Doctor Rat - William Kotzwinkle An interesting book. Not so much a novel as a manifesto for respecting other life and recognizing that we have not been given "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Genesis 1:26 [NKJV]). If you're someone who believes that, you'll loathe the book and, at best, dismiss it as an hysterical rant from an environmental extremist. If you're a "reasonable person," you'll accept that a lot of what we do to our fellow creatures is cruel and unnecessary and you might be motivated to contribute a few bucks to the local Humane Society. If you're a card-carrying PETA member, you'll wish the animals had won in the end.

As someone who falls toward the PETA end of the "reasonable person" spectrum, I was appalled at the mindless and senseless cruelty inflicted on feeling and conscious animals, recounted so clinically by the mad Doctor Rat. The worst of the mindless and evil tortures we inflict on animals may be a thing of the past but we still cause untold suffering to untold numbers of animals for dubious reasons. Maybe Buddhists are right and all that bad karma is finally coming back to bite us in the a**.

The book reminded me of Vonnegut's Galapagos, where humanity is wiped out except for a handful of people and one seeing-eye dog whose natural instincts have been warped and suppressed by Man's arrogance. The conceit of that novel is that the human brain is too large for its own good, and we are much better off when these survivors evolve into a seal-like species, still smart but no longer "intelligent."

Doctor Rat also reminded me of Ted Reynold's short story "Can These Bones Live," one of the finest stories I've read in my 30+ years of reading. In this story, a race with the power to resurrect the dead wander the universe looking for a species worthy of resurrection. Eventually they come across an Earth where humanity has gone extinct and resurrect a housewife to ask her, "Why does Man deserve to live?" She lives out a second lifetime trying to justify humankind only to realize at the end that it's not a race's achievements in art, science, etc. that make it worthy of existence but why and to what end it exists.

A final author dredged from the memory bank by this book is Olaf Stapledon. In Last and First Men, intelligence is the goal of evolution but Man (at least the First Men -- us) is not its final or best expression.

The point of all these works is that humans are not "special" or chosen to be the culmination of either Creation or blind evolution. Just ask any evolutionary biologist and they'll [sic] tell you just what a Rube Goldberg contraption is the human body. Considering the damage our species is inflicting on this planet and nearly every species we share it with, consciousness/intelligence does not appear to be a particularly successful survival strategy. We seem to be just intelligent enough to see the precipice but not intelligent enough to stop from going over it -- the tragedy of Stapledon's First Men, who could glimpse the "ultimate" (nirvana, paradise, the godhead, etc.) but could not attain it.

The book itself alternates between the point of view of the eponymous Dr. Rat, a lab rat driven insane by what the Learned Professor has put him through and who has come to identify with his torturers, and the points of view of animals who are participating in a worldwide revolt of the animals. All the animals gather at points around the world and are annihilated by humans in an orgy of bloodshed. All of them except for Dr. Rat (who is, of course, for all intents and purposes human).

It's instructive to read in tandem (as I am) with Bernd Heinrich's The Geese of Beaver Bog, which chronicles the lives of the individuals living around the bog. Heck, living with nine roommates, I could write my own The Cats of the Riverstone Apartment Complex and show that animals are thinking and feeling creatures just as unique as any individual human, and worthy of our respect.

I guess the immediate impression I gleaned from reading Doctor Rat is that humans need to learn to live with the world rather than against it or our long-term future is going to look more like Soylent Green than Star Trek: The Next Generation.