Book Review: Doctor Rat, William Kotzwinkle (1976)

(James Grashow’s cover for the 1976 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

“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.

Analysis/Plot Summary

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!

Final Thoughts

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).

Highly recommended.

~

Notes

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).

2) The LIST of all the citations and historical events.

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

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Doctor Rat, William Kotzwinkle (1976)”

  1. It is a little confusing, but the wikipedia article on “Allegations of biological warfare in the Korean War” cites “Wu Zhili, the former Surgeon General of Chinese People’s Voluntary Army,” and “a cache of Soviet and Chinese documents” released in 1998 by “Kathryn Weathersby and Milton Leitenberg of the Cold War International History Project” as providing evidence that claims like those about the US dropping infected spiders or insects on China were just made up by Communist authorities.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_biological_warfare_in_the_Korean_War#Subsequent_evaluation

    One of the people who claimed the US dropped the insects was Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. The Wikipedia article on Burchett notes that Soviet documents unearthed in 1999 indicate Burchett received regular payments from the KGB.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Burchett#Allegations_against_Burchett

    Obviously, much of this information was not available to Kotzwinkle in the 1970s.

    1. As you indicate, Kotzwinkle certainly thought they were real historical events (I found an older source about the incident through google books that is certainly out of date). I’ll update the review accordingly.

      Thanks!

      1. Thank you for bringing to our attention so many unusual books we might not encounter otherwise!

      2. No problem. Thanks for the kind words.

        As you could tell from my twitter account, I’ve been fixated on this book for a long while. I have compiled an entire list of the invented scientific articles Doctor Rat mentions. My encyclopedic tendencies kicked in!

        I didn’t discuss in the review, but my favorite scene involves Doctor Rat’s attempt to recruit all the rats in The Pleasure Dome experiment box to help him put down the lab rebellion.

        Here are some hilarious quotes…

        “The pleasure Dome rises spherical and transparent, a magnificent bubble of contentment. Surely I’ll be able to enlist some allies, for here is where the most fortunate of rats dwell. They don’t want to see their happy life disrupted by a revolution!” (130)

        “Rats sprawled about, touching the numerous buttons that line the walls. They look at my, sympathetic joy in their eyes, believing that I am an initiate to the Pleasure Dome, that I will join them in their unspeakable delights” (132).

        At the very center lies the Great Central Pleasure Rat….

        …of course rats going through withdrawal don’t make good soldiers!

        “Prop that rat up. Right Face. Forward March!”
        “Oh, I’m having horrible withdrawal. I’m having Cold Mousey.” (135)

  2. Sounds like an outstanding novel.I don’t really know of him.Has he written much SF in the genre?As I’ve said before though,so much published within the written genre can’t be called actual science fiction,but like this one,fits comfortably within the scope and strength of speculative fiction.I think you said as much.

    Such pieces as Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood”,John Crowley’s “Little Big” and Gene Wolfe “Book of the New Sun”,that cut down the middle between science fiction and fantasy,have won the World Fantasy Award.Any definitions seem impossible.

  3. Apart from a couple of film tie-ins (E.T. & Superman III) the only real sf novel he’s written is The Amphora Project, which reminded me of Rudy Rucker!
    Some of his other books would count as fantasy, or at least have fantastical elements, a couple of crime novels get a bit weird. Much of the rest are relatively mainstream, or aimed at children. Some are very funny and/or touching.
    His Inspector Mantis stories are Sherlockian detective stories set in an insect world, where observation of specific insect behaviour often leads to the guilty party.

    I’ve read, I think, 18 of his books and rarely been disappointed. Before Doctor. Rat came out he was most famous for The Fan Man. Proper counter-culture novel!
    Other favourites, in no particular order, would be
    Fata Morgana
    Herr Nightingale and the Satin Woman
    Christmas at Fontaine’s
    Midnight Examiner

    1. Fata Morgana seems pretty amazing. I want a copy!

      My wife really enjoyed Kotzwinkle’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain: A Novel (1997).

      Is Doctor Rat one of your favorites?

    1. Sorry, my ‘looked fun’ referred to The Bear Goes Over the Mountain, not Doctor Rat! I was really impressed with Dr.Rat when it came out and still have my copy, but not yet wanted to re-read it! I did read a few pages a couple of years ago to remind myself of the style, but didn’t persevere. These days I prefer less harrowing reads, I suppose…

  4. Excellent review. It’s absolutely ages since I read it, and when I did I looked at it through the eyes of a vegetarian antivivisectionist. It was extraordinarily painful, particularly the sad part where the animals had a brief but short-lived escape (if I recall correctly). I suspect I would see a number of subtexts nowadays, particularly bearing in mind that when it was written the horrors of the Second World War were still fairly fresh, as well as the other conflicts you mention. An unjustly neglected book.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kaggsy!

      Hopefully my review suggested that the novel is successful separate from its more polemical aims (which I’m not sure are entirely convincing — I’ll go into it you want me to). The reason I didn’t explore that angle further in the review was fear that it would overshadow the well-crafted and manic intensity of the reading experience. And all his other brilliant touches…

      For me the most disturbing moment occurs when the male pig must impregnate the female pig in the concrete cell — these two passages convey incredible Malzbergian existential angst:

      “I smell a female. Where is her life! She stands motionless; she awaits me. I mount her. You are cold. You never speak. I love you. I love you, here in the room. I love you, though you are still as death. They watch me closely” (53).

      “I stare into the corner of my cell. There is straw and water. The voices of the other inmates float in the air, but none of them has an answer. None of them knows the secret of the room—how it came into being why we were born here, and where we are going” (54).

  5. It makes me wonder how much of Kotzwinkle’s satire ended up in his movie-tie ins. Nobody really pays much attention to them, so some authors can get away with blue murder while writing them.

    1. You are welcome to report back to me on the topic as I probably will not be reading any movie-tie ins soon! I’m more likely to dabble in his alt-history/fantastic crime novel experiment Fata Morgana (1977).

      Have you read any of his stuff?

  6. I have Doctor Rat (the Laidlaw illustrated edition, above), and at least 5 of Kotzwinkle’s other novels (Fata Morgana, etc) but have never got around to reading any of them – I must rectify that, soon! I always thought that Doctor Rat sounded amazing, and you confirm that, here. I would also say he is really ‘Fantasy’ rather than SF….

    1. This could easily be some near future world not much different than our own where animals rebel!

      Ehh, doesn’t make any difference one way or the other to me. I think a case could be made for magical realism — it has a political message and “magical” communication between animals. I’m all for its liminal/speculative nature…

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