Review: Dogs of War (Paperback)

Dogs_of_WarMaybe I’m just not a dog person.

I picked up Dogs of War recently as a charity shop purchase – I was wary on buying it as I didn’t have a great experience with Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time at all. However, it was an inexpensive purchase and the premise of the book seemed intriguing, so I was happy to exchange some coins for it.

A book about biologically augmented dogs (and other creatures, but more on that later) being used in a dystopian near-future to fight humanity’s wars has the potential to be really quite gripping. And indeed, the opening parts to Dogs of War are quite effective as we follow bioform Rex and his cadre of augmented animals as they are used in a war in Campeche, Mexico against the Anarchista rebellion. This purpose is ostensibly that but the conflict quickly becomes the private war of the commander, Murray, who utilises the bioforms to commit a variety of quite brutal war crimes as he is left unchecked. Indeed, any attempt to interfere or provide oversight is met with hostility.

Had Dogs of War stayed in Campeche it would have been a very gripping, atmospheric and gritty book that explored the horrors of humans using augmented animals to fight wars that human soldiers aren’t to be “wasted” on. And indeed there’s plenty of ethical strife for Rex as his augmented intelligence clashes with his literal programming – he obeys his Master – Murray – because he craves the euphoria released by his feedback chip from being a Good Dog; likewise the fear of being a Bad Dog is tantamount in his mind, and there’s plenty of mileage in exploring what happens when Rex is unshackled from that hierarchy and has to make his own decisions.

However only the first quarter of the book takes place in the Mexican battlefield and this is where I feel Dogs of War quickly unravels.

The book pivots to be a political procedural of sorts that focuses on using Rex as a means to bringing Murray to justice and a more wider ethical exploration as to whether the bioforms are things (which can be destroyed) or sentient beings which deserve their own right to coexist alongside humanity.

Even writing that synopsis made me realise that the idea itself isn’t bad; however it is a quite trite and tired narrative thread. And once Dogs of War leaves the gritty battlefield of Mexico and expands to the civilian life of the bioforms – focussing on Rex as he battles with his new-found freedom from his hierarchies – the narrative completely seems to vent of momentum. Rex’s journey seemed immaterial as I felt he was a tool – a thing, if you will – for exploring thematic ideas rather than a solid plot.

To compound the triteness there’s a scene where Rex crumbles when questioned in court when presented with Murray, and the trial of his former Master collapses. I quickly began to be irritated by the stunting of Rex’s character.

There’s parallel narratives, much like Children of Time and the Rex chapters quickly started to bore me, honestly. Rex’s character hasn’t much depth – indeed, underneath the augmentations he’s just a dog, and the battle against his Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality, even when it no longer has any material basis on his actions. Honestly, Rex’s simplistic point-of-view doesn’t do the action portrayed any justice – it’s the narrative style given to Rex’s point-of-view that sells the story short. His perspective and recollection of events is so insulated from the brutal reality that the situations aren’t done justice.

Rex’s point-of-view seems more like a report or log of what happened rather than narrative with any sense of character and the prose of those chapters is too clinical and disconnected to be effective, ultimately. The prose’s insulation from the action it describes bleeds it very quickly of any impact and it becomes a hybrid of a report after-the-fact to a simple running commentary. It’s very tell-y; and the maxim that the author should show, not tell seems to have been purposefully ignored.

I am suddenly much happier. I am moving on all fours, working out where to take cover. Bees is mustering her units. Dragon wakes up and slithers into a stand of trees from where he can get a good shot.

All the not-enemy humans are still running. Some of them will still be in the way. The vehicles are coming very quickly. Already the enemy are shooting. They are only hitting other humans, though: they cannot aim at this range when they are moving.

Honey’s Elephant Gun explodes the lead vehicle. She is pushing through the not-enemy, and I tell her she should stay back to use them as cover.

Dogs of War, Chapter 6, page 47

I feel Dogs of War fails because it’s cramming too many thematic and ethical ponderances into a short book. The final fifth of the book was a race to the finish, ultimately, and I found myself caring less and less for Rex’s point of view. Indeed it was only toward the latter stages of the book that I learned that Rex’s fellow bioforms are not all dogs – he is accompanied by Honey, a bear, Dragon, whose species I never quite nailed down and more ponderously Bees, a literal hivemind of augmented bees that just doesn’t get the weight of attention that such a concept deserves.

Indeed, the character of this group of animals is expressed solely, it seems through the “telepathic texting” that was solely expressed through Rex’s point-of-view chapters. I didn’t quite understand this – were they communicating through aforementioned telepathic texting in real time? How did that work? This confusion just added to the sense of deep disconnect from the characters that Rex’s chapters were.

Ultimately I think Dogs of War worked less as a novel but more as a bit of an indulgence of the author’s desire to explore this well-trodden path of the ethics of utilising augmented animals and determining where the difference between beings and things seems to lie. But more fatally I didn’t come out of it convinced – the plot was ultimately predictable in its denouncement of humanity’s instinct to use its ingenuity to figure out a both more “acceptable”, marketable way of dealing with human problems that remains totally inhumane.

Humanity comes out the bad guy here and unfortunately the limited narrative in Dogs of War just can’t sustain that. Ultimately the themes that drive Dogs of War prove to be an old dog, and there’s no new tricks on show here to speak of.

In Children of Time the narrative enters a stall in the midsection of the book from which it was unable to recover; in Dogs of War the thematic weight behind the narrative forces it out through a puncture in the constraints that kept it taught and once it escapes into atmosphere, it quickly dissipates into nothingness.

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Editing The Thaw – Second Draft Success!

A while back I discussed where I was at with the editing process with my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw. Basically, just starting off on the wonderful journey! During that time, I happened to take a meandering, very-much-procrastinating wander onto my Twitter. I found this:

Well, I’m delighted to be able to say that, two years after I started writing the book at all (and about a year after finishing that), I now have a fully line-edited second draft in my possession! I even managed to print it out and it looks mightily impressive!

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A very proud author with his printed second draft in sunny Kingston-upon-Thames! 😎

Safe to say, I am thrilled and proud of myself for making it this far.  The Thaw is easily the longest single work I’ve written and I’m more proud of myself for being disciplined and making it through the edit. It’s been a tough process – it took about two months, with around 70 hours work, to get from cover to cover.

That’s longer than I’d anticipated but, in a way, unsurprising given how rough and heat-of-the-moment the initial draft was. What I’ve learned through this process is a lot – I’m certainly able to handle a work of this length, and more importantly, I’ve learned some important lessons about self-editing and how a novel evolves as a piece through successive drafts. With The Thaw I already feel the work is a lot stronger, a lot clearer and a lot more engaging than it was in its initial form.

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Ultimately, thinking back, I’m extremely proud of the core idea and story at the heart of my book, and I do genuinely think it’s something I’m going to pursue publication of. It’s a good story – yes, not perfect, but making measurable steps toward – and I think it’d fit right in the marketplace.

Now, while it’s easy to bask in my own self-adulation (and the heartfelt congratulations of friends and colleagues, all of whom have helped me massively) at completing this substantive edit… it’s not the final stage. So what do I plan to do now?

  • Take some time away from the new draft. One of the key lessons I learned (and ignored in a way) from On Writing is to let a draft breathe after completion. As a writer, having that objective distance from your work, so it’s not so fresh in your mind to cloud your creative vision, is paramount I’ve found. It helps ease the inevitable self-doubt that will creep in. The Thaw, even in its roughest form, is a good book. In its new form, it’ll be a better book. But it’ll still take effort to make it a great book.

    “With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”

  • Read it as a reader, than as a writer. I need to let the new draft, when the time comes, soak back in. For the first draft I did partially read over it but I found note-taking at the same time as that initial readthrough was erroneous. So when I re-read the book toward the end of July I will give it a reader’s pass before reading it again and asking myself questions how to improve it.
  • Enlist beta-readers. I’ve approached a few trusted writer friends to read the new draft and I’m designing a feedback questionnaire. I realise the book is a lot for people to mark-up inline comments on, especially to those with day jobs and family lives. But it’s important to me to get help and guidance, to help spot errors I wouldn’t on my own.

    “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

  • Explore professional editorial advice. My friend Gary Thomas has been working on his autobiography for a while. He brought to my attention an organisation called The Literary Consultancy who offer manuscript evaluation and other editorial services. I’m going to get in contact with them once a third draft is complete in August about what services they’d suggest for The Thaw – as I previously stated, I feel it’s worthy of publication and deserves the critical eye of a professional editor. Yes, it’ll be expensive but money well spent in my opinion!

As a learning process, though… there’s been some invaluable and harsh lessons I’ve learned in retrospect. Yes, I am a little regretful that The Thaw has taken so long, but I hope it’s worth it. My confidence as an author – a proper one at that! – just, at this stage, feels so very buoyed and I am excited to get started on the next phase of getting this book in front of people who could make some exciting decisions!

Plus, relief – I can breathe and relax. Enjoy video games and books (hobbies which have suffered as I’ve edited; time management skills there but I’ll go into that later).

Overall though I can’t really express how proud I am of myself for making it this far with The Thaw and I hope to be able to share some more of it soon! If you have any advice, comments or things you think I should know as I enter the next phase of this project then please feel free to send them my way.

Editing The Thaw – Starting Off!

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Just coming up to a year ago I finally finished the first full draft of The Thaw, a post-apocalyptic thriller novel I started between my second and third years of University. I’d recently read Stephen Kings’s On Writing and, as I finished the draft at some ungodly hour, I recalled a piece of advice:

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

King recommends leaving a book to sit for six or so weeks:

“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

As is unfortunately life, getting around to editing The Thaw, for me, has taken considerably longer. There’s two big reasons for this gap, because I’ve wanted to edit the book for ages:

  • Guilt about working on personal projects while in the final throes of University, where all my creative and productive dragon energy needed to be focused on my work.
  • Self-doubt about my abilities as an editor and a writer, frankly; can I do this work justice?

Happily, both of those issues are moot – my coursework is in and I finally j umped into the editing process. So approximately five chapters in, how do I feel so far about it?

I feel… impatient, honestly. The beginning five or so chapters have taken some intense work but it’s good work too. I’ve some notes I’ve made myself from a readthrough of the first draft – I’ve taken the approach to ask myself questions I want each chapter to answer.

Indeed, re-reading the book after such a time away from writing it (which was an intense process) has allowed me to soak it in afresh. Yes, the opening is the weakest part and taking the most work because I feel that, while I was writing it, I was yet to find my feet in my own work. But what I’ve read later on is some thrilling and, honestly, brilliant stuff. I’m really confident about it because it’s a fantastic story and I want to share it!

So what is my rough plan for the edit? I’m planning to take the time over the next three or four weeks to really get to grips with fixing the deficiencies, foibles, niggles and nags of the first draft, ironing it out into something less… raw from the forge of my mind. Then a week or so off then back to square one for the third pass. Once I get there I’ll have a much better idea of what I want to do with the book going forward, and maybe even share some extracts!

Ah, heck, here’s an extract now! Enjoy!

“Not too much further, Mr. President,” Abercrombie reassured coolly. The moisture seemed to drip around the prefabricated panels loosely lining the corridor. Abercrombie turned to Miller. “We’ve achieved a lot since your last report, Vice-President.”

Miller smiled again. Even the President thought his apparent glee peculiar and looked suspiciously at his junior and deputy. “Excellent. I’m sure the President will be impressed with your results. I knew you were the right choice in this division, David.”

“I do hope I’m about to see tangible results for my investment,” Meadows mused. Abercrombie stopped at the end of the tunnel. Another heavy metal partition blocked the end of the passageway. A door, like before, was here, with a computer next to it. The door was wide, with a viewing hatch punched into the metal.

“Gentlemen,” Abercrombie said lightly, “take your positions.”

Meadows and Miller stood before the closed viewport that was just on eye-level. Abercrombie tapped a few buttons. The noise reverberated into the rock outside. A metal shutter slid with the ticking of a delicate mechanism. Two gasps were audible.

Abercrombie laughed as he watched the dark bodies of the President and the Vice-President almost stick to the wall, transfixed. “Gentlemen, I present to you the future of the American race.”

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts

Girl_with_GiftsI’m reviewing The Girl with All the Gifts finally after a long absence – I read this book for the first time last February and I re-read it recently a few days ago. Re-reading it affirmed that it is almost certainly one of my favourite entries into post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered so far.

The Girl with All the Gifts is at its root a very simple story. Humanity has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns host humans into mindless zombies. We meet Melanie, a young girl who seems, at first glance, to just be going to school in this weird, destroyed shadow of society… but there’s something not quite right about this “school” and the students within. She waits for “school” by waiting in her cell; she’s strapped to a wheelchair for “class” and is treated as a mixture between an unexploded bomb and an abomination by the “school’s” military garrison.

The first quarter of The Girl with All the Gifts does an impeccable, wonderful job of building up that everything is not as it seems with Melanie and her classmates. They’re not normal children but something much worse that everyone should be fearful of. Over the course of the first quarter of the book we notice some things that are off, and not quite right. It’s not a school but a military base – what purpose does this base serve? And where are the children going?

It’s atmospheric, ominous and it draws you in to find out why. That is why I consider The Girl with All the Gifts to be a brilliantly written book – M. R. Carey’s prose is taut but not cold with clinical distance, but maintains a sense of warmth and foreboding that draws the reader in. I found it to be a very, very readable book – on my recent re-read I managed 100 pages in about 40 minutes. Then there’s genuine tension and horror as the reader travel outside of the base, through some thrilling and visceral action, throughout the ruined United Kingdom, to apparent salvation.

When I read this book last year I read it immediately after The Day of the Triffids, and there’s a lot of similarities – nature reclaiming the world after an ecological, civilization-ending event, with redoubts of humanity scattered. The fungal-based “hungries” are pretty analogous to Triffids too, at least that was my interpretation, especially hungries progressed to the end-state, and those that progress to a something akin living plant, where the Ophiocordyceps has totally hotwired the host’s mental functions. The victims stop acting like people but rather shells of people infested and animated by the desires – basest and simplistic as they are – of the Ophiocordyceps, with nothing human remaining.

The story itself, once we break out of the base, remains tight.  There’s only a small repertoire of characters we experience Carey’s ruined world from the perspective of, and it’s just about right. Melanie is a special case, of course – she’s a “hungry”, as victims of the Ophiocordyceps fungus are termed, but one that has retained her mental faculties. She’s of prime importance to the voice of cold, clinical science, Dr Caldwell and forms a warm, emotional bond with her teacher, Helen Justineau. Melanie’s relationships with Justineau and Caldwell underpin a significant difference in how she and her fellow kind, mentally-cognitive hungries, are perceived: while science classifies them as dead, for the fungus has permeated the nervous system, Justineau relates on an emotional level to Melanie’s exhibition of characteristics that remain human in appearance.

That, I feel, is the main point of The Girl with All the Gifts – what really is humanity? How can humanity process a change of the nature the fungal outbreak to the very fabric of the species? The tussle between Justineau and Caldwell, and the schools of thought they represent, leaves a longing impact in the reader’s mind – at least, it certainly did for me.

And The Girl with All the Gifts uses a foe that is both novel to zombie fiction but also terrifying – a fungal outbreak. This is a welcome change from the “escaped bioweapon” or “extra-terrestrial invasion” that can be played a bit thin for the premises of post-apocalyptic fiction. The fungal infection is a totally natural occurrence and one humans have no defence against, ultimately. And Carey’s inspiration comes from a terrifying extrapolation of a fungus, the Ophiocordyceps, that already exists and just asks one question: what if this fungus attacked humanity? This clip from Planet Earth is widely reported to be the direct inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts; it’s even referenced in the text:

The Girl with All the Gifts is not perfect, but it’s close to. The journey to Beacon, humanity’s last, apparent, refuge, is ultimately a trip in vain – is there even a Beacon to to return to? But the ending of The Girl with All the Gifts reflects that – the group’s journey to Beacon reflects humanity’s journey against Ophiocordyceps. And I wish The Girl with All the Gifts expanded a little more into this universe that’s created as I feel it’s so rich and ripe for exploration.

Girl_with_Gifts_FTICharacter-wise, the narrative focuses on two, maybe three, of the main characters to which we join upon the journey, with the rest less fleshed out. Dr Caldwell is “cold science” to Helen Justineau’s “hot emotion”, and the conflict between over Melanie is palpable – again, it’s easy to see both sides, but it’s a square impossible to circle. I feel some of the other characters – Sgt Parks and Gallagher – are less well-definied, almost empty stereotypes, and the attempts to develop their stories is impeded by a break-neck plot; The Girl with All the Gifts takes place over several days, once the first act is broken out of. Does this change of pace fit well? Not perfectly, no.

I do feel the ending does come together in a more reflective and conceptual way than the rest of the book perhaps leads into, but it does leave the reader pondering. Like a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction there is no “magic bullet” to save humanity, and to its credit The Girl with All the Gifts ratchets that emotional impact up to the fore in the ending, presenting a genuine choice for humanity: wither and die or embrace the inevitable. For its first act alone, The Girl with All the Gifts is rightly lauded, but the book as a whole remains a thought-provoking and deeply memorable read.

Oh, and no, I’d not played The Last of Us before reading this book, and likely won’t.