(James Grashow’s cover for the 1976 edition)
“Oh scaly skin and dandruff
with hemorrhagic sores,
come and look inside us,
they’ve provided us with doors!” (15)
Winner of the 1977 World Fantasy Award
In the early 1970s DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) got wind of a Soviet project in parapsychological submarine communication. Gruesome details unfold: the Soviet scientists suspected there was “a psychic link between mothers [in this case rabbits] and their offspring.” If say, someone on the surface were to kill the rabbit baby then the submarine, with the mother on board, would know to surface and launch their nuclear weapons. Of course the entire idea is utter hogwash and the DARPA investigations of various parapsychological claims resulted in nothing (see note 1).
William Kotzwinkle’s maniacal satire Doctor Rat (1976) takes the idea of animal communication, in this case across species with the exclusion of humans, to bizarre and alluring extremes. A fable à la Beasts (1976) that collapses the dichotomy between man and animal, the novel pits an insane lab rat (Doctor Rat) against the rest of the animal kingdom. Although a polemic against vivisection and animal cruelty, Doctor Rat succeeds as a scintillating and literary plunge into a world of madcap delusions. At one moment distressingly brutal, at others laugh out loud funny, Kotzwinkle’s prose never fails to channels terror and beauty. A terror and beauty summed up in the words of a dying turtle: “I crawl feebly, a ruined oracle in the animal’s graveyard. There is no future for us. My broken lines indicate extinction. I saw it as I split in two” (189).
Caveat: Doctor Rat is not for the squeamish. It contains extensive and visceral scenes of animal experimentation. More disturbing, the character of Doctor Rat revels in the despair and brutality of it all, composing songs in honor of gruesome experiments, egging the scientists on to greater horrors, and reveling in the destruction of his own species.
Doctor Rat is a kaleidoscope of perspectives that never seem to settle but relentlessly shift patterns and moods—from chickens trapped in egg factories deluded by visions of pastoral utopias to pigs faced with the existential emptiness of breeding house sex.
Mostly in the first person, the stories center on the eponymous Doctor Rat, “driven mad in the mazes,” who lives by the slogan “death is freedom” (2). He spends his days, while being experimented on by the Learned Professor who oversees the lab, berating fellow rats who question their role in the world: a female rat protests, “They cut a hole in my stomach!” Doctor Rat responds, “yes, of course. It’s so that they’ll be able to insert a plastic window there in order to watch your embryonic ratlins develop” (15). He sings songs about diseases and operations and gathers noteworthy events for his “Newsletter.”
Into the lab come a series of dogs whom the Learned Professor subjects to horrid experiments. Despite their medically induced inability to bark, in the words of Doctor rat, the first dog “goes on night and day, sending us his inflammatory images” (9). These images, using the “intuitive wavelength,” causes the rats and other animals in the lab to refuse to resign themselves to the experiments:
“A rat lying here, making a real contribution to science by having his trachea severed, and suddenly he’ll be completely plugged into a revolutionary image. His whole body will be suffused with the feeling of freedom” (9).
Doctor Rat yearns for his nostalgic vision of the past before the dogs upset the equilibrium:
“Oh, for the good old days when we all used to sit around the cisternal puncture stand and sing harmoniously about having our frontal lobes removed. Those were dear sweet times. I miss them terribly. I feel so alienated” (31).
Doctor Rat is able to perceive that the images of rebellion stretch beyond the walls of the lab encouraging other dogs to join in—“Great Naked Mole Rats! This is terrible! The dogs are rebelling outside the laboratory too!” (37). The rebellion, facilitated by a broadcasted orchestral concert for whales, snares the entire animal kingdom. Doctor Rat will do anything to stop them!
I have struggled to put together my final thoughts since finishing Doctor Rat. I could focus on the Nazi rhetoric espoused by Doctor Rat, the impact of the novel’s central rhetorical purpose, ruminate on the many examples of beautiful language, the metafictional filmic moments, the humor in despair, or even Doctor Rat’s insults. But “Holy Hopping Horned Toads!” (genus Phrynosoma)” (46) there’s enough here for an entire monograph!
I wish to focus on two main elements that were particularly compelling: Kotzwinkle’s attack on blind nationalism and his use of pseudo-knowledge combined with real historical events to create Doctor Rat’s world (or delusion).
If I could level a critique at the novel, it’s Kotzwinkle’s refusal to acknowledge actual scientific progress due to (yes, let’s not mince words) animal experimentation. That said, Kotzwinkle clearly wants the animals to stand in for the actions of humankind—Doctor Rat is a foil for the mad scientist character who does not pause to reflect on the implications of scientific experimentation. Rather all the brutal experiments are dolled up as scientific progress, and progress can only be good! In addition, Doctor Rat’s defense of the Learned Professor’s experiments rests on a persistent strain of misguided nationalism. In his characteristic disquieting way, Doctor Rats tells us that we rarely see such a “gratifying sight” as young scientists experimenting on cats “contributing to a better and lasting etcetera” (41). Nationalism in Doctor Rat operates as vague nostalgia and empty rhetoric.
As with John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), William Kotzwinkle creates the substrate of Doctor Rat’s world (or delusion) by referencing both invented pseudo-knowledge and real events. The meshing of the two creates a world simultaneously different but entrenched in our own. Here is a list I compiled of all the references.
The scientific articles: Doctor Rat, a manifestation of the mad scientist, “writes” his own scientific articles which he interjects into his rants. For example, protesting the rats in the Protein Deficiency Cage, who attempt to convince young rats to join the revolution, Doctor Rat proclaims: “Listen to your true friend, the good Doctor rat, and learn about gut reality (see my paper, “Removal of the Rat’s Stomach,” Anat. Dig., 1967)” (30). The papers composed by Doctor Rat serve to ridicule the brutality of scientific experiments. A range include: “On Roasting a Rat,” Journal Med., 1970)” (40), “Average Lethal Dose for Rats,” Phar. Mag., 1971″ and “Injecting Mineral Oil into the Frontal Bone,” Scien. Journ., 1969)” (69). Doctor Rat’s papers, purposefully hyperbolic, add a pseudo-knowledge veneer that suggests the potential of reality. I have not checked all the citations, but most of the scientific ones appear invented.
Historical events: The few historical occurrences (and one thought to be true at the time) and accompanying documents mentioned appear as the suppression of the animal rebellion reaches its devastating end (see n. 2). Considering the 70s context, Kotzwinkle deploys general images from the Vietnam War: animals scurrying from the “rainbow of death” of chemical warfare caused by “special Army Mixtures, Agent Blue, Agent Orange, and Agent White” (185).
Moving from general historical images to specific historical documents, Kotzwinkle provides a harrowing parallel to the scientific articles: as humanity slaughters the animals Doctor Rat triumphs as “down goes the special container of spiders carrying good old hemorrhagic anthrax meningitis. Furry crawling black spiders, leaving the bottle bomb, and moving toward the enemy” (204). The accompanying citation mentions a write up of the “The K’uan-Tien Incident, March 12, 1952″ in the “International Scientific Commission Report” (204). At the time Kotzwinkle was writing, people though it was a real event although it was most likely fabricated. In this grotesque tidbit, American fighter jets dropped canisters of anthrax-causing spiders insects to rain down near unsuspecting Chinese towns! Other historical events include an American chemical attack on the Vietnamese, the “natus disease” which resulted in the affliction of 1800 people. Kotzwinkle adds additional invented details, or references a source I’ve been unable to track down, inflating the horror of the attack.
All of this is to say, Doctor Rat derives its power from not only the brutality of what unfolds but also the careful integration of both the historical and the imaginary. The resulting world substrate, with its moments of pseudo-knowledge and references of devastation caused by mankind, causes the reader increasingly wonder what is possible, what is happening, and what has already happened.
Rocketing towards genocidal cataclysm, Doctor Rat‘s hypnotic amalgam of satire, dripping with horror, spins as if in a “compulsive syndrome” (175) of disintegration. As the end nears Doctor Rat cheers: “Gimme a B, gimme a U, gimme a B, gimme an O, gimme an I, gimme a C! Bubonic, bubonic, bubonic, go!” (193). Don’t catch yourself singing along, there’s monstrosity in these pages.
I am surprised the novel won the 1977 World Fantasy Award… (see n. 3).
1) For more on the Soviet experiment consult this fascinating NPR interview with Sharon Weinberger, the author of The Imagineers of War: Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (2017).
3) Is Doctor Rat science fiction? Is it fantasy (it won the 1977 World Fantasy Award)? Is it mainstream literature? The academic scholarship on the novel shifts descriptors (SF, fantasy, etc) depending on the perspective and purposes of the scholar. Leon Lewis in Eccentric Individuality in William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man, E.T., Doctor Rat, and Other Works of Fiction and Fantasy (2002) groups it with his fantasy works. While, bizarrely, A. Ratelle in Animality and Children’s Literature and Film (2014) labels the novel “young adult literature.” I guess the presence of “speaking” animals swayed the author…. I won’t even engage with this “argument.” Clifford Thompson in World Authors 1990-1995 (1999) labels the novel science fiction. Bruce Shaw, in The Animal Fable in Science Fiction and Fantasy (2010), calls the novel speculative fiction. Doctor Rat definitely has speculative elements, and, as all SF (even stories that try to be apolitical or far future are derived from present ideals, goals, fears) attempts to make a point about the present. Such generic questions on the whole do not interest me. They distract from the sheer joy of the novel.
(Ken Laidlaw’s cover for the 1977 edition)
For more book reviews consult the INDEX