Friday, June 27, 2014

Review of Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton

The sentient dog has quietly snuck its way in to become a sub-sub-genre of speculative fiction.  Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, Clifford Simak’s City, Roger Zelazny’s He Who Shapes, Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, and others use articulate canines for varying reasons (juxtaposition, evolutionary markers, disorientation, social commentary, comedy, etc.), in 2004 Bradley Denton added the novella Sergeant Chip to the mix, empathy against the political scene the reason.

The ultimate in obedience, Sergeant Chip is a trained soldier dog assigned to Captain Dial.  Top of his class at the academy, he is able to perform all of the training exercises with utmost intelligence, skill, and speed.  He also has an implant in his neck which allows him to sub-vocally communicate with Dial.  Not in a “Hi, how are you today?” sense, rather in a simple giving of commands and making intentions known.  All is well in their relationship until war comes calling, and Dial and Chip are sent to a distant outpost to guard a base.  Enemy attacks eventually coming fast and strong, it comes as a surprise who the enemy actually is. 

Sergeant Chip an epistolary, the novella is in fact a letter Chip “writes” to persons that only become clear at the end of the story.  Helpful, caring, and wanting only someone to say he’s been a good dog, the reader immediately becomes attached to Chip as he tells his story of what happened after they were sent to battlefield.  Denton writing in appropriately simple sentences, the secondary effect is one of rendering Chip like Lenny in Of Mice and Men.  The reader can’t help but empathize, especially given the events revealed in the letter he is writing. 

But Chip is more than just an admirable animal with fighting skills.  Denton also renders the dog a tool for political commentary.  Sergeant Chip written at the time America was coming to terms with the notion WMDs were not in fact present in Iraq, and that the entire nation had been duped by a group of warmongers looking for profit.  Chip the ultimate in subservient soldiers, he likewise presents a nice metaphor for the innocent soldier sent to fight and die on behalf of greedy politicians.  The plot developing the idea is far from subtle, but its point remains sharp.

In the end, Sergeant Chip is the story of a superbly trained soldier dog sent to fight at the front lines with very strong political overtones.  Existing at two levels, the superficial story is rather direct, but beneath the overt conspiracy theory lies a truth begotten from the real world political situation at the time, particularly the US’s invasion of Iraq.  Chip’s is a sentimental tale that can be added to the sub-sub-genre of sentient dog stories, but for the singular moment in history it comments upon, is relatively unique.


  1. Have you read Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog" (1922)? Easily one of the most unsettling stories I have ever read -- it's written from a dog's point of view.

    If you want to add a intelligent dog story you can include Pohl's horrid Slave Ship (1957)

    Powers even included a paw print on the cover.

    1. I've not read the Kafka story, nor Pohl's. Besides the two biggies (The Castle and The Trial), as well as the classic novella Metamorphosis, I've not delved any deeper in Kafka - a shame, I know. Pohl I'm very careful with. He's written some great stuff, and some stuff that's... well, you know. I do, however, appreciate the risks he's willing to take, so he remains on the list of authors I'm open to continue reading.

      Are there so many sentient cat stories, you think? And if not, why not?

    2. In the Phyllis Gotlieb's collection the cat story is Son of the Morning (1972) -- nominated for the 1973 Nebula -- haha. Maybe it's good.

  2. There are sentient cat stories!

    For example, Phyllis Gotlieb's contributions....

    I dunno which story in this collection is about cats but one definitely is. And I suspect there are numerous others.