Monday, December 29, 2008

Review - Doctor Rat

Doctor Rat
by William Kotzwinkle
1977 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I've spun this review a dozen different ways in my head and none of them have worked quite the way I wanted to so I'm just going to plunge ahead with the task. I will start with the conclusion: despite some clever portions I found Doctor Rat to be a bad novel featuring the worst kind of authorial political ranting. It is impossible to separate the book from its politics and it argues for its politics very poorly. Consequently it is a book you can only enjoy if you already agree with the author's basic position.

At a university research lab one of the white mice has become a quisling, a captive who believes himself one of the scientists, and taken the name for himself of Doctor Rat. He encourages all of the other cute animals in the lab (who all are anthropomorphized, naturally) to endure their suffering for the sake of science. A group mind of all the animals in the world fed up with how humanity has treated them rises up and begins lashing out and this effect spreads to the lab where the eponymous mouse tries to contain the rebellion of experiment subjects.

The nicest thing that I can say about this book is that it has a clever premise and I was interesting in the character of Doctor Rat. The idea of a lab mouse attempting to force experiments to continue is unique and gives a distinctive voice to the issue of animal testing. Kotzwinkle tells the sections of the novel in the laboratory from his mad perspective as he rants about imaginary papers and publications and as the rebellion grows his delusions become grander.

Also when it comes to raw prose Kotzwinkle does very well; the unique voices of the different animals with their own filtered perspectives is handled better than the vast majority of anthropomorphic animal stories that I have read.

The problem, as I mentioned, is the politics and it is impossible to filter them out of this book. The position Kotzwinkle argues for is from the farthest end of the animal rights spectrum and rather than lay out arguments and examine the issue the book reads more as a rant than an discussion. Humans (except for animal rights activists) are all horrible monsters who want to kill any animal they encounter. Animals (other than Doctor Rat) are all proud, noble intelligent beings who live in harmony with one another and are only turned to evil by humanity. A human being will going out of their way to be exceptionally cruel to an animal rather than even merely thoughtless.

There are no positive aspects of humanity's use of animals in Doctor Rat. There are no moral questions presented. There is no dealing with the complications that the author's espoused position would create. It is simply an emotional argument that using animals is bad and tortures tiny versions of ourselves.

That is the difference between an intriguing politically themed story and a frustrating political screed. One recognized the complications inherent in any absolutist view regarding its issue and the other embraces the absolutist view. If a reader disagrees with the author's position one of those leaves that reader with a better understanding of the arguments and the other leaves the reader with the desire to shout back at the author. And if you are a blind follower of the same position as the author then the screed is something "Everyone must read" (see Ayn Rand for an example of this from a very different place).

And so I have to say don't read Doctor Rat unless you think that all animal testing is wrong. It won't convince anyone to change their mind, it will just annoy you if you appreciate the benefits that animal testing has brought to modern society.