Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller (1988)
Review by Paul Kincaid
In 1922 the young David Garnett published his first novel, a brief fable called Lady into Fox. It tells the story of Silvia Tebrick, who one day suddenly turns into a vixen, and of her husband, Richard Tebrick, who tries to protect his newly wild spouse until she is eventually killed by the hunt. This was far from being the first work to feature humans transformed into animals. Think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, indeed, Franz Kafka’s novella, ‘The Metamorphosis’, which had appeared, in German, as recently as 1915. But Garnett’s novel was perhaps the first in which we are required to pay attention to the gender of the transformee. Though our attention is more on Richard than Silvia, we might read her increasing wildness as reflecting the increasing independence espoused by the suffragist movement, and the climax suggesting how society, represented by the hunt, crushes women. However we read Garnett’s novel, though, one thing is clear, his central conceit of representing the role of woman by changing her into an animal has become almost a commonplace of later, particularly feminist, science fiction. We still see some iteration of this today in the work of writers such as Kij Johnson, but probably the most extravagant, significant and certainly funniest expression of the trope was in another first novel, Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller.
Emshwiller had been writing short stories since the 1950s, so the debut novel, published in 1988, was long delayed. Story titles like ‘Sex And/Or Mr Morrison’ (from Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967)) gave notice that relations between the sexes would be a significant theme in her work. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the extraordinary satirical joie de vivre that is such a feature of Carmen Dog. Oh the satire is angry enough, but never bitter, and there is real elation in the inventive way Emshwiller plays with ideas all the way through the novel.
There are no half measures in Carmen Dog: this is not the story of one woman transformed into an animal, but all women; while, reciprocally, animals change into women. The change has already begun as the novel opens, though it is not yet as widespread as it will become. Before we are even introduced to our heroine, we learn that:
red-headed, plump Christine who had, several times, been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all. (p2)
That passage is actually a fair representation of Emshwiller’s style throughout the novel: brisk, allusive, kaleidoscopic, skimming across the surface of the change without going into too much unnecessary detail (do we need to know exactly what Mona is turning into, or what Mabel used to be?). The women (and animals) are named, though we will never meet any of them again; the men mostly aren’t. Men are titles, roles, “the psychologist,” “the husband.” They are stolid, unchanging, uninterested, and uninteresting; many of them seem to have little or no awareness of the extraordinary societal changes going on around them. Men are mostly the villains in this story as well, though that is not to impute a simplistic all-men-are-bad, all-women-are-good attitude to the novel. The villainy stems mostly from incomprehension: we are in a whole world of the women men don’t see.
Our heroine is Pooch, whose dogness remains as a rather endearing part of her character throughout the novel (though the name presumably says something about the unimaginativeness of the unnamed husband and wife who begin our story as her owners). The wife is turning into a vicious snapping turtle, the husband simply wants the smooth surface of his life to continue undisturbed, and Pooch, slowly becoming human, finds more domestic responsibilities falling upon her: taking care of the children, shopping, cleaning, and so on. She takes all this on out of an innate loyalty, or perhaps more precisely a desire to be loyal, that remains one of her abiding characteristics whatever else happens to her. When, eventually, she gets to see the psychologist (tellingly, all these transformations are seen only as psychological problems for the women) his perceptions are comically banal:
It is clear that Pooch has always wanted to be of service to mankind in any way that she possibly could and from the general look of her, he would guess that her retrieving instincts are strong and that she might be passionately interested in swimming. (p4)
Apply those perceptions to a dog and they tell us only about what we humans have created through breeding and training; apply them to a woman . . . But such is the magic of Emshwiller’s work.
Of course, we have no sooner met Pooch in her cosy but clearly unsatisfactory domestic situation, than she is forced to flee. What follows is a typical picaresque in which our innocent and unwary heroine faces the threats and temptations of the big bad city. These encounters allow us to witness the plight of women-creatures in this new reality, while Pooch, like picaresque heroines of old (Fanny Hill, say, or Justine), remains resolutely undepraved by the depravity she experiences. There is the city pound (equivalent of a gaol and treated as such), where she gives her collar to another dog in danger of being put down, so that it might prove it is owned and thus escape death. There is another version of a prison when she and her friends from the pound are held by the psychologist, who wants to conduct experiments on these new not-quite-people. Here Pooch learns to compose poetry (so we can see her as a civilized person, even if the psychologist cannot), and thrives in the community of her fellows (it is a commonplace in the feminist SF of the period that women are mutually supportive and act communally, while men are isolated and individualist). Given how much the dog part of her character still craves a master to whom she can be loyal, this situation would suit Pooch well were it not for the increasing use of pain in the psychologist’s experiments. Instead, she fights back, and escapes.
The next part of this picaresque sees Pooch wandering the city alone, seeing an opera and discovering a desire to sing, then falling in with a libertine who also happens to be the opera impresario. Finally, she is drawn back to the psychologist’s home in the hope of rescuing her fellows, only to discover that the psychologist’s wife is actually the leader of a secret liberation movement. In other words, the choice facing our women-creatures has gone from one between ownership or death in the pound, to one between freedom or imprisonment now that they have taken control of their own future.
It was a time when feminist SF tended to lay out its wares in bold, not to say garish, contrasts, and Emshwiller is not immune to that. But Emshwiller makes a virtue of the broad strokes, making it a part of the comedy of her novel. Big and foolish things happen, because that is precisely in the nature of such satires; but these big and foolish things are handled wittily, so that we find ourselves laughing at them and with them at the same time. We feel for Pooch as a sort of Everywoman as she makes her way through various misadventures, and we hiss at the pantomime villain men; but they are not entirely villainous, and there are good men discovered along the way, and the story has a happy ending because such stories need to have a happy ending.
Emshwiller’s novel is a curious mid-career debut, but there are first novel faults and she has become an even more sophisticated writer since then. None of that spoils the sheer exhilaration of this work. It remains one of the most striking and powerful examples of feminist SF.
This review originally appeared on Strange Horizons.