Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Imagine a novel by the love child of H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley, one that rounds out the werewolf-sized hole in the pantheon of 19th Century classic monster speculative fiction, and you have some idea of the great gothic science fiction that is Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs.

The premise is fantastic-- in all meanings of the word-- as well as absurd. In the near future, a small community of what are referred to as "monster dogs" show up in New York: cultured, dressed in elaborate Germanic clothing from over a century ago, and, due to extensive prosthetics, walking upright and speaking both German and English.

You know those strange paintings with a bunch of dogs sitting around playing poker? It's a humorous stab at contemplating the humanity of dogs, or maybe the bestial nature of people. Or maybe just that it looks ridiculous. Remove the irony and silliness, and all three apply to this book-- one wherein everyone's forced to come to terms with their own misshapen place in this world, one whose purposes and meanings are now outdated, leaving us all monsters in a new century.
That's a little overwrought, yes. But the book takes you there with passages like this one, from the diary of Ludwig, one of the dogs:

"They know that they are monsters, but I believe they do not really understand what that means... They live like famous people, keeping away from crowds and employing other to do their shopping, occasionally appearing on talk shows...[But] they look like ugly parodies of humans, and their biographies read like social satire. They will never be seen as anything but caricatures of human beings. There is no place for monsters in this world."

The writing is lush, the characters, dogs and humans, are rich and well-drawn. I first read this book when it came out in the late nineties, but lost my copy of it over time. I recently came across it and had to pick it up again-- it's fascinating, entertaining, and completely absorbing. I began this review by referencing two of the giants of 19th century science fiction, and that wasn't just hyperbole. This book does what the best of science fiction does-- take a premise from that intersection of science and society and ask "what does this mean for us in the future?" Read this book and you'll find that there are no easy answers to the question.

Find the book at your local library or online at Powell's here.


Brady Westwater said...

I read it not long after it came out and loved it despite my not being a Sci-fi or fantasy fan. However, after I recommended it to a friend as a classic, I couldn't find a single copy in The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA - where I volunteer - and no one working on a Sunday had heard of it. And the last time I checked, there was no news about the second novel - Gold Island - Kristin Bakis had been contracted for by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Brady Westwater said...

And Gold Island was due out in... 2008.