by Wanderer Werewolf
©2008 Wanderer Werewolf
Editors note: This is the second edition of this column.Wanderer felt that first version simply didnt meet his customary standard of quality, and therefore re-wrote it for greater polish. Enjoy!
As technology progresses, the more magical explanations for animal-folk start fading into the woodwork. Far-off lands can serve as a perfect explanation for your wolf-man or cat-girl in the medieval fantasy erabut as one approaches the present day, those formerly-exotic locales become explored, well-known places with airports and high-priced coffee shops. It becomes much harder to hide as satellite cameras and radar develop. DC Comics provides a classic example of what Im referring to: Gorilla City, a highly advanced civilization of sentient apes, whose location in Africa has been subjected to near-constant retconning. To begin with, Gorilla City was originally secluded. But over time, mere seclusion gave way to hidden by a hologram and force field, and finally to the current Okay, looks like we cant hide any longer. I notice Gorilla City doesnt show up in the comics much any more
Enter: Science. Starting with H.G. Wells Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), animal-based characters were slowly re-introduced to literature. Origins could vary; Moreaus surgical procedures would later be replaced with genetic engineering and strange viruses as technology progressed and some versions were deemed unbelievable. That isnt to say there werent still magical origins; at least one Prohibition-era workLady Into Fox, by David Garnett, published in 1922 and available free through Project Gutenberghas a woman magically changed into a (non-anthropomorphic) vixen. But magic as a narrative device was already fading into the woodwork as the Industrial Revolution swept the world.
This has several impacts upon the origins and status of animal-based characters in modern-era settings. To begin with, the old faraway lands explanation begins falling apart as more and more of the darkest corners of the world surrender their secrets to travelers and their recording devices. Its hard to claim you come from a far-away land when theres every chance some Phineas-Fogg-like explorer has been there and not seen anything like you.
Likewise, transformation into an animal leaves you at a greater disadvantage than it did during the medieval era. As soon as fingerprints and description cards were developed, people began relying on them to verify identities. Take away the fingerprints and change the form, and suddenly your identity is very much gone, as surely as if youd been wiped from the face of the globe and replaced with someone else. Without identification papers, a person was effectively stripped of legal status; in the Victorian age, losing ones identity in any manner left you bankrupt and working dead-end jobs, for the annoying reason that, without credentials, it didnt matter what you could do; only what you could show evidence of doing, which was nothing. If you were suddenly a dog, it didnt matter that you were smartyoud get a dogs job. (As those with extensive real-world experience and few educational credentials can attest, this is a weakness in the system that persists to the modern day.)
Yet, what science took away, it could also give. With the discovery of Pluto (1930) and the curious green color of Venus (really a yellowish-white from the sulfuric acid in the atmosphere), the concept of life on other planets underwent a great resurgence. An animal-like character could be from Mars (as in the Barsoom books), or an even farther planet, or even from a larger or smaller universe. Other dimensions, strange mutations (natural or induced) and even transformations (as long as, like The Man Who Shrank, they were couched in scientific terms) were fair game.
Its identity that proves the sticking point, of course. With modern identity papers, the system of proving who you are becomes much more rigid. Its no longer enough to say you are John So-and-So; you have to be able to prove it. (Assuming that, unlike Wolf Wolfe, the main character in Bouchers Compleat Werewolf, you can actually talk. If not, things become a lot harder.)
So, what are your options?
The simplest, yet most difficult, is the forming of a new identity entirely. In effect: If you cant prove you are who you used to be, be who you now are. The authorities will be more than happy to oblige you with new identity papers once they can be sure youre not just a well-trained talking dog or something. (Alas, this can take years, particularly when you have to petition the courts to grant a wolf-man a drivers license.) Not a huge problem, as long as you dont mind being thoroughly studied. And studied. And well, you get the idea. (Wholl be Top people, dont you worry.) The one comfort from a modern standpoint is the outcome of Dr. Stuart Newmans patent case, which determined that, while living animals may be patented by genotype, it is possible to be too human to be patented, thus giving hope to any mutated anthropomorphic beings that might need ID. Of course, each case will require a separate court hearing until precedent is established
The alternative, maintaining your previous identity, can be very difficult indeed. Even assuming you dont have any instinctual problems (like the poor woman in Lady Into Fox), you now look (and likely sound) completely different; your fingerprints, vital statistics, relevant tattoos all are gone. Your one hope is to prove who you are by a demonstration of knowing things only he/she would know, and that can be incredibly tricky. (It gets trickier with the advent of the Internet, as even seemingly minor trivia become readily accessible to all comers. Anyone could know that! becomes annoyingly common.)
Even if you manage to legally preserve your identity, however, can you actually maintain it in practice? People who knew you as a blond-haired, blue-eyed man will have problems accepting you as a gray-furred werewolf or orange-marmalade-striped catperson. Even with your identity technically assured, you could still wind up fired from your job, divorced from your spouse, or locked away in that nasty little lab in Nevada. (Top people )
This assumes you didnt get any new instincts from your change, as well. Inconvenient instincts can be a real problem for natural animal-folk and those transformed; Wolf Wolfe had cravings for babies while in wolf form, while Sirius (from the Olaf Stapledon work of the same name) killed a horse because he wanted to. Even something as innocuous as going to the bathroom can be a problem if you have a cats distaste for water or a canine need to mark territory. And transformation into a skunk well, it can really ruin your social life. (After all, some animals have social connotations. Skunks, rats, weasels, pigs, and even mice have a severe PR problem in human society. Thats not even counting ferrets in California )
So how does this affect anthropomorphic characters in literature and gaming?
Completely aside from the obvious character potential in trying to gain legal recognizance (either as yourself or as a new sentient being), this legal confusion presents thorny problems:
Can a werewolf be put down as a vicious animal? Or does he need to be returned to human form somehow and tried as a man?
Does a genetically-engineered supermouse have a right to sue his creator for child abuse after all that testing?
If youre transformed into an animal how does your spouse take it? Better yet, how do you?
Can a sentient dog sue for discrimination over being barred from McDonalds?
What happens when police dogs are smart enough to unionize?
Can a popular actor possibly adapt if a strange virus changes him into a rat-person?
All in all, a fascinating concept, dont you think? Of course, I am biased ;)
Next time, well proceed to futuristic story concepts. Aliens, even more advanced genetics, and even thornier legal issues
including the ever-popular transporter duplicate scenario.
See you then!