My short story “Prodigal” appeared in the December 2016 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.It was, in fact, honored as being the cover story , with cover art to match: the first time a story of mine was honored in this way.
“Prodigal” is a story with a long history. I originally drafted it at Clarion West during the summer of 2006, essentially on a dare by my classmate Ben Burgis.
Some of the scientific groundwork in this story was actually laid in a novella I wrote even farther back, in 2001, titled “With My Mouth.” (I know, I know, the title is… anyway.) That was a story about an experimental brain-rewiring group—cult, therapy circle? It was ambiguous—that stimulated rapid neural overgrowth in the brain, followed by a tapered dieoff.
That’s basically how I imagine what was done to Benji’s brain, to achieve—in dog terms—relative super-intelligence. Not that a dog would necessarily need a massive brain for that: a patent office worker in France was a functional, (relatively) productive civil servant (ahem) for years with only a “thin layer of brain tissue” in his skull, after all. But a dog would a different kind of brain, and that would have to be grown. Interestingly, apparently this approach recently has become one bright hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.
When I first drafted the story, it was after living in South Korea for about five years, and thus unable to get copies of any North American SF magazines.1 Therefore, I hadn’t read Bradley Denton’s award-winning “Sergeant Chip,” which was mentioned in everything anyone said about the story; nor had I read Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (though I was aware of it and had read about it). Nor had I (or many other people, at the time) read Kij Johnson’s “The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change” though Ellen Datlow mentioned that story in her comments on my own story.
All that left me wondering whether I’d just tread well-worn ground and the story was saying nothing new, but I think that was a silly thing to worry about: all those stories are quite different from one another, and, I think, different from “Prodigal.” Still, it didn’t stop me rewriting and reworking the story over the years, to no avail. I have all kinds of weird, abandoned drafts—some half-finished and some written to the end—which attack the issues from different angles. In the weirdest, the story starts about five years after the events in this story, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where Benji and his compatriots have released something into the water supply that essentially modifies human brains to exhibit something that’s more like a hybrid of human and canine consciousness. In another, Benji tells the story in his own words, years later.
Ultimately, while they were all interesting ideas, none of them really worked as stories the way the original draft did. What I did was go back and do something Maureen McHugh astutely pointed out I was avoiding in the original draft: I forced my narrator answer the question he really, really didn’t want to answer honestly. Sometime in the summer of 2015, when I found myself stuck on the novel I was working on, I opened up the original story draft and decided to read it over. I was pleased to find it had aged well, so I put my narrator through that one missing moment of embarrassment and pain, and then gave it a general polishing and updated a few minor points. When it seemed ready, I decided to send it out, and the first place I sent it was Analog.
And it found a home. I couldn’t be happier about that.
“Moving, thought-provoking exploration of animal uplift. (…) as a metaphor for losing a loved one to a cause, it’s dynamite.”
“Sad story. Very well done.”
“This is a strong story, one of the best I’ve read this year. I especially liked the fact that it avoids the simple solutions and has something to say about human (and dog) nature.”
—Chuck Rothman @ Tangent
I suppose I could have subscribed, but I’d always bought them on newsstands. Ebook readers are a boon to those of us on foreign shores…↩