Dogs of War: should a Good Dog follow orders?

Book cover: Dogs of War - Adrian TchaikovskyRex just wants to be a Good Dog. But Rex is no ordinary dog. Rex is a Bioform, engineered to fit a specific set of requirements: obedience, loyalty, leading his pack, killing his Master’s enemies. But if Rex’s Master is not a Good Man, how can Rex be a Good Dog?

I’ve been wanting to read a novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky ever since I read his contributions to The Ultimate Time Traveller’s Almanac and Winter Tales. But until Dogs of War, his choice of topics has always put me right off; and even Dogs of War was at best a maybe until it became a Subjective Chaos nominee. Why? Well, insects for one (the kinden novels, not Dogs of War) and the military focus for the rest, including Dogs. As you may have gathered from other reviews, military fiction just isn’t my thing.

This made the first act of Dogs of War a challenge for me. Rex and his multiform pack (Honey, a bear Bioform; Dragon, a reptile Bioform; and Bees) are owned and deployed by a corporation in Central America, assisting in the suppression of civil unrest that is challenging the government and upsetting corporate operations (you can guess which is more important). The pack are ruthless in executing their orders. There are no humans in Rex’s world, just Master, friends and enemies. Enemies attack him. Enemies are afraid. Enemies can be very small. Enemies must be killed.

Rex has an awfully limited perspective, and no concept of ethics or law. He simply follows orders, and his feedback chip confirms that he is a Good Dog.

I found the first act harrowing – it’s largely oblique in its violence, but my imagination could more than fill the gaps; the horror comes from being able to see what is happening, even though Rex himself is largely unaware of what he’s doing. Thankfully, this isn’t the whole book, and it changed focus just before the point where I was going to put it down as a DNF (yes, I was that uncomfortable with it).

Because there are humans who know what Rex’s Master, Murray, is up to in Mexico – that his methods are unwarranted and indefensible; that his forces are in fact committing war crimes to achieve a fast resolution. When they finally hit the boundaries of what they can stomach, Rex and his pack find themselves freed from their hierarchy protocols and released without orders; conflicted and confused, the tense second act explores their initial attempts to understand the world without their Master’s guidance.

Thankfully, Rex has Honey to lean on. His enormous bear-friend has unusual intelligence, an unintended side-effect of her engineering, and has developed a sense of right and wrong. She understands that they will need human friends if they are to survive; she has come to suspect that their Master is not a Good Man. Rex can’t begin to wrap his head around any of this, but he trusts Honey.

I must have been a Bad Dog then or now, and both times there were humans telling me what a Good Dog I was for doing it.
I want to know what is good and what is bad.

This sets the scene for a compelling character arc, with Rex going from mindless killing machine to tortured, self-doubting leader as he tries to learn to live without orders and to reconcile himself to the idea that there’s no simple answer to the question of how to be a Good Dog. It’s often violent and frequently heart-breaking. As Rex learns to think and question, his understanding deepens and his narration becomes more nuanced. It’s not a full Charlie Gordon transition, but his emotional and intellectual development is beautifully executed.

Now I know that making choices is the price of being free.

It’s a quick read if not always an easy one, and it rewards reflection. However, I can’t say I enjoyed most of the book. With the exception of the astonishing third act (oh, I could have read a whole book along these lines; it was an unexpected, brilliant twist on proceedings), this is still very military in focus. Rex’s existence is defined by his usefulness in war; while the broader implications of emerging AI and sentient rights are intriguing, and the world-building as credible as it is disturbing, the primary narrative is one of violence.

I also found the structure a little disjointed, with the leaps forward often happening just as I finally settled into the ‘current’ time period and became engaged by its context and characters. While Rex’s narration is often touching, it’s highly repetitive – as a reader, I put things together far faster than he could, but had to labour along with him until he reached the inevitable conclusion (and it did feel like hard labour at times). These aspects blunted my engagement; I zoomed through this because I had a long train journey with limited options, but I appreciated it rather than loved it.

Definitely worth a look, but not a book I would want to revisit.