by Phil Geusz
©2001 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
In the several years that I have spent around the transformation story genre, I've read a lot about the 'roots' of our art form. Ovid gets brought up a lot, as do the Greek gods and the even more ancient tales told around campfires for millennia before the technology existed to record them in a permanent way. There is clearly another root to our genre, however, one that is little discussed and even then only among the shadows. And this root is, of course, the Internet porn story.
It's sad but true that a very large proportion of the transformation tales in existence were written to serve as nothing more than 'one-handed reading'. Like more conventional pornography, these tales are short on plot and long on titillation. Why and how the protagonist gets transformed is dealt with only in the most cursory fashion (there is often a magic rock or piece of fur or women's jewelry involved), the author instead focusing his attention on the physical sensations of change. We end up with a tale that has little or no coherent plot and introduces no new concepts or ideas, but which probably excites and arouses dedicated fetishists.
Now, there is certainly a time and place for this kind of fiction; I'm not belittling it or turning up my nose at it in any way. However, it is a very different kind of art than the 'literary' transformation story, in which the transformation is utilized as a metaphor or to facilitate the personal growth of a character. In this kind of tale, in fact, the author who seeks to emphasize the physical sensations of change serves himself very poorly. When real stories in the traditional sense are the goal, I personally have found that it is usually most effective to perform the transformation 'off-stage', often months or years before the story itself even begins.
To me, a true 'literary' transformation story must, almost by definition, deal primarily or even exclusively with that part of the protagonist's life that occurs either before or after transformation (unless, of course, the transformation process is a long, slow one that lends itself well to the development of a sophisticated plotline rather than degenerating into a series of physical sensations). In my own first serious work, for example, I quite deliberately had the physical change occur while the protagonist was unconscious in order to avoid even the possibility of falling into the 'pornography trap'. If you focus on the protagonist's entire life rather than directly upon his or her change, then you are taking your first steps down the road to writing transformation literature instead of transformation pornography.
In my opinion, the very best transformation tales I have ever read employ well-thought-out reasons for the transformation in question rather than some kind of weak plot-device gimmickry (Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, Protector by Larry Niven) and deal far more with the long-term consequences of the change than with the transformation itself. Indeed, in the Heinlein work named, there is almost no physical change at all. Yet the work is unquestionably a transformation story of the purest sort imaginable, as well as an award-winning SF novel of the very first water. For me as both a reader and a writer, the 'whys' of transformation are far more interesting than the 'hows', and the story of what happens, say, three years down the road after a transformation is as a rule more fascinating than twelve long paragraphs describing thirty seconds of change. I know that others do not agree, and recognize that everyone has different tastes. However, there is no question as to which sort of tale I would rather spend my too-limited time reading.
Very often would-be TF authors write me complaining bitterly that no one ever reads their works. Time and again, upon investigation I have discovered that the author's problem stems from either (a) basic lack of writing skills, or else (b) having written nothing but a long, detailed physical description that might well be good transformational porn but which is sadly lacking in the more traditional literary virtues of plot, characterization, and the deeper meaning of transformation which all of us crave but which we rarely speak of. If you want to be a porn writer, that's fine and dandy -- but you should expect to be read with no more frequency than any other porn writer, since all porn is essentially the same. If, however, you want to write transformational literature, then I strongly urge to begin your first attempt by going to far as to place the transformation itself totally off-stage, where it can't distract you from the real work which you have taken it upon yourself to perform.