The dog-gone days are over

Caucasian Ovcharka pup
The fact that ovcharkas kinda looks like bears is a total coincidence, I’m sure (Photo by Harold Meerveld over at Flickr)

I never especially liked dogs. The operative word being “especially”, lest you think me some kind of monster, like people normally do when someone says they don’t like (or hate) our canine friends. No, I like dogs just fine, and I’ve understood why people love them, or need them, or both. Deep down, though, the point of dogs has been lost to me. Maybe it’s what comes with not growing up around them, I don’t know.

If you’re like me, you might find “This Chance Planet” a useful corrective to any deep-seated, dog-related confoundment or apathy. Slightly dry for an endorsement, I know, but I’m still a bit taken in by the laconic, none-more-Russian affect Elizabeth Bear adopts here, both in her prose and her storytelling. It turns out to be a remarkably effective way into my dog-skeptic heart, this utterly pragmatic magical realism, delivered with a shrug — or, in Bear’s own words, a huff, “like an irritated dog”. As if to say, “of course we matter. How utterly dense of you not to get it until now”.

Many years ago, I read something Warren Ellis wrote in the back of one of his comics, about how dogs were the one species which wouldn’t have any adverse impact on the earth’s ecosystems, were they to be removed. Since then, in my most cynical, heart-frozen moments, I’ve returned to that thought as an unspoken argument about how we would be better off if such an extinction event were to happen. Reading “This Chance Planet” made me wonder if Ellis’ factoid might not actually be a twisted argument for why we should treasure the dog’s presence at our side. Us biologically worthless creatures need to stick together, after all.

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What is that tune he’s always whistling?

160730“Why funny animals?” The inevitable question. It’s the kind of question asked by people with no imagination. Or people who believe that imagination is best put to use creating the kind of fiction to which it appears no imagination was applied at all.

If you’re interested in the answer to that question — my imaginary askers wouldn’t care one way or the other, their point already having been made — it’s neatly contained within the pages of Daniel Polansky‘s The Builders. This novella doesn’t have the satirical bite of Meet The Feebles or [insert your favourite piss-take of anthropomorphic cuddliness here]. Polansky’s gunfighters are whiskered, not grizzled, but it’s not a switch designed to make any particularly poignant or ironic point. In the afterword, he acknowledges the story’s genesis as a joke, but judging by the finished product, Polansky must have realised the potential for something greater along the way.

Plenty of stories like this exist just because of cuteness, or because of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thrill of putting animals in people clothes and let them do SERIOUS HUMAN STUFF. I know for a fact that my strawmen from the first paragraph would need no more reason to dismiss these kinds of stories out of hand. Weird, that; how a expression’s mere potential for the facile and inane is enough to render it utterly worthless (in strawmen eyes).

As I was saying, though, you don’t need to look any further than The Builders to find a sterling example of why we have used animal avatars in our storytelling since the days of cave paintings: It’s a shortcut to character. Seeing ourselves in animals is, strangely, one of the most human things there is, and Polansky plays on this — along with our knowledge of western and heist tropes — quite shamelessly. What’s so remarkable about The Builders, though, is that its characters never feel like stereotypes. They’re as distinctive and instantly engaging as if they had been essayed by expert animators, or an exquisitely cast ensemble of actors. More so, in fact, than the vast majority of other stories in the Seven Samurai/The Wild Bunch/Ocean’s Eleven mold.

The characters aren’t the only remarkable thing here, either; his prose and structure both have a giddy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-getting-away-with-this-sh*t energy to them. In fact, I’m tempted to say that Polansky at times exhibits the same kind of formal artfulness that elevates Quentin Tarantino’s films from genre potboilers to art. The thrill provoked by chronology scrambles and playful chapter transitions reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time. And all of it, somehow, made sharper and fresher by those funny animals.

Diamond trees in his pockets

160714

If I keep letting myself get distracted like this, I don’t have a hope in hell of finishing my jaunt through the 2016 Hugo categories before the voting deadline. In my defense, the Android Instapaper app makes it impossible to tell exactly how long a piece of text is before I start it. So when, as an amuse bouche between bouts of novel-reading, I tapped on Usman Malik’s novella The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, I had no idea it was going to quite so substantial a read. If I’m to believe its entry in Amazon’s Kindle store, it’s only supposed to be the equivalent of 32 paper pages. Which, just by gut feel, is an underestimate by about a factor of two.

Admittedly, I also felt a bit displaced and distracted by my reading conditions last night; sat in a gradually darkening room, windows open, incessant rain hissing away every other sound. just so taken in by the story and the circumstances I was reading in. Yes, a summer night darkness can take me by surprise, but that’s what you get for growing up well north of the arctic circle. The otherworldly environment left me primed for the way Malik starts The Pauper Prince, lulling both his protagonist Salman and the reader. Anyone who’s ever been read to as a child — or indeed, read a story where a child is being told a story — will feel they know where this is heading. All expectations are quite rudely dispelled before that familiar story-within-the-story has even gotten started, though.

Instead of a bedtime fable, what follows is Salman’s attempt to solve his quarter-life crisis by exploring his roots. It’s not an unfamiliar narrative to children of immigrants, or to those of us with tenuous connections to our families. Malik isn’t content to make this only about heritage, though. Salman’s crisis is tied not only into a strained relationship with his parents, but also with his career and a long-term relationship teetering on the edge between “’till death do us part” and “the one that got away”. It’s a spot-on depiction of that perfect storm which happens when a person reaches that point where they’ve finally lost sight of adolescence, and every choice they make takes on an air of finality.

By pivoting from the fantastic into the mundane and back into the fantastic again, Malik is able to imbue both strains with a sharp tang of the unexpected. The final turn is not so much back into a fable, as it is a metaphysical (or mythological, depending on how you squint) flight of fancy. He uses the titular spirit to talk both about the origin of sentience and of the uneasy relationship many a believer has with fate and determinism. All this done in an increasingly rapturous fashion, which I have to admit I had trouble following at times. Not because it was unnecessarily complex, but rather because — like with the harder kinds of science fiction — the parts of my brain needed to understand these things are woefully out of shape.

If all the above waffle doesn’t sound enticing, the simplest way I can sell The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn goes thus: Even though Malik breaks with the trope early on, no matter how far afield his tale strays, it retains the feeling it evokes right at the start. Being small, sat on a lap, lost in a story.


Novellas, man. They’re flipping awesome. Also, even if this can be read for free at Tor.com, I encourage you to fork out the digital purchase price (less than two of your American dollars in the Kindle store). That way, you get a formatted ebook. And if that means nothing to you, you’re still supporting the author and his publisher.