I read Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis earlier this year at the vehement recommendation of Filler Words (names have been changed to protect the innocent) – whose recommendations I’ve learned must be considered in context of the fact that he only reads dense Can Lit – and because it was the 2015 Giller prize winner (which offers about the same indication of my likely level of enjoyment as a recommendation by Filler Words does).
I just finished reading Sirius by Olaf Stapledon because Brockville told me about it. A board game that we were playing referenced Stapledon, and Brockville described some of his work. Sirius sounded awfully similar to Fifteen Dogs, so I had to check it out.
Fifteen Dogs was published in 2015 and is the story of what happens when two gods (Hermes and Apollo) give human language and intelligence to a pack of dogs and bet on whether any of the dogs can find happiness. Some of the dogs decide that they are uncomfortable with their new human nature and do their utmost to deny it, refusing to speak or do anything un-doglike. Others explore their newfound intelligence – one forms a strong and complex bond with a human woman, another begins composing poetry. The book explicitly declares itself an apologue (the subtitle is “An Apologue”), warning us that we are meant to take moral reflections from the story. Seeing human behaviour through the eyes of the dogs, who try to understand it and reconcile their human nature with their dog nature, allows an opportunity to reflect on humanity.
The Giller Prize jury had this to say about the book:
“What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?”
That commentary could easily be a description of Sirius.
Sirius was published in 1944, and is the story of what happens when a scientist (Thomas Trelone) gives a dog human intelligence, just to see if he can. Sirius is raised alongside Trelone’s daughter Plaxy as one of the family, and forms a complex (and slightly disturbing) bond with her. Sirius struggles with the feral urges of his dog nature against the spiritual and philosophical urges of his human nature. Sirius experiments with poetry and music. The book declares itself Science Fiction (it’s written in capital letters on the cover), warning us that there will be lasers. There are none. The only sciencey stuff involved is the ability to give a dog human intelligence, which is really just a means to provide a different viewpoint on human nature. This allows a philosophical exploration of humanity. Written during the Second World War, there was probably a lot to wonder about.
There are many parallels between the books not worth enumerating here. I’m sure that Alexis did not intentionally copy the ideas of Stapledon, but I wonder if he encountered Sirius at some point and the idea stuck with him, or whether, given only the idea of dog’s perspective on man, the resulting observations are inevitable. Or perhaps there are only so many stories in the world. I wonder, though, if Fifteen Dogs would still have won the Giller if any of the jurors had read Sirius.
I preferred Sirius because it didn’t feel like it was trying so hard to be a book of philosophy. I think I might be biased against CanLit, but I always feel like its trying too hard to be deep and literary.
Sirius is a gently meandering story where you know the end from the beginning. Despite being Science Fiction, there is very little science, no explosions, no mysteries, no cliff-hangers, and in fact no exciting events at all. There’s just a gradual development of the characters, and the exploration of religion, music, and social values.
Two ideas passages resonated with me:
In a way it was easy to cling to faith and betray intelligence, though Geoffrey’s active faith was no easy-going affair. It was easy, too, to cling to intelligence and abandon faith, like McBane, for instance. But was there no way of being equally loyal to both?
Even in man, whose brain and body had developed in step with one another for millions of years, the large cerebrum seems to put a strain on the system, and seemed to be in fact something of a morbid growth, leading all too often to mental disorder. In the case of the dog, when it is suddenly given an enlarged brain, the stress is far more serious.