Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton
One of the most interesting aspects of reviewing at such volume is the sudden opportunity to notice coincidences — all the more ironic because one of the features in fiction that I find most aggravating is the coincidence, e.g. that instead of a plot developing along organic and natural lines, everything is structured in a way that events just happen to occur in the order necessary to achieve the desired effect. When this is woefully contrived, I happily leap on the improbability of the coincidence and deride the author for being a force of destiny. Well, a month or so ago, I reviewed a book with a dog as the protagonist and ruminated on the scarcity of first-person narratives featuring animals. In retrospect, this is a good thing because authors routinely fall into the trap of overly sentimentalising the way in which the animals are portrayed.
Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a set of three novellas, the titular story being about a poodle/labrador cross (the story was nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award and won the 2005 Sturgeon Award). We’re in the field of animal uplift for military purposes. Cognitive enhancement is a topic not uncommon in science fiction and medical thrillers (and animation blockbusters like Muntz’ dogs in Up). In this instance, we humans have been manipulating dogs for land use, and sealions and dolphins for use at sea. The most effective teams arise when the humans have real empathy for the animals. We ride with Chip and his human handler, Lieutenant Dial, who prove very good in the field, both for pubic demonstration purposes and when confronting the “enemy”. Thematically, this is a story about loyalty and the ethics of leadership. Because the dog is the point of view, we get to see multiple levels of duty in action. It starts with the relationship between the dog and his handler, moves up to the relationship between Dial, now promoted to Captain, and those under his command. And then spreads to look at the relationship between invading troops and unarmed civilians. Needless to say, the story doesn’t show the human side in a very good light apart from Dial, but each individual has his or her own rights and interests to protect with everything told in an unaffected prose with a clear eye for more objective values. This is an outstanding story.
“Blackburn and the Blade” was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and shows us a series character coming into a small town to regroup, re-equip and prepare to move on again. Except coming into a new environment often means meeting new people. At times, they can prove a dangerous distraction, introducing unexpected enemies. This is most elegantly put together, giving us a clear sight of all the relevant characters and mentioning the murder just before our “hero” came to town. Once we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time for the murderer to reappear. Fortunately, there’s a celestial conjunction — now that’s what a proper coincidence looks like when you’re writing a noir supernatural thriller.
“The Adakian Eagle” was a nominee for the Edgar and, as that would suggest, it’s a superb story featuring an ageing Dashiell Hammett on manoeuvres in WWII. American troops found themselves in some interesting places when fighting the Japanese and this takes us to the Aleutian Islands in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are they remote, but also volcanic and prone to rain. Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu, the islands became a vital supply depot for the Russian campaign. This assistance to the Commies was somewhat ironic at the time and became even more so when the permafrost of the Cold War set in and the McCarthy backlash came to fruition. During the war, the cultural hostility is nicely captured here in the relationship between the Lieutenant Colonel and Dashiell Hammett, with the customary racial prejudice and contempt for those considered less intelligent also on display.
The story explores two convergent forces. The first we may call a belief in the potential of the supernatural to affect events in the real world. The second is the determination of an older and more experienced man to cut through the bullshit and do whatever is required to protect himself and anyone else who has fallen under his protection. The result is strictly speaking an investigation of a suspicious death on the side of one of the volcanos, but the influence of belief in the supernatural is immanent, providing a key element in both the short and longer term motivation for events. It should be said the other element in the motive is elegantly revealed as one of the more traditional and all too human desires. In the short term, the forces balance each other out — to that extent, everyone gets what they deserve. In the long term, history stays on track which is as it should be.
Bradley Denton is new to me but these three novellas convince me I really should take the time to track down more of his work. That means this collection has served its purpose and introduced an author whose range and diversity is worth exploring. Thank you Subterranean Press.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.