The three books by Adrian Tchaikovsky that I read so far showed me his uncanny ability to take creatures from the animal realm and turn them into full-fledged protagonists of his stories, not so much by anthropomorphizing them but rather by enhancing and strengthening their peculiar characteristics. That’s what he does with Dogs of War, breathing life into some amazing creatures and putting them at the center of the novel through thought-provoking narrative, but he also builds a very emotional story that at times brought me close to tears – not a condition I experience often.
In the near future humanity has found a new way to wage wars, using genetic engineering to create constructs that are an amalgam of human and modified animal DNA: these super-soldiers, or bioforms, possess a modicum of sentience but are heavily conditioned to seek the approval of their “Master”, which can be gained through blind obedience to any given order. Rex, a 7-foot tall canine bioform, is the leader of a Multiform Assault Team, and his companions are Honey (a huge bear analog), Dragon (an equally huge reptilian) and Bees (a hive mind distributed among a swarm of bee-like creatures). We get to know them, and their frighteningly impressive abilities, in the course of an assault against their preordained target: the team is being deployed in the south of Mexico, where an insurgence is being quashed with ruthless efficiency, and since we see the action through Rex’s eyes we cannot be sure who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are – all we know is that the four of them must obliterate the enemy, as defined by Master’s orders.
The augmentations that have turned Rex and his companions into such terribly efficient killing machines make them an impressive, nightmarish sight, made even more chilling by the detached observations of the carnage relayed by Rex, and by the constant feedback he receives through his implants that keeps assuring him he is being a good dog – a corroboration he needs to confirm he is acting correctly. Yes, because Rex does not possess an independent will, nor does he want it: all he wants is to have orders to follow so he cannot make mistakes and become a “bad dog”. That’s why, when the group of bioforms loses the connection to Master, Rex finds himself forced to make choices and to look at the world through his own eyes: the conflict between the conditioning and this new unfiltered evidence is cause for enormous stress, underlined by a constant, very canine whining, but at the same time represents the first step toward the kind of evolution his creators had not foreseen.
Once Rex is forced to make his own decisions, to determine who his enemies and friends are, he starts a journey of transformation that strongly reminded me of the characters in Flowers for Algernon, with the huge difference that while Algernon’s curve went downward after a while, Rex’s keeps improving adding shades and facets to a character that is far more human than his creators and handlers intended. Rex’s fascinating story of self-awareness runs together with the equally engaging discussion about the moral standards for the creation of artificial intelligence and the rights of lab-created individuals: the courtroom proceeding that must establish responsibility for the bioforms’ actions in the various conflicts all over the world open the door to the question of these creatures’ status, and of their rights. Are they property? Are they nothing more than a guided missile or a drone? Or did the humans who gifted them with intelligence also give them the means for self-determination? If you are familiar with ST:TNG’s episode The Measure of a Man, you will find here the same kind of questions laid on the table.
Seeing Rex struggle with his nature and conflicting impulses first, as he’s put on trial together with his Master, and then as he suffers some kind of limited, fearful acceptance by humans, means to see his inherent humanity – for want of a better word, because humankind at large does not fare so well here. At the beginning of the novel, despite the actions he is trained to perform, he is basically a guileless creature and it’s wonderful to see how he slowly gains consciousness of himself and his brethren, finally accepting the role of leader and example – not out of superior physical strength or because someone told him so, but through the acknowledgment of his nature and of the role he can perform in society.
A while ago I reviewed a story concerning the plight of augmented soldiers returning to civilian life and needing to fit into a society that is basically afraid of them and what they can do: Rex and the other bioforms face the same kind of dilemma here – they were created as weapons to be wielded and now their former managers keep them out of sight to try and forget their existence, and the primal fear it engenders.
It is when we talk, rather than shout and bark and snarl, that the humans fear us most. I do not understand that. To talk is human: why are we more frightening when we are human than when we are dog?
Rex’s journey finally brings him to the understanding that he does not need human acceptance to realize his potential, that he can be his own person and that the only validation he needs is his own:
I was born an animal, they made me into a soldier and treated me like a thing. […] Servant and slave, leader and follower, I tell myself I have been a Good Dog. Nobody else can decide that for me.
This is an intensely poignant story that left a deep mark on my consciousness and imagination, one whose characters – particularly Rex – will stay with me for a long time. So far the very best Adrian Tchaikovsky novel I read.