-spoilers for Dogs of War-
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Series: Dogs of War (#2)
Genre: Social SF
Publication Date: 05/01/2021
Life on Mars is tough, even when you’ve been engineered to live there. And Jimmy’s life is about to get even worse, because an AI claiming to be a bear is about to ruin his already miserable life . . .
The original Dogs of War was a book that slipped me by on its original release, but when I eventually got round to reading it, it cemented my opinion of Tchaikovsky as one of Britain’s leading science fiction writers. It was a near-future thriller about animals bred to be super-soldiers who slowly became more human than their creators. Bear Head is the follow-up, though not a direct sequel. It is also, unfortunately, not in the same league as the first book. Sequels to a book that is so idea-driven are always going to be a hard sell, and while Tchaikovsky has made it work before, in Bear Head the results just didn’t work for me. It’s a book bursting with ideas that ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
For a reasonably short book, Bear Head has a lot of competing storylines. The first, and most interesting to me, is Jimmy’s arc. Jimmy is a human, but has been bio-engineered with iguana DNA so that he may better survive the inhospitable Martian world. Now, this is the one idea that Bear Head really makes work. Rather than animals becoming more human, this time around we have humans becoming more animalistic. It’s a great idea (for a novel, if not for real-world colonisation efforts) and Tchaikovsky excels at writing the not-quite-human. When Jimmy comes into contact with a data package that turns out to be Honey from the previous book, the action really gets going.
Unfortunately, the Earth-based side of the story doesn’t do anything for me at all. Here we follow a politician’s attempts to curtail the growing rights of the bioforms. There are any number of real-world (far?) right-wing thinkers that could be the influence, but it is clearly rooted in present-day politics. And that’s my problem. I love books that take on social issues, from any perspective. Social SF is a tradition as old as the genre at large, and there are few genres that can tackle these issues as well as science fiction. However, Bear Head simple feels too rooted in reality. There are a lot of people who enjoy books that are ‘relevant’ or ‘timely,’ but I am not one of them. I want books that are more timeless. The closeness of Bear Head to our own reality does more harm than good to its effectiveness as a story. It immediately dates the narrative, making it feel more like a commentary on current events than a story that involves issues that will plague us in the future.
There are also a number of stylistic choices in play that distracted me from the book. Jimmy and Honey’s sections are told in the first person, while the Earth-based parts of in the third. There’s a mix of past and present tense too, which makes switching between PoV’s jarring. each section works on it own, but they don’t fit together all that well. There is also a character who speaks in incomplete sentences, to the point that i initially thought the book was riddled with typographical errors. Maybe I approached this book the worming way, but I found it very hard to immerse myself in Tchaikovsky’s impressive worldbuilding.
In spite of its flaws, there are ideas in Bear Head that still make it worth reading. Sadly, the journey is not as smooth as I have come to expect from someone who remains one of my favourite living authors.