Wednesday, April 08, 2015

An Intelligent Dog

Odd John/SiriusSirius 
by Olaf Stapledon


"Not that Trelone had at this stage any expectation of raising any animal so far in mental stature that it would approach human mentality.  His aim was merely to produce, as he put it, "a rather super-sub-human intelligence, a missing-link mind."  For this purpose the dog was admirably suited." (p 172)


In the world of Science Fiction alien creatures are common characters. Often these creatures have superior intelligence. The novel Sirius by Olaf Stapledon imagines what would happen if a scientist created a super-intelligent dog. Set in Wales and, briefly, Cambridge and London during the years before and during World War II this is a realistic portrayal of the creation of just such a dog.
Thomas Trelone is the scientist who creates the super-intelligent dog, named Sirius. He is the only dog to have attained a human-like intelligence. Through a number of experiments Thomas has created better dogs who have an intermediate intelligence (they are above the dog's average intelligence, but they cannot master human language and complex analytic thinking as Sirius does). A sense of existential questioning suffuses the book, as the author delves into every aspect of Sirius's psyche. The novel deals with a large number of human issues through Sirius and his experiences, his unusual nature, his ideas and his relationships with humans.

Sirius is raised in North Wales, near Trawsfynydd. He is born at the same time as his creator's human daughter, Plaxy, and both of them are raised together as brother and sister. The characters go to great lengths to prevent Sirius from becoming a circus-type wonder-dog, and instead, they seek to develop Sirius's character much like a family would create and foster that of a human child. The intelligence of the dog is comparable to a normal human being, as he is able to communicate with English words, although it takes some time to understand his canine pronunciation.

The story is fascinating through honest portrayal of the disadvantages that Sirius faces in spite of his intelligence. The lack of hands reminds one of how much we take our own hands for granted, but there are other unique issues like Sirius's wolf-like nature which overwhelms him at times and leads to serious issues that Thomas did not foresee, but must nevertheless address. There is also the difficulty of Sirius's relationship with Plaxy which is close but strained as she grows older and leaves home. Interestingly she is not as interested in serious learning and contemplation as is Sirius creating another difficulty. In the end Sirius writes a book and starts another.

Stapledon writes with a lucid style and presents the world of Sirius with a realism that depicts his problems and accomplishments in a wholly believable way. Sirius's interest in the meaning of life and his spiritual nature were some of the most unexpected yet interesting aspects of this delightful work of speculative fiction.

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4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

I had heard a lot about this books and have wanted to read it.

I love the fact that the plot is turned into a vehicle to explore some of the big questions about life.

Parrish Lantern said...

There are a couple of the books that this brings to mind I am a cat by Natsume Soseki & Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov, both good books, so this sounds interesting.

James said...

Brian,

Thanks for your comment. The desires and dreams of Sirius as well as his spiritual journey are an important part of this novel.

James said...

Gary,

Thanks for your recommendations. I am also reminded of two short stories: "A Man and His Dog" by Thomas Mann and "Investigations of a Dog" by Franz Kafka. The Mann story is told from the point of view of the man while Kafka's fascinating tale is told from the point of view of an intelligent dog.
Stapledon's tale is told from the point of view of a narrator who also happens to be Plaxy's lover.
It seems that dogs are a fruitful source of material for serious writers.