Review | Let’s talk about the beasts of sci-fi and horror. ‘Cujo,’ anyone?


Science fiction writers (and readers) love animals. Whether it’s the Beast Folk of H.G. Wells’s 1896 “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Kafka’s giant insect, the cat warriors of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (1970) or the rabid Saint Bernard in Stephen King’s 1981 horror classic “Cujo,” creatures with otherworldly powers have propelled some of the most memorable novels. Here are some of our favorite sci-fi and horror novels featuring animals, in some form or another.

Silvia: When it comes to dogs in science fiction, I am fascinated by Blood, the telepathic mutt who is the sidekick of a teenage scavenger roaming a post-apocalyptic United States in Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” (1969). This is a violent, disturbing story that has all the hallmarks of Cold War fears, including nuclear warfare and mutations. It’s a dark journey but one that shows exactly why Ellison was a New Wave darling. The story is collected in “Blood’s a Rover: The Complete Adventures of a Boy and His Dog” (2021). When it comes to cats, I am drawn to the lighter, zanier approach of “Chilling Effect” (2021) by Valerie Valdes. The novel has a space opera vibe, as a foul-mouthed captain helms a spaceship that bumps from adventure to adventure.

Let’s talk about ‘Alien’ and other works that blend sci-fi and horror

Lavie: David Brin coined the term “uplift” for animals raised to human intelligence. Check out “Startide Rising” (1983) for its spaceship crewed by uplifted dolphins! Of course, there’s also Clifford Simak’s classic “City” (1952), an elegiac saga that follows the lives of the Webster family, their robot servant Jenkins and the rise of a dog civilization.

Silvia: Vonda N. McIntyre is not especially well known, though one of her novels was recently adapted into film (“The King’s Daughter,” from the novel “The Moon and the Sun”). Her 1978 novel “Dreamsnake,” itself an expanded version of her award-winning short story “Of Mist, And Grass, And Sand,” takes place in a post nuclear-holocaust world. A healer who employs snake venom to cure illnesses must go on a quest to obtain a new dreamsnake. It offers an excellent contrast not only to Ellison’s post-nuclear vision of the future, but also to the work produced by women during that decade, including James Tiptree Jr. and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Lavie: “Dreamsnake” — I loved that book. And I love Cordwainer Smith’s “Norstrilia,” published just three years earlier. Its rather madcap plot concerns a boy who becomes the richest person in the galaxy overnight, buys Earth, travels there, falls in love with the cat-girl and discovers how the “underpeople” — genetically-modified, intelligent animals — are trying to fight for their basic (can I say human?) rights.

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Silvia: You know what we haven’t talked about? Rats. When I was a kid, I read and then watched the animated adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 novel “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” and fell in love with Justin, one of the super-intelligent lab rats that have developed a secret lair and must help a field mouse protect her home. Apparently all girls my age fell in love with either Justin or the animated fox from Robin Hood, and if we didn’t succumb to talking animals then we ended up with a crush on Jareth the Goblin King and the demon from “Legend.” This perhaps explains the wave of fantasy romance novels with “shifter” romances where a man can be part lion, bear or tiger, oh my. I’m not sure rats rank high as potential romantic partners in this category, but you just never know.

Lavie: Speaking of rodents, who can forget Algernon, the super smart mouse companion to Charlie, in Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” (1966)? It’s one of the most famous (and often parodied) science fiction stories of all time. But for a fun, hard-boiled tale of tails, whiskers, double-dealings and more violence than you can shake a paw at, Daniel Polansky’s “The Builders” (2015) sees a group of grizzled anthropomorphized animal mercenaries come together for one last job — with bloodied results. It’s like “The Good, The Bad and the Badger!”

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new book is “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.” Her previous works include “Mexican Gothic,” “Velvet Was the Night” and “The Return of the Sorceress.” Lavie Tidhar’s most recent novels are “The Escapement” and “The Hood.

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