When most of us think of rabbits, we picture something cute and cuddly and fluffy and oh my god, he’s holding that carrot like he’s people…. But in his new allegorical / satirical science fantasy novel The Constant Rabbit (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Jasper Fforde presents a world in which rabbits are still all of those things, but they’re also people who are discriminated against. In the following email interview, Fforde explains what inspired and influenced this fuzzy and (sadly) timely tale.
To start, what is The Constant Rabbit, and when and where is it set?
Here goes [deep breath]:
The central conceit of The Constant Rabbit is that in 1965 eighteen rabbits in the U.K. underwent an “Inexplicable Anthropomorphized Event” that transformed into a human-like form — soft and furry, large ears, adore carrots — but they’re 6-feet tall and walk on hind legs, wear clothes, talk, drive cars, and have reason and intellect. The initial skepticism from humans turned to celebration and acceptance before taking a downward spiral as their numbers grew to suspicion, condemnation, hatred, and fear.
It’s now 2020 and the rabbits, very much a “Demonized Minority Other,” have very limited rights of movement and employment. The ruling United Kingdom Anti Rabbit Party have gained power on anti-rabbit rhetoric — they overbreed, take our jobs, and want to promote their vile vegan agenda — and have decided that the UK’s 1.2 Million rabbits need to be “safely” rehomed to a vast MegaWarren in Wales “for their own protection.” Naturally, the rabbits aren’t too keen on this as humans have form when it comes to displacing populations.
Enter our human protagonist Peter Knox, who works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce — who are yes, not that friendly to rabbits — and he lives in a little village named Much Hemlock in the middle of Middle England, whose primary goals seems to revolve around making jam and winning the local “Best Kept Village Award.” Annoyingly for the village, a family of legal off-colony rabbits move in next door, and the villagers naturally decide that they should leave and as soon as possible. Awkwardly for Peter, Mrs. Connie Rabbit is an old flame from college, and the ensuing human / rabbit antics cause Peter to question his anti-rabbit complicity and just what it means to be human — and for that matter, what it means for any animal on this planet who has the misfortune to not be human.
Makes it sound sort of serious, doesn’t it? But wait! In the best traditions of allegory, it mixes the funny, the touching, the absurd, and yes, some serious shit indeed. Funny? Tragic? An outrageous slur of a fine bipedal ape? Let the reader decide.
Where did you get the initial idea for The Constant Rabbit, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this novel?
I’m 59, and growing up in the ’60s was still very much a post-war euphoric British exceptionalism “we won the war” sort of experience. We Brits have always been obsessed with a sense of our own narrowly-defined definition of brilliance, but as BREXIT bore down upon us with its ugly shadow of xenophobia and racism, I really started to properly distill all those misgivings I’ve been feeling over the years and question everything I was and everything I’d been told. Were we as Brits really as good and pleasant and fair and wonderful as we say we are? In my six decades I’ve not been discriminated against once, but given the bounteous level of privilege I was born into, that’s not really surprising — but my lack of discrimination is emphatically not shared by millions of my fellow Brits. Something is Rotten in the State of Albion, and I thought looking at this issue from the viewpoint of one who has wholly yet unknowingly benefitted from a discriminatory society seemed a good idea — but through the allegorical medium of rabbits.
Speaking of which, is there a reason why you made it about anamorphic rabbits as opposed to some other animal? Obviously, talking apes have been done before…
Humankind has not only a toxic relationship with itself, but a very confused relationship with the animals with which we share the planet. And I think this is most strongly illustrated by…rabbits.
On one side we love rabbits, anthropomorphize them into wildly popular characters such as Bugs Bunny, Thumper, Peter Rabbit. We giggle at their reproductive abilities and use their likeness to sell everything from chocolate to batteries to milk drinks to yes, predictably, condoms. They feature favorably in mythology, and as pets they are hugely popular — intentionally harming your daughter’s “Mr. Hoppy” would be unthinkable and could land you in court. The words we use to describe them are often “cute” or “cuddly” or “fluffy.”
But when we are not so well disposed towards rabbits, we may choose other words, like “plague” or “pest” or “vermin.” We will slaughter them in their millions using the most barbaric methods at our disposal, including virological warfare. We experiment on them when alive for medicine and cosmetics, and to top off the indignity use their skins for warmth and bake their murdered bodies into pies. With the possible exception of being used for pregnancy tests and made into hats (no, wait, I think Hannibal Lecter did that) I can’t think of a single evil done unto rabbits that at one point hasn’t been done by a human, to a human.
And while that’s all quite dark — humankind often is, I’ve found — there is a rich vein of satire to be mined: About the way we treat rabbits, about the way we treat animals, about the way we treat each other, about perceived differences that are really no differences at all.
Rabbits were pretty much the best — and only — choice to do this. Even the political divisions within rabbit society itself (Petstock, Wildstock, and Labstock) were divisions created by humans. It was just so perfect.
Besides, I like rabbits. But not in a culinary way.
Now, this sounds like it’s a sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it, or are there other genres you think describe this better or are at work in this story as well?
I was introduced to a new genre (to me anyway) the other day that is “science fantasy” which, unlike sci-fi, could be categorized as “improbable worlds made real” whereas sci-fan is more “impossible worlds made real.” I’ve never really been a fan of genre, seeing it as a construct for marketing and publicity, and often works against the reader who may categorize a book they didn’t like as say, “sci-fi” and then shy away from the genre thereafter. A lot of really good sci-fi is actually philosophy; [Kurt Vonnegut’s] The Sirens Of Titan being a case in point. Terry Pratchett didn’t write fantasy, he wrote satire. I tend to think I write “comedy speculative” but even that might put people off. How about we simply recategorize all books into two Genres: “page turners” and “boring.” It would make it all a lot easier.
Well, unless you work at Barnes & Noble. Anyway, it also sounds like The Constant Rabbit may have a socio-political connection to what’s going on in the world lately. Does it?
Writers do tend to taste the air and bring that flavor to the page when they write. I started penning this in 2015, when the world had already lurched towards nationalism, isolationism, and the polarization of political belief — and the book does indeed reflect that. But I was also acutely aware that it is really, really annoying to be preached to. I want to write entertainment, as well as thought-provoking stuff — which I guess is why I use the medium of rabbits and comedy to speak from the unthinking perpetrator’s viewpoint about discrimination, denial, fragility, and how a sense of discomfort and shame can lead to a reappraisal of one’s personal role in all of this — and beyond that, some sort of action.
The Constant Rabbit is not your first novel. Are there any writers, movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big influence on The Constant Rabbit but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oooh, tricky one. Influence is an odd beast, because as a writer you are clearly influenced by everything that you have witnessed and are, but it is our job to take all that influence and package it up into something new and exciting and different. I often describe the book as Watership Down meets District 9, so there’s two sources already. But because the world is so vastly multi-faceted and complex, there is so much to draw from: several threads in the book relate to the Danny Kaye 1950s comedy The Court Jester but there is also a court room drama, a forbidden romance, a battle, whiffs of the French Resistance and thoughts on my private view that the “Declaration Of Human Rights” could be vastly improved by changing it to a “Declaration Of Human Responsibilities.” There is also bedroom farce: “Quick, my husband, hide in the closet!”, many satirical jabs at Polite Middle Class British Society, my views on social media and a smattering of Orwell’s Animal Farm. I draw from everywhere, because everywhere is where everything is I need to build a novel.
You mentioned this being influenced by some movies. If someone wanted to make The Constant Rabbit into a movie, would you want it to be animated or live action, and who would you want to do the voices of Peter, Connie, and the other main characters?
Given the huge advances in CGI, a live action / animation hybrid would probably be the way to go, but because 90 minutes is only ever the theme and highlights of a novel, I think four X one hours for TV would probably do it better justice, if anyone would want to have a go at it at all.
What if someone wanted to make it into a game?
Wow, good question. The games revolution totally passed me by, being as I am a dusty dinosaurian relic from the 1970s. If The Constant Rabbit became a game, I would say an indoor game along the lines of that wonderful YouTube video where a coach lines up kids on the start line and then tells those who are white, moneyed, privately educated, etc., to take various steps forward, then once he’s done tells them to look behind them to see how much of a head start they have. My version would run along the same sort of lines, I guess — which while too uncomfortable to be popular, might be a bit of an eye opener.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Constant Rabbit, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that?
Many of my books have similar themes, but basically just a bit of fun. If you fancy a series about a literary detective who can jump into the classics, try The Eyre Affair. If you want to read Humpty Dumpty as a police procedural, then try The Big Over Easy. If you fancy a different take on children’s wizarding stories, then The Last Dragonslayer might work, or if you want to read a thriller set in a world in which humans hibernate, try Early Riser. Finally, if totally batshit crazy speculative fiction is your bag, then read Shades Of Grey. It’s a future dystopia novel about a group of humans whose social hierarchy, economy and healthcare is based on the colors you can see. You have been warned.