Transformation as Wish Fulfilment

16 Dec 2013 |

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.