I am amazed that When We Were Real, by William Barton, isn't better known, especially within the furry community. It hits the fandom's favorite themes while at the same time being a work of significant literary merit and one of the most emotionally wrenching novels I've ever read.
I'm not giving anything away by revealing that one of the main characters is a purple-furred vixen -- that's right on the back cover. I'd heard of this novel in passing, so when I saw a copy and read the back cover, I decided to pick it up, expecting something on the order of Lisanne Norman's Sholan novels. Those are perfectly servicable action-adventure stories, and I rather enjoyed the first few, until they got a bit too grim for me. I certainly wasn't expecting... this.
In some ways, it reminds me of Schismatrix. Both are set in ultra-tech worlds of artificial habitats, with Earth almost entirely off-stage, and populated with humans, robots, and technological hybrids of all sorts. Fortunes and power ebb and flow, and virtual immortality simply seems to guarantee that sooner or later you'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time, on the losing end of some little war that doesn't care about innocent bystanders. If you're lucky, they'll just shoot you. But where the cast of Schismatrix are universally unsympathetic and it doesn't really matter that they're stuck in a grim and grubby future, here Barton sucks you in and within pages it really does matter.
In Barton's world, manufactured human-animal hybrids are called "optimods". The worst of the abuses against them are long in the past -- humans make much cheaper cannon fodder -- but they are still property of the corporations that make them. That's furry theme number one. Furry theme number two is, of course, human-furry relationships. Both are omnipresent, but Barton didn't write the novel about either one. They're just part of the universe the characters live in and react to. There's quite a bit of sex as well, which is of the sort described as "tasteful", because again that's not what the novel is about, it's just one more part of the characters' universe, one more way in which they interact and reveal who they are...
There's plenty of English-paper topics in here, too. Or perhaps philosophy, or economics, or sociology. Ranging from meditations such as:
What kind of fool dies for a word?to little touches like "The war went on for another thirty thousand days," which remind you in passing of just how different these people really are, who will live forever if they don't get killed. You and I, even if we're astronomically indebted, eventually will get too old to work, eventually we'll die. No contractual trap can hold us forever. But them... they may still be doing the Company's bidding a thousand years later, still trapped. Forever.
A better class of fool than the one who dies for a paycheck?
Barton has quite a command of style as well, and I'm having a hell of a time writing this in my normal style rather than his. Sequences of action are in fairly standard prose, but the parts in between, the parts where the characters actually live and breathe, range from long lyrical descriptions to tiny, one-sentence paragraphs with enormous impact.
Perhaps you've read some of the older issues of YARF. Way back in issue eighteen/nineteen, they printed the conclusion to Watts Martin's story, "The Lighthouse." In the climactic scene, Revar, a vampire bat, is sitting in a bar, trying to forget the world, when Mika finally catches up to her. Mika, her beloved, who she thought she killed when he broke her out of prison and saved her with his blood. He's alive, and he's there, followed her across the country because he's alive and he loves her...
If you've read it, you know what kind of emotional punch that scene has.
Barton hits you like that, over and over again.
But it's not all that grim, either. Horrible things happen, but good things happen to. There's always some kind of hope, something going on which means that you can't walk away. You have to come back and read more, because you know that eventually it will pay off again. Meanwhile, it's rather difficult to put away your lunch tray and go back to work when you just want to curl up into a ball and cry.
I guess I hope that this novel won't affect you quite as strongly as it did me, because it's been quite a rollercoaster ride. So I'll go hide this book on my shelves, so I can come back to it in a couple of years and feel it all over again, but right now I need my brain back.