It is probably safe to claim that Olaf Stapledon (1866-1950) is best remembered today as a science fiction writer, rather than a philosopher; since his recognition as the first winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award (2001) and admission to the SFWA Hall of Fame (2014), there has been a steady trickle of reviews and articles about his work. His deep-thinking content and post-Victorian prose are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but his work can still provoke some intense debate.
Earlier, I praised Odd John for being inventive as a novel and as a book of ideas – the titular character was not sympathetic, but served to turn a mirror on ourselves as modern humans. I also thought the narrator was rather meek, but his stuffy and indirect way of describing things illustrated the level of discomfort Stapledon’s contemporary readers would have with the way a generation of super-humans disregarded their social and sexual norms.
In Sirius (1944), we see similar tricks: Stapledon again utilizes a rather passive narrator – the unfortunate Robert – who describes the singular life of the title character. In this case, Sirius is a sheepdog who was prenatally treated with an experimental compound to grow his brain to human complexity. He develops an acute understanding of language, psychology and machines, but retains his canine genius for hearing and smell, as well as the capacity to love a human. He is the unique product of a wayward biologist, who can readily create intelligent sheepdogs, but never again another Sirius. This may have been far-off speculation in Stapledon’s time, but by 2013 science has discovered a genetic treatment that induces enhanced brain development – including strikingly primate-like formations of folds and gyri – in prenatal mice. Just like John of Odd John, Sirius is intelligent but not human, and therefore is compelled to demonstrate the value of social codes and taboos by breaking them.
If that introduction seems overly informative for a blog that tends to avoid major spoilers, it’s because Stapledon starts the novel at a point near the end of the actual story:
During that strange meal Plaxy told me, as I had guessed, Sirius was her father’s crowning achievement, that he had been brought up as a member of the Trelone family, that he was now helping to run a sheep farm, that she herself was keeping house for him, and also working on the farm, compensating for his lack of hands.
Sirius is not set up to make the reader turn pages, asking what happens next; Stapledon wants you to ask how did we get here, or why did that happen instead. This is not a brisk Hard Case Crime novel or a wild SF adventure yarn – Stapledon’s bulky sentences would never serve that style of literature. His writing, an understandable obstacle for some, suits the reader willing to chase the philosophical questions.
the creation of Sirius
Thomas Trelone is a iconoclastic English scientist who has achieved a modest reputation by enhancing the intelligence of sheep-dogs in controlled experiments. He reliably produces dogs capable of understanding human commands with a sense of logic and resolving issues in the pasture; several herdsman in Wales purchase and employ these dogs, making the practical acceptance of their unusual intelligence. However, to secure his fame within academic circles, Thomas pursues the idea of producing a dog with human intelligence. His experiments result in the chance creation of Sirius, with (minor spoiler here) all other attempts resulting in failure; Sirius is one of a kind.
Thomas raises the puppy Sirius to be the constant companion of his daughter Plaxy (or equally, the other way around). They play together constantly and share, to the best of their abilities, in human-behaviors and canine-behaviors. The dog attempts to keep pace in Plaxy’s early tutoring sessions:
So far as possible, Sirius took part in all the simple lessons that Elizabeth [the mother] gave to Plaxy. He was never very good at arithmetic, perhaps because of his poor visual powers; but he managed to avoid being outclassed by Plaxy, who was none too good herself. His spelling, too, was very bad, probably for the same reason. But at an early age he showed a great interest in language and the art of precise expression. In spite of his visual weakness he read a good deal, and he often begged members of the family to read aloud to him. This they did very frequently, knowing how great a boon it was for him.
Just as amusing are Robert’s descriptions of Plaxy’s adventures outdoors with Sirius, where the two happily explore together and mark their territory. Sirius also learns to read the mood states of his family by the odor, identifying their “cross smell,” “tired smell,” and so on. There’s some rich material in this story for those seeking questions (don’t look to fiction for answers) about the role of pets in family life.
the talent of Sirius
Besides language (he approximates words through various whines, barks and other vocalizations), Sirius demonstrates an exemplary capacity for reasoning. This is partly an outcome of the time he is forced to spend alone, or without someone who could understand him. He maintains his dog’s talents for smell and hearing, often attempting to encode human emotions through the terms of his keen senses. He is often limited by having paws instead of hands, and regrets his inability to grasp and control things. Above all these things is the dog’s capacity to love a human, which becomes the main theme of Sirius.
Now, a disclosure: the plausibility of all this is going to be helped or hindered by the reader’s enthusiasm for dogs. To know one as your pet is to appreciate its talent for understanding your habits and tendencies. Stapledon did not assume the mind of a dog like Jack London did for his Call of the Wild, but he invented a hybrid creature that could put the canine perspective into human terms.
Stapledon freely stretches our suspension of disbelief when Sirius learns to speak English and Welsh, administer first aid to injured sheep and compose his own music. Thomas and Plaxy construct special gloves for him to control a pencil with his paw, and he gradually learns to write his thoughts. During his sheep-dog apprenticeship, he even manages to post a letter at one point:
Not till several days later did Sirius find an opportunity of writing his letter. In spidery capitals it said, “Dear Plaxy, I hope you are happy. I am lonely without you, terribly. Love, Sirius.” With great care he addressed the envelope, hoping that his memory was trustworthy. He had serious difficulty in folding the paper and putting it into the envelope. Then he licked the gummy-edge, closed it, and held his paw on it.
The whole episode is a minor entertainment, but carries the message that Sirius can achieve surprising amounts through sheer persistence. Stapledon was well aware of the unlikeliness of several of Sirius’ human-like feats and probably thought they would lighten the novel a bit. Some of Gary Larson’s most famous Far Side cartoons of the 1980s were centered around animals and our inability to communicate with them, and the subject was probably funny in 1944.
I already linked to the critical review on Weighing the Pig Doesn’t Fatten It, which brings up the fact that the premise of Sirius matches that of Frankenstein. There is some overlap, owing to the influence of Shelley’s 1819 masterpiece on many SF novels – better this than the bug-eyed monsters of the pulp era. I happen to like Frankenstein quite a bit, and am ready for another Frankenstein story every so often. There are important differences, however. Sirius was raised in a family and enjoyed a deep companionship with Plaxy, and Thomas also went to great lengths to educate him, elements vitally missing from the life of Frankenstein’s monster.
norms and taboos
Also, unlike the perpetually frustrated monster of Frankenstein, Sirius has frequent sex with a variety of female dogs throughout the countryside. Giving in to these temptations with beings he feels are of a different species is one-half of Sirius’ “wolf” identity. The other half takes the form of violent outbursts, sometimes directed toward dog rivals and abusive humans, and sometimes toward innocent creatures, like a small pony. Is this predator, under a veneer of civility, specific to Sirius or a reflection on human nature that is only perceptible to this unique creature? Stapledon argues the latter, clearly because there’s a war on – the orgy of destruction he had been worrying about since Odd John, at least – but in a way that doesn’t quite tie together. It’s the dated prose that gets in the way, here; I’m afraid the lessens of Stapledon (and Wells as well) will reach fewer readers as time goes on for this reason.
Much less detail is given to the extent of the physical relationship between Sirius and Plexy. There’s clearly temptation on his part, derived from the confusion of his identity as dog on the outside, but something approaching human on the inside. Stapledon’s post-Victorian language, and his increasingly curious choice of the jealous Robert as the narrator, obfuscates the matter; we’re left to interpret the most likely truth for ourselves.
However, many folk of the countryside have concluded the worst about Sirius and Plexy. Salacious gossip about the pair runs rampant, and the two are increasingly isolated. Sirius is acceptable as a talented sheep-dog, but not as a something who can fill the roles of man. The sexual rumors, and the ill will that they provoke between the Welsh locals and Sirius, that finally bring events to a head. The final chapters can feel like an unsatisfactory conclusion to the novel, but it realizes the sense of doom that had been lingering over the characters since the advent of the War.
The real taboo that Sirius guilty of breaking is attempting to share the mantle with mankind as the species in charge. Once the open-minded sheep-herd Pugh (maybe my favorite human character) and Thomas (the only source of intelligent dogs) depart from his life, Sirius is rejected by the society around him. Without these individuals, the hostility around him drives Sirius into his wolf-state with increasing frequency. The behavior of the locals is despicable and earns Sirius his sympathy from Robert.
Sirius’s enemies were not be intimidated. Whenever he went to the village, a stone was sure to be thrown at him, and when he whisked round to spot the culprit no one looked guilty. Once, indeed, he did detect the assailant, a young laborer. Sirius approached him threateningly, but immediately a swarm of dogs and men set on him. Fortunately two of his friends, the local doctor and the village policeman, were able to quell the brawl.
A pacifist and natural skeptic, Stapledon clearly refutes the rough “stiff upper lip” nobility of survival that has characterized the country during the war, replacing it with suspicion and bitterness. He does not go so far as, say, Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird (I haven’t read anybody since that goes that far), but the ordinary people of the time don’t come off very well at all. There is a curiously parallel circumstance in Angus Wilson’s The Old Men of the Zoo, where the English of the countryside turn against zoo animals after the bombs start falling.
the legacy of Sirius
As hinted in the opening chapter, the war effort frustrates Thomas and deprives him the resources to grow his breeding program. This means that Sirius is destined to have no natural or scientific progeny; the value of his existence is to be assessed by his life, alone. I don’t think Stapledon makes an indictment of science this way; Britain was struggling for its very existence at the time. Rather, it is a broader statement about the inability of our culture to grasp at the rare opportunities it receives to truly learn about itself. In this way, the emotional tragedies of Sirius become larger intellectual tragedies of chances missed.
After about a week since finishing Sirius, I find that it is not the dog’s failures that resonate, but his successes. He managed to balance his innate happiness as a working sheepdog with his intellectual ambitions and achieve a temporary satisfaction. He attempted to blend in the society of urban intellectuals, but found their company empty and wisely departed. Maybe this conclusion arises only from a committed “dog person”, but in the end, the life Sirius led was one worth reading. 9/10.
NOTE: Looking back on this article (spurred by the comments), I neglected to mention the other significant friendship between Sirius and a human. After attempting to mix with the intellectuals in London, Sirius found his way into a poor neighborhood and a modest Methodist congregation. The minister Rev. Geoffrey was open to meeting Sirius, and grew to appreciate the dog’s intelligence as well as his aspirations for spiritual enlightenment. Their discussions about the soul, and whether Sirius possessed one, are another highlight of the book. I thought the ending of this subplot was rather awkward, but I should have mentioned Rev. Geoffrey in the article.
Very thoughtful review–and don’t think I didn’t notice how much your understanding of the book was enhanced by an understanding of dogs. This is, likewise, Stapledon’s best book (he thought so himself) precisely because he shared that understanding (I’m sure you noticed Sirius’ wry description of the different ways humans react to dogs–I too aspire to be ‘dog-interested’–not merely a fawning fatuous dog lover. But I’m a bit of both, I guess. I’ve met all the other types too, and loathe them, but takes all kinds.)
When I looked over the published letters between him and his future wife (who is undeniably the model for Plaxy), I saw mentions of dogs. This book is more rooted in day to day reality than any others he wrote. Paws on the ground, head in the stars.
The quickened mind. More trouble than it’s worth? Would we be happier as mere animals? Many of us come close to that anyway. “It’s going to be lonely being me.” It always is. Being more aware than the average. Pugh, who I share your admiration for, is there to remind us that being more book-educated and more aware are not always the same thing.
I know what you mean about the language, but I think it’s dated very well. Don’t we want to know how people wrote and talked in earlier eras? Writing that comes from the deepest part of someone that reflective, never really dates. (Stapledon, please note, mocks his somewhat prosaic mode of self-expression by having Robert say how Sirius gets so absurdly formal when he’s trying to express his inmost thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to be British to understand that, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt.)
And that is the key to the book–Stapledon is Sirius. And Robert. At the same time. Stapledon has imagined himself as a dog–and imagined what it would be like if Agnes Miller, the lovely tomboy Australian cousin he wooed in epistolary fashion, while he fought in WWI, was in love with a different version of him–Sirius is the fullest expression of his inmost self, the philosopher, the spiritualist. Robert is more practical, more centered, and has the right genitalia. And they both get her.
So no, I don’t agree Robert is superfluous. Somebody who loves and appreciates both these persons, is a keenly jealous of the bond they share, but sees its beauty all the more clearly for that, is needed, in order to tell the story. The bracketing device is very effective (and very possibly borrowed from Shelley, but Stapledon makes much better use of it).
Apparently, Agnes did have a very intense flirtation (maybe more) with a man she met, shortly before she married Stapledon (decades before he wrote this), so that doubtless came into it as well. But they had what seems to have been an exceptional marriage, and Agnes did more than anyone to make sure Stapledon’s legacy would be preserved for a more appreciative posterity–and in spite of his sometimes stilted dialogue (one advantage of a protagonist with non-human vocal equipment is that there’s less dialogue to write), this is one for the ages.
(And seriously, isn’t Mary Shelley’s florid Georgian-era prose, perhaps over-influenced by her husband and Lord Byron, a whole lot harder to navigate? Shakespeare’s no picnic either. The play is the thing, you know?)
I’d rank it over anything of Wells I’ve ever read. I’d have a hard time naming a book that means more to me. But that’s partly because I lived with a Sirius. Shepherd Mix. He couldn’t read and write. I used to wonder what he’d say if he could speak. He was a philosopher in his own right. I’d look back sometimes, see him watching me, and everything else, taking it all in, by smell, sight, and sound–trying to figure it all out. I hope he had enough time. I know I won’t.
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I didn’t intend to imply Robert was superfluous, but I see how I may have done so. Robert generally stays out of the events of the story, and enables Stapledon to make us aware that he is aware of the limitations of his prolix (and, at times, overly stuffy) language. That is a good point about the formality that Sirius feels obligated to use … another similarity with Frankenstein, with added self-awareness.
The bit where Sirius classifies humans is a highlight; I was tempted to quote it but didn’t find the right place. Dogs reward the people who treat them well, and I found it impossible to remove my own experiences from my reading experience. My friend thus gets his portrait in the article.
The only work of Wells that I rate as highly as Sirius is “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which also features artificially enhanced animals.
Interesting biographical details, btw. I didn’t see any of that stuff in my own cursory checks – much appreciated!
I’ll have to reread Moreau. I agree, that probably is his best. He’s a brilliant idea man, the cornerstone of a genre he never accepted responsibility for (more than even Verne), but I don’t think he ever balanced storytelling and philosophizing quite so well as Stapledon did here.
Also, much as Stapledon does deal with human evil here (maybe more like human mediocrity), he does so from a more optimistic footing. He sees the glass as half-full. It’s a miracle that there is so much genuine good in a world created by purely Darwinian forces. So maybe there are other forces at work? Maybe.
Dogs reward the people who understand them on their own terms, meet them halfway. I’ve seen people who clearly do love their dogs saying “Stop that!” when their pooch sniffs a fellow’s behind. Not enough eyerolls in the world.
To truly love a dog is to love everything that makes a dog who he or she is. To get as far as you can into their way of seeing and smelling things. They try harder with us than we do with them. (Incidentally, though this isn’t science fiction, or even fiction, have you read J.R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip”? You’d like it.)
It’s an excellent review, and it made my day.
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Two subjects people tend to skim over when discussing this–sex and religion.
Discreetly as Robert phrases things, it’s abundantly clear Sirius and Plaxy have attempted sexual congress many times, with mixed success. They are lovers, no two ways about it. Whether Stapledon is saying that the most intense romantic relationships are not necessarily the most sexually skillful ones, I would not care to say. (Agnes Miller was, to all accounts, quite the girl.)
It is very pleasant for humans and canids to interact physically, each having a certain unique appeal to the other, but there is an unavoidable incompatibility on that front. I guess I think anything’s fine, so long as it’s consensual, but that’s the rub, isn’t it? Not just when it comes to inter-species relationships.
Feeling guilty over Max never getting to experience the joys of sex, I did sometimes give him a nice rub around the nethers. He seemed to enjoy it, but being a dog of unusual propriety, he did evince a certain embarrassment. Neutered or not, I should have tried harder to get him laid (which is possible, the term ‘neutering’ being most misleading). He was a bit awkward with his own kind, though always happy to be around them. Never really figured out how to play. Grew up with cats, which didn’t help. He did not, thankfully, have Sirius’ savage predatory urges, or at least he overcame them more easily. By the end of his life, he was at peace with all creation. Mice used to come eat out of his bowl while he was still dining.
So moving from the physical to the spiritual plane–Sirius has a religious ‘vision’–which being a dog, is expressed in olfactory terms. Why do people so often dance away from that? I know how disgusting organized religion can be, in its most hidebound dogmatic cynical form. So? We’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Stapledon moved in decidedly non-theistic circles, was in no sense conventionally religious, but he saw there was a very real danger we’d lose things of enormous value by rejecting all aspects of the religious impulse, which is clearly inherent to our species, and perhaps any sentient.
His friendship with the minister is as rewarding as his apprenticeship with Pugh. It also gives a chance to further explore his musical talents. And to ask the question–what is a soul? Nobody, of course, who has ever loved a dog has ever believed only humans have them. (And some of us clearly don’t.)
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I should have mentioned the minister – the discussion of religion is a significant part of Sirius. I put a note in at the end.
Your note is duly noted–I guess a lot of rewarding friendships ended awkwardly during that war. Just one more thing to hate about war.
It’s not that long a book, but it covers so many things. Work, for example–how it can enable and limit us. Sirius wants and needs a job (as any dog of Shepherd/Collie ancestor would), but the kind of work his physical form will allow him is not the kind his mind and spirit crave. This is not a problem that only crops up in the life of a fully sentient canine. Again, Stapledon is doing more than just expressing ideas through this character. He’s found a perfect metaphor for his own life-conflicts, for telling us who he really is. He must have really been something.
It occurred to me just now that if Phlip Jose Farmer had written this book, we’ve have learned a lot more about what Sirius and Plaxy got up to when Robert wasn’t there. Probably just as well he didn’t. (Though I do look forward to you getting around to the old alien lover sometime).
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You’re likely referring to Farmer’s “The Lovers” novel, or his “Strange Relations” collection, both of which took SF in new, uncomfortable directions at the time. I happen to be a big fan of Farmer’s, and have a stack of his lesser-known books in my to-read pile. I reviewed his adventure saga “Dark is the Sun” not too long ago; fun read, with quite a few ideas packed into it.
Farmer grew up on the pulps that escaped Stapledon’s attention (I think he was actually surprised to see that such magazines existed, well after he wrote Odd John), so we couldn’t be considering two more different authors of the same genre. The guy who wrote “Mother” and “The Alley God” would have taken a mightily different tack on Sirius, for sure.
Farmer tends to get rough treatment in the SF blogs I’ve seen … his writing seems to belong to the more adventuresome, less easily offended readers of the late 20th century. He’s got a nice website dedicated to his work (www.pjfarmer.com), so he still has his fans.
That’s right, and I never did get around to reading that one you reviewed, which sounded so interesting. Long reading list at present (I’m rediscovering Hammett.)
I read a lot of his stuff in general SF anthologies. Also Lord Tyger and the Riverworld series. Yes, I suppose some of the sensitive souls out there might find him hard to take, but when was that ever not true? Most of the earlier complaints would have been from the right. Tact was never his thing, was it?
PC has always been with us. It just changes its name, and its orientations. Huckleberry Finn used to offend racists, now it offends people offended by racism, who never learned how to see past the surface of things. It’s the same book it always was.
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I forgot to ask–are you by any chance familiar with this book?
I’d say that’s another must-read for anybody who likes SF and dogs. There’s a line in it that goes through me every time I read it. You’ll know it when you come to it.
Much as I adore Octavia Butler’s work, it is a source of perpetual irritation to me that she was phobic about dogs. She created not one but two dystopian futures where they are all killed off, and a third one where they have devolved into feral packs that prey on humans.
To her credit, I think she knew this about herself, and you can see her trying to come to terms with it. One of her most sympathetic supporting characters her two Parable books is a dog lover, but the protagonist in that book (all her protagonists are versions of herself) is terrified of them.
I also think Donald Westlake was scared of big dogs, but he found more creative ways to cope with it–either admiring their sleek deadliness in the Stark novels, or laughing at his own phobia in his comic work.
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I read “City” many years ago (1999 or so) and it didn’t leave the same impression on me that Simak’s other famous work did. That’s not a fair comparison, because “Way Station” is one of my favorite books of all.
I actually just finished a Simak novel and was thinking about revisiting “City” in the near future. I’ll have to track down a copy. It certainly has a strong critical reputation and I’ve never been disappointed by a Simak.
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Sometimes you come back to a book, years later, and with enough years under your belt, you start to see it more clearly.
It’s kind of an interesting subsection of genre–SF and mystery in particular. A book made up out of connected short stories, sometimes with added linking material. “The Martian Chronicles” would be the best known, I guess. But “City” is one of my favorites in that vein. Another would be Westlake’s “Levine.”
Belatedly, I might mention that you are perhaps unique among online reviewers in choosing a cover without a dog on it.
The first edition dustjacket art is very fine, says everything you could hope for in one image, and quite out of my price range. Penguin has two covers, and I originally got the one of a Shepherd/Collie mix with wires coming out of his head. The new ebook cover is not bad at all, though that dog doesn’t look near big enough and his ears should come all the way up. (going by Stapledon’s very detailed description, Sirius looks exactly like a very large Shiloh Shepherd, which is damned interesting, since that breed hadn’t been developed yet.)
I mean, Paul Klee was a genius, but I just don’t get the relevance. I guess it’s of a piece with the one for Odd John. (Which has no covers I like).
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I am about the furthest one could imagine from being formally educated in the arts, but sometimes that makes for interesting conversation …
The best explanation I can come up with for the Penguin cover is that Klee’s work is abstract; it appeals to the senses in its own way but cannot be fully translated. When Sirius struggles to inform his human friends – including the narrator – about how he can interpret moods, or the presence of God, etc., he does so in terms of his sense of smell, which from its power and complexity is most connected to his cognition and imagination. We can appreciate Klee’s work without making claims to ever understanding it, or figuring out how to make a “Klee” painting of our own, and I think this kind of gap also exists between the humans of “Sirius” and Stapledon’s wonderful canine.
If Klee made “In the Land of the Precious Stone” as a commentary about life in some way, then the above paragraph is invalid. But that also would mean Klee violated his principles as an abstract artist, FWIW. Again, not an expert talking here. But art is for everyone.
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Good call the letter posting etc might be an attempt at comedy. I hadn’t thought of it that way, I get all itchy when I find stuff like that in whatever speculative fiction (except in obvious comedy like Vonnegut), but yours is also another way of looking at it. That might help me in my future reading. Great review by the way, it just goes to show how important mindset is in experiencing a novel.
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There’s a lot of comedy in the book, in spite of its very serious bent. Just as Sirius is a very serious dog, who has a great sense of humor. I loved the letter posting, and seriously, you look at what people who lost their arms before the era of prosthetics learned to do with their feet (something a WWI vet would know about), it’s not at all hard to buy.
Sirius has a terrible time posting that letter, but he’s very bright, and very determined (and madly in love). I think you have a hard time believing it because he’s a dog. You need to spend more time with dogs that are not Golden Retrievers (I love them, but most are really dumb blondes) before you decide what they can or can’t do. It’s never a good idea to underestimate the smart ones (check YouTube if you don’t believe me). None of whom are nearly as smart as Sirius. If they don’t post letters, it’s because they’re not interested in letters.
Stapledon was a voluminous correspondent, as I mentioned, and it may well be that this is another reference to his relationship with Agnes Miller, which was conducted mainly by post in its early stages. If he imagines himself as a dog, he’s got to imagine how in hell he’d keep himself in the mind and heart of his Plaxy, reach to her across long distances. Something an ordinary dog wouldn’t even think of. But the paradox of the character is that he’s got the mind of a man, but the body and soul of a dog.
The hardest thing about leaving them behind is that you can’t communicate with them from a distance. You can shout something into a phone while somebody holds the receiver to their ears. Doesn’t work. I only wish canine/human correspondence was possible. It would have to be urine-related, somehow. Don’t make a face, I’m being serious. 😉
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