For all those folks out there who hold conversations with their pet dog and know for certain that Fido/Fifi understands every word; for those who have gotten a tad “verklempt” at the conclusion of such novels as The Call of the Wild and Old Yeller; for people who believe that canines just cannot get any smarter than Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Benji, all of whom starred in innumerable motion pictures; and, well, really, for anybody with a soft spot in his or her heart for man’s best friend, have I got a book for you! That book is none other than British philosopher/author Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, which, as I write these words, is in the running to win a Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1944. Originally released as a hardcover volume by the English publishing house Secker & Warburg, this beautifully written and ultimately quite moving story gives us, following its initial sci-fi setup, a work of ideas and philosophical musings. Subtitled “A Fantasy of Love and Discord,” and featuring what must surely be the brainiest canine in all literature, the novel makes sharp observations about society, history, religion and relationships, all wrapped up in a most atypical eternal-triangle story. This was my first experience with Mr. Stapledon, and if this bravura effort (his seventh novel, I believe) is any indication, I’m going to be reading more very soon.
Sirius takes the form of a biography that was written by a man named Robert. No, we never learn overly much about Robert, or even his last name; only that he is an Air Force soldier of some kind during WW2, is a budding novelist, and is the suitor of a young woman named Plaxy Trelone. (I know … Plaxy?) After Plaxy’s mother falls ill, the daughter returns to the family’s home in northern Wales to take care of her, and Robert begins to receive confusing letters from his sweetheart. He goes to visit Plaxy while on leave, and discovers that her mother has since passed away. He also gets to meet, for the first time, Sirius, the family dog, who had been born right around the same time as Plaxy. The two have been more than close ever since. But Sirius is far from the average house pet. Plaxy’s late father, Thomas Trelone, had been an eminent physiologist, and had attempted, via the use of injected hormones and a meticulous breeding program, to create a line of superintelligent sheepdogs. He had succeeded, but even amongst these, Sirius was something extraspecial. As Robert immediately discerns, Sirius and Plaxy are able to hold a running conversation between themselves, the dog speaking a rough (ruff?) form of English. Using Trelone’s scientific notes, as well as verbal testimony from Sirius himself, Robert is thus able to put together the biography that takes up the bulk of this volume. And so, we see how Trelone had mixed a German shepherd with a champion border collie and, several strains later, gotten the phenomenon that was Sirius, the only survivor of a litter of four.
Over the course of Robert’s bio, we see Sirius learn to speak, and then read, and then write using a specially designed mitten. We follow him through his youth, see him become a sheepdog apprentice at a neighboring farm (very soon, he is leading the other sheepdogs and even carrying baskets of medicine onto the moors to tend to the sheep’s physical ailments!), and behold as he sows some wild oats in disgust at his lot, living like a wild wolf in the hills. Later, however, Sirius goes to Cambridge University to be studied; asks to live with a pastor in London, so as to discover more about religion; learns something of mankind’s brutal side, after hearing of the horrors of WW2 and experiencing some of them firsthand; becomes the sole manager of a sheep farm; and becomes something of a pariah and outlaw, when the local townspeople begin to think of him as a devil’s familiar, and even of having a carnal relationship with Plaxy. And, oh … did I mention that Sirius also composes music, does a solo performance in an East End church, and even, at one point, writes, addresses and mails a letter? But just in case you are wondering if this prodigy has anything in common with an ordinary dog, the answer is a most definite “yes.” Thus, we see Sirius chasing after bitches, hunting, killing another dog in a jealous fit, even killing a man in self-defense. He is, he believes, a human-type spirit in a handless dog’s body, a source of endless confusion and frustration for the poor animal … not to mention endless introspection and self-appraisal.
As I mentioned earlier, Stapledon’s novel makes some sharp observations about the human condition, as seen through Sirius’ POV and delivered via some wonderfully written passages. Thus, regarding mankind’s treatment of the canine race, we are told that Sirius felt:
… There were those who were simply indifferent to dogs, lacking sufficient imagination to enter into any reciprocal relation with them. There were the “dog-lovers,” whom he detested. These were folk who sentimentalized dogs, and really had no accurate awareness of them, exaggerating their intelligence and loveableness, mollycoddling them and over-feeding them; and starving their natural impulses of sex, pugnacity and hunting. For this sort, dogs were merely animate and ‘pathetically human’ dolls. Then there were the dog-detesters, who were either too highbrow to descend to companionship with a dumb animal or too frightened of their own animal nature. Finally there were the “dog-interested,” who combined a fairly accurate sense of the difference between dog and man with a disposition to respect a dog as a dog, as a rather remote but essentially like-minded relative…
As for his fellow canines themselves, Sirius feels a hearty sorrow:
… It seemed to him incredible that the dominant species should keep so many of the dominated species alive in complete idleness, for not one of these pampered animals had any function but to be the living toy of some man or woman. Physically they were nearly all in good condition, save for a common tendency to corpulence, which in some cases reached a disgusting fulfillment. Mentally they were unwholesome. How could it be otherwise? They had nothing to do but wait for their meals, sink from boredom into sleep, attend their masters or mistresses on gentle walks, savour one another’s odours, and take part in the simple ritual of the lamp-post and the gate-post. Sexually they were all starved, for bitches were few, and jealously guarded by their human owners. Had not the canine race been of sub-human intelligence, they must one and all have been neurotics, but their stupidity saved them…
I offer these two extended quotes as a means of demonstrating both Stapledon’s wonderfully incisive writing style as well as his sharp and detailed observations. I urge you to learn for yourself what Sirius — who is not only the possessor of human intelligence, but patently above-average human intelligence — has to say on matters pertaining to organized religion, God, love, relationships, war, the family and so on. He is a wonderful and touching character who manages to express himself marvelously, and the reader cannot help but be impressed with and moved by him. We feel for his lot as a misfit, fully at home neither in the world of the humans nor the canines. I will not reveal whether or not things end happily for Sirius, but will advise readers to have some Kleenex at the ready.
During the course of this biography, we are made privy to the relationships that Sirius enters into with a varied group of characters, but of all these relationships, none are as deep, as long lasting and as complex as the one he has with Plaxy. A fantastically long-lived animal, Sirius, when we first encounter him, has known Plaxy for over 20 years. The two, as mentioned, grew up together, and we get to see Sirius grow jealous of the young girl’s hands and, later, of her going away to school and becoming interested in boys. Plaxy, for her part, at times grows resentful of her pet’s jealousy and of his moody fits, and is unfailingly shocked by his savage outbursts. But at the bottom of their complex relationship — one that is made even more complicated when Robert enters the picture — is a bedrock of deep love and mutual affection that abides until the book’s touching final page. As Sirius movingly tells his mistress at one point, “The smell of you is more lovely really than the crazy-making scents of bitches.” This is hardly another story of “a girl and her dog.”
Sirius, it should be noted, is a very British type of affair, and Stapledon, who was born on the Wirral Peninsula, close by to northern Wales, obviously knew his book’s setting very well. Personally, this reader found a good atlas handy when looking up such Welsh locales in the novel as Ffestiniog, Trawsfynydd, the Vale of Clwyd, Dolgelly and Aberystwyth, as well as such mountain chains as the Arenigs, Moelwyns and Rhinogs. Likewise, a good dictionary came in handy for such Welsh words as “cwm,” “llyn,” “bwlch,” “moel” and “ghyll.” The author makes us see and feel this lonely moorland setting very well, and has obviously done his homework regarding sheepherding and ovine diseases. His book is perfectly paced, consistently fascinating, unfailingly intelligent and — once the reader has bought into the central premise — highly credible. Indeed, other than the misuse of a few words – such as “solicitation” instead of “solicitousness,” and “lintel” instead of “jamb” – it is a practically flawless creation by this highly esteemed British author.
All of which, I suppose, begs the question: Should Sirius cop that Retro Hugo prize? Well, truthfully, I am hardly the person to ask, never having read its five competitors. But let’s run down the list. Land of Terror is the sixth entry in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ PELLUCIDAR series, and although ERB is a perennial favorite of many, the fact that his book is just one in a series might work against it. Leigh Brackett, one of my favorite Golden Age writers, is represented by her novel Shadow Over Mars, which I really do need to pick up one day. Brackett is another fan favorite who should never be counted out. And then there is Robert Graves’ The Golden Fleece, which has somehow gotten nominated despite its not being a work of science fiction at all. I would disqualify it on that basis alone, despite our Kelly’s positive words about it. Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon is apparently a quite popular novel, although one more geared to adolescents than adults. Finally, The Winged Man, based on a short story by E. Mayne Hull and later expanded into novel form by her husband, A.E. van Vogt, might be working under a handicap due to its unusual provenance. And so, we have Sirius, a book that boasts not only a bona fide (bona fido?) science fictional background geared solidly toward mature adults, but also more thoughtful intelligence and philosophical insight — not to mention solid writing — than most books that you are likely to encounter. I may be prejudiced here because it is the only one of the six that I have read, but can’t help feeling that the smart bettors should put their money right here. I just loved this book, as you might have discerned … so much so that I am about to begin another Stapledon novel dealing with the subject of superintelligence: 1935’s Odd John, which can fortunately be found in the same Dover edition as Sirius. Can it possibly be as good as this wonder-filled novel from 1944? Stay tuned…