Guide Dog by Connor, Mike, 1991

Guide Dog by Connor, Mike

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Mike Connor is a new author to me. Other than this week’s selection, his novelette Guide Dog, I have never heard of him before. The work was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1991, but there is very little trace of this author after that time. That is really too bad, because I loved this work and would be happy to read more by Mr. Connor. Four out of five stars.

Guide Dog deals with issues of servitude, but not in a forced context. In Guide Dog a failed human colony on another planet has tried to develop a joint society with the planet's natives, a race of giant beetles. It has not been easy, and a system of selling children into indentured servitude has developed to help keep families afloat. The main character is sold into indenture, and is sent to an Academy to learn to be a "guide dog," or to help one of the beetles who has lost the powers of sight and radar get around. He excels at Academy and after graduating is given a "very important" job. He is assigned to Henry, perhaps the beetle race's most important artist ever.

There are more than economic concerns here, though. The beetles are hive creatures and communicate pleasure and general happiness to each other by near-tangible waves of emotion. The beetles can direct the waves to humans, and can make us experience orgasmic ecstasy anytime they are pleased. In fact, the emotion is so powerful for us that we have to side-step the waves and only "taste" a bit, or we will go into a deep and immediate withdrawal depression right away. Henry and his Dog (who is never otherwise named) get along very well, and in fact Henry comes to love the Dog. But the Dog is challenged by one of his ex-classmates who accuse him of being a junkie for the emotion and thus a slave to the beetles. The classmate has ulterior motives and eventually, assumes the Dog's position in Henry's life, but before the Dog realizes that he questions his own existence and goes into a deep funk. Before he can reconcile his slavery with the economic realities and needs of the society he actually lives in, he acts out, is removed and replaced. In the end he attempts reconciliation with Henry that leads to Henry's death, and is tried and convicted for murder, then sentenced to death himself.

I often compare this story with Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount. The two stories are both wonderful. I’ve kept Guide Dog in my mind for fifteen or so years now, and I don't think that the Emshwiller piece is going to fade from my memory anytime soon. Unfortunately neither of these authors can match Octavia Butler's skill in dealing with the very same issues, but they do both give her a run for her money. Conner’s tale deals with conflict in an adversarial way, where the main character allows it to lead to death. Emshwiller takes a more collaborative approach (and probably much more difficult) to resolving the conflict and believably involves both sides in coming around to a solution to a situation that is seriously geared to lead to genocide. The difference at the core of these stories, at the heart of the slavery issue is the difference between a world view created by indoctrination, or outside influence, and intoxication, or an inward pressure. That is not to say that dog was not pushed by society to accept his role, but it was his fear over losing control, and more a fear of what others thought of him that drove him to make mistakes that led to his doom. Charley never was given any of those chances as a youth, and was quite confident that he was the best Seattle, but gradually embraced his father's hopes and dreams for him as he aged and instead of striking out, embraced them and his heritage at the same time.

Emshwiller's The Mount is advertised as a "meditation on slavery," in one of the blurbs on the reverse book cover. That essentially is what the book is about. In the early 21st century an enormous space ship loaded with aliens called Hoots crash landed on Earth. The Hoots are very small, and probably evolved in a lower gravity environment, as they have large heads and enormously strong hands and arms but extremely weak lower extremities. Shortly after the crash landing a war started which we lost. Most of our numbers were wiped out by a stew of virus, just like the Native Americans before us. Those that remained were forced into a benevolent kind of servitude performing many of the labor intensive duties that the Hoots could not do themselves such as cleaning, manufacturing and agriculture. But the Hoots also took enough human captives to sustain a breeding program and started two lines of humans which were bred as mounts for the Hoots. Thus came the Seattles, the heavy work mounts which served for sport and for work, and the Tennessees, which were bred with a smaller stature and were almost exclusively for work in tight places. Humans were given no choice in the fate of the race, but individual mounts were generally loved by their Hoot masters and cared for just like we cared for horses before they came. Humans born outside the breeding programs were called "nothings," and were generally treated as such. If you have ever been to horse country, where I am from, it is easy to see the fetishistic love that some people hold for the equestrian lifestyle mimicked by the Hoots. Most humans were kept ignorant and illiterate, and judging by the absence of major cities, it feels like many generations have passed since the Hoots landed. However a resistance existed, and since they had planes and guns, it’s obvious that the resistance was nothing new but probably had existed from the time of the war.

The book is about a particular mount, a Seattle, named Smiley by his Hoot master, but Charley by his parents. He was born as a result of a forced studding and was given as a gift to a Hoot called Little Master who after maturing would assume leadership of the Hoots. Early in the tale the village that Charley lived in was attacked by the resistance, and Little Master and Charley, who was horribly wounded and scarred in the battle, were taken captive. Charley learns soon after that the leader of the resistance is his birth father, named Heron by his parents and Beauty by the Hoots who bred him. Heron allows Little Master to live and Charley to take care of him. Charley, thoroughly indoctrinated by the Hoots in his role as a beast of burden, resists Heron's attempts to show him how to be a human. Charley, only 9 years old at the time of the attack, misses his life of luxury and longs to prove to the Hoots that he is the best and most beautiful Seattle there is. His education has been so complete and effective that the only thing he wants to do is continue to live his life in accordance with the rules set down by him for the dominant society, even though that means that he cannot choose his fate, cannot do as he wishes, cannot even participate in the selection of his own mates, and is forbidden to love anyone but his Hoot master. So he dedicates himself to making sure that Little Master lives, while resisting Heron's attempts to break through to him. Heron, unfortunately, was an "incorrigible" mount, and was not only severely punished by the Hoots before escaping years before, but was used as a weapon by the Hoots to put down another insurrection by other humans. Heron is woefully uneducated and can hardly speak (the Hoots strongly encourage humans to remain silent), but is wiser than words can tell.

As the story slowly unwinds Heron begins to realize that the Hoots are not going anywhere, and the best solution to human bondage is to forcibly evolve a system that teaches Hoots and Humans to live in harmony with each other. He realizes that allowing Little Master to live was an excellent idea. Little Master himself was quite immature on the day of the attack, and after he was taken captive and lived with the resistance for a time, began to become confused about where exactly his loyalty lay. Charley was going through the same confusion, so the two youngsters helped themselves to figure out what was important to each other. They decided in the end that the love that they felt for each other and the desire of both races to continue to exist under their own terms necessitated some major compromise. The story is amazingly told and the social development of Charley pretty closely parallels his sexual development from a boy to a man, and in the end, too late unfortunately, Charley learns to love his father for who he is and what he feels.

There are some literary differences between the two stories too. Conner has a strongly male voice and writes very clearly and concisely. I find Emshwiller's prose to be exactly the opposite. I think that she has the sensibilities of a poet and brings that kind of voice to her prose. Emshwiller never really hides the ball, but some of her language is confusing. Not that the work overall suffers for that, but I think it may drive some readers a little nutty. Overall though, if I were doing a comparative review, I'd give the clear edge to Emshwiller. Her book is beautiful and really deserves the Nebula Award that it won. Connor's novelette won a Nebula too, and deservedly so, but still, Emshwiller takes the prize here. Kind of odd considering that she is now 82 years old or so and is still going.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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