Mary E. Lowd’s “Tri-Galactic Trek” stories, actually included in the more recent compilation, and based loosely on a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. I’m afraid I haven’t seen this one, but it’s where the crew accidentally kidnap a silicon-based lifeform that uses sound to attack them. An unprecedented situation, and an innocent mistake, yet the consequences could have been dire. It’s interesting that the sound only affects the cats in the crew at first, given that Lowd uses both cats and dogs as stand-ins for humans in these Trek-inspired stories; it was nice to see some differentiation between them.
Horwich Wolcott’s “Defiant” shows how first contact with another culture can go horribly, terribly wrong when a human ship lands on a planet populated by stone-age squirrel people. Plans of making peaceful contact go out the window when the squirrels assume their drones are creatures of some kind of evil god, and the translator software misses that particular nuance. I have a bit of a nitpick on that one scientist who tries to relate to the squirrels on religious terms: she seems to have a concept of “God” limited to a Christian viewpoint, despite being said to have grown up with a Hindu cultural background. I also didn’t think the big reveal at the end was strictly necessary for the story as a standalone, but it could act as foreshadowing for a greater series.
“Why Indeed” by Pepper Hume has a feline alien as the protagonist, but the main focus is on a species of trilaterally symmetrical aliens that can’t really be called “furry.” You see, the trilateral aliens are applying to join the galactic Federation and claim to be complete pacifists, yet it appears that some of their youths murdered a few off-world merchants. The feline is there to investigate what happened. I appreciated the exhibition of cultural differences, but I have to wonder what “incompatible barbarities” the investigator was attempting to suss out exactly. The Federation investigator wears a sword as a badge of her office, while the aliens applying to join the Federation ban all blades longer than their own claws. Also I could see the plot twist coming a mile away.
Editor Fred Patten’s own story, “Come to Todor,” is set amid a universe where humans live peacefully with many alien species. When a ship of otterlike traders lands on a human frontier colony they find very little of value, but one of the crew decides it looks like a nice place to retire and stays behind. A couple years later, she’s decided that homesteading ain’t all it’s made out to be. It’s pretty good at subverting the “idyllic country life” trope, while still showing that it has its perks. However the captain’s objections to coming back seemed a bit forced, like he didn’t really believe them.
“You Are Our Lifeboat” by Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen is one of those stories where humans are exploiting uplifted animals for their own benefit, in this case sapient rats forming the crew of a colony ship to Proxima Centauri. Only, it turns out the rats’ creator decided the humans in hibernation didn’t deserve a new planet after they destroyed their old one. So, now the rats have a choice to make that will decide the fates of two different species. I appreciated the little reminders that the rats are not humans with fur and tails, like their difficulty forming certain sounds with their mouths and the resulting changes to their number-based names like “743” to “Sehunsotre.” However, I’m still a little sick of “humanity is evil” furry stories and differentiating your furries from the humans isn’t quite enough to salvage this story in my view.
Vixxy Fox’s “The Animal Game” seems at first to be a dig at the FurryMUCK segment of the fandom, with a new “drug” making the rounds that seemingly allows online roleplayers to enter a full virtual reality. Unfortunately, diving into their fursonas so deeply makes it harder for them to hide their furriness in public, especially once their tails come in. Aside from the furry self-references it’s good with fakeouts. Are the lozenges actually a drug, is it a placebo, or perhaps something entirely new? Is the protagonist of this story the teenage fox boy, the diner’s owner he introduced to the game, or possibly the detective searching for the origin of the Animal Game who keeps switching species?
“Ashland’s Fury” by MikasiWolf seems evocative of old-style dark fantasy stories like “Conan the Barbarian,” as seen when we start with a cougar adventurer in the middle of a bar brawl. Soon he gets hired by a maned wolf druid to escort him to the volcanic Ashlands, where some strange disappearances have occurred recently. Unfortunately, this story exposes the weaknesses of such nihilistic stories: there’s no sympathetic characters. You’ve got the abrasive barbarian, the mage who refuses to use magic except to smack his bodyguard silly, the villagers who want to burn said mage at the stake, the baron who almost let them, and the lizardfolk who’ve been tossing villagers into the volcano. (SPOILER ALERT) And it all amounts to nothing in the end, the volcano blows and everyone but the two main characters die, having accomplished nothing but some abstract “restoration of balance.” (SPOILERS OVER)
M.R. Anglin’s “Legacy” is part of her larger “Silver Foxes” series, about a world with a militant isolationist nation of foxes called Expermia surrounded by several multi-species countries. This story is set right after Expermia lost a war with those other countries. Our POV character is a teenage Expermian who has to venture to another country in order to settle the affairs of his uncle who was executed for war crimes. When a song on the radio catches his attention he finds himself forced to confront the differences between the propaganda he grew up with and the reality of the world outside. It’s depressing, but shows how travel can expose a person to different viewpoints and even tackle one's own subconscious racism. Seeing that people outside your community are really just people, only a little different, listening to their music, walking around their cities, talking to them… No matter how central to one’s identity such beliefs might be.
The next two stories are both in the same military sci-fi series, “Umbra’s Legion”, but by different authors and from radically different perspectives. “Shamblers of Woe” by Adam Baker takes us into the heat of the war between the Canines and their Feline allies against the Getran Empire of United Simians. After taking out one of the Empire’s pet mad scientists a mixed-species squad finds themselves confronted by creatures that have no business being in the same universe as them. Again, I found indications that these characters had their own unique cultural quirks, which got me curious to learn more about them. One of the cats removing a fallen saber-toothed comrade’s fangs, was that some funeral rite or just to keep the enemy from making trophies of them? Why is it a big deal that one character was half-thylacine? The lack of dog-cat animosity was something of a breath of fresh air too, even if it was only due to a common enemy.
Geoff Galt’s “Where Pride Planted” gives us the civilian view from within the Getran Empire. Specifically that of a gorilla child on a school field trip to a museum. After she’s shown the story of a self-proclaimed God-King who got flattened by an asteroid, and how the ensuing wars between religious fanatics and scientists led to the foundation of the Empire, she wanders off. There she finds much later exhibits chronicling the beginning of the Empire’s conquest of the stars. Many modern readers might find the apes’ response to picking up radio signals of other planets to be disturbing, but it sounds in line with the “Manifest Destiny” attitude so common in the 19th century.
“Beyond Acacia Ridge” by Amy Fontaine is a tale of inter-class friendship in a hyena clan. The tribe has a quite rigid hereditary hierarchy, Straggletail is at the bottom, like her mother before her; while Glossycoat’s mother expects her to succeed her as matriarch. Yet Glossycoat has no desire to perpetuate the grossly unfair system and actively seeks out Straggletail’s friendship, even though her mother killed her mother for defying her. Male hyenas aren’t even worth notice. After Glossycoat’s mother tries to separate them, the two of them leave the safety of the clan to seek where the sun goes at night. This story shows the difficulties of inter-class relationships, and why some people might remain in an oppressive society, though presented as simply something that may be overcome. Both main characters have their own reasons to go on their quest, unattainable as it may be, and it truly doesn’t matter whether they actually achieve their goal.
Thomas “Faux” Steele’s “One Day in Hanoi” is a bit of an alternate history, post-WWI with some steampunk elements, though moving to internal combustion. Our heroes, a French bluejay detective and his Russian otter boyfriend, have barely left the airship to French Vietnam when they get pick-pocketed. Thus leading them on a sweep of the Hanoi underworld in pursuit of the stolen property, impersonating the local police and both winning and losing a small fortune in the gambling dens. It comes across as a lighthearted interlude to a larger noir story, 20s tourist drama with low physical stakes. However, it does jump you into the world without much of an introduction and you might find yourself wondering who these people are.
“Welcome, Furries” by Cathy Smith is a comedy of errors based around culture shock and mistaken identities. Earth has made contact with some sort of interstellar Empire that already has human citizens, somehow, ruled by these vaguely defined “Overseers” who have formalized some student exchange programs with the humans of Earth. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have percolated down to the average “Terran” citizen that one of the Empire’s other sapient species is feline, with the attitudes to match. Thus, we find a pair of feline exchange students who get mistaken for pets, assume the fish in an aquarium are snacks, and then get directed to a furry con. All while making the poor unaware Terrans bend over backwards apologizing for the inconvenience. These two are probably the most catlike furries in terms of behavior that I’ve read, and they make sure everybody knows it. Stories about “real” furries coming into contact with the furry subculture are always fun to read, and this was one of the more entertaining ones.
Frank LeRenard’s “Back Then” is more confusing than anything else really. You’ve got a nameless male and nameless female working in an immense otherwise abandoned laboratory; there’s some hints they’re reptiles of some sort. It doesn’t really give anything to latch onto. Just leaves the reader confused about what’s going on and who’s in there.
“Tortoise Who” is another story by Mary E. Lowd, this time set in her “Shreddy the Cat” universe, at least at first. As Rosie the mouse tries to escape Shreddy’s claws, she runs into The Tortoise, whose shell is a bit bigger on the inside. The Tortoise claims he wouldn’t interfere with Shreddy’s hunt, but he can give his prey a lifetime before he claims her. And thus, The Tortoise takes Rosie on a series of adventures through space and time. A fascinating story that gets a bit trippy at times and forces a housecat to philosophize. It would make a good Doctor Who episode.
Cairyn’s “I Am The Jaguar” is a long one, not only telling a story of exploring the unknown, but also the inventions, diplomacy, and logistics needed to carry out the expedition beforehand. As well as the fate of the previous expedition’s last survivor. The focus are a tribe of jungle-dwelling bat-people called the Awraa, who have an uneasy peace with the nearby Jaguars. The Awraa are adept at botany and animal domestication, while the Jaguars have made great strides in metalwork since the two species made their treaty; the expertise of both species is needed if they can hope to reach the far side of the great desert. Yet, is even that enough? The tensions between the species are palpable, with the fructivorous Awraa suspicious of the sharp-fanged Jaguars, but as the title suggests the expedition gives the Awraa an opportunity to see themselves on their neighbors’ footpads. I also appreciated the misdirection with the first expedition’s dying words, “We drank…”
The final story, “The Promise of New Heffe” by Kary M. Jomb, illustrates the differences between those who would seek a new home and those who would rather stay. About a generation before the story some human scientists accidentally triggered a supernova that destroyed a star system inhabited by a canine alien species. Fortunately, they were able to evacuate the population, who’ve been living as refugees aboard human space stations ever since. Now the human government has chartered a new colony planet for them, but not all of the Heffens are interested in going, such as a few of the younger members of one family who grew up on the station and are annoyed with their elders. I thought the contrast between the elders who want to live on a planet again and the younger generation who’ve grown up stationside was an interesting exploration, possibly even moreso than any exploration of New Heffe itself.
This anthology has been sitting on FBR’s virtual desk for a while, and given its size that’s not particularly surprising, but unfortunate nonetheless. Like any anthology, the stories are somewhat hit-or-miss, but if you like at least half of them I’d consider this book worth the price. Overall, I feel the collected stories give a good sense of the exploration of strange places, meeting new life and civilizations, going where no furry has gone before!