From the kinden of the Shadows of the Apt series to the spiders of Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky is well known for using the concept of animal analogues for human experience. Dogs of War is no different, dealing with the use of bio-forms – created beings that merge human, animal and technological aspects.
Our main protagonist is Rex – a dog/human bioform who is the leader of a multi-form pack which includes Honey – a bear form, Dragon – a snake form, and Bees – a ‘distributed intelligence’ of augmented bees. The pack is run by the Redmark corporation who are called in to suppress an anarchist revolt in southern Mexico.
Of course, things don’t go smoothly and when the pack loses communications and has to make their own decision for a short while, things eventuate from there.
Rex isn’t the only point of view character but his arc from loyal wardog who wants to be nothing more than to be told he’s a Good Dog by his Master to a fully realised personality that makes independent moral choices is the one which is really important.
All the other characters are well realised, with varied levels of inscrutability and even those who get limited or no point of view segments like Hartnell or Murray are developed and compelling in their own way.
As ever, Tchaikovsky writes beautifully with his changes in tone between characters really helping to show the different mindsets of the varied bioforms and humans.
The core theme here is one which science fiction comes back to time and again – what counts as a person – and it spreads this question out into dealing with the concept of personal agency. If Rex is a Good Dog who was just following orders, is he really a Good Dog if the orders were bad? Does that responsibility lie with Rex, or his Master?
Tchaikovsky’s renowned ability to make non-human protagonists both compelling to us as humans yet also distinct in their way of thinking is in full effect here, as Rex’s desire to be a Good Dog conflicts with his growing awareness. The concept of Bees as an intelligence spread across multiple tiny (and to a degree, expendable) bodies is simply delicious.
The first section of the book is all action and almost reads like a Michael Bay film, full of explosions and combat too quick for the unaugmented humans to follow as the pack tear into the anarchist rebels. However, the sections where the pack are discussing what to do and Hartnell’s concerns about how they are used and their eventual fate lends emotional weight to this hot start and sets up the moral conflict for the rest of the book.
After this, the story becomes more cerebral, dealing with more abstract concepts and things as exciting as courtroom settings and corporate responsibility. It does feel like the story loses a little steam here and I actually expected it to finish at least twice before it eventually did, even if we do get back to more physical action towards the end.
The moral of the story is stated pretty clearly, indeed it’s almost too stark – not that books having a political message is a bad thing (and I agree with the message) but sometimes it’s better inferred rather than outright stated.
The drop of pace in the middle of the book and the slightly heavy handedness of the theme are two very minor detractions from an otherwise well written, conceptually interesting and thought provoking book.
Read Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky