Where It All Goes Down
Earth, an Unspectacular Planet in a Corner of the Universe
Most novels have modest settings: London, New York, Paris. Once in a while, they might get ambitious and use a whole country, like America or Australia. There Is No Dog skips right past all of that stuff and moves straight into the big leagues. Earth. Oh, and not just Earth, but Earth as a tiny little speck in the context of the universe. How's them apples, eh?
But that's the thing—by the logic of this novel, Earth actually is a pretty humdrum setting. It's the bottom of the intergalactic ladder of hierarchies, so in the middle of nowhere that we couldn't even get a decent God. As the narrator says, "Earth was badly positioned—miles off the beaten track in a lonely and somewhat run-down part of the universe. At a time of high employment, not many top-level candidates were willing to take on a tiny unproven planet, not to mention the whole creation rigmarole, which, when done properly, could be a real headache" (3.2).
So much for the glorious center of the universe.
Not only is Earth tiny, but the universe is full of planets teeming with creatures that are nothing at all like us. Estelle knows all about them:
She traveled to happy planets, productive planets, gigantic watery planets and tiny dry ones, planets comprised almost exclusively of ice, planets designed by highly intelligent creatures, planets upon which every inhabitant had the imagination of a bath plug or the aesthetic appeal of a pile of dung. Most of the creatures she met could not easily be described in terms an earth human would understand, for, contrary to common understanding, "aliens" did not possess huge eyes and truncated human limbs, but took the form of vapors, shadows or nanoparticles, of fleeting thoughts, absences or false memories. (23.17)
So, maybe all those stories from The X-Files are true? Either way, this is supposed to give us the sense that, not only are we not alone, we're not even special. In fact, we're downright ordinary.
But that's not even the weirdest part of this whole thing. That would have to be the beings like Mona and Emoto Hed who seem to work for a mismanaged bureaucracy that hands out jobs running planets. And they're immortal. Also, they're pretty powerful and scary.
Here's the thing: instead of making us feel insignificant, the problems of these god-beings actually makes our problems feel even bigger. Watching Lucy and Bob's love affair reminds us about the way fate, or God, or Bob throws us around. Seeing Estelle stand up to Emoto Hed suggests that our daddy-daughter issues actually are important. And since most of the Gods are not really nice beings, we paltry humans come off looking pretty good in comparison. Who was rooting for Lucy and Bob to get together? That's right, no one.
And who was sad when Mona got traded away? Yep, same answer.
Let's start with the bad. There is a lot of it. Which makes sense, since you-know-who is God. Things were messed up from the get go. Look at how Mr. B describes it,
And he [Bob] said, 'Let the waters bring forth abundant species of fishlike creatures, and fowl ones too.' And boy, oh boy, did Bob go to town on the creatures. He put spines on some, and strange colors on others; he added feathers and scales, and sometimes feathers and scales; and savage sharp teeth and beady eyes on some, and sweet expressions and razor-sharp claws on others. […] Having neglected to create food for the carnivores, they began to eat one another almost immediately, which disturbed Mr. B and didn't seem to be a temporary aberration but a situation destined to get far, far worse. (6.7)
Mr. B doesn't even know the half of it.
Skip forwards a few millennia, and Mr. B's desk is littered with the problems that he predicted way back in the beginning: "The number of petitions loomed perilously close to infinite; the number of miracles Mr. B could effect, pitifully low. His head hurt. […] Each day, a new crisis, a new massacre, a new threat of extinction, disease, internecine conflict, meteorological catastrophe. Well, what do you expect when you skip through creation in six lousy days?" (17.7)
It was only a short jump from animals that eat each other to humans who kill each other, wasn't it? And Bob's fumbling isn't the only thing wrong on Earth. Turns out that we haven't been taking the best care of the old planet. Even though Mr. B is sympathetic about a lot of things, he's distressed about what we've done with the place:
Mr. B hated so many of man's wondrous creations: engines and mobile phones and fast-food outlets, not to mention knives and jackhammers and garrotes. In the past, he had hated crossbows and armor and coins. Pisspots. And instruments of torture. […] To him these things represented everything sordid and backward about earth. (34.9)
Well, at least our pisspots flush now, right?
Don't get too gloomy—Earth has a good side, too. Even Mr. B admits that, sometimes, Earth isn't half bad. He says,
on this night, it was impossible not to notice that the world was touched with magic. In this moment he felt a suspension of despair, a cease- fire in the world's torment. Stars burned silver in the great black sky, carrying messages to earth from a billion miles away. No horizon split the seamless night. Not a person would petition him to change this moment. It just was, and it was good. (34.19)
We guess Bob got it right for once.
That's the thing. It would be really easy just to say that Bob is a horrible God or that Earth is just skewed, but things are a bit more complicated than that. There are good and bad things about Earth and Bob.
And so, the setting tells us, there are good and bad things about humans. As Mr. B says (are you getting the sense that Mr. B is speaking with Rosoff's voice, too?): "Behold man … On the one hand there was slavery, war, inquisition and ethnic cleansing; on the other, Shakespeare, chocolate, the Taj Mahal. A fine balance" (17.10).
Placing Earth in this delicate balance actually allows Rosoff to let Bob say the smartest thing that he says in the whole novel:
Would it really be better, he wanted to ask, if it were always this nice? Would anyone bother to notice? Or would they simply pass through a night like this, unmoved? And (this was more to the point) if life were without flaws and no one ever changed or died, what role would God have? (34.23)
That's a pretty good question isn't it? Some people might say that Rosoff's book is heretical and blasphemous. But with phrases like this, we're pretty sure There Is No Dog has a lot more on its agenda that just ticking people off.