The Companions, by Sheri S. Tepper – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Companions, by Sheri S. Tepper.
NYC, HarperCollinsPublishers/Eos, September 2003, hardcover $25.95 ([vi +] 452 pages), Kindle $9.99.
In the far, far future, the galaxy is being explored and colonized, and Earth is incredibly overpopulated. The Worldkeeper Council government, supported by the humans-only IGI-HFO political majority, declares that all animals (only pet dogs, cats, and small cage birds are left by this time) are to be exterminated because they take up too much room and use up too much air. The tiny underground movement that wants to keep the animals alive, called arkists because they have accumulated spaceships to use as arks to evacuate the remaining animals from Earth, decide to take them to Treasure, the moon of a newly-discovered and poorly-explored world covered in moss, where they can be hidden in safety. Jewel Delis, the narrator, is an arkist who goes from overcrowded Earth to care for the “companions” of humans, especially the dogs.
The Companions contains dialogue, but mostly Tepper writes in long, blocky narrative paragraphs:
“Earth scared me at first. The towers were huge, each a mile square and more than two hundred stories high. Podways ran along every tenth floor, north on the east side of each tower and south on the west side. Up one level, they went west on the north side and east on the south side. They stopped at the pod lobbies on each corner, so when you were on one, it went woahmp-clatter, rhmmm, woahmp-clatter, whoosh. That’s a pod-lobby stop, a slow trip across the street, another pod-lobby stop, then a mile long whoosh, very fast. The pod-lobbies were full of people, too, and that’s the clatter part, the scary part. Taddeus and I saw more people in one pod-lobby than we’d ever seen together anywhere on Mars, and many of them were dressed in fight colors: Tower 59 against Tower 58, Sector 12 against Sector 13, all of them pushing and shoving and tripping over each other. Often they got into fights or screaming fits. It took us a while to figure out how to dodge them and keep out of their way, but when we got good at it, it turned into a kind of game, and we rode the podways for fun. It was a lot safer than it sounds, because there are so many monitors on the pods that people are afraid to do anything really wicked unless they’re over the edge. Tad and I thought part of the fun was spotting people that were about to go over the edge. We could almost always tell.” (p. 18)
The dogs of this far future are divided broadly into ‘big dogs” and “small dogs”. The “small dogs” are ordinary pets. The “big dogs” have been bred to be more intelligent as well as larger:
“A murmured growl. An acknowledgement, not a challenge. When I looked up, she was sitting behind a screen of willow, next to a watering pool. After a moment, she got up and came over to thrust her muzzle into my neck, below my ear, moving it down my body and across my back as she took an inventory of where I’d been lately and whom I’d been with. Scramble was Scarlet’s granddaughter, eight years old, twice the size of her mother, four times the size of her grandmother, twice as fast, more than twice as smart. If Scarlet had sometimes thought of me as family, Scramble thought of me as a puppy. Her puppy. I adored her. She was a manifestation of every dog I’d ever loved, starting with my stuffed plush puppy on Mars.
Vigilant stepped out of shadow, Dapple behind her. Scramble returned to them and they sat, tails wrapped around their legs, utterly silent, watching me with opaque golden eyes.
Silently, they disappeared, except for Scramble, who put her nose to my cheek and tongued me along the jaw. Affection? Admonition? I didn’t know which, if either, but it was one more bit of evidence that Scramble thought of me as her pup.
‘Yu sai wen is ‘ime,’ she said, or asked.
‘I’ll tell you at once,’ I agreed. ‘It will be a good place.’ I prayed I was right that it would be a good place.
‘Ai no. Au aways magh ghu ha’van.’
Alas, I only wished always to make good happen. Sometimes I could not make anything happen at all.” (pgs. 90-92)
The Companions is a well-written combination of science-fiction, suspense, and mystery. This is very fortunate because, from an anthropomorphic viewpoint, very little happens until almost halfway through the book. The first part, about the arkists’ desperate plan to leave Earth with the remaining animals before those can be killed, is the first suspense plot. The second part, about the unexpected and deadly puzzle that they find on Moss and its moon Treasure, is the mystery that leads to the second suspense plot. But except for the brief passage quoted above on pages 90 to 92, the anthropomorphic dogs are all offstage until the arkists reach Moss and Treasure on page 173:
“‘Awf!’ said Behemoth, the moment I came in.
I shook my head, no. ‘This is just a brief stop, Behemoth. We’ll be on the ground less than an hour.’
‘Owr ome,’ he said, facing me, eyes glittering.
‘That’s the plan, yes.’
‘I know. But you can’t see it without being seen by the crew, or by Paul, and that would ruin everything. Only the captain and a couple of his officers know that we’re dropping off some cages. We figure six months, a year from now, this will be home for you, but it’s not ready yet.’
‘Ow no rrrea’y?’
‘How? It’s not ready because you’d starve to death. The animals we’re dropping off need another year to spread and reproduce.’”
There is a better description of the dogs a little farther on:
“‘He’s a big one, isn’t he?’ I said in a doting voice, as Adam and Scramble approached. ‘Much larger than the original Great Dane or mastiff types, but with none of the bone or joint problems that used to be associated with large dogs. Life span is longer, too. Big dogs used to be old at twelve, but Behemoth will live to be thirty or forty, at least, maybe older than that! This brown bitch is his mate, Scramble.’” (pgs. 188-189)
Some of the arkists have been surreptitiously physically modified to share canine attributes:
“I caught up to Frank and Clare. ‘You all seem to be finding a lot to sniff at.’
Frank nodded. ‘You should get some dognose, Jewel. You really should. You’re a little old for it, but some of the cellular transplants would take …’
I murmured to him, ‘I have what will take, Frank, have had since I was sixteen. I volunteered for the original transplant study, but let’s for God’s sake not talk about dognose where anyone can hear us, okay?’ I jerked my head to indicate both the ESC men behind us and Paul, who was entering the headquarters. ‘We’ll have to learn to be quiet about things we talked about freely at the sanctuary. PPI is BuOr, and BuOr is enemy territory. Some of them might even be iggy-huffo. There probably aren’t a dozen people on the planet we could call sympathizers.’” (p. 190)
There are several alien races in The Companions (actually 512, but only five or six important to this novel), and three of the arkists use alien technology to shape-change into dogs; but this also is almost entirely offstage until the story moves to Treasure’s planet, Moss:
“The trainers and I rode on the floater until we were deeply into the forest, well out of sight of anyone from the compound. There the trainers stripped off their clothing and walked beside the floater as they changed. Adrenaline could make the process happen quickly, rage or great excitement could make it happen in minutes, but when things were calm, jaws and tongues slowly lengthened, eyes shifted subtly to the sides, ears rose to the top of the skull, forearms and shoulders shifted. Genetically they did not change. They became quite doglike, except for their high-domed heads, far too rounded for canines though not terribly unlike the old, large-headed dogs: St. Bernards, golden retrievers, mastiffs. At a distance, they would pass for dogs, particularly if they stayed in dog form long enough to lengthen their coats. At first their fur was merely an all-over fuzz. Adam was the same shining steel gray as his hair, with a darker gray stripe down the spine. Given long enough, he usually grew a mane. Clare was evenly brown with red glints in her fur, and she would acquire feathers on her legs and tail; Frank was a mottled gray and black, plain black at a distance, with a close, short-haired coat. Getting the coat to grow wasn’t voluntary. It simply grew, like claws, like teeth, like tails. If they stayed dogs for several weeks – which was the longest it had ever been tested – they would have full coats, long tails, longer legs, fangs, and hard claws for digging. Whatever technology Gainor had obtained, it was limited to soft tissue and young bones. At some point, Adam, Clare, and Frank would be too old. Their bones wouldn’t make the shift. I’d heard them discussing how careful they’d have to be later in life, to prevent their being dogs when that final moment came. Funny. The conclusion I drew now from that remembered conversation was quite different from the one I had drawn at the time.” (p. 236)
The arkist shape-shifters get the ability to transform into dog shapes to help the real dogs, but the latter dismiss them as “play dogs” and do not take them seriously. Jewel refers to the arkists in dog form as pseudodogs or unreal dogs.
The plot grows increasingly complex, with the real dogs turning out to have a secret agenda of their own; and the late introduction of what, to oversimplify, is a walking and talking tree:
“‘We congratulate you on your achievement,’ I said, not knowing whether to laugh or run screaming. It sounded totally nonthreatening, but it was so very large, so twiggy, so full of offshoots and wiry-looking twiny bits that it was difficult to believe it was harmless and impossible to know where the voice was really coming from. Politeness be damned, I had to know: ‘Where are your … eyes and ears and mouth?’
An agile tendril zoomed toward me, stopping just short of my face, and from its swollen tip a large blue eye regarded me with interest. The eye had an eyelid with lashes that batted flirtatiously, seeming to wink at me, enjoying its own joke. That tendril was immediately joined by several others bearing either human-style ears or assorted types of eyes, some of them not at all mammalian-looking.
‘Voice box, puffers, and tongue assembly do not fit on small parts,’ said the willog. ‘I have them inside main trunk, issuing through new mouth parts!’” (p. 328)
There are many potentially deadly surprises for both the humans on Moss and for all humans, which Jewel, with both the real dogs’ and the pseudodogs’ help, finds out about just in time to forestall them. Several of the surprises are unmasked by the dogs’ sense of smell. The anthropomorphic non-humans take almost 200 pages to become major characters, but they are important for over half the book.
Kudos to Rick Lovell for a fine painting for the hardcover dust jacket. The September 2004 paperback cover is uncredited.