Ace Double Reviews, 38: Mankind Under the Leash, by Thomas M. Disch/Planet of Exile, by Ursula K. Le Guin (#G-597, 1966, $0.50)
by Rich Horton
Here we have a pairing of two writers who came to prominence in the mid-60s as two of the more literary-oriented writers in the SF field's history. Both writers have by now earned at least a modest reputation in the mainstream. In Disch's case that probably comes more from his poetry and his later novels, such as The Priest and The Businessman, rather dark contemporary novels with horror aspects, that have been marketed as general fiction. On the other hand, while Le Guin has written "mainstream" novels and short fiction, as well as a little poetry, her reputation, even in the "wider world", is still founded on her SF and fantasy. These novels of course come from very early in each writer's career. Planet of Exile, about 37,000 words long, is Le Guin's second novel (after Rocannon's World, reviewed earlier in this series). (I note by the way that Ace prints her name "LeGuin", but I believe the space -- "Le Guin" -- is actually correct.) Mankind Under the Leash, about 47,000 words long, is also Disch's second novel.
Mankind Under the Leash in an expansion of a 1965 novelette from If (April) called "White Fang Goes Dingo". It has also been published under the title The Puppies of Terra, which is presumably Disch's preferred title, and which is slightly more appropriate for the book.
Much of Thomas M. Disch's work has been satirical, and so it is with this novel. An outward description of the events of the novel makes it appear quite conventional -- it is about a young man brought up under alien domination of humanity who comes to rebel against the aliens, ultimately successfully. However, the story is rather different than one might expect. The hero is named White Fang, as it was for a time fashionable to name human children after famous dogs. He is the son of a famous novelist, a man much prized among his alien owners for his art, especially as his most famous novel celebrated the rule of the aliens as a good thing for their human pets. White Fang himself makes it clear from the opening of his narrative that he loved his life as a pet of the "Masters", and that he misses the "Leash".
At the age of 7 White Fang's father is killed by "Dingos" -- that is, feral humans. He and his older brother (Pluto) are abandoned by his rather cold mother to a kennel on Earth. But three years later the two are purchased by a Master from the Asteroid Belt, and they go there to live in luxury. White Fang is mated to a lovely girl named Darling, Julie, and they have one daughter. But at the age of 20, on a visit to Earth, they are abandoned by their Master. It turns out that a Solar storm has interfered with the Masters' control over Earth and the humans on Earth -- the Masters are beings of pure energy, you see. White Fang and Julie live in the wild for a time, eventually encountering a band of Dingos, part of a revolution against the Masters' rule that has taken advantage of the situation to regain control of Earth and to free the pets. But most of them don't want to be free. White Fang is imprisoned, but manages to outwit the silly commandant of the prison camp he ends up at, and after discovering his mother and brother at this camp he works to set them free, only to be recapture himself by the leaders of the revolution. This time he is convinced that freedom is preferable to the Leash, and he turns out to be instrumental in a cute plan to drive off the Masters once and for all.
The above description gives little hint of the real flavor of the book. It's very funny, sometimes in satirical fashion, at other times more purely farcical (as in the staging of the opera Salome, called here Salami, which White Fang uses to facilitate the freeing of the pets from the prison camp). It's also somewhat thought-provoking about the question of "slavery in comfort" vs. "freedom among hardship". At the same time White Fang is an appealing character, and his relationship with Julie is quite sweetly portrayed. The plot is perhaps not exactly convincing but is interesting and there a couple of clever twists. I recommend, mainly for the clever and satirical aspects.V
I went ahead and read "White Fang Goes Dingo" to compare. It tells the same story, in essence, as the full novel, though it's only 15,000 words or so, about a third of the length of the book. The novel is expanded throughout -- in some cases just fleshing out things that were only briefly mentioned in the story, but some long sections are entirely new: the sojourn in the prison camp (and the staging of Salami) is only in the novel, and the description of White Fang and Julie's life from age 10 to 20 in the asteroids is also only in the novel (as is their child).V
I ought to mention, too, that Carol Emshwiller's 2002 novel The Mount, a current Nebula nominee, is in many ways very reminiscent of Mankind Under the Leash, though The Mount is not at all satirical.
Planet of Exile is, like Ursula K. Le Guin's other early novels, set in her so-called "Hainish" universe, though as with the other earliest novels, she doesn't yet seem to have decided that it is really "Hainish" -- rather it seems to be set several hundred years in the future, after Earth has colonized a variety of planets, forming the League of All Worlds. They have visited a number of worlds with "High-Intelligent Life Forms", or hilfs, that seem basically human, to the point that interbreeding is possible, if difficult. This unlikely fact is explained in the later novels by positing the Hainish seeding program, but I'm not sure she had really figured this out at the time of Planet of Exile and Rocannon's World.
In this novel the Earth Colony on the third planet of Eltanin (Gamma Draconis) has been abandoned or forgotten. About 2000 people remain after some 600 years -- chemical incompatibilities with the local life have made survival difficult. Terrans have difficulty bearing children with themselves, and they are unable to have children with the locals, though relationships, including marriage, have occurred. The other key point is that the world is in a long, eccentric, orbit, such that each Year is about 60 Earth years, with correspondingly long and harsh seasons.
As the novel opens, Winter is coming. The local Tevar tribe is preparing to retreat to winter quarters. Reports of barbarians from the North coming South in greater than usual numbers have also arrived. Rolery is a young woman of this tribe, somewhat solitary because she was born "out of season", and there are no young men her age. She wanders into the city of the Terrans and meets their energetic young leader, Jakob Agat, leading eventually to a love affair and marriage. Jakob knows of the barbarian danger, which also threatens the Terran city, and he is trying to convince the tribes to unite to oppose the barbarians, but when his affair with Rolery is discovered xenophobic factions turn the tribes against him. The rest of the novel concerns the terrible results of the northerners' invasion, and the desperate, and costly defense, with a glimmer of true hope for the future at the end.
As one would expect from Le Guin, this is a beautifully written book. I didn't like it personally quite as well as I liked Rocannon's World among her early novels. The plot sort of poops out, and the resolution is not really convincing. The love story worked very well for me, though. Certainly a novel worth reading, but in the context of Le Guin's career, a lesser work.