Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Dogs by Nancy Kress

January 25, 2009

I’ve been a big fan of Nancy Kress’ work for years, particularly her near-future short fiction, and also her novels — especially her classic Beggars in Spain (1993) and the curiously overlooked Nothing Human (2003). Her latest, Dogs (2008), is a contemporary thriller with some SF elements, set in a small town in Maryland, where a strange outbreak of vicious dog attacks quickly escalates from a local mystery to a national crisis. As the CDC, FEMA, and other government agencies descend on the town to investigate the canine virus, Tessa Sanderson — a retired FBI agent whose deceased husband was of Arab descent — learns that the outbreak may have a terrorist angle, and that she and her husband may be somehow connected to what’s happening.

It’s a brisk, effortless read, with a promising premise, but ultimately it’s not that satisfying. The central conceit has possibilities, but isn’t given much more than a conventional Hollywood disaster movie treatment. The heroes of the novel — Sanderson, and the local animal control officer, Jess Langstrom — are generally sympathetic and proactive, but prone to questionable decisions that seem more about advancing the plot than entirely making sense. Meanwhile, the vast supporting cast — as in many such films — seems to exist largely to show how people, sometimes in spite of their better nature, react irrationally in the face of a crisis, putting individual concerns over the public good. This seems very deliberate — politically, the book reads as a vehement repudiation of Bush era policies and American greed and fear-mongering in the wake of 9/11 — but it doesn’t leave us with enough people to root for, which is perhaps the novel’s biggest drawback for me. The point is made, but it feels a bit shrill, even to my left-wing sensibilities. I really wanted to like this one, but it in the end it fell short.

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  • SarahP January 25, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Jenn and I have talked about this before, but I think we both prefer books that exist in service to story, not to some other agenda (no matter how strongly we feel the agenda needs to be advanced). So it sounds like this one would fall flat for me, too.

    Can’t stand it when characters behave in order to service the plot, instead of the plot arising more organically from character.

    Thanks for sharing this review!

  • Jenn Reese January 25, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Agreed!