Thomas M. Disch - The Puppies of Terra

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The Puppies of Terra

Expanded from "White Fang Goes Dingo" If Apr 1965

The Puppies of Terra is the autobiography of Dennis (White Fang) White and the history of Earth since the arrival and domination of the Masters, non-corporeal electromagnetic beings capable of manipulating matter at the molecular lever. The Masters are attracted to Earth by the Aurora Borealis, but remain oblivious to humanity until the testing of atomic bombs disturbs their sojourn. So in 1970 the Masters take humanity in hand, making them not slaves but pets, with the aid of the Leash, a rapturous communion between man and Master. Tennyson White is among the first generation of humans born in the celestial kennels of the Masters. As an adult he writes A Dog's Life, a book which, using the facts of canine existence as a metaphor to explicate mankind's current existence, becomes a cultural and popular success leading to Mankind under the Leash to accept its terms wholesale.

White Fang is born 2017 on Ganymede as one of Tennyson's many "puppies". On a visit to Earth Tennyson is kidnapped and killed by "Dingoes", humans who rebel against the Masters. White Fang finds himself in an Earth kennel run by a dilatory Master. 2027 - White Fang meets Darling, Julie who convinces her Master to take White Fang as a pet in his kennel on an asteroid belt, where he and Darling, Julie become a couple with a puppy. 2037 - White Fang and his family accompany the Masters to witness sunspot activity from the safety of Earth. The sunspot activity temporarily disables the Masters leaving mankind free of the Leash. White Fang and family struggle to survive and set out to find the Masters, but are instead captured by Dingoes. White Fang escapes only to find himself in a Dingo repatriation centre for "Pets". He convinces the camp staff he is a visiting general and contrives to free 13000 pets who are reunited with the Masters and removed from the Earth. White Fang is recaptured by the Dingoes and nearly killed but is saved by the Dingoes' Second in Command - Tennyson White, whose apparent death had been but a subterfuge. Reunited with his family who have all accepted Dingoism, White Fang too joins the Dingo cause. Realising that Pets are created in the image of their Masters, and extrapolating from Pet's extreme aesthetic finniciness, the Dingoes drive the Masters from the Earth with a burst of painful concentrated vulgarity.

How a nice boy from the suburbs - good education, every opportunity in the world - approaches a condition of non serviam. Has such a thing ever been written before? Ever?

This is a funny (but still serious; the opposite of funny is sombre) book. After more sordid misery than the heart could bear in The Genocides, Disch offers a comic variant on his previous book and all of its alien invasion progenitors: Wells, Hoyle, Shiel, Stapledon (or "Stapleton" as Disch for some reason prefers). He inverts a sf cliché by making his aliens benevolent despots and then revels in his rebels boorishness, but still he upholds the fundamental premise of humanity oppressed. Further, when the Masters are driven away he can indulge in the post-apocalyptic pluck and spunk of Johns Christopher and Wyndham. But if there is any genuine allegiance in the book to earlier sf models then it is probably to the novels of Vonnegut and Sheckley. Their ostensibly ramshackle plots marshalled by singular narrative voices offer unique travelogues through the comic inferno leading to unflattering conclusions about the character of the natives, our guide, and, not to forget the tourists, ourselves. The shambolic ersatz midsection of the novel could owe to the two writers' and Disch's own motifs of incarceration, but might just as easily demonstrate a debt to the 18th century picaresque, for with this particular book Disch wallows in literary borrowings. Most obvious is his exploitation of the modes and traditions of the autobiographical novel and the book is thick with references to precursors: Dickens, Salinger, Sterne, Nabokov, Joyce, while with the name "Roxanna Proust" he conjoins the English populariser of the form and its supreme modern French master. Of course the book's most obvious derivation is Jack London's White Fang, but, as further fillip, Disch's portrayal of the Masters as insubstantial presences may well indicate a debt to the apprehension of humans as music in Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog". In openly acknowledging the extent to which the blueprint and curlicues of his novel derive from extant fictive materials and structures The Puppies of Terra is of a piece with the ludic metafictions of the 50s and 60s by writers like Gaddis, Berger, and Barthelme, or even Harry Matthew's Hi-NRG tergiversatory helicoid corroborrees. But much, much shorter.

In The Puppies of Terra we have Disch entertaining the implications of his aestheticism, as in Camp Concentration he will write out his fantasies of intellectualism. Placing one's faith in Art as one colludes with Disch requires a bedrock of genuine emotion through which to draw and filter one's groundsprings of inspiration. If this foundation is lacking then claims can only be made to our attention by the degree of capriccioso artfulness in devising ornate castles in the sky whose very impermanence grants affection in the literary bosom of eternity. The Puppies of Terra is often so funny and light because it intimates an acknowledgement, even relishing, of its own triviality and breeziness, while sustaining stronger arguments by exploring the consequences of such a condition for its characters. The fundamental situation of the novel is unreal, but Disch, while availing himself of the opportunity for delightful invention, extends the scope of his narrative to encompass and propose a criticism of escapism (when it comes to highminded pessimism courting the handmaidens of jollification never ought it to be forgotten that Catholic holidays are better than Protestants'). Liberal humanism, as underpins Disch's work, is an outgrowth of Protestantism's emphasis on the cultivation of the individual's conscience and relationship with God, and Disch, as an apostate Mary-knocker, for his narrative purposes expertly invokes then subverts a battery of religious imagery and allegory. In being cast out from their Edenic state and losing communion with the god-like Masters humanity recovers the opportunity to develop their own consciences, become more human and to cultivate their senses and potential. This responsibility though means misery, discomfort, and brutishness, and the countenancing of the prospective failure of many people to transcend their condition, rather than their previous indulgence in a dereglement du sense. For this reader the crux of the argument of the novel against the Masters is the revival of St. Bernard; by resurrecting him the Masters negate the act of true self-assertion which his death constituted and so his life is without meaning. The presence of the Masters results in an environment where actions have no consequence and life is but a dream. Disch chooses to find accommodation, if not victory, in the verse "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" ( and for anyone looking for a hanger upon which to drape a tissue-thin thesis: it might be argued that in a sequence comprising The Puppies of Terra, Camp Concentration and The Pressure of Time, Disch is glossing Genesis, ch. 3, v. 22). In this respect Disch finds further consonance with the Vonnegutian, Ruskinian even, assertion that self-worth derives from the work that one does, and that complete self-realisation, man's true aim, is not attained by the path of ease, but that accomplished artistic apprehension is one of our most reliable guides and goals. The danger here is of becoming lost in books, to the extent that White Fang's most important life decisions are elicited more often by the memories and arguments of other books than the experiences of his own life, be it his escape plan from the prison or his conversion to Dingoism.. The Leash and the Masters offer a false transcendence, an artificial high, and, as in "Invaded By Love", Disch rejects these artificial euphorias: this is how the Masters, despite their best intentions, unwittingly oppress Mankind. Unstinting sybaritism occludes the faculty for judgement and what artist can respect or is willing to proffer their best efforts to an indiscriminating audience. In their ---- the human pets are often ridiculous as they flirt with the materials of high art; the array of cultural ameublements in the earlier part of the novel is impressive, but it betokens an immaturity that mistakes a self-delighting vocabulary of erudition for the intimate acquaintance with das ding an sich to which art attains. This is militated by the terser narrative at the end of the book, as dictated by the exigencies of the plot, mirroring the harsher conditions of White Fang's existence, where now that he is living his own life there is more of an emphasis on immediate pragmatic experience instead of the self-reveries of replicated literary formulas (although severer critics might asseverate that the change in tone is because Disch lazily chooses to reprint most of the final section of "White Fang Goes Dingo" rather than rewrite as he has for the rest of the novel). The crux of the situation is that all this is an imaginary escape; aliens will not rescue us from the Bomb, but Disch would have us enjoy his fictions as much as he relishes creating them.


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