Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was an American writer of avant-garde short stories and Science Fiction . She started writing short stories in the 1950s, at about the same time as she started having children. Her first collection was published in 1974 and Carmen Dog, her first novel, in 1988.

The Women’s Press, a London publisher – and not to be confused with Onlywomen Press – was founded by NZ/Australian writer Stephanie Dowrick. Her co-publisher, Naim Attalah (a guy) had some connection with Virago and so as a point of difference, The Women’s Press focused on contemporary fiction, and also, as you see, Science Fiction. All this of course is ‘research’, and I see from Wikipedia that their early writers included Alice Walker, The Colour Purple and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

I own and have previously reviewed from TWP SF The Planet Dweller and Moving Moosevan by Janet Palmer and The Total Devotion Machine by (Australian) Rosaleen Love. I’m not sure why this cover does not have The Women’s Press’s familiar black and white stripes (though, inside is the same jokey logo, an iron and ironing board – see the motto: Steaming ahead).

Carmen Dog is a postmodern romp through Science Fiction, Magic Realism and Women’s Lib. The core of the plot is that women everywhere (ie. New York. I’m not sure Americans understand the difference) are devolving into animals and that female animals are evolving*, in the space of a year or two, into women.

There is not really any science in the SF, but also the fantastical elements do not make it SFF. Instead, the implication is that you must read Carmen Dog as you read SF – accept the premise as possible and think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world.

‘The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,’ the doctor said. ‘In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.’

The principal characters are Pooch, a female pedigreed setter who has partway changed into a woman; a baby, in fact the baby of the woman the doctor is speaking about, who is in the process of changing into a snapping turtle; the woman’s husband, Pooch’s ‘Master’; the doctor; the doctor’s wife, whose name we learn is Rosemary; and half a dozen women changing variously to/from a wolverine, a cat, a duck (or maybe a swan), a python etc.

Pooch finds herself being given more of the housework and babysitting, till one day the baby’s mother grabs the baby in her beak and won’t let go. Pooch rescues the baby, but thinking she’ll be blamed for the wound on the baby’s arm, runs away with it, from the suburbs into central New York. There she realises her dream of attending the opera, Carmen of course, but cannot help herself and begins singing in an untrained but powerful voice over the top of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the doctor has applied for a research grant into these changes to women and has constructed a laboratory in his basement where he can keep six women/animals and conduct tests on them.

Pooch is arrested, along with baby, and is put in the pound, where every seven days those unclaimed are taken away to be euthanized. There, out of compassion, she exchanges identities with Isabel, who is becoming a wolverine, enabling the real Isabel to escape when the Master, too busy to come himself, sends Pooch a travel pass for the subway.

Pooch makes friend with those around her; they are handed over to the doctor for his experiments; Rosemary cares for them; and slowly reveals herself as another changeling, preserving her appearance with a rubber mask.

In another part of town the Academy of Motherhood, an exclusive club for men who are attempting to take women out of the motherhood process altogether, has its own laboratories where women test subjects are inseminated –

The academy uses only the best genes in the nation: from governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists as well as the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest countries, oil magnates and so forth. The men picked are splendid, tall and blonde for the most part and all earning over $100,000 a year not even counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are, by now, paunchy and bald.

From here it gets more than a bit chaotic. Pooch escapes and is engaged briefly in a love triangle with a (female) cat and a (male) opera lover. She loses her voice and can only bark. A tall blonde man who had seen her sing is also seeking her. Pooch, being a dog, remains loyal to Master, but when finally reunited and she leaps up on him, he french kisses her and gropes her new breasts.

A protest meeting addressed by a range of women all in Rosemary masks is broken up by the police. The women overpower the police and disguise themselves in police uniforms, the police disguise themselves as Rosemarys. The women march on the Academy of Motherhood.

Pooch finds love. Marries. Adopts baby. Has a litter of setters. Did I enjoy it? I loved it, and you would too if it were available which I suppose it is not.

.

Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog, The Women’s Press, London, 1988. 148pp.


‘Evolving’ is Emshwiller’s (mis)usage. Evolution is of course a process covering generations.

15 thoughts on “Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

  1. Believe it or not, this book is available at my college library, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I love everything about the description. In a way, the feel of the novel, based on your post, reminds me of the short story “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril.

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    • I’m glad I inspired you to take the trouble to look. I’ll be happy to see ‘recommended by Bill’ on a coming Sunday, I’ve been absent for a while. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did.

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      • I haven’t added books by other bloggers in a while. Sometimes, I’m just really happy to read a book review and feel fine with not reading the book. Lou has plenty of novels I’m not interested in (typically because they are mysteries and I struggle with those), but I find her reviews funny and charming.

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      • That wasn’t a criticism, I just like seeing my name. Last year I listed in the back of my diary maybe 50 books that I should buy or find, based on reviews. I managed 4 or 5 (but including Becky Chambers and The Snow Queen, and early this year, one from Lou)

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  2. Hmmm, I’m not so sure of that, but you never know. But, what is the answer to your suggestion that we “think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world”. What is this book saying?

    BTW I had a couple of Women’s Press books – as you say, memorable by the black and white stripes. I had no idea that Stephanie Dowrick was being this imprint. Anyhow, at the time I was more interested in recovering women from the past so my eyes would seek the green Virago spines in bookshops.

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    • The book/story which struck me as similar is Puss in Boots – though you might also think of Animal Farm. Anthropomorphized animals aren’t magically real, but rather a way we (in the west anyway) have often structured parables. I guess at the centre of this parable is the pompous way men accrue power to themselves to determine women’s lives (and remember this was written by a woman b.1921) and how that might be overcome by organisation and good humour – similar to the flower power philosophy of 1960s San Francisco.
      One of the reasons for posting this review at this time (and likewise Richard Brautigan) was to reflect on what was ‘leading edge’ in the rest of the world during Gen 4).
      My budget could always stretch to Black & White as well as Green spines, not that I have as many of either as I would like. BIP sent me a list of Viragos once, it’s hundreds of titles long.

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  3. The premise of this story reminds me of short story The Blue Lenses by Daphne du Maurier, what with the sliding scale between humans and animals. I thought she did a very interesting and effective job with that device, bananas though it is.

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  4. Ahh, I always pick up Women’s Press books when I find them, they did do a lot of sci fi and I read some of it back in the day, but I just like to see that spine. Weirdly, I recognised that as a WP book immediately; it must be the grey frame! I mean, I don’t fancy this, but I’m glad it exists.

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    • Yes, I have at least on other (SF) with that grey frame.
      I’ve never been convinced that women have trouble getting published (more than men) – the problem seems to be more with recognition after they’re published. But I love the Women’s Press because its writers provided a completely new take on SF.

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  5. You inspired me to go and look again at Emshwiller, because I know I’ve read one but didn’t think this was it, and I’m amazed just how much she’s published. I think what I read was The Mount. All I remember is that it was weird as h*ll. And count me among those who plucked many of those black-white edged paperbacks from second-hand shops and college booksales.

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    • I remember booksales, back before Covid and the collapse of civilization. UWA and Save the Children used to hold one annually in the main hall. The boxes of books I bought there are one of the reasons I am always being surprised by books I didn’t know I had.
      I wonder if Emshwiller, not needing a career, had the freedom to write whatever she felt like. I probably should have tried harder to show why this ‘animal’ story is such a clever anti-patriarchy satire.

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