Towards the end of 2020, I read my first Adrian Tchaikovsky novel, The Doors of Eden. I mentioned in that review that I didn’t want it to be too long before I read another. Lo and behold a new novel has followed on shortly after. Completely different in tone and scope to The Doors of Eden, Bear Head is no less remarkable. Publishing on January 7th in the UK, Bear Head is already a contender for my novel of 2021!
What is Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky?
First up, Bear Head is the sequel to a novel I haven’t read. The PR blurb said that I didn’t need to read Dogs of War before reading Bear Head and it was 95% right. I haven’t read Dogs of War and I loved Bear Head. The novel appears to be set sometime afterward, and references to the original novel are present, but Bear Head does stand very well on its own. Having said that, I often found myself wishing I had read Dogs of War, as I think the power of Tchaikovsky’s world-building would have been even greater, had I done so.
For Bear Head we are in the future, residing in the fledgling colony of Mars. Our main narrator, Jimmy, is part of the construction and maintenance team. Jimmy is a washed-up waster. A man who uses drugs to medicate against the monotony of Martian life. Workers like Jimmy are genetically and technologically enhanced in order to better suit the prevailing conditions. Life on Earth continues, though in the novel we only see one tiny subset of life here, focusing on a Trump-like politician in the U.S.
On both Earth and Mars, distributed intelligence networks exist, human hive minds that stretch across numerous bodies that are in constant communication. Both planets have resident enhanced creatures such as Dogs, Bears, and Stoats. These have been genetically engineered to perform certain functions, but, at the time Bear Head takes place, have a degree of autonomy. I think much of the world-building that surrounds animal evolution and distributed intelligence was outlined in Dogs of War but it doesn’t take long to catch up.
The bear in Bear Head is Honey, an intelligent bear with a history of fighting for the (future-species) civil rights movement. She also currently exists in digital form; she is a digital consciousness having lost her corporeal form. Towards the beginning of the novel, Honey is transmitted into a digital storage space. A digital storage space that is inside Jimmy’s head, space he’s illegally sublet. The upload of Honey is rather more than Jimmy can cope with, meaning he spends most of the novel like a bear with a sore head.
Honey can’t quite remember how she ended up being uploaded into Jimmy, and much of Bear Head centers around her piecing together what happened. She was transmitted from Earth and as she tries to assemble her story we learn more about the megalomaniacal politician Warner S. Thompson. What history do he and Honey have, and what will it mean for Jimmy, thousands of miles away on Mars?
Why Read Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky?
The success of Bear Head rests on the interplay between Honey and Jimmy. Both characters are perfectly drawn, and having one exist inside the other’s head makes for some novel character interactions. Jimmy is something of a classic sci-fi waster but no less impressive for that. Honey, I absolutely loved as a character; she’s intelligent and compassionate, with some delightful dialogue.
Much like Doors of Eden, this is a thought-provoking novel. One that examines modern social attitudes and finds them wanting. The civil rights struggle of the animals’ chimes with the current #blacklivesmatter movement, as do the attitudes of humanity’s representatives in the novel. The novel examines the propensity of those in charge to stack the deck against those who differ from them, and how they gaslight those that they oppress.
This is all cleverly realized by a host of fascinating characters, that feel wholly real, whilst also being very much the creations of science fiction. There is a thick vein of satire running through the novel. The Trump-like Warner S. Thompson is terrifying, as is his ability to manipulate. I’m not sure I’ve seen such a well-measured and accurate assessment of Trump’s rise to power. By the end of the novel, Thompson becomes something truly terrifying. An example of what might happen if an ego is allowed to go unchecked.
As a whole, Bear Head is a triumph. Its story is fascinating, with unexpected events occurring throughout. It’s a novel filled with compassion and characters that are very easy to empathize with. I’m not sure whether Adrian Tchaikovsky envisages more novels in his Dogs of War universe, but such is the quality and breadth of his world-building, it’s easy to imagine tangential tales taking place in the same setting. The novel stands alone as a whole, but I would love to see more stories set in the same universe.
If every novel I read in the next twelve months approaches the quality of Bear Head, then 2021 promises to be a very good reading year indeed.
But you don’t have to just take my word for it. This review is part of the Bear Head blog tour and you can check out lots of other lovely reviews at the following blogs.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.