Celebrating the Dogs of Speculative Fiction

From Toto to Barnabas, Fluffy to Pongo, Manchee and more, we salute the literary dogs who left an enduring mark on speculative fiction...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Dogs have been appearing in stories for as long as humans have been making them, and perhaps that’s not really surprising. What other creature has such a long association with our history? We have trained them, fed them, and made them our allies – but we’ve also feared the wild side of their natures, and that’s what makes them such symbolic characters in literature. A hero with a dog at his side embodies fierce loyalty and endurance, and the dog that has turned against its master can be a very frightening suggestion of a world gone wrong.

This is no different in stories of science fiction, fantasy and horror, except for the fact that when writers aren’t tied down to a sense of reality dogs can start to do amazing things. They can talk, or be geniuses, or form telepathic links. They can have more than one head, or grow to an enormous size. They can come from a different planet, or set out to terrorise you until you wished you were on a different planet.

Here’s a look at some of the best speculative fiction dogs to be found within the pages of books old and new, starting with the ones that make you feel so glad to know canine friends can stay true even in the strangest of circumstances, and ending up with the dogs that need a few extra sessions of clicker-training.

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Good Dog

There’s nothing better than a friendly canine character to get children into reading, and right from the word go there are some great ones in the world of fantasy. Clifford the Big Red Dog was the runt who kept on growing, and has appeared in over seventy adventures, bringing a sense of safe surrealism to kids for over fifty years. He was created by Norman Bridwell in 1963.

Sometimes the dog is normal, as is the child – but the world they end up in is not. Dorothy and Toto travel to Oz by mistake in The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz(1900). They cling to each other in the strange world of witches, munchkins, and yellow brick roads. Oz is a very scary place for young readers; it seems a bit less frightening because Dorothy has Toto to cuddle. There were fourteen Oz books, written by L. Frank Baum and many more written by other authors. Toto was such a popular little dog that in 2006 Gina Wickwar wrote the book Toto In Oz, making him the hero for the first time.

Would adventures in Hogwarts be quite the same without Fang? We first meet him in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone where it becomes clear that he is an enormous, slobbery and affectionate dog, but also, as a comic juxtaposition, a coward. Still, there’s a long and illustrious history of comedy dogs in literature, and Fang is a good introduction to that tradition for younger readers.

An introduction to the pain that can come of loving literary characters is provided for YA readers by Patrick Ness in The Knife Of Never Letting Go (2008). The connection between Todd and his dog Manchee is veined with emotion in the first of the excellent Chaos Walking trilogy, a series currently being adapted for cinema by Lionsgate.

But the dog sidekick is not the only kind of tale (sorry) out there. Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations (1956) built a world in which dogs solve their own problems, and consider the humans to be the pets. The fantasy element of her dogs’ world came to the fore in the sequel, A Starlight Barking (1967). One morning the humans do not wake from a deep sleep, and Pongo and Missus end up tracking down the reason as an intervention from a dog from another planet who is concerned about the possibility of a nuclear war on Earth. It’s a fascinating book.

Authors have done so much good work building up a bond between people and dogs in stories for children that it’s no wonder they then go on to mine it further in adult writing. Vic And Blood (1969) is a novella by Harlan Ellison that is told mainly from the perspective of Blood, a dog who has established a telepathic link with his human companion in a post-apocalyptic setting. The dog is the brains of the operation, sniffing out opportunities and then sending the teenage boy out to find food. He is the erudite teacher, instructing Vic to learn information such as a list of past Presidents of the United States. It’s a great role-reversal, and Blood is loyal despite wishing himself free from stupid humanity on more than one occasion.

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The dog who is more intelligent than its owner is an idea that crops up quite often in speculative fiction. Kurt Vonnegut was certainly keen on it – he once said that humanity is, “…dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don’t even have to be a teacher. Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.” He wrote a great short story about our stupidity called Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog (1953). Thomas Edison turns out to not be such a marvellous inventor; that honor belongs to his dog, Sparky, whose intelligence was beyond human comprehension. After all, choosing to be fed, kept warm and loved by a lower form of life is a pretty good deal.

Intelligence can bring a whole host of new moral issues for the higher-thinking dog. First appearing in Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures (1990), Gaspode is a sentient dog who has to survive in a cruel world. He’s the classic underdog (of course), outwitting all those around him, but never losing his lovability. It’s a hard task to be a good dog in the Discworld, but somehow he manages it.

More intelligent dogs: Barnabas is the straight-talking companion of Destruction (and then Delirium’s protector) in Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, and Mouse in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files is another clever dog with a lot more going on than meets the eye, but perhaps my favourite recent superdog in science fiction is Daryl the Talking Beagle who has a laconic sense of humor in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen (2015). The dog who can outsmart us is a speculative fiction idea that has had serious longevity, but we could trust in Douglas Adams to find the other side of any coin. In So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish (1984) we briefly meet the incredibly stupid Know-Nothing Bozo the Non-Wonder Dog, who apparently resembles Ronald Reagan and has an adverse reaction to the word “commie.”

Of course, it’s easy to love a dog character, stupid or intelligent. It hasn’t escaped many writers’ attention that putting that lovable mutt under duress is a great way to create tension, and the greater the bond between dog and human the more we read on to hope the dog makes it through the story. Robin Hobb has used this device really well in her books set in the Realm of the Elderlings, starting with Assassin’s Apprentice (1995). The main character Fitz can form a magical telepathic bond with dogs, and as a boy becomes linked to a puppy called Nosy. It’s this relationship that draws us in, and also fills the first section of the book with drama and meaning.

Bad Dog

For every happy waggy-tailed delight of a dog in children’s fiction there’s a big bad wolf to be found in fairy tales. But let’s not get sidetracked by Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs; a fairy tale that specifically mentions dogs rather than wolves is the very strange The Tinder Box (1835) by Hans Christian Andersen. A soldier is instructed on how to find great wealth in a hollow tree, but comes across three dogs who must be outwitted: the dog with eyes as large as teacups, the dog with eyes as large as millwheels, and the dogs with eyes as large as towers. These grotesque canines have been an illustrator’s dream for one hundred and eighty years; you have to wonder how many children have been scared by the drawings of those big-eyed dogs over the decades.

There are even more bizarre dogs that are older still. Greek mythology gave us Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of the Underworld. Heracles captured it as the final task in his twelve labours. The fierce guardian dog (good or bad) can be found in other mythologies; for instance, hounds protect lost souls in the Underworld in Celtic legends, and Garmr is the bloodstained dog who watches Hel’s gates in Viking stories. In modern terms, JK Rowling created Fluffy, the three-headed dog who guards the Philosopher’s Stone at Hogwarts. Suitably enough, Fluffy was purchased by Hagrid from some “Greek chappie” he met at The Leaky Cauldron.

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Supernatural dogs such as the Black Shuck and the Barghest appear in old folk legends – the dog as an omen of disaster. Neil Gaiman used this tradition in the story Black Dog, which can be found in his most recent collection of short stories, Trigger Warning (2015). And the most famous incarnation of evil that has ever been committed to paper assumed canine form at one time. Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1897) contains a moment when, in order to disembark from the Demeter (the ship on which he sails to England) he turns into a dog. But he’s not a picky shapeshifter; he also becomes a bat, a wolf, and a spooky mist throughout the course of the narrative; beside that list the dog form seems more of a curiosity than a genuinely scary choice.

A literary dog that really should scare anyone isn’t, in fact, a dog at all. It’s a robot, and it appears in Alan Moore’s brilliant The Ballad Of Halo Jones (1984). Toby seems, at first, to be a take on the loyal guardian dog angle but as the story progresses the heroine that he claims to protect uncovers disquieting information about him. This leads to the kind of show-down that leaves both Halo Jones and the reader as nervous wrecks afterwards.

Speaking of show-downs and nervous wrecks, there’s no better human/dog fight to the death than in Stephen King’s Cujo (1981), and when I mention bad dogs in literature that’s probably the one everybody thinks of. Cujo is a St Bernard who starts the book as a lovely friendly companion and ends it as a rabid beast. It’s a reminder of just how little separates the tame from the wild, and the good from the bad – just one bite from an infected bat, and Cujo is no longer a domestic animal. He’s a monster.

But don’t let it give you nightmares – it seems there’s a lot more good dogs than bad in the worlds of SF/F/H. The bond between humans and canines is such a longstanding one that when it turns up in works of imagination it’s often described as a positive force, whether it’s in the form of a friend, a guardian, or a super-intelligent animal who is just humouring us. Whatever their role, they have enriched the books in which they appear. As an aside or as the hero, dogs make great characters. There must be so many more than are mentioned here; give them a mention in the comments section to make this a bigger and better celebration of the speculative fiction dog.