‘‘Dog Star’’ is told by a first-person narrator who never reveals his name. There are two levels of representation in what he says. He must be imagined as relating this story both to an audience of his own contemporaries in the future, who share his knowledge of everyday reality, as well as to the reading audience of 1962, who view everything he says as new and extraordinary. At the beginning of the story, the narrator dreams of hearing his old dog Laika barking to be let out. When he awakens, he is devastated by feelings of loss over separation from his dog. He mentions that she is 250,000 miles away, which is the first clue that he is on the moon. The dog is also five years away, meaning—as is revealed later in the story—he left her on Earth five years ago, shortly after which she died. He then starts to undergo a life-or-death crisis, but exactly what that involves he postpones to tell the story of Laika instead.
The narrator reveals that he found Laika when she was but a puppy, abandoned on the side of the road, where he spotted her while driving from the observatory, where he is employed as an astronomer, to Mount Palomar. He mentions that he advertised in the local Pasadena newspapers to try to find her owner (without success). This inevitably suggests that he works at the Mount Wilson observatory in Pasadena, California, which is about ninety miles from Palomar. The narrator also mentions that his car was a ‘‘new ’92 Vik,’’ suggesting that this part of the story takes place in 1992 or 1993.
The narrator has little interest in keeping a pet for himself and originally intended to entrust the dog to the janitor at Palomar. Nevertheless he is overcome with affection and pity for the dog and decides to keep it. He then describes in some detail the difficulties in house-breaking the puppy, and expresses his eventual admiration of the fact that the dog can come into the observatory with him and is content to sit quietly and not cause any disturbance while he works. The narrator’s senior colleague, Dr. Anderson, suggests naming the dog Laika after the first dog sent into orbit by the Soviet Union. She is beloved by the entire observatory staff. As Laika grows up, it becomes clear she is a nearly pure-bred Alsatian (a euphemism for German shepherd, introduced into English during World War I because of antiGerman popular sentiment).
Laika’s affection for the narrator only increases and became more demonstrative. Hetakes her everywhere except on overseas trips to professional conferences. She accompanies him on a trip to Berkeley, where he is attending a seminar and staying as a houseguest with a faculty couple from the University of California, who are none too pleased to have a large dog invade their house. During her first night there, Laika begins whining and barking to be let out, so the narrator gets up to attend to her, wishing that his hosts not be awakened by the noise. While they are outside a terrible earthquake strikes, the most powerful since the Great San Francisco quake of 1906, which levels the house and kills his hosts. The narrator refuses to be evacuated until the Red Cross agrees to take Laika as well. Clarke, writing in the early 1960s, intended these events as predictions of the kinds of things that were likely to happen. Although the scientific study of earthquakes was in its infancy in the 1960s, it was clear that San Francisco would suffer other major earthquakes; in fact, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 is the type of thing Clarke meant to suggest, although that seismic event was not as powerful or destructive as either the 1906 quake or Clarke’s fictional quake.
The narrator presents as fact the idea that Laika has somehow sensed the earthquake was coming and acted purposefully to save his life. After that he grows even closer to the dog. Nevertheless, the narrator soon receives a job offer to become assistant director at the new Farside Observatory being established on the moon. This represents an important technical development since astronomy performed outside Earth’s atmosphere will mark a tremendous advance over the way it has been practiced heretofore. As he says, ‘‘In a few months, I could hope to solve problems I had been working on for years. Beyond the atmosphere, I would be like a blind man who had suddenly been given sight.’’ Naturally he cannot take Laika with him. Despite everything Laika has come to mean to him, he hardly hesitates before accepting the offer and handing Laika over to Dr. Anderson and his wife.
The narrator describes his trip to the moon in some detail, both to make it clear that it is more or less routine, closer in nature to an airline flight than the cutting-edge effort being put forth in the 1960s space race when Clarke was writing. At the same time, he mentions enough unusual circumstances to make it worth telling to his contemporary audience. The principal difficulty is radiation from a recent solar flare. Once on the moon, he resolves to set aside any guilt he feels about abandoning Laika—which was no different from her original owners, who had abandoned her by the side of the road—so that it would not interfere with his work. About a month later, he receives news that Laika has died, evidently of grief over their separation, but he only plunges all the more deeply into his work: ‘‘Though I never forgot Laika, in a little while the memory ceased to hurt.’’
Only now does the narrator return to the crisis point five years later with which he began the story. Because he has been awakened while dreaming of Laika, he realizes that the Farside Observatory is being shaken by a seismic tremor and is able to sound a general alarm and get into his own pressure suit, saving the lives of all but two of his colleagues.
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.