Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Five uses for dogs in fantasy

1. Deific figures

I was reading about Anubis, the dog-headed Egyptian god associated with the afterlife, and the article mentioned Sirius, the dog in heaven, and Cerebrus, the dog which guarded the underworld.

Maybe dogs are almost unheard-of in a certain world – perhaps they’ve gone extinct – so that when one is seen, it is always a hellish or heaven-sent messenger. But while these might be another world’s version of demons or angels, they’re still dogs. They can’t speak, so it’s not always clear what they might want.

2. Dread companion

Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and his Dog” features an amoral protagonist who travels through a dystopian future world with his telepathic dog, Blood. The dog is intelligent and witty but almost as amoral, and uses his superior senses to locate food and women for the protagonist. At the end of the story, after Blood has been injured, it’s implied that the protagonist killed a young woman he met so that Blood would have something to eat.

Such dogs would be antitheses to the friendly Lassielike pets in so many books. Very often the presence of a loyal dog (or a strong human-dog bond) is an indication that the protagonist is a good person. Not in this case, though. And I’d like to see the dog actually influencing the protagonist to do even worse things.

Or what about assistance dogs? Usually these animals wear haloes as well as collars. Why not an assistance dog which secretly enjoys leading its owner into danger? And the dog doesn’t need to be red-eyed or frothing at the mouth. In fact, the more normal it looks, the more intriguing and horrifying it can be.

And it doesn’t even have to be overt. Maybe the dog just slowly and subtly asserts control over its owner, such that in the end, the owner becomes the slave.

3. Dogs of war

Dogs have been used in battle in various ways – for instance, pulling chariots in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. I also read that during World War II, the Russians trained dogs to run beneath tanks in search of food. The plan was to strap bombs to the dogs’ backs and take out Panzers that way. Unfortunately, due to their training, the dogs sometimes associated tasty treats with Russian tanks.

Assuming slightly more intelligence on the dogs’ parts, they could serve other roles on the battlefield. Dogs could wear light armor and fight – I’d love to see enemies trying to strike at something that’s faster than they are and which has better senses as well. They could be couriers, or they could locate and help the wounded (like a St. Bernard carrying a little keg of alcohol and finding people lost in the snow).

Finally, they can be carrion eaters, if there are concerns that the dead might be raised otherwise.

4. Dark patrol

I like the idea of dogs being used as sentries and patrollers – makes me think of those signs on properties that say “I can reach the gate in 2.5 seconds. Can you?” But what if they had to stand guard and keep watch for the presence of something much more dangerous than just humans? How might they adapt?

Physical changes rather than mental ones might be in order. In medieval times, mastiffs were fitted with spiked collars to hunt, but the spikes could develop naturally as well. Perhaps a line of them along the back, to protect the spine? Or even spinning sawtoothed structures like those on the hubs of Messala’s chariot wheels in Ben-Hur? Put those on a dog’s elbow joints and watch it run past its prey.

Dogs might have naturally bioluminescent strobelike features growing from their heads, not so much to help them see – their sense of smell compensates for that – but to blind nocturnal creatures with a sudden burst of light. Or they could have manipulative limbs. The creatures in Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen have larger paws than normal wolves, with more flexible joints that allow them to climb the side of a building.

If this wouldn’t work, though, I’d give dogs tentacle-like structures that sprouted from their shoulders – these could stay pressed against the body and out of the way until needed, but when they uncoiled, they could grasp objects or even snap like whips. That kind of coolness worked for Indiana Jones, after all. :)

5. Dual nature

Pampered Pekinese by day. Badass German shepherd by night.

This is a humorous canine take on those superheroes who have mild-mannered alter egos. Maybe dogs do too. The carefully groomed Shih Tzu with a pink ribbon keeping its hair out of its eyes could change shape at night, becoming a vigilante Rottweiler that prowls the streets to keep them safe.


writtenwyrdd said...

I read an sf story once where dogs were extinct, and an alien race recreated them...only with six legs to 'improve' them.

As a former military dog handler, I can tell you that a dog learns how to do patrol with or without the handler. My working dog in hawaii, King, had been doing the job years longer than I had, and he would hop out of the truck and start checkign areas without me telling him what to do, if I let him.

Marian Perera said...

I once read an article about how attack dog trainers have loaded pistols to protect them from their own animals... just in case. Not saying that you had to take this precaution, of course. :) But I found it fascinating, and I just wish there was more speculative fiction about this aspect of dogs.

I burned out on the cute, cuddly, friendly mutts after reading too many Dean Koontz novels, and now I want something gritty.

Maria Zannini said...

I've been wanting to get to your post all day, but it's been one thing after another. Whew!

I'm not fond of gritty dogs in fiction. After more than 30 years of working with dogs, I just find the 'gritty dog' too far-fetched to be believable--unless they were insane to begin with and that wouldn't appeal to me either.

Ref: vigilante rottweiler
ROTFL as I watch Tank snooze on my bed.

PS Love your icon photo! Looks great!

Mary Witzl said...

I LOVE that last idea! Why not have a Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde dog, a la Hans Christian Anderson's Marsh King's daughter, an ugly toad by night, but with a sweet disposition, and a beautiful princess by day, but cruel and wanton...?

We had a book of fairy tales when I was a kid that featured one about a tinder box, with huge dogs who had glowing eyes like saucers and really creeped me out. But all of these are a huge improvement on cute and cuddly Disneyesque canines.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - I'll bet the Tankster would rise to the occasion if he had to! Hey, you mentioned on your blog that Iko alerted you to a scorpion (even though each time you mention Iko, all I can think of is that adorable "Bad Dog" picture).

My icon picture? Glad you like it. :)

Mary - Disney dogs are another source of near-saccharine sweetness, unless they're owned by the villain. Yes, why not a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde dog?