Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: Lives of the Monster Dogs

Lives of the Monster Dogs
by Kirsten Bakis
Warner Books, 1997,
$12.99 trade paper

This is not your father’s Frankenstein. Not his Lord of the Flies, either. It’s a little of both.

Lives of the Monster Dogs begins with mad scientist Augustus Rank getting his kicks by amputating and reattaching cows’ legs. (Animal lovers will be cringing for about ten pages, but it’s worth the trouble.) When he decides to build an army of genetically engineered animals, Rank chooses dogs for their loyalty and unthinking savagery. He finds a quiet spot to carry out his research—an enclave in the frozen reaches of northern Canada—and spends the next few decades constructing a small army-in-training of highly intelligent dogs. And then he dies.

That’s when the Lord of the Flies part begins. The dogs are trained to walk upright, wear clothing and prosthetic hands, and speak English through voice-synthesis boxes. Without the charismatic Rank to lead them, the dogs realize that they’re basically slaves, and they rebel against their human captors—with spectacular success.

Then, in a wonderful twist, the liberated dogs find their way to Manhattan, where they’re instantly embraced as celebrities. They take up residence at the Plaza Hotel, are featured in a Vanity Fair photo spread, and throw lavish parties for their enthralled fans. The media and public are so fascinated by these exotic, erudite creatures that they’re willing to forgive the dogs of their bloody past. But there’s trouble ahead: The dogs’ genetic engineering is breaking down, and one by one, they’re reverting to their natural doglike state—an “illness” the sophisticated dogs find shameful and terrifying.

Bakis covers a great scope of ideas here: what is human, what is celebrity, and whether we’ll ever be able to navigate the ethical dilemmas of manufacturing living creatures. The resulting novel is a melancholy and entertaining fever dream—thought provoking, highly imaginative, and highly recommended.

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