Review of Darrell Bain's Bark!

Bark! By Darrell Bain
Reviewed by Geoff Nelder

An autistic dachshund saves the world from an inadvertent invasion by aliens – or does he? A fun science fiction with adult humour.
Paperback: 184 pages
Published by LL-Publications (April 2008)
ISBN-10: 190509115X
ISBN-13: 978 1905091157

Bark! Is a science fiction novella about how a miniature dachshund with ADHD saved the world from an inadvertent alien invasion. Not just any ADHD tiny sausage dog but one with a single testicle, a defective sense of smell, cross-eyed and autistic. It seems this doggie soup combined with his conception during a freak storm, created when aliens landed, provided Tonto with an attribute that enabled him to detect alien organisms when nothing else could.

This is a humorous tale and but for the profanities and extreme alcoholism, it could be a cute children’s book. However, besides those adult behavioural traits this story is adult too in its attention to canine ethology. Bain is a keen observer and so the reader feels they are in the east Texas former Christmas Tree farmland, following the antics of a real Tonto; his attempts to jump, chase animals, lick faces and play with sticks are familiar to dog lovers worldwide. A proviso, Tonto is no ordinary pooch – those sticks are used as a tool. Bain paints his adults well too, in the subtleties of attitude and conspiracies plotted by both aliens and humans right to the frankly disturbing endgame.

The aliens trawl space, dropping in on planets that might be suitable for their species to inhabit. A scout craft lands with two Testers: animals genetically modified to enhance their inherent ability to take on the form of nearby fauna. This particular mission only intended to grab some biomass but two Testers escaped. Luckily, although two Testers can reproduce, three of their sexes are required for the newly created beings to survive a long time. Nevertheless, the two escapees produce duplicate rabbits and other Texan wildlife in short order.

Tonto goes crazy when he detects any of these ‘alien’ duplicates, and his owners soon realize something extraordinary is happening. It is only when their friend and former Pentagon eccentric genius pays a visit that the ramifications of the ‘invasion’ sink in.

As a science fiction story, Bark! deserves shelf space because it is so unusual: the main character is not only a dog, but an Aspergers mutt, the invasion is inadvertent and the lifeform-duplicating beings create intriguing dilemmas for those in the know. As a sub-40,000 words novella, there is a surprising amount of fast-paced action along with insightful forays into the thought processes of the aliens, their Testers, humans and Tonto.

If I have a doubt about Bark! it is that it ends too soon. I won’t spoil the ending but the phenomenon of duplicating humans, especially in positions of power and trust, is too fascinating to be a brief endpiece.

Because I write science fiction novels I read with an eye for quality lines, observations and concepts I wish I’d crafted. Bain does a great job conveying the reader through the narrative as shown by Tonto the dachshund. It must have been tempting to write the whole story through Tonto as the Point of View. Maybe he did but found it too limiting and so successfully wrote it through Damon, the dog’s owner. This close observation of the dog’s behaviour is interspersed with intelligent human speculation. I particularly enjoyed the way Tonto displayed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder such as in his daily routines of re-arranging a hosepipe and using sticks to brush up pine straw into little piles. The neat reproductive trait of the alien Testers such that they need three sexes offers interesting possibilities. Interestingly, there are few colours and no bright colours used in the story. It is well known that dogs do not see well. Miniatures typically see three dioptres worse than humans and although they are not colour-blind as many suppose, their colour vision is paler than in humans: dogs differentiate between two hues compared to a hundred with most humans. Consequently, I cannot pick a fight with the paucity of bright colours in Darrell Bain’s novel. In fact it is a cunning way of helping the reader to experience much of the story through Tonto. Also the aliens, unused to Terrestrial trees refer to them as ‘brown support columns turned to green’. Excellent.

Similarly, I chide authors when they fail to make sufficient use of aromas. Fiction, in my view, should use all the senses to involve the reader. In Bark! ‘Tonto appeared to have a defecit in the food detecting part of his nose.’ In writing this amusing line, Bain tells us that Tonto uses other, more mysterious means, to detect the aliens.

Once The End is reached the reader is treated to a bonus piece of writing, the autobiography of Tonto as told to his master. This is a neat idea, but a little confusing. Maybe it is my fault but because the autobiography is of a real miniature dachshund called Tonto, who liked pushing sticks around, re-arranging a hosepipe and is living in Texas, I assumed it was the same Tonto as in Bark! Reading the introduction more carefully, I read that the autobiography is of the writer’s own dog, the inspiration for the novel. Does it work? Well, yes but I would have been more hooked if we had more an insight in how the fictional Tonto felt about detecting aliens, and other doggy secrets that have puzzled humans for centuries. The autobiography is an account of the real Tonto told to Darrell Bain when “Tonto suddenly began talking.” Is it fiction? Well it is the life of the real dog as interpreted by his owner, so let’s go with it as a non-fiction, kind of! Pity I wasn’t there because I once undertook research on why dogs bark and chase bicycles for a piece in Cycling World and I would have loved to have found out how close I was!

The fiction of Bark! and the autobiography of the real dog complement each other. An enjoyable read by an award-winning author.