When the narrator of ‘‘Dog Star’’ has occasion to visit the University of California at Berkeley, he stays with academic colleagues, who are not happy to have a large dog like Laika in their house. The narrator tries to pacify them by suggesting that she will deter burglars: ‘‘‘We don’t have any in Berkeley,’ they answered rather coldly.’’ These are the only lines spoken in the story by any character except the narrator. Even here Clarke does not differentiate between them. They respond as if they were members of a Greek chorus speaking in unison. The narrator cannot be bothered to differentiate between them. A few hours later they are killed in an earthquake.
Dr. Anderson is the only human being in the story whose name the reader learns. He is a senior astronomer who works in the same observatory as the narrator. He is the one who suggests the name Laika for the puppy the narrator adopts. Perhaps he is meant to be old enough to remember the sensation made by the launch into orbit of the original Laika. In any case, he suggests it as an appropriate name for an astronomer’s dog. When the narrator leaves for the moon, Anderson and his wife take Laika: ‘‘The old physicist and his wife had always been fond of her, and I am afraid that they considered me indifferent and heartless—when the truth was just the opposite.’’ However, they merely witness Laika’s decline since the dog is dead within a month of her master’s departure.
The main character of ‘‘Dog Star’’ is the story’s narrator. His name is never revealed. He (as is characteristic of narrators) fails to introduce himself to his audience. Nothing is directly conveyed of his life except that he is a brilliant young astronomer, most likely an American. Although his character is reasonably well drawn, it is nevertheless difficult to discern since it is remarkably similar to many of Clarke’s other heroes. The narrator is chiefly notable for his utter lack of ordinary human feeling. One reason for this is that science fiction writers generally work in a quite different way from mainstream authors. Instead of developing a story from character, the science fiction setting itself becomes the main idea and, as it were, the main character of the story. The well-known science fiction author Philip K. Dick says that in science fiction a short story is about an idea, whereas a novel is about character, with the understanding that the main character is the artificial, imaginary world created for the narrative, whether it is a fantasy world like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or, as for Clarke, the future. This can hardly be said to be truer of any author than it is of Clarke. The narrator and every other character in ‘‘Dog Star’’ are firmly subordinated to the presentation of Clarke’s world of the future.
From an emotional point of view, ‘‘Dog Star’’ concerns the narrator’s relationship with his dog. While such relationships are common and can encompass very strong emotions, the narrator himself finds it singular and overwhelming. Reflecting on it years after Laika’s death, he finds that the cessation of the relationship filled him with ‘‘fear of loneliness, and fear of madness,’’ with a feeling of ‘‘transcendental sadness’’ that was ‘‘desolating.’’ Yet he abandoned Laika quite voluntarily when it became necessary to take a position on the moon to advance his career: ‘‘After all, she was only a dog. In a dozen years she would be dead, while I should be reaching the peak of my profession.’’ The dual attitudes the narrator displays toward Laika seem difficult to reconcile. The narrator further complicates matters by saying of his abandonment of her, ‘‘No sane man would have hesitated over the matter; yet I did hesitate, and if by now you do not understand why, no further words of mine can help.’’ In fact, anyone who loved his dog would hesitate, even if he eventually made a pragmatic decision. With the sole exception of his feeling for Laika, the narrator is nothing if not pragmatic. He cannot conceive of hesitating for an emotional reason as being anything but extraordinary and beyond human understanding. For him, his relationship with his dog is the only intense, affective relationship in his life and seems like a sublime mystery that others cannot share or comprehend. The intensity and, as he thinks, the uniqueness of his feelings create a sense of superiority over those who he believes cannot understand. But he is unable to empathize with his prospective colleagues at the Farside Observatory, many of whom will be separated not from their dogs but from their spouses and children.
The narrator seems to have completely rejected his own emotional life in favor of developing his intellect and his professional position. By his own admission, he has ‘‘made very few friends among human beings.’’ Indeed, he seems very detached from everyone around him. Other people are not important enough to name: they are the janitor or university acquaintances. In fact, his acquaintances in Berkeley are the only people in the story, other than the narrator himself, who are allowed to speak directly. But even their single statement, which is obviously spoken only by one of them, is attributed to them collectively, as if their individual identities do not matter. They are killed in an earthquake while he survives. The narrator calls them his friends but their deaths do not seem to affect him in any way. Rather, he is only concerned with the safety of his dog. In the same way, the narrator mentions no human he is sorry to leave behind when he travels to the moon. The narrator’s closest human relationship is probably with his superior at the observatory; the narrator can most easily function within the student-teacher relationship he must have excelled at in school. Dr. Anderson not only has the distinction of being the only named human character in the story but also has the additional distinction of having earned a doctorate, which is reflected in his title. This defines the relationship and keeps it from becoming a genuine friendship. The narrator realizes that even Anderson considers him ‘‘indifferent and heartless.’’ The narrator denies that this is true precisely because of what he feels about Laika, but the fact that this perception nevertheless exists demonstrates how completely unsuccessful he is at human relationships. Any astronomer would give up his dog and a great deal more for the chance to work full time at the most important observatory in the world (perhaps in the solar system). Anderson thinks the narrator is heartless not because he is willing to leave his dog behind for the new job but most likely because he finds him generally unconcerned about his fellow human beings.
As desperately important to the narrator as his relationship with Laika is, even this is sustained entirely by the dog’s emotion. While the dog is enthusiastic and demonstrative in her special affection for the narrator, he has no idea how to reciprocate. Even naming the dog is too affective an act for the narrator; he leaves it to Dr. Anderson. The narrator admits, ‘‘I have never liked dogs, or indeed any animals.’’ Even when he picks up Laika as a puppy abandoned by the roadside, he does not want to touch her and wishes he had worn gloves, as if he might be contaminated by direct contact. Rather than risk damage to the upholstery of his new car, he locks the puppy in the trunk. He does not allow himself to feel outrage at her former owner over the cruelty of the dog’s abandonment, reasoning that ‘‘since I shall never know the facts, I may be jumping to false conclusions.’’ Only a mind coldly devoted to logic would worry about the small possibility that Laika was abandoned for any reason other than to dispose of her.
The narrator of ‘‘Dog Star’’ has completely denied his own inner life in favor of an intellectual, professional, technocratic facade. As a consequence, his outpouring of repressed emotion into his relationship with his dog becomes too overwhelming for him. It is perhaps a relief that he is eventually able to leave her behind on another planet. Certainly after the separation he did not think of her. He does not even dream of her before the dream at the climax of the story that he believes saved his life. But even this dream he rationalizes away rather than accept the possibility of a redefined, redemptive relationship with Laika.
Laika is the title character of ‘‘Dog Star.’’ The title is not, in fact, that closely applicable to her, but Clarke seems to have wanted some word that had both canine and astronomical associations. He first thought of calling the story ‘‘Moondog’’ before settling on ‘‘Dog Star.’’ A young puppy abandoned by her former owners, she is left on the side of the road in the Pasadena hills and is picked up by the unnamed narrator. She is the only character that is physically described:
“She was a beautiful animal, about ninety-five per cent Alsatian. . . . Apart from two dark patches over the eyes, most of her body was a smoky gray, and her coat was soft as silk. When her ears were pricked up, she looked incredibly intelligent and alert; sometimes I would be discussing spectral types or stellar evolution with my colleagues, and it would be hard to believe that she was not following the conversation.”
Laika develops a special affection for her rescuer, becoming ecstatic whenever they are reunited. In fact, they are seldom apart since Laika is permitted to go anywhere in the observatory, even into the workrooms for the telescopes themselves. She is especially liked by the senior astronomer, Dr. Anderson, who suggests her name (after the first dog to be launched into space) and eventually adopts her when the narrator has to abandon her.
Once Laika accompanies the narrator on a trip to Berkeley, California. During the night she makes a big fuss to get out of the house. When she and the narrator are outside, a massive earthquake strikes, destroying the house and killing everyone inside. The narrator believes that her canine senses somehow alerts her to the danger in time to get out. After that incident he is even more inseparable from his dog. However, when he is offered an opportunity to advance his career by taking a post at the new Farside Observatory on the moon, he does so, leaving her in the care of Dr. Anderson and his wife. She dies within a month. Thereafter, although he scarcely thinks of her during the day, he dreams of her one night and awakens just in time to realize that the Farside Observatory on the moon is being destroyed by a seismic tremor. The narrator finally eulogizes Laika as ‘‘brimming with an unselfish, undemanding love.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Arthur C Clarke, Published by Gale Group, 2001.