Shape of Things to Come

SF conventions have a nasty habit of inventing grandiose Themes for the event, and expecting their guests to talk about them. Thus the last British Worldcon had the awesome theme of 'Space and Time', which covers most things. (As Peter Cook wrote, 'I am very interested in the universe. I am specializing in the universe and all that surrounds it.')

My latest assignment is a convention talk on the subject of Metamorphosis. Blimey. Metamorphosis, things turning into other things, is one of those deep and archetypal fantasy themes, provoking resonant, troubling thoughts like, 'Am I really sure I can spell it?'

Of course the Golden Age for magical metamorphoses was in classical Greece. Even my prudish Children's Encyclopedia had some remarkably raunchy stuff about Zeus descending on some unfortunate lady as a golden shower. Here's Avram Davidson's summary of a typical conversation in ancient Greece, almost any afternoon ...

Maiden: Oh, my god, Zeus! Here comes your wife!

Zeus: She mustn't find you here; zap! you're a laurel tree! – Why, hel-lo, dear! Fancy meeting you here in the groves of Arcadia; lovely afternoon, isn't it?

Mrs Zeus: What are you doing with your arms around that laurel tree?

But who wants to be a laurel tree? It's much more fun to become a wolf, which – as discovered by the heroes of Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos and Anthony Boucher's 'The Compleat Werewolf' – can mean a lucrative career playing doggie roles in Hollywood movies. For the busty adolescent heroine of Suzy Charnas's Hugo-winning story 'Boobs', it also provides a great way to deal with obnoxiously over-attentive boys, by eating them. Meanwhile, I'm still looking for old-time fan Chuck Harris's werewolf yarn which opens with the legendary line: 'The family were changing for dinner.'

Anderson and Boucher play around with other were-beasties too. Anderson has an old-fashioned belief in the conservation of mass, and his werewolf hero has serious trouble with this bad guy who in human form is seven feet tall and grossly fat with it, because he's a were-tiger. Fortunately Ron Goulart ignored this issue in his short story 'Please Stand By', about a fellow who owing to a well-meant spell turns into a medium-sized grey elephant on all American public holidays. Boucher considers the problems of being a were-ant ('You change and someone steps on you and that's that.') or a were-diplodocus – don't change indoors or the house shatters into little pieces.

Some characters even turn into inanimate objects. This leads to huge embarrassment for one of Anthony Armstrong's fairytale princesses when she discovers that the traditional magic mirror in her bedroom is in fact a transformed prince who has been very appreciatively watching her get into her underwear.

Which reminds me of Damon Knight's short-short story 'Maid to Measure', featuring a jealous and witchy lady who quite literally changes into a bikini, for the use of the woman who's her deadly rival. Rather than reveal what then happens out there on the beach, the story stops and leaves you to imagine the worst. This is obviously the classical literary source for Red Dwarf's scene where the alien 'Polymorph' turns into soiled boxer shorts which our hero Lister unwisely puts on. What follows is too tasteless to discuss in a family magazine.

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Witches Abroad, Granny Weatherwax does the traditional trick of turning some offending fellow into a frog – but doesn't waste valuable magic actually altering his body. He just thinks he's a frog, and tends to sit in a pond trying to catch flies with his tongue. As his wife says, it's given him a whole new hobby. Later in the same book we meet a rather unsavoury lord who's actually a transformed frog. No one fancies kissing him.

Land of Unreason by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt features another frog-related problem: after days of slowly developing froggy feet and eyes, the cursed hero goes for a swim and finds himself fully normal again. Unfortunately this is just an underwater illusion, and outside the pool he's a frog. Even worse, the gorgeous redhead he met underwater now turns out to be secretly a vole. The legality of vole/frog relationships is uncertain, and I hate to imagine the children.

Did you guess that I wrote the SHAPESHIFTING and TRANSFORMATION entries for the Fantasy Encyclopedia? Thought so ...

David Langford is currently trying to program the Fantasy Encyclopedia CD-ROM software, but don't hold your breath.