Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Title: Bear Head
Series: Dogs of War #2
Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.
Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.
Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.
Bear Head is a loose sequel to 2018 Dogs of War; but as it’s happening twenty years after Dogs of War, and portrays a vastly changed reality, it can be treated as a stand-alone and read without any previous experience with the prequel – at least according to the publisher. And that’s what I did: having only rudimentary knowledge of Dogs of War premise, I embarked on the journey with Bear Head. A couple of the main characters appear in both books; the secondary cast is largely (almost entirely) different. Bear Head is certainly a sequel in terms of main themes and ideas: from artificial intelligence to neurological experimentation to forced sapienization of animals to neurobiological processes of limiting freedom – but they are explained here in enough detail that the previous knowledge of Dogs of War is indeed not necessary; though still, I’d wager, emotionally rewarding.
The main characters in Bear Head are Jimmy, a heavily modified human adapted to Mars conditions, and Honey, a sapienized bear, who as a result of convoluted and dangerous events happening on Earth, about which we’ll learn in due course, comes to share Jimmy’s head (and, at times, the rest of his body). The unlikely duo: the embittered, barely educated addict and the high-profile academic quickly realize that they need to learn to cooperate in order to survive. For while Mars might not be the best place in the Universe, what with one type of job, no prospects, lack of sun and constant seasonal depression, it’s still much safer – and saner – than Earth. Because Earth, as could have been expected, when faced with existential crisis caused by global warming, instead of working together to alleviate or solve the deadly problems turns toward populist distractions such as decades-old rights of sapienized animals and the issues of human Collaring (i.e. depriving them of free will).
Let’s be clear here: Jimmy and Honey parts of the novel are really pretty good. I really enjoyed their interactions, the slow puzzling out of Honey’s past, the mistakes and amends they make between them, the slow building of trust. This emotional layer sketched lightly in pencil and left to be filled by the reader is what Tchaikovsky does best. I also appreciated the small scale of Martian colonization and its Western feel with its petty drug lords, its lonely sheriff with his posse of dangerous sapienized animals, and the ever-present bureaucracy in the form of Admin.
I even enjoyed reading about the not-so-covert war on Earth for the minds and hearts, stemming from the sad, repetitive, but no less true for it, forgetfulness of the humankind; the growing populist tide denying rights to other sentient life forms from fear and a sense of entitlement. These parts are brutal and pretty close to the bone, sure, but that’s fiction’s privilege and obligation. I actively look for that social commentary when I read books, and I might not agree with the authors and still love their novels. When it comes to Tchaikovsky, our views are quite similar after all. So I can even appreciate his burning need to express his views on what has been happening in our own reality for the last several years. I can see the temptation to synthesize, distil the failings and ails of our own democratic processes faced with undemocratic contenders. In short, I totally get the need to analyse the phenomenon of popularity of antidemocratic leaders such as Trump and Johnson and Kaczynski and Orban and Putin and Xi and Bolsanero. The list goes on, sadly, but you get the gist. But sure. The temptation is there, and the feeling of obligation, and the need to sound if not an alarm than at least a wake-up call. Is Tchaikovsky’s archvillain Thompson based recognizably on one of the above? Yes. Is it a parody, like in Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds? Not exactly. Tchaikovsky attempts an analysis, an understanding of the populist phenomenon. And even if I don’t agree with his diagnosis, if I see it as inherently faulty because he still doesn’t seem to see the reciprocative nature of this relation, choosing instead a parasitic angle (which doesn’t make sense in an intra-species relationship) I can still appreciate the effort.
What ultimately soured me on Bear Head was a two-fold problem. In focusing the book on the analysis of the current populist phenomenon Tchaikovsky made Bear Head dependent on the “now.” And so, in the understandable haste to get the book ready and out before it loses some of its relevance, and because of the laudable effort to create something more than just a parody, he didn’t spend nearly enough time on the plot. The ultimate motivations, the final reveals, and the climax as well the conclusion are simply subpar and unconvincing. In Jimmy’s words, they suck.
Would Bear Head be a better book with less Trump? I don’t know. I think we need to take a good look at what makes us – and the political systems we live in – so vulnerable to populism and easy answers. Tchaikovsky gives his suggestions, and they certainly interesting if flawed. As for Bear Head itself, however, I do know that it could’ve been much better with more focus on the plot and the character motivations.