In the world of Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller, female animals are transforming into female humans, and vice versa. The human to animal transitions are neither instant nor clearly discernible. Some women change completely into animals and loose ability to communicate with humans. Others are in a permanent limbo between species. Phillip, for example, possesses attributes of both snake and woman: her humanoid body is scaly and multi colored and she speaks English with a serpentine lisp. The book’s protagonist, Pooch, is a golden setter turning into an attractive and modest young woman. Her body is increasingly human, but retains some canine elements, including long silken ears and extra nipples. The plot of the text centers less on Pooch’s physical transformation, however, and more on her psychological and emotional development. Throughout the text, Pooch maintains traits typical for her breed: she is extremely obedient and enjoys (or at least has been trained to enjoy) the structured simplicity of life with her Master and Mistress. But Pooch’s status quo is violently disrupted when her Mistress turns into a vicious snapping turtle and bites her own baby. Fearing for the safety of the child, Pooch runs away with it to New York City. Pooch also harbors a secret wish of becoming an opera signer, and hopes to fulfill this dream in the city. Throughout the text, she grapples with the ambitions, fears, and responsibilities of a female in transition, navigating a world of societal and scientific upheaval.
Carmen Dog straddles the line (if there is one) between speculative fiction and science fiction (SF). Defining SF is slippery, and there are almost as many definitions as there are texts. For the purpose of this paper, I will employ James Gunn’s concise definition of SF as “the literature of change” and Carl Freedman’s analytic tool of discussing genre tendencies instead of drawing hard lines (Gunn) (Freedman 182). Regardless of where it is placed in bookstores (I found my copy in the SF section, but would not have been surprised to find in fantasy or feminist literature), Carmen Dog is filled with SF tendencies. While the story might not take place in outer space or a distant technologically advanced future, Carmen Dog presents an alternative reality marked by scientific change and uses this world to reflect and discuss our own. Emshwiller also identifies herself as an SF writer, and attributes the genre as the reason for her authorship in general. She writes on her website: “I hated anything to do with writing until I met science fiction people…I got to know (and love) the sf world and wanted to join it.” Emshwiller is particularly interested in investigating discrimination in the scientific establishment, feminism, sex, and control.
One of the primary themes of the text is misogyny in the scientific community. The book begins with a medical examination, and follows the unsuccessful attempts of male scientists and doctors to determine the cause and implications of the transformations. Throughout the book, male scientists assume women are less rational and intelligent than men, which they believe might account for women turning into “less evolved” creatures. The scientists in the book are not given names and are simply referred to by their titles. Their sexism is over-the-top and at times comedic, but Emshwiller does still spend time explaining their internal thought processes and motivations. She even grants some of them redemption at the end of the book. Editor and publisher Jeffrey Smith once asked female SF writers at a symposium if they were ever called out, as male authors are, for unrealistic portrayals of the opposite sex (Cheney §4). This charge could certainly be leveled against Emshwiller for depicting delusional and cartoonish male characters, but she equally presents unrealistic female characters with similarly extreme traits. The male and female characters in Carmen Dog are clearly tropes, including the protagonist Pooch. The strangeness and exaggerated features of these characters do not detract from the message of the book, but rather magnify it, as much SF does. Emshwiller seems less concerned with depicting a “realistic” man or woman, and is more focused on playing with fictionalized stereotypes and prototypes of beings as means of critiquing our own reality.
The main male character of the book, referred to only as “the doctor,” aims to understand the transitions by capturing and torturing several females in his laboratory. He repeatedly justifies his cruelty and control of the creatures as necessary for scientific inquiry and the future of mankind. The doctor is convinced that there is a great conspiracy underway aimed at destroying men and conventional gender norms, and declares “women are the greatest enemies of science” and social order (Emshwiller 61). Appealing to his male peers in the scientific community, he bemoans: “gentlemen, tell me, what of motherhood!” (Emshwiller 66). Throughout the text, male scientists and political leaders become obsessed with the future of motherhood, and fund the Academy of Motherhood to experiment on new species of women. These females are brought to the Academy, artificially inseminated with the sperm of highly rational atomic physics and military generals, and then studied closely. The men detect that motherhood is a powerful and threatening force, so they aim to control and harness it to their own benefit. This is done under the belief that “if the men can stick together, they will prevail against the softness” and find a way to regulate motherhood in “small, insignificant does so that it can always be held within reasonable bounds” (Emshwiller 331). They begin to consider means of creating humans outside of a female womb – a concept popular throughout SF works, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But the scientists fear the implications of this breeding. Can a baby be considered human if produced only from men? Or are women an essential “ingredient” in creating humans? Most of the females in transition can speak, reason, and act with free will. Yet they have feathers, scales, or fur, and are known to squawk, squeak, and growl. Are they, and their offspring, still to be considered human? If a creature is both and neither animal and human, what scientific and political laws apply to them? The men in the book fail to find any answers, in part because their methods and beliefs are guided by a strong current of sexism and need to control the unknown. Meanwhile, completely overlooked by the Academy of Motherhood, Pooch raises a human child and later a litter of her own pups with great care and success.
Science plays a prominent role in Carmen Dog, even if it is being skewered for its sexist and cruel methods. Many other SF works, such as Frankenstein and Metropolis, depict the shortcomings and dangers of science and technology. Carmen Dog differs from these texts in that it does not depict a world in which scientific inquiry is the cause of ruin. Instead, it is deeply embedded misogyny that renders the scientific establishment useless in studying female biology. This alternate reality is not far from our own. In keeping with Ursula Le Guin’s argument that SF depicts the present, Carmen Dog reflects a reality in which women were/are often misunderstood and misused by science. The book was published in 1988: a time when science and medicine was still largely male-dominated. Up until 1993, women of childbearing age were regularly excluded from clinical trials (Rabin). As a result of centuries of gender discrepancy in scientific and medical research, we still know much less about female biology than male biology (Liu and Mager). Recent reforms have begun to address this discrepancy, but women were still routinely mistreated or ignored by science in the time that Carmen Dog was written.
Carmen Dog also reflects some of the feminist currents of the time in which it was written. Clearly influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement, Emshwiller describes a community of females working together to achieve political and social rights in a society that historically denied them representation and respect. In Carmen Dog, females in transition fall in a strange legal grey area and are even more “other” than women in our reality. The political and scientific establishment urge fellow men to control their females and treat them more as property than sentient beings. At one point in the book, Pooch is put in a dog pound and forced to sleep in a cage that barely fits her nearly human body. It is unclear if Pooch is a possession or an individual. Can she be sold, or put down, like a dog? In the pound, which is run by men, the females are outraged when they learn of their impending death sentences. They exclaim: “It’s political,” and “Is this what they call a democracy?” (Emshwiller 45).
In response to mounting discrimination, several female leaders form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to All Creatures (SPCAC). Ironically, it is the evil doctor’s wife who leads the charge to liberation, having been secretly plotting against him while he was conducting his experiments on females. SPCAC clearly parallels not just anti-animal cruelty organizations like the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), but also feminist and women’s rights organizations such as the National Organization for Women. At SPCA meetings, childcare is provided, and women are encouraged to speak out and rally for a world without subjugation.
Interestingly, race and ethnicity are largely absent from the book. Characters are described with physical attributes such as scaly, furry, soft, fat, or thin, but none that indicate a specific human race or ethnicity. In Emshwiller’s world, the division between genders is primary, which is an interesting choice given the time in which she is writing. First Wave feminism was marked primarily by fundamental political issue campaigns, such as the right to vote. In Second Wave (and later Third Wave) feminism started in the late 1960s, women of color, working class women, and queer women (among others) began articulating concerns about how the primarily white and middle-upper class leadership of the movement ignored their differences in experiences and goals. Emshwiller introduces some divisions within the female camp of Carmen Dog to reflect these divisions within American feminism, but they are brief. Walking with a herd of bovine-esq females, blindly pushing forward to an unknown destination, Pooch’s cries for help are ignored. Pooch questions, “are they not sisters? Are we not in this together?” (Emshwiller 142). These females are uninterested in joining the struggle, and are more focused on their individual species communities.
Carmen Dog also explores gender and identity differences through the new world of sex that it invents. Norms of attraction are upended by the transformations. Suddenly a dog or a bear can be sexy. Emshwiller introduces this notion early in the book, describing how “John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants)” (15). The reader is forced to consider new and strange sexual possibilities and, perhaps, entirely new sexualities. In addition to being queer or straight, can one now be a bear lover? Can one be both transgender, and trans-species (i.e. an iguana trapped in a bear’s body who has an attraction to corgis)? This infinitely expanding universe of identities closely mirrors our own. Categorization can no longer keep up with the diversity of humans and human preferences on our planet. For example, what label describes an inter-sex individual, who has elements of both physiological genders, presents as a “normative” woman, and is attracted to gay men? Are they gay or straight? Does the categorization matter? Ridged binaries work even less in a world where the doors to interspecies relationships and transformations are thrown open. Throughout the book, Emshwiller investigates binary-breaking identities: beings on a spectrum of transition that defies standard classification.
Issues of consent and control further complicate the sex world of the book. If a husband’s wife turns into a bear, with mental capacities similar to humans and the ability to freely consent and communicate, the moral claims against interspecies sex become less clear. Sexual mechanics present one possible barrier to interspecies love, but as several gender and sexuality theorists have put forward: the importance of sex acts to individuals in and outside of relationships varies greatly. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick puts bluntly: “Sexuality makes up a large share of self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others’. Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little. Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none” (25). Applying this to Emshwiller’s world, the range of sexual impulses and sexualities, and the means of expressing them, differs greatly. A giraffe could indeed love a fish, even if they are not able to produce offspring or partake in a sex act by human standards. Though not fully formed, Emshwiller’s world makes some headway toward achieving SF author Samuel Delaney’s standard that works of SF cannot “get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs” and must instead build new worlds of “the erotic, the exotic, the sensual, and the sexual” (Cheney §4).
Emshwiller is also concerned with issues of consent and control. Many of the men in the text view the transformations as new opportunities for sexual adventures or exploitation. Emshwiller pointedly describes: “it was almost as though the men had at last found the world to their liking, in which they had even more control than before and in which relationships and responsibilities were less confining. After all, they merely involved dumb animals who were not worth consideration, politeness, time, efforts, gifts” (85). There are several instances throughout the text in which men display little thought into the consent or ability to consent of the creatures they are sexually attracted to. Pooch’s Master feels that he owns her newly human body, just as much as he owned her canine body. The Master begins to realize that Pooch’s naiveté and blind loyalty makes her “just the sort of wife he always wanted…If, for instance, he wanted to tie her, spread-eagled, to the bed, she would not wonder at his behavior” (29). Pooch herself is unclear on whom she belongs to, and what her feelings toward her Master should be. Even when she is almost fully transitioned, she finds comfort in wearing her dog collar and fears upsetting her Master. Pooch’s relationship to him in some ways mimics the thought patterns and dilemmas of women in domestic violence relationships who choose to stay or continually return to their abusers. We learn over the course of the text that many of the females have histories of abuse.
Emshwiller is clearly interested in psychological state of these females, repeatedly making reference to Sigmund Freud and the speculations of Pooch’s psychologist. At the beginning of the text, Pooch internalizes a narrative of unworthiness. But as the story continues, she becomes more confident in asserting herself and pursing her goals. It is no accident the baby’s first word is a powerful “no,” a word that Pooch gradually learns to say for herself. The book ends with Pooch in a consensual relationship, fulfilling her dream of being an opera star. She briefly considers forgiving her Master and the abusive men in her life, but Emshwiller remains ambiguous on if this forgiveness actually comes to fruition, or is just a fleeting consideration.
The ambiguity is partially purposeful, but also caused by unnecessary confusion in the text. Especially in the last third of the book, Emshwiller’s world becomes gratuitously complicated and chaotic. Overall, however, the book retains its integrity and relevance through Emshwiller’s creative and often comedic grounding in a Western contemporary reality. The text is strongest when it presents scenes that mirror our own reality, and provide an anchor for the reader in an otherwise foreign and disorienting world. Moreover, these scenes force us to reflect on the potential strangeness or fault in our own reality. Carmen Dog makes the reader consider hierarchies that we impose on different forms of life and intelligence. Emshwiller beautifully highlights the importance of different perspectives and knowledge that the females possess: “it is as if they all had eaten an apple for the tree of a different kind of knowledge and have seen with new eyes, not that they are naked, but have seen that they are clothed” (Emshwiller 14). In many ways, Carmen Dog is an exercise in considering the overlooked creatures around us, including human women. It forces us to consider the suffering of second-class beings, and perhaps be more caring and empathetic toward society’s “others”—animal and human alike.
Cheney, Matthew. “Ethical Aesthetics.” From The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, rev’d; Samuel R. Delaney. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan. 2009.
Emswiller, Carol. Carmen Dog. Small Beer Press, 2004.
Emshwiller, Carol. “Autobiography.” Carol Emshwiller’s Official Home Page. http://www.sfwa.org/members/emshwiller/
Freedman, Carl. “Science Fiction and Critical Theory.” Science Fiction Studies 14(2): 180-200. 1987.
Liu, Katherine A., and Natalie A. Dipietro Mager. “Women’s Involvement in Clinical Trials: Historical Perspective and Future Implications.” Pharmacy Practice 14.1, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4800017/
Rabin, Roni Caryn. “The Drug-Dose Gender Gap.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2013. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/the-drug-dose-gender-gap/
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.