In the company of wolves (domesticated)
In an unseasonably cool May, the Beamers traversed the Lake district of England in November, chasing across the fells and along the dales in the company of two escapees from the horrors of medical experimentation, Rowf and Snitter, the Plague Dogs. Labeled as such by the sensationalist British press, the two canines try to survive in a wilderness that confuses and yet attracts them, safe from the pains suffered at the hands of the “whitecoats”, humans who are not true masters. Would the plight and the charm of the two refugees strike a sympathetic note with the hard-nosed Beamers, or would they face an audience as stern and uncaring as the lab chief, Dr. Boycott?
The Discourse of Dogs, of course
Richard Adams, the author of The Plague Dogs, is better known for his earlier tale of talking animals, Watership Down. Here, dogs replace rabbits and the worries they face are more purely human-caused. In fact, the opening chapters of the book dissuaded some Beamers from even sticking with the story past the escape to the dales. Since Adams spares little in making clear his distaste for the more horrifying excesses of animal testing and animal laboratory procedures, we could sense why readers who are animal-friendly might not want to endure the torture to get to the flight to freedom. Satire, even when handled very broadly, can be missed by even a sympathetic audience. Adams clearly is critical of the scientists in the lab, a place that goes under the name A.R.S.E (Animal Research, Surgical (or Scientific, the book switches) and Experimental), which is British slang for “ass”.
All Dogs Go to the Lab?
But, not all readers will catch the sarcasm, nor may care for the horror tone even if they do. Norman Spinrad wrote The Iron Dream, a critique of the easy acceptance of authoritarianism (cf. the proliferation of “chosen ones”) in sf/f, which he marketed as Adolf Hitler’s fantasy novel. And he got fan letters asking if/when a sequel would be written! So, Adams could easily lose readers with his graphic depictions of lab work. Or re-readers, as Kathy was satisfied that once was enough, even as devoted Adams fan Chris celebrated his 3rd re-reading of the novel. Plus, the book’s heavy-handed approach could overwhelm reader sensibilities, since as Fran pointed out, it would be strange to find all the various types of animal testing Adams criticizes being performed in a single facility.
Liz also noted that there was scant discussion of the possible benefits of such lab experiments, which included the development of surgical procedures that otherwise would be first performed, untested, on human subjects. Still, the book’s message is not outdated, as much animal experimentation continues, forty years after The Plague Dogs was published. Public demonstrations of surgical stapling devices on dogs continued though the 1990s, and “animal liberation” groups have been targeted as domestic terrorists in the US since 2002.
Why They Invented Emoticons
Ironically, the same problem of not catching the proper tone afflicted the Beamers, as Kathy had sent a preliminary report on the book that noted her horrified initial reaction, which she called “mistaken”, had turned into admiration of the highest order (a ’10’ rating!). However, a majority of Beamers thought that she had thought the book “horrible” and was coming to diss it. Much discussion over e-mail etiquette and proper interpretation of plain text followed, including Liz’s dissatisfaction with encountering a judgement before experiencing the work for herself. The Beamer pledge to speak honestly and to listen carefully did prevail, enough to help us all discern Kathy’s true meaning and to decide to label “(Review)” on the Subject lines of all future e-mails that contain discussion or reaction of an upcoming work.
A Dogs’ Own Tale
Within the text, the Beamers found a wealth of details that pleased both the desire for adventure and the enjoyment of detailed description. The book’s style feels very much like a 19th century novel, a literature that appeals to many of the Beamers. Chris, reading from a commentary on the animated film version, referred to the “Dear Reader” narration that Adams uses, a direct address to the reader that bends, if not breaks, the “fourth wall”. Fran liked the diction and style and found that it onlv went overboard (so to speak) during the boat rescue climax. I found that the book reminded me of several classics of the fantasy genre, like Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros or Tolkien, where the landscape was itself almost a character, one whose moods and personality affected the action as much as the decisions of the animal characters. Nick, however, thought that the emphasis on which tree had which bug on it made the work a very leisurely read, but he was not taking it on a long cruise, alas.
Seeing Through Their (not really color-blind) Eyes
The dialogue was also a matter of discussion, with most of us charmed by the use of the Lakes dialect (which the American edition helpfully explains for those of us not addicted to BBC productions like All Creatures Great and Small), particularly the banter of the fox (the “tod”) who aids the dogs in foraging, hunting, and staying hidden on the run from enraged farmers and worried government officials. There was much individual choice, here, as Nick saw something of himself in Snitter’s active imagination and playful rhyming speech, which dialogue tic was only an impediment to Alan’s attempt to read the novel. The issue of animal language brought us back to The White Bone, our February book, which featured elephants who also used their own language to communicate and to describe the world in their terms, not ours. Liz found The Plague Dogs made her feel as though she were reading a science fiction work with aliens whose different senses and thoughts shaped the world into non-human forms, a sentiment to which I agreed (though I felt it more in The White Bone).
Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day
On the other paw, Chris felt the book to be more of a fantasy, with much of the action best described in fairy tale fashion, as Snitter (victim of cranial surgery) was literature’s most unreliable narrator. That observation brought up the one supernatural element that did strike me as I read the novel, the scene in which Snitter encounters the ghost terrier and her deceased owner. Since Snitter constantly hallucinates, it is easy to discount the meeting as another of his brain short-circuits. Until Adams has other, human characters refer to the legend of the faithful terrier whose ghost still guards the fallen body of her master. We found the use of the legend to be a distinct addition to the world-building of the canine universe, matching neatly with the legends that Snitter tells of how the Star Dog created the world but unwisely left the management of it to the humans, who abused his trust, or the songs that the lab dogs sing to keep their spirits up (“I’ll lift my leg as I’m drifting by / And pee right into a whitecoat’s eye”). We could have followed the dogs over hill and over dale for many more chapters.
All’s Well that Swims Well?
The ending, though, did occasion a lot of discussion, particularly the awkward introduction of the author and two of his naturalist acquaintances, who pilot a boat to the rescue of the water-borne dogs. From the commentary on the animated film, Chris noted that the original ending, used in the film, was a somewhat ambiguous fading to black as the dogs swim out of sight on the endless Irish Sea. Pushed by his publishers, Adams tacked on a happy ending instead, complete with miraculous return of Snitter’s missing owner, presumed dead by all and sundry. Fran was dissatisfied with the rather arbitrary wrap-up, even as Kathy argued that we deserved an upbeat ending after all the trials and tribulations. Our consensus did tend toward a less overblown conclusion, without the whole Who’s Who entry for Sir Peter Scott (son of legendary Captain Robert Falcon Scott “of the Antarctic”).
Kindred Souls, Sprung from Cages
Our other sticking point revolved around the character of Mr. Ephraim, one of the few sympathetic humans, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, who tries to befriend Snitter but is accidentally killed by his own shotgun. Kathy noted the parallels between Ephraim and Snitter, both concerned with escape from inhuman beings who would perform cruel medical experiments on undeserving subjects. Adams linking animal researchers to Nazis did not strike us as out of place for the tone and tenor of The Plague Dogs. In many ways, that connection is the message of the book. We just wished we could have spent longer in the company of its chief messenger, Mr. Ephraim, before he was sacrificed to the plot.
In the end, though, we generally liked the novel, ranging from the heights of Kathy’s 10 to the lows of my 6 (due partly to concerns about upset readers and partly due to a lack of sympathetic female characters, aside from the ghost terrier). While we assuaged Chris’s worries this time, we also reserved our opinions about matters lapine when we go down the rabbit hole in 2020.