If you don’t want to bother with the entire meme but still want to play, it is highly encouraged to list some of your own favorites for today’s category in the comments.
It used to be that sci-fi and fantasy were considered a single genre by most, and even if they were properly and respectfully considered as two, it still wouldn't have made much sense for me to have this as a category. Spoiler alert: all of theme are fantasy or sci-fi subgenres, since that pretty much covers everything I like and nowadays we have so many to choose from.
I’ll proceed carefully with this one. There is a lot of furry porn out there and a lot of downright creepy stuff. I’m not into that, but fortunately, it’s not the whole genre.
I’m writing this shortly after seeing Zootopia, which is the evolution of cartoon animals rather than furry but ends up representing both genres. And since I’m going to need a definition: for our purposes here, any anthropomorphized animal is a cartoon animal, and furry represents the more realistically proportioned of those. That is, all furry fits into cartoon animal, but not all cartoon animal is furry.
When I say “realistically proportioned”, I’m of course talking about human proportions: the basic elements are usually a bipedal body with the head, tail, and fur(/feathers/scales) of an animal, hence the usage of the word “anthropomorphized”. You can push it in either direction, but the middle ground is what I like. Most mammals have a body type that translates to a humanoid form with just a few subtle adjustments, so it doesn’t look like a chimera so much as a hypothetical alternate evolutionary strand.
If you ask what’s the appeal, the obvious answer is a love of animals, but that doesn’t really say anything -- animals already exist; the question is why we’re making them stand upright and talk. For me, it’s more about people. Symbolic versions of the traits that humans have as individuals are often shared across an entire species of animal, which gives us a practically inexhaustible supply of metaphors. I like cats, because they’re solitary and quirky and ruthless. How to portray one or more of those qualities in a sentient character? Make him into a cat, of course!
Fantasy and its related genres make use of animal metaphors frequently and in a variety of ways -- daemons, Patronuses, shapeshifters and familiars of all stripes -- but furry takes it a step further by infusing the animal with human characteristics instead of the other way around. When you create an anthropomorphic character, you’re not just drawing a comparison, you’re adding human intelligence and opposable thumbs to a collection of physical attributes and social behaviors. The best part is, most people will recognize the animal and everything it implies on sight, so you’ve got a ready-made fantasy race from nature’s blueprints without needing any exposition to establish it.
Zootopia’s entire plot revolves around this device; each mammal is a distinct race, all of which live harmoniously together for the most part but sometimes grow suspicious of each others’ natural characteristics (whether real or perceived). The premise ends up tripping over itself a lot, since there’s only so much plausible worldbuilding you can get into a children’s movie, but if you’re looking for an appreciation of the diversity of fauna, it delivers. The rabbit characters are gentle and energetic. The wolves can’t resist joining a howl. The DMV is full of sloths. Whether it’s for a joke or an insight, each animal’s species matters.
That’s the primary difference between that movie and the cartoon animal default settings I remember from my childhood, like Disney’s Robin Hood. Most of the characters in those don’t particularly notice their own species, which could easily be switched without ever changing a line of dialogue. Even as a kid that bugged me. I remember being so indignant when Launchpad in DuckTales said, “I can’t fly! I’m not a bird!” But children’s shows don’t need metaphors or character development; they just use animals to create a less serious appearance. You can see why I consider it a different genre, right?
Although, you may also be wondering why I consider it a genre at all. And sometimes, it isn’t. Rocket Raccoon is one of my favorite furry characters of all time, and he fits my definition above, but he’s emphatically the only one of his kind in his canon. In other kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, you’ll often get a race which are essentially furries of a single species (usually cats). Sometimes there’s even a bipedal animal with thumbs blending in with an otherwise non-anthropomorphic cast (Timon, anyone?).
Universes populated mostly by furries exist too, but the most noticeable ones are usually on the cartoon animal cusp and clearly geared for children. To find a genre as specific as this one, where should we turn? The internet! Obviously. This is one fandom that essentially created itself, and as far as I know, it’s still thriving.
Since the appeal of furry is such a visual thing, amateur art is the most prevalent medium for the genre, but the artists tend toward creating worlds for their characters, leading to a lot of comics and illustrated stories. There’s also a unique and ridiculously fun fresh new canon that occurs whenever the artists’ furry avatars (everyone’s got one) begin meeting up in each others’ art, or in the various social channels where they’re roleplayed.
When I was an active lurker, the best place to browse new art was Yerf, because they had a quality standard and no porn. It’s gone, but there’s a historical archive where you see the same art I remember from my favorites, like Swandog, Mercury, and Tracy Butler. There were also a few webcomics I read regularly, some which may come up in another day of meme, some which held my attention mostly through morbid fascination. I had a fursona, but I was the only one who ever drew her.
It’s been years since I created any anthro art of my own or seriously went looking for it (the past hour notwithstanding), but I think I understand better than ever what I liked about it. Furry characters are going to be a good way to catch my eye for the rest of my life.
Quit complaining about all the superhero movies, killjoy. The reason they’re still being made is that this isn’t a trend. It’s a genre. Have we run out of romcom plots? Has the quota of westerns been permanently reached? No. The popularity might wax and wane with the times, but superheroes are never going away.
Okay. Sorry. Didn’t mean to start that with a rant. Well, maybe I kind of did, I mean, sometimes you just gotta get it off your chest. To me it’s a really magical and fantastic thing that we live in an age where a man in a cape flies around calling down lightning on the silver screen, and the effects make it look genuine, and the director takes it seriously enough to support the effects with real substance, and the audience enjoys it enough to make more and more films in that family profitable. I’m not saying anyone’s obliged to enjoy it, but for goodness sake, don’t look down on fun just because it’s been successful!
There are a lot of themes common to the superhero genre that I could discuss: ordinary people struggling with great power, extraordinary people trying to retain their humanity, trope potluck, outcast protectors, creative use of magical abilities, shameless melodrama, and classic black-and-white good vs. evil. I enjoy every one of those things in various proportions, but the two topics I really want to talk about are ones that you probably weren’t expecting out of me.
The first is the divinely precise way the genre fits into a particular medium, comic books. Of course all genres have their preferred media -- romance doesn’t work well as a video game, zombie movies make more sense than zombie novels, etc, but a match made in heaven like this one doesn’t happen too often. Would we have ever met a superhero if we hadn’t come up with word-picture-combos first?
Certainly not as we know them now. Pure text would leave out the gaudy costumes, whiplash scene cuts, and deceptive simplicity. Still images alone can’t sustain an ongoing story. Animation is harnessed to a single style and pace per property. Live action movies -- well, okay, part of the reason superheroes weren’t introduced through live action movies is that the special effects weren’t possible at the time. Nowadays, good superhero movies exist, without sacrificing any of the glitz. But I think it’s telling that nearly all of the successful ones make use of characters who came from comics and had years upon years of pages to develop into someone recognizable and well-received.
I just started reading Reinventing Comics, and based on the first few pages it seems the author objects to the strength of the association between comics and superheroes. I’ve read enough to agree with him that the medium is suitable for all kinds of genres, but I like it that saying “comic book” makes people think of Batman or Spider-Man. I like it that any character appearing in a comic book can make you subconsciously aware of how much that character does or doesn’t resemble a superhero. I like it that Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man inspires awe not only because of his heroic deeds and flair, but because he embodies a recognizable Iron Man that came long before. Think of the phrase “straight from the pages of...” and then imagine it literally, because that’s what happened: our cinematic superheroes have come over from another dimension.
The other inherent trait of the superhero genre that I wanted to bring up, because I don’t hear it mentioned nearly enough if ever, is that it’s so distinctly American. Like any kind of storytelling (and anything American), it’s got roots everywhere, but the earliest unambiguous superheroes all came from DC and Marvel. Those same two publishers are still dominating the genre today, to the point where it’s hard to think of any others with a fraction of their influence.
During one summer break in my college years, my family was hosting a Czech teenager, the son of my father’s friend. At the time, I was collecting and reading back issues of Uncanny X-Men, and he was curious, not just because he thought it was nerdy or for kids, but because he really hadn’t seen anything like it. He wasn’t interested in borrowing mine, but he accompanied me to the comic shop to pick one up as a souvenir. I tried to think of a series that served as an epitome of comic books, but then he found an issue of Captain America, and I said, “Of course!”
See, he wasn’t looking for the epitome of comic books. He wanted a symbol of his trip to the USA. Haven’t seen him in a long time but I’d love to know how he reacted when the MCU hit Europe and suddenly everyone knew who Captain America was.
I could look up some history as a springboard for pondering why America felt the need to imbue fictional warriors with supernatural abilities and then put capes on them, but we all have a vague familiarity with Superman’s first appearances and the cultural attitudes of the time. I’m sure the history makes a lot of references to what civilians crave during or after a war, but I like to think that we were just doing what all civilizations do in their youth: building a mythology.
You hear about American folklore sometimes, sure. But legends of Paul Bunyan (a giant lumberjack) are evanescent because we know they were never taken seriously, and legends of frontiersmen make us uncomfortable because our modern sensibilities object to what we once revered. So where do we find our country’s magic? Where are the heroes with universal appeal whom we can still claim as our own?
They’re on the page. They’re in the movies. They’re ordinary people just like you and me, but they’re wielding great power and struggling to retain humanity in vast kitchen-sink worlds of moral absolutes and crazy contradictions. They’re my home.
Many geeks are very intelligent people. Many writers of speculative fiction use their own vast knowledge of science to create convincing alternate realities full of technical details.
...And then there’s me. I’m not saying I don’t like smart fiction -- who doesn’t?-- but I’m not here for the accuracy of the gravitational pull on a spaceship at any given time. I’m here because I myself am unable to take a ride on a spaceship, and experiencing it through the eyes of fictional characters is the next best thing. So has it ever been. As for writing any technical details myself, forget about it, but I’ll keep the spaceship.
When I discovered genre as a kid, I always leaned more toward fantasy than sci-fi, although I considered both superior to realism. Part of that, if I’m honest, may have been due to encounters with real science making me feel stupid. The rest was the yearning for magic, the discovery of a world where anything is possible until the story itself sets the limits.
Technically, most or all of the “space opera” stories I’m about to mention are fantasy, because they include magic, or technology so scientifically unjustifiable that it might as well be magic. But they’re set against deep space, with various planetary systems and vehicles that can get from one to another. The planets have natives, making them aliens from a human perspective. There are robots. There are laser guns. These are the hallmarks of sci-fi, so you know what that means...time to look up definitions!
This is the only genre which beckoned me into Wikipedia, because in some ways, definitions are a fool’s errand: authors who care about their work won’t write with borders in mind. But the term “space opera” intrigued me. It just feels so right, and I felt like I understood implicitly what it referred to even though I didn’t know why. Turns out, it was originally meant to be derogatory (no surprise there), derived from “soap opera” (also not a surprise), and there was much sneering at the parallels to classic schlock westerns. Um, excuse me? If there’s one thing wrong with schlock westerns, it’s that they don’t have any spaceships, aliens, or robots. Seems to me like space opera was the solution to a fundamental literary problem.
But see, I would have just called it soft sci-fi, an even more imprecise term, which covers too much ground. To figure out that I wasn’t just a fan of implausibility, I had to think about what a few of my favorites had in common. There’s three big ones. I mean, they’re really, really big.
….STAR WARS! Star Wars is huge! Star Wars is epic! Star Wars is the indisputable epitome of space opera. When the original trilogy was remastered and re-released to theaters, I was excited to see it for my first time ever, but I wasn’t prepared for how much it would affect me. When Luke led the attack on the first Death Star, I found myself literally holding my breath. When Han was tortured, my heart was in my throat. It felt exactly like a movie should feel: I was there. I never had to reserve part of my mind to follow the plot or analyze the characters or notice the special effects. Everything I needed to know was unfolding in realtime in front of me.
Since then I’ve loved a lot of sci-fi, but that immersive quality is still elusive. I’m not turned off by exposition; it can be just as interesting as the main action and the character development, but it’s always a pretty clear indicator that you’re not part of the story, or at least that you won’t be until you get to know it better. The next recollection I have of being there, right from the story’s opening, is much more recent: Saga, that crazy comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Saga begins with a surprisingly realistic birth scene which introduces the three main characters, a vagabond couple and their daughter. That premise alone could have sustained an epic drama, but then things get weird. The ‘grease monkey’ referenced turns out to be a literal monkey. Robots are a monarchist society with television sets for heads. One spaceship is a tree, another is a dragon skull. Assassins are legal and highly regarded and addressed with the title “The”. Characters are speaking Esperanto and calling the English dialogue “Language”.
Four years in, much of the weirdness still hasn’t been explained (HOW DO ROBOTS EAT?), though it’s often expanded (oh hey, here’s what a live dragon looks like!), and new kinds of weirdness are being added all the time (hello The March). Like Star Wars, it adheres to its own rules once they’re established, so I’ve never noticed any inconsistency. But it’s never gone back on the promise of the first issue: anything can happen.
Which brings us to my third example, and you knew it was coming. Even if you don’t know me or what I like, you probably knew it was coming. Guardians of the Galaxy is the most celebrated and popular space opera of our time, and it fits the immersive infinite universe criteria perfectly. As an additional bonus, we get to see the infinite universe through the eyes of Peter Quill, a child of Earth who never grew up. There’s no tongue-in-cheek self-awareness to his journey, and he doesn’t react to the wildness around him with disbelief -- he shows us through example that this is indeed reality, but that it’s also awesome.
Children have an extraordinary sense of wonder, because everything they encounter is new. We can recapture that in our own lives in rare occurrences, and when it comes to fiction, we keep trying and trying. But endless possibility means the sense of wonder never wears off. No more rules: be prepared for anything.
Whether or not you read fantasy, you’ve probably noticed that if it’s set in an imaginary world, that world very often seems oddly parallel to medieval England. You may have wondered why. Well, as a longtime reader and fan of high fantasy, I’m here to let you in on the secret.
The short answer is that we have to do everything exactly as our lord and master JRR Tolkien did. He did not pass on his wisdom or talent so we are unable to conceive of any original way to employ the inspiration we’ve gleaned from his work.
The long answer is that magic (without which there is no fantasy) happens to combine well with that particular place and time in history. Tolkien was influenced by fairy stories (his words, not mine), which of course had their roots in early European mythology, but the genre as we see it today isn’t a mere evolution of those tales. Instead of adapting them to our own culture as it changed, we took the magic and applied it to the real lives of the peoples who conceived of it, as if there was something inherently magical about the medieval world itself.
Silly notion, except that it’s true. You may say I’m a Renaissance Faire nerd, but I’m not the only one. Let me explain the appeal of (our idealized image of) Olde England in the most straightforward terms possible. In fact, I’m gonna itemize this mofo.
1) Horses. If we’re going on a quest, the first thing we’re doing is saddling up, okay? No matter how much you love your car, there’s no substitute for a trusty steed in an adventure story: their distinct personalities, the intimate experience of riding them, the extra work they entail, the constant presence of another living creature, their versatility in a low-tech environment, and, of course, their majestic beauty.
And that’s not even getting into the possibilities in applying magic directly to the horse. A winged/talking/not-actually-a-horse-but-b
2) Monarchy. Do you like princesses? Of course you do. Everyone likes princesses. But do we ever consider where a princess comes from? She comes from the king and queen! But where, in turn, did they come from? I mean, they weren’t elected by the people, and the whole succession thing just recycles the same question, so...oh, divine right? Okay, God decided that this family has royal blood. Okay. That’s kind of weird.
I LOVE IT. I was talking political theory with my (British) husband once, and he said he thought that deep down inside, I was really a monarchist, and it was like a light went on. YES. Give me a monarch I WILL OBEY THE MONARCH. Granted, I have certain expectations (like, if it’s a king, I prefer him to be a lion, and if it’s a princess, she better be an alicorn), but I’m also genuinely awed and dazzled by the real-world Queen Elizabeth and all the history that led up to her. In the modern world, the idea of royalty is dramatic and strange, and that’s exactly what makes it so perfectly suited for the characters and plot twists in a fantasy.
3) Swords. This is pretty straightforward. Sure, you can make any kind of inanimate object magical, or name it, or pass it through the generations, but what you want is a portable, durable, very pretty murder device. Like horses, they’re ludicrously ineffective beside the tools we use for the same purpose today (although both have obnoxiously retained their monetary value), which makes them a clear symbol of otherworldliness. And they look great in logos! Visuals are everything, which also applies to our next two items.
4) Garb. Corsets! Breeches! Peasant blouses! Lace-up boots! Flowing skirts! Silver and gold jewelry! Seriously, when you storm the castle, do you want the maiden you rescue to be wearing jeans? Would you trust someone in a suit to cast a spell? Clothes make the man, and garb makes the character.
5) Castles. Much more than a fancy princess house, or a place to store your swords and garb, a castle is a structure that makes an impression on everyone who sees it, no matter when or where or who. Why? Because there’s nothing else like it. You don’t go wandering around the city until someone gives you the street number and building level of the monarchy’s office. You open your eyes and walk in the direction of the freaking castle. (Unless a dragon got there first. Then play it by ear.)
6) Chivalry. This is a much more nebulous concept than the others, but it’s important. Our ancestors lived by a different set of values than we do now, and while this is no place to be talking about whose were better, it’s not hard to conclude that a swashbuckling romantic adventure is better served by the old ones. The main character in a fairy tale is never just a protagonist, but a hero; likewise for the antagonist/villain. Gender roles are clearly defined, if only so a daring maid can defy them. Honor means something which is universally understood even when it isn’t respected.
I don’t know too much about how real people in medieval Europe lived, and nobody alive knows the full truth of it. But I do know that they developed some ideals that still appeal to us, no, not all of us, but certainly plenty, and certainly me. I know that the authors following in Tolkien’s footsteps have included more than copycats, and that they must have been gifted with some true inspiration to create the worlds of the Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: the Gathering, World of Warcraft, all of those stupid happyplace Renaissance Faires, and so much of what I’ll go over in this meme of my favorite things.