book review: wolfling

july 30, 2023

i live within walking distance of several little free libraries. it's one of those neighborhoods, where people have those "in this house we believe..." signs outside their yards and pollinator-friendly gardens. once in a while there's a rainbow flag or a trans flag. and of course the requisite little free libraries. it isn't bad to have little free libraries (sharing books is great), but i do have my criticisms for some people who seem to think that the solution to books getting pulled from public library shelves is to stock them in lfls instead. plus, let's not kid ourselves - maintaining a little free library takes some work. those that are owned by people who stop caring end up filled with books better suited for the recycling bin. or an art project.

in either case, i almost always stop and take a look. once in a while people donate good leftovers. such was the case on my last walk, when someone dropped off a bunch of old sci-fi and fantasy books. i grabbed a handful. the shortest of the bunch looked particularly intriguing. a half-naked, fit man graced the cover, the muscles of his back tensed in the midst of conflict. before him stood a much taller, menacing man. behind that man, a woman restrained by yet another tall man struggled. wolfling, by Gordon Dickson. on the back of the book, the header above the synopsis promised, "human pet".

a number of sci-fi novels published in the pulp era were dubiously horny. "human pet" certainly promised as much. i went into the book expecting to witness a man being brought to his knees, literally, and forced into a life of servitude. maybe he'd have to wear a leash, or some kind of harness. perhaps a muzzle. maybe he'd be forced to lick the boots of his handler. of course, he'd claw his way back to humanity after such a humiliating experience, but that doesn't mean i can't enjoy the journey.

but Gordon Dickson isn't an unknown author, and readers familiar with his name might chuckle to themselves about how misplaced my hopes were.

instead of erotic bondage in space, i got Nietzschean white alien supremacy. the main character, who i think might be named Jim, is the single most unlikeable protagonists i have ever had the misfortune of reading about. he's boring. he's a contrarian for no reason, except "i know better." whenever he interacts with other characters, even his allies, the conversation is blemished with his resentment for everyone else.

the plot's thin as tissue as well. ostensibly some ancient offshoot of humans claims that earth was originally one of their colonies, before written history. Jim is sent as the "human pet" to investigate whether their claim has any truth to it, but, what does it matter? the aliens are intellectually, technologically, and--indeed--genetically superior. why should they listen to some lesser being's arguments? we'd be screwed regardless. so Jim goes there to hopefully find evidence that the aliens are full of shit.

a hell of a lot of unnecessary fluff later, Jim discovers that, not only are the aliens telling the truth, but that he's proof of it because he's inherited the same genetic superiority the aliens have, before said aliens inbred themselves too much. the text of the book justifies every action he takes and decision he makes, just because his dna dictates that he is correct. like, the guy drops an antimatter bomb onto an occupation of thousands of revolutionaries, based on a hunch he made in about 10 minutes of conversation.

i'm normally not one to determine a book is bad just because the protagonist is a shit person. Dennis Cooper writes some of my favorite novels, and virtually all of the protagonists are awful, miserable shitsacks. my issue is when the narrative--and thus the author--doesn't question the protagonist's viewpoint or decisions. if anything, the narrative in wolfling agrees wholeheartedly with Jim. i don't think this is a case of me not reading deep enough (the book isn't that deep to begin with)--all the humans Jim encounters, and the degraded highest caste of the imperial aliens--are bumbling, pathetic idiots, with few exceptions. Jim one-ups all of them constantly. he doesn't struggle because he doesn't have to--he's just that good. the morality of the book makes itself at home with eugenics and white supremacy, cozying up to facism. fucking gag me already.

i'm not necessarily one to avoid books strictly because they're written by a bad person with questionable ethics--i'll just avoid paying for those books. as long as the book is entertaining or serves as a curiosity for me, whatever--i don't believe that reading something means one condones its message. but wolfling is boring. a slog. at less than 200 pages, it still felt annoying and slow to finish.

yet i don't feel like my time was completely wasted. i got to ramble about how much i disliked it, which is entertaining to me in and of itself, and it was free, so there was no financial sting. so despite disliking this book, i guess i got something out of it.

i'll probably chuck it back into the very same little free library that i grabbed it from. it's not worth keeping on my shelf, even as a joke.

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