Sunday, 1 August 2004

Sirius The Dog Star

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Alexander Potter
ISBN: 0-7564-0186-0)

'Sirius The Dog Star' is a compilation of short pieces by authors intending to place the spotlight firmly on their canine friends and the majority of the stories in this book fulfil that remit admirably. However, there are one or two where the presence of the dog seems little more than an afterthought, with little impact on the tale itself as if the author wrote the story on request rather than out of a genuine love of man's best friend. As such, the quality of the stories vary wildly from the good to the truly awful and the anthology itself becomes a rather average hit-and-miss affair. Nonetheless, the best of the fiction within makes this a worthwhile read, if not a vital buy.

Things begin well with a pair of stories from Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda that show an impressive ability to convey an animal's point of view on Huff's part and Czerneda's knack for creating imaginative, emotionally complex situations. Fiona Patton's 'Heartsease' is less enjoyable, a garbled and overly explanatory account of psychic powers among four close-knit families in the vicinity of Lake Ontario. India Edghill brings the first quarter of the book to a close with an interesting piece called 'A Spaniel For The King' about the succession of the English crown following the death of Charles II. How it qualifies for a place in a Science Fiction compilation is not clear, but it's nonetheless a good read, well written and engaging.

Stephen Leigh is next up, with a truly impressive piece of writing that examines the moral implications of tinkering with the genetic makeup of animals. Given a rudimentary intelligence, Leigh's Enhanced Canines (E.C.s or Easies) labour like slaves for humanity. When random breeding results in Madra, whose intelligence places him far above his peers, the supervising scientists consider whether they have the right to destroy him as a threat, unaware that the choice is no longer entirely in their hands... Speculative, original and entertaining, the story ends in a cracking cliff-hanger that will have you tearing your hair out in frustration.

'After The Fall,' a sort of 'Christmas Carol' with dogs and strange fey creatures is up next. Kristine Kathryn Rusch creates a readable if derivative piece here, but there is little to set it above the masses. Rosemary Edghill fares less well, her short story 'Final Exam' based upon ideas that seem at best ill-conceived and at worst ludicrous. Even ignoring the highly suspect premise, the story is uninspiring and limited in scope - the worst tale in this compilation.

Thankfully, Bernie Arntzen's 'Precious Cargo' quickly puts 'The Dog Star' back on track. Funny and engaging, this tale of interstellar traders transporting a batch of genetically engineered puppies to their new owner is filled with memorably scribed scenes and clever twists, while the dialogue is sharp and witty. Light-hearted and guaranteed to raise a giggle, this is the best of the many stories in 'Sirius' and together with Stephen Leigh's 'Among The Pack Alone', mentioned earlier, makes the book worth buying.

'Hair Of The Dog' by Doranna Durgin and 'All The Virtues' from Mickey Zucker Reichert represent another trough in the erratic line of quality. The former reads like an excerpt from a larger tale, making references to characters and events that have no real bearing on this short story yet which seem far more significant than what occurs within. As such, it is hard to keep track of what's going on amid all the confusion and easy to lose interest. 'All The Virtues', on the other hand, goes too far in the opposite
direction, taking the form of an extended flashback heavy with exposition. Dulled by the unnecessary detail, the story itself is a simple and lifeless one that seems totally out of place in a Science Fiction compilation.

The next tale in the compilation is one of a private detective hired to recover a missing experiment, a genetically engineered dog with human intelligence. 'Dog Gone' is somewhat pulp in style, John Zakour's writing light-hearted and pleasant to read. The case is rather easily solved however and limited by the length of the tale is lacking the twists and turns which make a good detective story.

'Life's A Bichon', despite its terrible pun-title is an entertaining piece of dark storytelling from Bethlyn Damone. A naïve city man finds himself caught up in a werewolf hunt with a difference, one that will change the way he looks at the world forever. Nicely written and with an interesting twist on the usual werewolf myths as well as a handful of other good ideas. It is an engaging if short read. The next tale, 'Keep The Dog Hence' by Jane Lindskold, continues the supernatural theme with a dark little chronicle of a pack of ghostly hunting dogs that take revenge on the owner of a mistreated mongrel. The writing is good and reflects the changing moods of the piece - sinister and chilling in places, sympathetic in others, gritty in the rest.

Finishing off the supernatural triumvirate, 'Snow Spawn' is a confusing jumble of ideas that revolve around a violent trapper and his broken-spirited wife after he kills her pet dog. A blizzard descends on the cabin, and a great white dog appears... After that, things get too bizarre to follow and while the writing is evocative the story is a bewildering mess that defies any attempts to make sense of it.

The penultimate tale is 'Improper Congress' by Elaine Quon, an amusing piece that should serve as a warning of just how badly things can go wrong when a transporter malfunctions. Certainly novel, the story is short and sweet, though the future-slang is somewhat irritating and overused.

Finally, we reach 'Huntbrother' by Michelle West, by far the longest story in the book, telling of a young noblewoman whose love perishes in a far away war. However, her beau is granted one night of release from death, one night with his true love and it is on that night, filled with their god's power, that their son is conceived. 'Huntbrother' is the story of that child, Stephen, and how he grows to fulfil his destiny as the son of the god Bredan. Slow to start and overly concerned from time to time with the unremarkable daily events in his life, the story is nonetheless a powerful one, detailing the conflicts as the young mother struggles to bring up her son. The world they inhabit is a fascinating one, renaissance-like in its social setting yet curiously medieval in other ways. By the end of the account, as Stephen faces the first true test of his semi-divinity in a brutally fast-paced and climatic finale, the reader finds themselves absorbed and intrigued. The only major qualm I had with 'Huntbrother' is that, once again, it reads as though taken from a much larger story, leaving the tale curiously truncated as though it were merely the opening chapter of some great saga. Still, as an incentive to search out Michelle West's other novels it is very effective and a solid piece of work.

Despite the occasional misfire, 'Sirius: The Dog Star' is a readable collection of tales. A couple of standout pieces keep it afloat where otherwise it might have sunk and while a few of the stories seem only tangentially dog-related, they may be forgiven. All in all, 'Sirius' is a worthy addition to my 'just makes the grade' shelf.

This review was originally written for