When George Lucas was writing the first Star Wars movie, he based the character of Chewbacca on his dog, who would sit in the passenger seat of Lucas’ car whenever they’d drive somewhere. But Jorge isn’t the first to incorporate man’s best friend into a sci-fi tale. Enter Wendy N Wagner, whose new novel, An Oath Of Dogs (paperback, digital) takes inspiration from a couple of our furry friends…including one, oddly, that isn’t hers.
To begin, what is An Oath Of Dogs about?
An Oath of Dogs is about a woman who moves to a new planet with her therapy dog. She has an anxiety disorder that is triggered by views of the stars and open sky, so she’s hoping life on a heavily forested, very rainy planet will be a healthier environment. But when she arrives on the planet, she discovers that people in her new town hate all dogs because wild dog packs keep attacking livestock and digging up the cemetery.
Oh, and she learns that the company she works for might have murdered her boss as part of a giant corporate cover-up going back a hundred years.
Where did you get the original idea for this story, and how did the story change as you wrote the book?
I really wanted to explore the way people relate to dogs because I think it’s one of the most interesting and complex relationships between any two species. Look at the way we pamper some kinds of dogs, and then look at the way we train others to work for us. Or just look at the way people bet on dogfights. Some breeds of dogs are outlawed and treated as pariahs, and millions of dogs get put to sleep every year just because they’re an inconvenience. We don’t treat all dogs equally, and it’s interesting to think about why we see different dogs in different ways.
I actually thought I’d be writing a fantasy short story about a wild dog pack, so I guess the book evolved a little while I was working.
An Oath Of Dogs is set on the forest world of Huginn. But you can’t call something a “forest world” without making me think of the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi. Did you try to make Huginn different from Endor, or did you just figure there was no point?
I totally think about Endor every time I call it a “forest world”! I had all kinds of Ewok merchandise growing up, and I kind of dreamed of flying away to go live with them. As an adult, I now know that’s totally uncool, and that everyone hates Ewoks, but I still want to live in an Ewok village.
Actually, there are a few differences between Huginn and Endor, not least being a lack of adorable, hairy primate-like creatures. Though there are adorable, hairy isopod-like creatures. The flora in my world is heavily inspired by Earth’s Triassic era, when plants were just beginning to evolve. They are more like proto-plants, ferns and horsetails and other kinds of things that multiply via spores. There’s also a lot more color in my forest than in Endor, as all the weird lichens come in exciting pinks and yellows.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in a logging town, so I knew I wanted to write about a place where the timber industry was important. But I also wanted to make it a really alien environment so readers could have the fun of exploring something quite, quite strange.
Another sort of Star Wars connection to Oath Of Dogs is that the book has a bunch of sentient dogs, and George Lucas based Chewbacca on his dog. Did you base the dogs in your novel on one that you owned?
There are two main nice dogs in the book, and they’re heavily inspired by my parents’ dog, Maggie. She’s a Great Pyrenees and really big and white and furry, and she’s just a giant love bug. She’s also really territorial and has been known to fight coyotes to protect my parents’ chickens. She’s pretty much the best dog.
Embarrassingly enough, the primary dog hero, Hattie, is an amalgam of Maggie and Cabal, Neil Gaiman’s big white shepherd. I used to read Mr. Gaiman’s blog on a regular basis just to keep up with the stories of all his wonderful pets — what can I say? I lived in an apartment where we weren’t allowed any animals — and over the years I really came to adore Cabal. I couldn’t imagine any more noble kind of dog, and so I had to write him into my novel.
Aside from Neil Gaiman and his dog, do you think there are any writers or specific books that had a big impact on An Oath Of Dogs?
A big one has got to be Dune. I think Frank Herbert is a real standout for his world building. He was definitely the first writer I ever read who was really focused on ecology and worked really hard to develop a well-connected ecosystem on his world. That was something I wanted to do in An Oath Of Dogs, and fingers are crossed that I succeeded. On a surface level, I’ve also borrowed one of my favorite things from Dune: the semi-philosophical or historical quotes — from fictional texts — that start each chapter. I loves me some pretentious-sounding quotable snippets.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games?
A huge, huge influence on this book is the movie Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. It’s anime, and it combines science fictional, horror, and Western elements in a really satisfying way. I don’t know that I’ve mixed genres as thoroughly as it did, but it was definitely on my mind.
I also re-visited Alien 3 a number of times. I love the way Alien franchise has allowed every director to imprint his own flavor on the Alien universe. Each movie is so distinct and unique. And, yeah, I know, most people hate Alien 3, but I think the movie, especially the director’s cut, does a great job playing around with big ideas about faith and finding a meaning in life, and those are themes which make a surprising appearance in An Oath Of Dogs.
While An Oath Of Dogs is not your first novel, it is your first wholly original novel. Your previous books, Starspawn and Skinwalkers, are connected to the Pathfinder table top RPG. How do you think working with the restrictions inherent in writing a novel based on someone else’s game impacted what you wrote in An Oath Of Dogs and how you wrote it?
It’s tough to say. I wrote An Oath Of Dogs in the free time between working on Pathfinder projects, so I have to imagine the two experiences influenced each other. I mean, that would make sense, right?
I know I definitely rebelled against outlining because of my Pathfinder experience. All my Pathfinder projects — I wrote some short fiction for them, too — had to be really thoroughly outlined before they could be approved for writing, so I was, like, “Ain’t no one gonna tell me to outline this book!” My Pathfinder novels also had to have a single point of view narrator, so I was like, “This book will use all the narrators!” There were originally four P.O.V. characters, one of which was keeping a diary and one of which was writing philosophical texts, but the last guy got cut by my editor, who thought he might be a tiny bit pretentious and boring.
Aside from the Pathfinder novels and An Oath Of Dogs, you’ve also written a lot of short stories. Are any of them connected to An Oath Of Dogs?
I do have one short story that’s set on Huginn. It’s called “The Writing Wall,” and will be coming out in an anthology called Ride The Starwind. It’s vaguely Lovecraftian.
The reason I ask about connected short stories is because, as you know, publishers love it when a book isn’t just a stand-alone novel, but is instead part of a larger series. Which begs the question: Is An Oath Of Dogs a stand-alone novel, or is it the first part in a series?
An Oath Of Dogs is a stand-alone novel. I’d originally pitched a trilogy, but only the first book sold. Maybe someday I’ll write those other books for fun or to self-publish, because I think they’d be terrific. They’re about the way people learn more about what makes Huginn so different from Earth, how the wormhole appeared that connected Huginn to Earth, and how people learn to live on a planet that appears very Earthlike on the surface, but proves to be radically, radically different.
So has there been any interest in turning An Oath Of Dogs into a movie, TV show, or game?
So far, no one has expressed any interest, but I think it would be a really great video game. A lot of the story involves piecing together layers of corporate and colonial misbehavior throughout the history of the planet, and I think you could incorporate that into a video game to great effect. I’m a huge fan of such story-based games as Life Is Strange — Best. Game. Ever. — and Heavy Rain, and I think An Oath Of Dogs would translate to that genre really well.
If An Oath Of Dogs was made into game, who would you like to see cast in the main roles, and what studio would you to make the game?
For some reason, I always imagined that the main character in An Oath Of Dogs looked like Claudia Black [Farscape]. To be honest, her character in the Uncharted games, Chloe, was a major inspiration for my heroine. And I’d love to see Gregg Henry [Payback] as one of the company big-shots in the book. He does a wonderful job playing blandly American characters you’d like to strangle.
As for studios, Quantic Dream would definitely be my top choice. They did Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, which are both amazing storytelling games with fantastic motion capture performances. I think writing for them would probably be my dream job.
Finally, if someone enjoys Oath Of Dogs, and they’re looking for something to read while walking their dogs, what would you suggest they read and why that?
Well, if you like science fiction with a mystery or thriller bent, you can’t go wrong with Patrick Swenson’s The Ultra-Thin Man. It’s a really fantastic read.