(Originally posted at FurAffinity; reproduced here for preservation purposes.)

My life in SpinDizzy

I have a paw in many online communities, but only one to call home: SpinDizzy MUCK. As it happens, today SpinDizzy celebrates 20 years of existence. Pretty damn impressive as such things go, and a good time to think about the past.

Some people have been there since the beginning. Not me. Found my way to the place in early 2010, as part of a campaign to sample as many different types of MUD as possible. My first impressions, captured at the time, sounded like this:

I saved the best for the end. Spindizzy has a huge map and an active population. It is furry- and roleplaying-friendly, while remaining an eminently social hangout. If you ever went to a costume party wearing cat ears, you'll fit right in. I can't even begin to describe all the things going on in there; it's pretty much a cartoon world, ellaborate (sic), beautiful and full of great people.

I've met individuals online who seem to think furry fans are somehow weird or crazy. This was not my experience at all. On the contrary, furry fans are good, fun, intelligent people. In any event, you are free to be a human on SpinDizzy, and nobody will expect you to roleplay if you don't want to.

Needless to say, that part of the plan backfired. Before summer, things went from "I'm not a furry but these people are cool", through "I seem to be turning into a furry", and all the way to "I was a furry all my life and didn't have a word for it". We're a special fandom like that.

A few things SpinDizzy did for me:

  • help me out of a bad place, mentally speaking, during that same first spring;
  • bring out the writer in me, a childhood dream that seemed buried for good: my first (and so far only) novel wouldn't exist but for my clumsy SD fanfic five years prior;
  • enable a major revelation, that put a quarter century of my life in a different light, and gave me much joy since.

In the mean time, people came and went. There was drama. There were changes. And yes, people died. Wonderful people, too. We never really got over it. But we also had treasure hunts. Parades. Olympic games. World fairs. Enough cool things to astonish even veterans of the fandom. And we still somehow attract people entirely new to text-based virtual worlds.

It's not the medium, you see. It's how we use it.

Earlier, we were talking about the next twenty years in SpinDizzy MUCK. That's a scary thought. In two decades, I'll be older than any of our players are right now, to the best of my knowledge. What will the world even be like?

Whatever the answer, with any luck we'll still be able to type "/connect sd" and talk about it obliquely in character while tromping around our city in a bottle, poking our noses in half-forgotten corners and having a blast.

The biggest furry brainbug

Dear furry writers: please stop with the “humans are rational, furries are instinctual” brainbug. First of all, humans are animals. Second, neuroscience has proven by now that we don’t in fact make decisions rationally. Like, at all. (It makes sense too; the world is complicated, and we never have enough information.) It just happens that we’re used to our own instincts, so it seems natural when, for example, every new form of government we invent ends up looking like a chimpanzee community with a fresh coat of paint. Sure, it could be argued that the capacity for abstract thought and language does temper our instincts somewhat… sometimes… if we try really hard. But then, it stands to reason (hah!) that it would do the same for another animal if it was given the gift.

So please, get rid of this idea. It’s just racism in another form. And there was a time in history when people with black skin weren’t considered human…

Rape and Innocence

It's been a tumultous week in the furry fandom. A couple of articles over at [Adjective][Species] have concentrated and brought to light a scandal that's been apparently brewing for a while. I've read them too, out of curiosity, and while I don't have enough evidence about the situation to have an opinion one way or another, the way people have reacted in the comments is telling of the problems we furries have with basic social interaction.

Tl:dr version: a controversial social networking website has hired a controversial programmer to make some improvements, and a lot of furs felt that was disrespectful of those who've been slighted by either.

To make it perfectly clear, I don't know anything about this person. Even if he was guilty, he would deserve a fair trial and proportionate punishment, not an Internet lynch mob. Not that anyone "deserves" anything, good or bad, but it's a civil society we live in.

More generally, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" MUST be upheld, for two big reasons: one, it's all too easy to make an accusation, with only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence if any, and two, it's very difficult to prove you haven't done something.

No, what I want to talk about is two worrying trends I've seen among those who've commented on the issue.

First is this weird idea that if you didn't mean to hurt someone, you can't possibly be guilty. Because, you know, drivers totally want to run over pedestrians, as a general rule. (Yes, I'm being sarcastic.) Because if you thought you were doing something harmless, then it is harmless. For example, the gun you were playing with couldn't possibly be loaded. Or if you didn't think you hit them that hard... Poor bully. The victim is to blame for being such a sissy and thinking you really did mean to hurt them, isn't it? That's where this attitude stems from.

And that's how we get people refusing to understand that they've just insulted someone... or intimidated them... for example into having sex. After all, what's the big deal? (That's more sarcasm, by the way.)

Second is the double fallacy of thinking that consent is the default. That unless the other person loudly and repeatedly says "no", it means they're consenting. Um, wrong. There's a reason why the legal standard for consent is a lot more stringent, and involves explicitly saying yes. Not to mention I've met people in my life who didn't even seem able to process a "no", let alone take no for an answer.

(No, seriously. I was once talking to someone; he asked me a question, I answered "no", and he continued as if I'd answered "yes". Without missing a beat, I might add. Clearly in his mind it was inconceivable that I could possibly give him a different answer than the one he expected. Scary stuff, I tell you. And at least he asked.)

But wait, there are more problems with that! Earlier I mentioned intimidation. What's it mean for someone to feel intimidated? Simply that they expect to be beaten or worse if they speak up. That you didn't actually mean to threaten them is irrelevant. They felt threatened. And before you tell me that's subjective, remember that so is pain...

(On the flip side, some people nowadays feel threatened by the mere sight of someone in a different skin color. And they react by shooting them dead with no warning. But that's another, uglier story.)

So how do you tell if the other person is feeling intimidated, or is merely too shy to say "yes" out loud, or whatever? One of the commenters in the aforementioned discussion thread said I'm expecting people to read minds. Really? Is it so hard to pay attention to the other person's reactions? You even have a brain mechanism called empathy, powered by dedicated mirror neurons — maybe you've heard of them. That should allow you to notice when the other person is showing distress or discomfort and back down.

Except you're not even considering that they may be experiencing discomfort, isn't it? After all you don't mean to hurt them... you're only playing, right? And if your intentions are innocuous, that means you can't possibly hurt them, because harm can only ever be intentional?

There you go. We went full circle and came back where we started from.

It's a paradoxical culture we live in. On the one hand, it's a patriarchal, misogynistic one in which women are marginalized in every possible way. On the other hand, it's a culture in which men are considered potential rapists almost by default... and rapists are considered some sort of slavering monsters devoid of human decency. (Not to mention that men being raped... possibly by women... isn't even imagined possible by most people. More scary stuff, huh?)

After seeing all those comments I disagree. Most likely, your average rapist is an overgrown schoolyard bully who thought they were just playing, and that the victim should have realized it and chilled out. Moreover, they're convinced they would have stopped if the victim seemed truly distressed or hurt. After all, nobody sees himself as the villain.

Except you don't decide whether you are. Your actions determine that. And the results of your actions don't depend in the least on what you meant to do. Only what you actually did.

So be responsible and respectful. And when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

It's really as simple as that.

We furries are already social misfits by definition, banding together because we know what it's like to not belong anywhere. Therefore we meet lack of social skill with amusement. But there's lack of manners and then there's not seeing when you cross a big fat line.

And until the situation improves, I'm afraid to go to a furry con. Afraid I'll run into one of these well-meaning but oblivious people, who will rape me while thinking it's all a game.

Sorry, folks.

Musings on transformation stories

I'm generally not into transformation stories; for the most part they just creep me out. Oh, there is the occasional exception — I consider Skin Deep one of the best webcomics out there — but for the most part I used to avoid TF.

Until, that is, a friend recommended me a TF series and I found myself avidly reading through all of it, easily getting past the parts that bothered me. I've been wondering why that is, and it's not just the intrinsic qualities of the stories offsetting my normal preferences.

The answer was served to me on a plate by Phil Geusz in his essay The Pornography Trap, in which he describes Heinlein's novel Double Star as transformation fiction. And Double Star just so happens to be one of my favorite novels ever.

Of course! That's it! I was defining the transformation genre way too narrowly!

Once this conclusion asserted itself, it was easy to start thinking about famous stories that are very obviously TF yet most people never think of them that way. Robocop, for example, is a superb specimen of the genre, and one everybody knows about too. So is Star Wars, insofar as it's about Darth Vader, not to mention virtually every story set in the World of Darkness. Vampires, werewolves, awakened mages... it's all about people turning into something else and having to deal with it... and everyone else with them. As Mr. Geusz points out, it's a powerful theme that resonates with all of us on a deep level.

So much, in fact, that my own stories mention transformation all the time, yet I never noticed before.

Take Bazaar in the Stars for example: Claude is so visibly the result of a transformation that Notand spends the better part of two paragraphs wondering what's his deal. Of course, Notand himself has recently suffered an even more exotic change (even by the surreal standards of the setting), but I never explore the consequences.

Likewise, in Arrow in the Sky, half the cast goes through big changes. Jake is half-machine following an incident he won't talk about; Carol becomes a mind upload, and Pete gains the magical ability to turn into vehicles. All of which I treated very superficially, simply because I wasn't interested in those aspects of the story at the time. But it's all there, and it may be worth revisiting one day.

Perhaps ironically, the closest I came to actually exploring TF themes was in a non-furry story called Parole Planet. This time, not only we learn why Carmen has turned into what she is now, but she also achieves closure by the end. And it's still an entirely secondary part of the story.

Will I go deeper into transformation themes in future stories? Maybe, with utmost care. For one thing, if you look at the examples above, most TF stories come with a massive dose of body horror. It's almost a given, really, unless it's a story about someone being turned into Captain America, or his rule 63 version. (Oops, did I just give another well-known example?) And if not, there's the psychological horror of having your entire previous life stripped away from you and replaced with one that may be better, more important, whatever, but it's not yours. And horror isn't exactly my favorite stuff.

But I'll certainly be more open-minded about the genre now, and I'll never see any fiction with the same eyes again. Which is a win in my book. What else is fiction for, if not expanding one's horizons?

Why furry fiction is (still) in a ghetto

You know, I've been in the furry fandom for three years and a half and I'm finally beginning to understand why most people refuse to even look at artistic creations labeled as 'furry'.

In case you don't realize why that's a problem, I tried recommending Digger to a friend and he refused to read it on principle. And that's the same Digger that won a Hugo Award last year. Seriously?

Yes, seriously. And that's a tragedy.

What's worse, it is a totally unnecessary tragedy. I wrote several furry short stories last year, and none of my non-furry readers batted an eyelid. When I pointed out the furry-ness, they just said, 'oh well'. Of course, by that time they had already read the stories and liked them. Had they done that if they were pre-warned?

See above for the likely answer.

More recently, I've been playing a talking cat in a non-furry online community, and again people have been merely amused, taking it for a harmless joke or quirk. I'm yet to meet a single one of them who even realized I was a furry, let alone was disturbed by it. Might have something to do with the fact that I don't exactly play it up?

You can probably guess what I think by now.

There's nothing inherently special about furries. As Uncle Kage famously put it, we're just people who like... funny animals (insert goofy face here). And pretty much everybody in the developed world grew up on funny-animal cartoons, not to mention an age-old tradition of fables and fairy tales.

Then why do people have a problem with us?

I've spent a good part of this summer reading through the FreeRIDErs series, at a friend's recommendation. It's some of the best sci-fi I've read in years — a handful of large, unpolished diamonds. But all too often the stories devolve into self-indulgent wish-fulfillment fantasy that's bound to put off any reader who isn't into the same stuff as we are. Just look at the one illustration on that page. I know a hardcore furry who was instantly put off by it. No, REALLY.

And it doesn't have to be that way. All that fetish stuff — let's be honest and call it out — could be downplayed a little and given a purpose beyond turning on the author and whoever else happens to share his taste. Not that I mind being turned on by what I read! Or do you think I don't have fantasies? O-la-la. And FreeRIDErs features one of them front and center. (No, not the transformation stuff, that has the opposite effect on me.) But if it only had that and nothing else, I'd never have read far enough to find it.

Look at it this way: we all know what Little Red Riding Hood is actually about. Yet if you make me look at a picture of the wolf getting it on with the eponymous young lady, that's just bad taste.

See, I think art should first and foremost make a honest attempt at being enjoyable as art. If in the process certain parts of your work manage to strike a chord with particular segments of the audience, great! But don't try to force the issue, or you'll be lucky to get something only as bad as the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Do quality work first and niche pandering second, and maybe one day furry fiction will break free of the ghetto, like science fiction did all those decades ago.

My least favorite furry cliches

One of the things I love about the furry fandom is the colorful diversity and wackiness. Among us, no idea is too wild to be worth exploring, and that often leads to fascinating conclusions. Which makes it all the more jarring when a furry story falls back on certain overused cliches that don't stand up to scrutiny on top of that.

What is it with people thinking genetically engineered hybrids are a possibility, never mind a good idea? Should someone attempt that in real life, the ethical implications would be staggering. Stem cell research is already controversial. But creating entire new species? Worse, with the express purpose of making slaves and/or soldiers? What would stop a society that accepts such a thing from experimenting on you? Do you suppose they'd bother to ask for consent?

Not much better is the concept of animal uplift. First, animals that have a large enough brainpan already display self-awareness and other humanlike traits. They don't need any more intelligence, they need to have their rights recognized. But what can you expect from humans when not so long ago they deemed their own brethren sub-human based on outward appearance?

Moreover, if we figured out how to make animals smarter, we could also make humans smarter, thus helping countless people with disabilities on the one hand, and creating transhumans on the other hand. Who would waste time doing it to animals then? Not to mention the moral issues would be again tremendous. Flowers for Algernon, anyone?

At least in transformation fiction, it's usually nobody's fault; things just happen. But even so, the consequences would be much more serious than usually depicted. Imagine I spontaneously turned into my fursona. Beyond the obvious body horror issues (see the first story arc in Skin Deep for a good treatment), I'd better be able to hide it perfectly, or else some nice folks in biohazard suits would soon show up in a black van to take me away. And do you suppose I could think, much less talk, without technological or magical assistance? Not with a housecat's brain and throat, I assure you. Then, even if my dewclaws were opposable, I'd still be stuck in a world designed for humans. No typing for me!

Look, I love being a furry. But I also like being somewhat realistic about it. Most fantasies are better off in, well, fantasy land. By all means, use your imagination. Just use it properly.

How furry is a furry webcomic?

I'm a big fan of folksonomies, both because I'm a postmodernist at heart and because, frankly, ontologies don't work. But when trying to categorize a list of 181 webcomics (and growing) it's not easy deciding what tags to use and how many, or how well they apply to particular entries. Especially when one tag can mean many different things.

One such problem tag is "furry".

At one end of the spectrum, it's fairly obvious that Lackadaisy Cats employs the eponymous felines purely for aesthetic reasons. In fact, I believe the author has admitted as much. And then there was that poster with all characters drawn as humans... At the other end, Skin Deep wouldn't even have a premise if it wasn't for the furries. But does that make one more furry than the other? And what of those in-between?

Better days is relatively unique in that it uses animal species in a deliberate manner, as stand-ins for race and/or culture. Interestingly enough, nowhere in the multi-year span of the comic (and its sequel) do we see any pets. Whereas in I.C.Q. (NSFW!) the cat protagonist owns a... perfectly ordinary housecat as a pet. Furry confusion indeed! The characters also explicitly talk species, although there don't seem to be any rules about how they're chosen.

(Speaking of furry confusion, one of my fellow players in SpinDizzy misses no opportunity to lampshade the fact that I'm the only non-anthro feline on the MUCK.)

At least both aforementioned comics are clearly furry. In the case of Inverloch, it took me a long time to realize that a fantasy species in a fantasy world might actually qualify as furry, and they are obviously cute and fuzzy. I still hesitate to classify Freefall as such, even though Florence is as furry as they get. She just makes too much sense in-universe to think of her as one. And then there's this sci-fi webcomic (I forget which) where the author insists the characters are aliens, not furries, regardless of what they look like.

What webcomics aren't furry, then?

Dog Eat Doug, for one, doesn't qualify in my opinion. Note how the dog and squirrels always "talk" in thought bubbles, while the eponymous toddler never says a word, and only his parents actually talk out loud. It's only a guess, but I think the animals' dialogue is supposed to be imaginary. It's not as easy to decide for Sandra and Woo, where the raccoon talks and walks upright alongside her human owner... except he never does that around the girl's parents, and we only see other talking animals on their own in the forest. The one time an adult hears Woo speak, he's taken for crazy...

In most cases, though, I can tell with confidence whether a webcomic counts as furry or not. Now, manga on the other hand...