People have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize their pets, to ascribe human perceptions and intentions to the animals where none exist.
It is truer for this book than any other Dean Koontz book I’ve read. And I’ve read quite a few! Watchers is considered one of his most popular novels and it straddles the border between science-fiction and “realistic” suspense fiction involving genetic engineering. Like in Frankenstein, men of science have gone about to create life and intelligent beings by forming mutations. In their efforts, they have produced two successful results: a dog and The Outsider – a vile creature so hideous that it pours fear into the minds of men. And what’s worse, both these creatures are self-aware and on the loose.
This is the story of Travis, Nora and the dog Einstein – how they met and how they escape the evil forces following them: The Outsider looking to kill the dog, a deranged professional serial killer who was initially tasked to kill the scientists involved in the project but then decides he wants the dog and also the NSA who is after hushing the entire affair. It’s a thrilling and suspenseful tale and at 536 pages, not a short read!
The first half of the book is dedicated to rounding the main characters. Nora is a quiet, mousy girl and after the death of her aunt Violet, she finds herself in trouble when she becomes the object of unwanted attention from a stalker. I nearly put the book down and abandoned it right there when I saw how she handled the situation. But I suppose the author wanted to depict her as a possible victim and weak and in need of protection.
Aunt Violet had often said, “Girl, there are two kinds of people in the world—cats and mice. Cats go where they want, do what they want, take what they want. Cats are aggressive and self-sufficient by nature. Mice, on the other hand, don’t have an ounce of aggression in them. They’re naturally vulnerable, gentle, and timid, and they’re happiest when they keep their heads down and accept what life gives them. You’re a mouse, dear. It’s not bad to be a mouse. You can be perfectly happy. A mouse might not have as colorful a life as a cat, but if it stays safely in its burrow and keeps to itself, it’ll live longer than the cat, and it’ll have a lot less turmoil in its life.”
The other main character and hero of the novel, Travis Cornell, is introduced as a 36-year-old loner who is going hiking in the hills of Southern California with a gun, mostly to protect himself against rattlesnakes, but maybe to commit suicide. He has lost any will to live. His family and friends are all dead. As a member of the Special Forces in the military, he was the only survivor of his team.
He has come to think of himself as a jinx; anybody whom he cares for dies.
Most people believe psychoanalysis is a cure for unhappiness. They are sure they could overcome all their problems and achieve peace of mind if only they could understand their own psychology, understand the reasons for their negative moods and self-destructive behavior. But Travis had learned this was not the case. For years, he engaged in unsparing self-analysis, and long ago he figured out why he had become a loner who was unable to make friends. However, in spite of that understanding, he had not been able to change.
That’s when he finds the gifted dog, or maybe the dog finds him. They form a close bond and pretty soon Travis realises that the dog is extremely gifted – he can be understood and the dog can give him signs and messages and Travis knows that he’s no ordinary dog.
With regards to the how the dog came to be, it is later found out that the researchers mixed genes up in order to remove the IQ limitation of the dog’s brain.
“Weatherby was inserting that foreign genetic material into the retriever’s genetic code, simultaneously editing out the dog’s own genes that limited its intelligence to that of a dog.”
While the theory might look like something out of a Sci-Fi book, that fact was already known when the book was published way back in 1987.
“Genetic material is transferred from one species to another, and the carrier is usually a virus. Let’s say a virus thrives in rhesus monkeys. While in the monkey, it acquires genetic material from the monkey’s cells. These acquired monkey genes become a part of the virus itself. Later, upon infecting a human host, that virus has the capability of leaving the monkey’s genetic material in its human host.
Today, viruses injected with DNA are used in studies as means to cure Parkinsons, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis and many other fatal human diseases which are hereditary.
When the two NSA agents are chatting about the morality of these experiments and referencing The Island Of Doctor Moreau as examples where fiddling with nature had gone wrong, there’s a great quote which shows exactly what scientists have in mind when dealing with morally ambiguous research.
“The idea that there’s good and evil knowledge . . . well, that’s strictly a religious point of view. Actions can be either moral or immoral, yes, but knowledge can’t be labeled that way. To a scientist, to any educated man or woman, all knowledge is morally neutral.”
Koontz draws Travis’ and Nora’s stories together, with Einstein acting as a canine chaperone/Cupid to develop a romance between them. Two lawmen, Lemuel Johnson of the National Security Agency and Sheriff Walt Gaines, investigate as friendly rivals; Johnson to recapture The Outsider and suppress all knowledge of it, and Gaines to catch whatever is killing people and animals in his jurisdiction and learn what the NSA is hiding.
In the mean time, Travis and Nora figure out how to communicate with Einstein – first with doggie tail wags for yes and no and then they teach the dog to read and write via scrabble tiles. They are doing everything in their power to keep Einstein free and they enlist their lawyer’s help and then go off the grid into hiding.
mankind has no right to employ its genius in the creation of another intelligent species, then treat it like property. If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God. In this case, justice and mercy require that Einstein remain free.”
Koontz is a virtuoso at playing the reader’s emotions, making alternately Travis, Nora, Einstein or one of their very few human friends seem in deadly danger. Even though Einstein is the only intelligent animal in the novel (except for probably the psychotic Outsider), Koontz makes him so charismatic that Watchers is a thriller that every anthro fan just has to read.
Genetic technology might have to be rechristened “genetic art,” for every work of art was an act of creation, and no act of creation was finer or more beautiful than the creation of an intelligent mind.
The research factor, the book was pretty well documented. The action was fast paced and the characters likeable.
In an annotated bibliography in The Dean Koontz Companion , a book about Dean Koontz’s work, the bibliographer made the following observation about Watchers : “It embodies all of the major themes with which [Koontz] has been obsessed: the healing power of love and friendship; the struggle to overcome the past and change what we are; the moral superiority of the individual over the workings of the state and large institutions; the wonder of both the natural world and the potential of the human mind; the relationship of mankind to God; transcendence; and how we sustain hope in the face of our awareness that all things die.” Those are, indeed, the fundamental issues in this novel.
There was a large section of the book dedicated to doggy care, doggy diseases, dog lovers everywhere would absolutely enjoy reading about. I’m not a dog person, I’m more of a cat person but I thought that 50% of the story was about the dog. I would have loved to see more of The Outsider’s POV – there’s only one short chapter showing a tortured soul, fuelled by hatred and rage and just like Frankenstein, I thought maybe it would be redeemable in the end. Nope, they killed him off (probably more of a mercy killing).
The characters are so utterly good or utterly bad with no shades to them that it makes them uni-dimensional despite their own development arches.
The book was done by the numbers: A man, a woman, a dog, a government force following them. I’ve read about 20 of Dean Koontz’s with the same plot so I’ll probably forget this one by next moth. The writing that made the others shine – the dialogue that made me chuckle, the metaphors and descriptions – these were all missing from this book.
In the afterword, the author stated that writing this book was for him “pure pleasure, because I was aware that I had a grip on a unique idea, special material, and a group of characters whose depth and warmth were greater than those in any book I’d written to that time.”
I tend to disagree with the author but hey – if he loved it, there must be something of him in it!
From Dean Koontz’s own mouth:
- I believe that we carry within us a divinely inspired moral imperative to love, and I explore that imperative in all of my books.
- We have within us the ability to change for the better and to find dignity as individuals rather than as drones in one mass movement or another.
- We have the ability to love, the need to be loved, and the willingness to put our own lives on the line to protect those we love, and it is in these aspects of ourselves that we can glimpse the face of God; and through the exercise of these qualities, we come closest to a Godlike state.