Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Gord Sellar's "Prodigal": review

Gord Sellar is what I call an "e-friend." This means he and I are friendly acquaintances who have never met face to face, but who know each other through blogs and through occasional online correspondence. Gord is a teacher, but I suspect he'd rather be thought of as a writer first. He blogs—only rarely these days, as he's a husband and dad with a job—at GordSellar.com, but he also churns out a variety of works, mostly science fiction, that are often published in magazines and hardcover anthologies. If I'm not mistaken, he's won awards for his writing. I caught a recent announcement on his blog saying that his short story "Prodigal" was now available, at least temporarily, for free as a PDF, so I downloaded it and started reading it last night, just as I was leaving the office.

That was a mistake. I ended up delaying my nighttime walk in order to finish the story, which is perhaps the best compliment I can give any writer. If your story interests me enough to make me put off any important, intended action—like eating dinner or going home—it must be pretty damn good. And Gord is a pretty damn good writer.

"Prodigal" is set in the near future. The main wrinkle is that house pets can undergo a procedure called "sentientization" that alters and enhances their brains and reshapes their speech organs so that they're capable of higher-level cognition and have the ability to express their thoughts as humans do. Tim, our narrator and the family patriarch, relates the story of how he and his wife Jennifer rewired their dog Benji because they couldn't have a child. Benji, surgically and neurochemically enhanced, picks up language at a frightening rate, and things go well with him at first, even after Jennifer surprises Tim with the announcement that she has successfully gotten pregnant with little Martin.

The situation begins to curdle when Benji, whose consciousness is expanding at the same rate as his linguistic ability, comes to realize, and then resent, his standing as a mere house pet—not sharing the same food, not being permitted to use the same facilities, not enjoying the same status and privileges as humans despite becoming more and more human—at least in certain ways—every day. As Gord's story rolls on, this problem becomes increasingly acute, and it turns out that what's happening to Benji is part of a much larger, more sinister picture. I won't spoil the rest; go visit Gord's blog post and download his story while you still can.

Let's get the criticisms out of the way first so we can focus on the many things the story gets right. I found myself disagreeing almost immediately with the term "sentientization" as a descriptor of the procedure that Benji and other pets undergo. There are several competing definitions of sentience—self-awareness is one, and the ability to perceive and feel is another, to name just two—but no matter the definition, cats and dogs are already sentient, as any Buddhist will tell you: they emote, they suffer, they have inner lives. A different term, like "sentience enhancement" (which would also have emphasized the arrogant speciesism inherent in the idea of bringing house pets "up to speed" with humans), might have been better. Then again, it could be that Gord intended the term as a deliberate or even ironic misnomer, one that unpleasantly implies that cats and dogs, before undergoing the enhancement procedure, are non-sentient things.

And while I realize that a short story can engage in only so much world-building, I would have liked to know more about the society that Tim and Jennifer inhabit. It's obviously a world with sapient pets (the tension contained within that two-word phrase is, I think, the central theme of Gord's story: to what extent can something sapient be considered a pet?), and while the multimedia technology confusingly includes DVDs (which, in our world, are rapidly fading into obsolescence), television has evolved into a kind of smell-o-vision, presumably to engage dogs and cats more deeply in the viewing experience. In this world, sapient animals serve as police officers, but strangely, Tim seems surprised by this, just as he's surprised by the canine announcer on TV who speaks perfect, unaccented English. It's almost as if this world of smart animals has suddenly appeared around Tim, catching him off-guard. How could Tim have been unaware of the massive degree to which this technology had changed society? Tim doesn't strike me as a blinkered navel-gazer. This is an aspect of the story's world-building that I'd like to have clarified. I realize it's possible that Tim's awareness of the smart-animal world might have everything to do with taking his own dog in to have the sentientization done (just as, after you buy your own Honda, you're suddenly aware of all the Hondas on the road), but such a rationale feels like a stretch. That said, it's to Gord's credit that he did enough world-building to make me curious to explore his world more deeply.

Perhaps the biggest critique of the story, though, is that it uncomfortably parallels 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." The notion of "lower" life forms medically gaining human-level cognitive abilities (and commensurately sophisticated emotional makeups)—with Benji even having the equivalent of Caesar the ape's iconic "NO!" moment—has been explored before. I came to this insight slowly while I was reading Gord's story. At first, I caught whiffs of "Flowers for Algernon," but then I realized this was really "Planet of the Hounds." Gord's story is clearly beholden to earlier stories that have trod similar paths.

So now, let's focus on what Gord got right. First, there's the matter of the prose, which flows beautifully. Gord is a clear writer; his diction carries a certain dignity that isn't flowery or pretentious. Tim is our narrator, and Gord's writing style allows us to inhabit Tim's headspace quite easily. Gord's rendering of Benji's evolving speaking ability is also a clever device for measuring time throughout the story: you know that months have passed when Benji finally speaks to Tim in startlingly perfect idiomatic English.

Second, there's the story itself. I had the feeling, going into "Prodigal," that this might turn from an idyll into a terror tale, and it did, kind of. I appreciate how Gord structured the plot, giving us an intravenous drip of dawning horror as we begin to see the implications of making your faithful dog too smart for its own good. And here's something I especially enjoyed about the story: Gord managed to avoid the trap that catches many SF writers in that he didn't make this primarily a morality tale about science gone mad. Carl Sagan used to complain that so many "science"-related stories involved mad scientists, to wit: unethical people on an insane quest to develop something that would ultimately destroy the world in a firestorm of egoistic hubris. In the world of Gord's story, we don't learn the history of pet-sentientization: the procedure is simply a given, which means the ethical debate about smartening up your pets is long over and is seen by human society as a net good. All of that history is implied in Gord's story thanks to the givenness of the technology.

Third, there are the fascinatingly meaty themes Gord is tackling. Foremost among these themes is the interrelationship between and among sentience, personhood, and rights. Along those lines, there might almost be a "Battlestar Galactica" parallel: humanity creates a class of beings equal to itself, and that creation has come to rebel against its creators. Pets in Gord's world aren't slaves the way the Cylons were in "Battlestar Galactica," but pets are, at best, second-class citizens who, despite their boosted IQs, still receive humiliating swats on the nose for improper behavior. Gord's story also touches on the theme of family: canine Benji is a surrogate son until human Martin comes along and essentially supplants Benji. Tim and Jennifer try to explain to Benji that Martin has to sleep in a human bed and has to eat human food, but as time goes on, and as Benji hears dissenting rhetoric from other disgruntled dogs, those explanations begin to sound increasingly hollow.

Finally, there's the simple fact that Gord's story is gripping. All my critiques aside, I found "Prodigal" to be engagingly readable, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical questions of personhood... or to people who simply like sinister talking dogs. Expertly written, deep without being preachy or ornate, and a real page-turner to boot, "Prodigal" will make you ponder the semantic echoes of its one-word title.

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