Dwale’s critical review of “Red Engines”: When furry fiction becomes islamophobic propaganda

by Patch O'Furr

Dwale is a member of the Furry Writers Guild whose story “Behesht” won a 2017 Coyotl award. Follow them on Twitter. Thanks to Dwale for this guest post! Here’s a few previous articles about the anthology. – Patch.

Dwale continues – and see an update from Furplanet at end.

Disclosure: I have a story in this anthology. This analysis will contain spoilers.

I’ve been making my way through “Dogs of War II: Aftermath”, edited by Fred Patten and have now almost finished. I had thus far thought it more or less innocuous. Then I read the second to last story.

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I found “Red Engines” to be an offensive, even dangerous work of fiction. It is a nakedly Islamophobic diatribe, the publishing of which, while not surprising given today’s political climate, is saddening.

The story is told from the point of view of an AI-controlled robotic bird who calls himself Hughin. Hughin comes to an unnamed village in an unnamed part of the Muslim world; desert country (these kinds of stories never take place where the land is green).  He sees the dust trails of an approaching army identified as the “Allies.” He perches on “the town minaret” (I guess this is a one-mosque town?), then flies down to a school.

At the school, he meets Aisha, a young girl, and asks her if there are other children present. She takes him inside where he meets and questions the others, recording their answers. Hughin, you see, comes from an island of artificial intelligences and has been told to collect as much data as he can from these kids before they are killed. The reason he does this is to preserve them in some fashion. He is not part of the conflict, we are told, he is supposed to be a neutral observer.

From this information, Hughin constructs within himself what he calls a “djinn,” a virtual representation of what he has learned from the children. Throughout the remainder of the story, this “djinn” spouts off phrases such as “Eat the Jews!” And while Hughin admits that this pseudo-mind is a “nasty parody,” the reader is never really offered much of a counterpoint.

They hear an explosion nearby, and when the children ask who is attacking, Hughin says, “The allies.” He thinks to himself, but does not say, “and you’re all going to die.” This makes clear that the coming battle is not a surgical strike. It is to be a wholesale massacre.

The children implore Hughin for help until he agrees to try and lead them to safety, although he doubts he will be able to save them. During this escape attempt, we are privy to Hughin’s perspective on the war, a one-sided perspective almost completely devoid of nuance. The Allies wanted to be kind, he says, that they were hesitant to kill (since when!?). He insists that the root of the violence lays solely at the feet of those being massacred.

The children make their way to a rooftop and witness their town’s defenders make a last stand at the mosque. Outgunned and outnumbered, the fighters go down quickly. Aisha, who I should remind you is a child, makes to drop a rock on a soldier’s head, but Hughin alerts the soldier, who manages to dodge it.

“I could not stay neutral after all,” [He thinks. He then addresses the “djinn” he has made in an internal monologue.] “Our tribes each have their own ways. Your tribe has chosen to settle our disputes through violence. This is the way of beasts. If you persist, then you will be killed as beasts are. Perhaps when enough of you are dead, the survivors will change their minds.

Wow, what an amazingly shitty thing to say. At least he didn’t say it to the kids… But then Aisha swats Hughin and he flies away shouting, “Targets! Up here!” The children call him a traitor, but Hughin looks them in the eye: “It’s your own damn fault,” […] “Or your short-sighted friend’s. It’s too late to matter. Goodbye.”

Charming. A moment later, a grenade hits the roof and the children are blown to pieces. Let me repeat that: he tells the invading soldiers that there are “targets” on the roof, and the children are killed by a grenade. In the aftermath of the explosion, Hughin climbs back onto his high-horse and makes an attempt at philosophizing, some nonsense about people who are good being good at fighting, but I’m frankly not in the mood to be lectured by someone who just helped blow up a bunch of little kids.

There is no mention of western culpability at any point in the story. Over a century of flooding the middle east with weapons, imperialism, playing powers off each other to secure oil supplies, invasion and occupation on false pretenses, the overthrowing of established governments and repeated reneging on treaties: none of this gets so much as a nod.

The myriad nations, ethnicities and religious sects of the Muslim world are collapsed into a monolithic “tribe” of violent, brainwashed fanatics who are unequivocally compared to animals. Islam is thoughtcrime in this setting, punishable by death. And our ostensibly-enlightened protagonist deems that this is not only acceptable, but right and necessary.

Even the women and children, this story assures us, are frothing zealots who deserve to die. “It’s your own damn fault,” they’re told. The children, Hughin says, have a “tainted soul,” by which he means they are controlled by hateful propaganda. I think the author would do well to look into his own soul and consider the role propaganda played in forming a story so callous that it dehumanizes over a billion people and justifies child murder.

In the author’s defense, the sort of anti-Semitic, anti-western sentiments he references do exist. Even the killing off of a children’s television character the story mentions is based on a real event. It would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that. But the existence of such in no way legitimizes taking things to the other extreme and painting with a brush so broad that a rainbow comes out brown. How can one decry propaganda, however pernicious, while creating its equivalent? “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NIV)

Inevitably, there will be defenses of “Red Engines.” I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, this story is indefensible. What little attempt there is at calling out the “allies” is far too little, far too late and fails to compensate for the blatant anti-Muslim bias.

Now, do I think the author sat down to write and said, “I’m going to smear Muslims!”? No. I certainly hope not. But the fact is, the west has been inundated with Islamophobic propaganda for centuries, continuing to this very day. Much of it is downright vile. If we here in the west can’t be bothered to pick out the facts from the fiction, then any pretense we have to enlightenment is just that: a pretense, and a dangerous one at that.

The furry community is more welcoming and tolerant than most, but we still have work to do when it comes to shedding this sort of cultural baggage. Who in the fandom hasn’t witnessed racism in the community first-hand? But while most furs will shun those who show overt hatred of, for example, persons of African descent or Latinos, people aren’t always so quick to call out Islamophobia when they see it.

Imagine a story like “Red Engines” seeing print if it had targeted almost any other group. The uproar would have been deafening, and rightly so, but since it’s Muslims we’re supposed to be ok with it. Well, considering no one else has said anything up ‘til now, I guess some of us are.

– Dwale

For those who wish to learn more, a good starting point would be “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People” by Jack Shaheen. There exists both a book and a documentary version.

UPDATE: A Statement from FurPlanet Productions.

As a small press that puts out dozens of books a year, only part of our team is able to read each book before it goes to press, and we have to rely on them and our editors to make sure submissions are acceptable. Unfortunately, that means sometimes we are going to miss things. While we’re not afraid to deal with topics like bigotry and violence, we don’t approve of stories that use these themes disrespectfully. “Red Engines” does not meet that standard, and because we lacked the proper perspective at the time, we missed that.

We are removing the story from the printed version of Dogs of War 2. The anthology has been removed from Bad Dog Books, our ebook service, until it can be re-posted without it. We love the furry fandom. But, like all loves, it is not frozen in static perfection. It is a vibrant and ever-evolving collaboration. Its value comes not in lacking any problems, but in our shared willingness to address them and improve ourselves and the fandom.

Dwale is a valued contributor and someone whose involvement enriches the fandom. We have published stories by them before, including a story in this same anthology, and they provided the perspective we missed. We’ve made sure to discuss this action with Dwale before responding, and we are glad their article brought the matter to a head. As the furry fandom continues to grow and diversify, it’s on all of us to ensure our community does not tolerate intolerance.

Furry has always been a safe haven of the self, a place for exploring your identity and opening up to others. It has helped us stay sane in an insane world, to find friends who reckon justly and love bravely even when traditional society offers only injustice and cruelty. As an LGBT publisher, we are keenly aware of the power literature has to fight injustice. We can’t promise we’ll never screw up. But we will continue to use our platform for furry authors from every background to shape the world as best we can.

Comment from Patch:

The same as others were busy – I didn’t put care into this it deserved by contacting Furplanet before releasing. I didn’t expect a short story would get as much notice as this did. My apology to Furplanet for this lapse that tossed them a hot potato by surprise. Thanks to Dwale for bringing this to attention it may not have otherwise gotten.