LAIKA

Created by: Nick Abadzis

Published by: First Second

ISBN: 1596431016 (Amazon)

Pages: 208

Genre: Historical

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LAIKA

Books with dogs tend to manipulate. That’s just the nature of the literary and cinematic landscape. Old Yeller. Where the Red Fern Grows. Homeward Bound. It’s like a rule. And rather than subvert this, LAIKA‘s pretty up front about the fact that it will in no way deviate from the script. It relishes in its formulaic, heart-melting prison of manipulation and contrivance.

Really, unless you’re a fan of being manipulated, the book’s only saving graces are that it offers an eye into Russia’s Cold War space program and that it occasionally remembers that its human characters have lives that don’t center on just how adorable puppy-science-fodder can be. Hm. That sounds too negative—because I actually enjoyed the book when I wasn’t noticing how intentionally manipulative it was.

So that everyone’s on the same page: Laika dies in the end. This is as much of a spoiler as saying “Kennedy dies in the end” about a book narrating Kennedy’s presidency. Author Nick Abadzis expects that the reader is aware of the poor dog’s fate and so works pretty hard to create gravitas, to fashion a sense of impending dread. He even reveals early on that Laika is doomed and spends considerable time turning the stray pup into a hero whose loss we’ll mourn. He even gives Laika a wholly fictional back-story and lets us drop into the dog’s dreams of flying happily across the cosmos. Because a dog that gets shoved into a tiny rocket capsule is a sad thing, but a dog who’s had a hard life but dreams of the freedom of space only to die out there in blazing hot, claustrophobia-inducing quarters is a damned tragedy.

Throughout the book Abadzis reminds us with a nod and a wink that we oughtn’t get attached to the curly-tailed terrier—even as he pushes us to grow acquainted with a dog of Character and Resolve, a dog whose trust in the caretaker who will ultimately betray her is absolute. Don’t get attached. Watch as Laika is so tenderly loved by the girl who can’t keep her. Don’t get attached, but watch as her new owner abuses her and then throws her in the river. Watch as she finds a canine friend and learns to survive on the streets of Moscow. Watch as she witnesses the brutal murder of her friend at the hands of an overzealous dogcatcher. Don’t get attached. But here, watch as she is entered into rocket dog training in preparation for Sputnik II. Don’t get attached as you watch nearly every human character involved become attached to her. Don’t get attached, but watch how her handlers risk the Gulag by allowing their passions to govern their words on her behalf. Watch them cry and get drunk as she prepares to unwittingly die in space. Watch her get sealed into her flying coffin. Watch as the cabin temperature rises and she overheats. Watch as Laika dreams one final dream of spaceflight, born of her final fevered delirium. But don’t get attached.

Nudge nudge. Wink wink.

And to seal the deal, Abadzis portrays those humans who do grow attached to Laika in human terms, having feelings and lives worth our attention; those who don’t take to Laika, on the other hand, are monsters—cardboard sources of antagonism with faces caught in perpetual scowls. It’s never wise to judge the motivations of authors, but it’s easy to read Abadzis (rightly or wrongly) as a dog-lover who cannot comprehend the person who might not love dogs quite so much. In this book, sacrificing dogs near the height of the Cold War for the protection of a nation might sound like an alright idea, but that’s just because you haven’t met the dog. I can sympathize, right? but did I really need to have the idea batter me over the head and shoulders until I promised to yield to its persuasive technique? Probably not so much.

So with that out of the way, why is LAIKA worth your time despite its manipulations?

It turns out that the human story Abadzis weaves is actually pretty fascinating. We follow, essentially, three individuals. Sergei Korolev is released from his imprisonment in the Siberian Gulag and in his stupor-state, believes himself blessed by the moon. Decades later, we find him driven and ambitious, the lead architect of Russia’s rocket program. Under his guidance, Sputnik has orbited the globe, striking fear into the American populace and making him a hero to the Russian government. Khrushchev demands a second Sputnik for a month later and this one will be manned. Korolev talks the premier down to using a dog instead and Laika’s fate is sealed because Korolev will do anything to remain at liberty.

Yelena Dubrovsky is the least interesting lead from a dramatic perspective. She exists as the book’s Laika-loving heart. Dubrovsky is hired on the same day as Laika’s own arrival at the space facility and begins her work as the dog’s caretaker immediately. She works diligently to prepare Laika for whatever missions might come, helping her to recover from training in the centrifuge or on parabolic flights. She harbours an affection for Korolev but imagines that he cares for Laika as deeply as she does.

Oleg Gazenko is Dubrovsky’s superior and finds his own affection growing for both the woman and her canine charge. Abadzis excels somewhat at portraying the man’s frustration with his unreciprocated feelings. Gazenko and Korolev are easily the most interesting characters throughout and watching to see how their complexities will play out was, for me, the most rewarding aspect of LAIKA.

Beyond some interesting character motives and interaction, the peek into Cold War culture may be especially rewarding for those too young to have lived through the era themselves. All told, LAIKA is a good book marred only by an unfortunate reliance upon contrivance and emotional manipulation.

 

 

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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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