In my top ten list of books I flat out adored this year, Laika by Nick Abadzis holds a particularly special place. This graphic novel about the first animal in space is so touching - so emotionally raw- that I defy anyone to read it without feeling an enormous amount of sympathy for the dogs used in the Soviet space program. What transcended it beyond a weepy melodrama though (and it is far more than that) is the amount of research Abadzis did into his subject and the way he so effectively expressed the conflict felt by many of the people involved in Laika's training and eventual death. There is a wealth of space history to be found in Laika, as well as some serious questions about just what it is that humans want and the lengths we are willing to subject other living creatures to pain and misery in order to achieve those goals. In the wake of the recent fiftieth anniversary of Laika's launch, many news programs stated that her flight paved the way for the first human launches. Simply put, that is not true and her sacrifice must remain at the feet of Cold War politics and nothing more.
Nick was kind enough to answer several questions about how he came to write the book and the way he developed the story. It should be noted that Laika is another stellar entry in the First Second line, some of the best books (of any format) being published today.
I earlier wrote about my reaction to Laika here, and also commemorated the anniversary of her death with a more formal review a few days ago. I will be including Laika in my December Bookslut column as well. Now on to the interview!
I understand from reading other interviews that you had an interest in Laika's story for some time. Can you explain when you first learned about her and why you felt this was a space story (as opposed to being about a heroic astronaut or cosmonaut) that would resonate strongly with YA readers?
I'm not sure if I ever felt it was a â€˜space' story as such. I'd wanted to do a story about the Soviet space program for a time but saw it more as a historical piece. There's an overlap there, of course â€“ and yes, I was attracted to the whole cosmonaut thing â€“ but I kept going back to Laika. I'd been both fascinated and horrified by her story as a kid and I'd read a news story in 2002 about her that had shed new light on her fate. I couldn't tell you exactly when I first came across her story â€“ it was as a very young child â€“ but it certainly stuck in my head. To a certain extent, you tell a story for yourself, and I think creating this book was almost an answer to my child-self, distant in time but still wondering about Laika's fate. I realized that if I was still wondering about it, others might too. That was the genesis of the whole idea, but initially I thought it might make a good short story or suchlike. How wrong I was: as I began to research it, the story just grew.
While the real characters in the book have very powerful parts, it is Yelena that is truly the story's moral center. Was there any research that directed you in creating this character or is she purely fiction?
Originally she was loosely based upon a woman who began working at IMBP, the Institute of Aviation/Space Medicine around 1960, 1961. This woman was a veteran of the Soviet State Circus and had been involved with training dogs there; she had a real affinity with them. I didn't feel that it was too much of a dramatic stretch to say that someone like that could've been working there earlier and that's really where the idea of the character of Yelena came from. But, very quickly, the character I created moved away from that original template and became my own creation (or so I thought â€“ but more on that later). There was no research, as such, that caused me to create her other than what I've mentioned above, but I felt very strongly, instinctively, that this kind of a person would've been around and would've actively been involved in the cosmodog program.
It's a deductive thing where you're weaving together the threads of the story, your own story with real history and you take leaps of both logic and faith to fill in certain gaps. Yelena fulfilled a function like this and, as it happens, after the book was published, I had a conversation with another author, Chris Dubbs who had written a factual history of animals in space. In his book, there was a photograph of a woman who looked very like Yelena who was a dog handler at IMBP around the time my story was set. It felt like a case of truth being stranger than fiction; one of those weird incidences where you're following your nose and then proof arrives that such an incident or person as you've imagined really did exist.
What prompted you to write the imaginary conversations between the dogs and Yelena? These moments were a bit of a surprise for me as the book follows historical fact so strongly. Were you planning to have the dogs "speak" all along, or was this a surprising development for you as well?
I'd done a piece of text artwork very early in the creative process where I showed Laika and another dog talking and as soon as I'd finished it, it felt wrong. Thereafter, I never planned for the dogs to speak, or, at least, took a decision to be extremely careful about how this would be portrayed. I was now against anthropomorphizing them at all, but it seemed to make sense that one of the characters might do this, as that is what we humans tend to do with animals we become fond of. We project our human personas and foibles and whatnot upon them, and they begin to â€˜speak', so this seemed like a viable narrative device to use. I wouldn't say it was any more surprising a development than any other character moments that came to me during the creation of the book as a great deal of this always feels surprising. If you're following the line of a character and you're doing it truthfully, they begin to â€˜speak' to you anyway, to tell you where they're going or want to go. It's a constant process of discovery. I tend to work in a very instinctive manner; I'd done my research so when the idea for that scene presented itself, it fit extremely well and I just went with it.
It seems every human being in the book is struggling with some sort of moral conflict - from the dog catchers to Yelena to Oleg Gazenko to Korolev himself, who alternately hates and loves his government, the humans are all struggling with deep issues of right and wrong. In the end, a lot of the story seems to crystalize in how they each feel over Laika's death - if they think what they did to the dog was right or wrong then it reveals a lot about their character. Was this a message you were trying to convey or am I perhaps reading too much into the story? Is Laika about the prices we ask others to pay without their consent, even when those others are animals?
No, you're not reading to too much into it; you're picking up one of the overarching themes of the book, which is that of abuse; cycles of abuse and how we as human beings can be trapped by these if we don't recognize the patterns and free ourselves from them. We'll normalize them and perpetrate them upon others, whether they're animals or other human beingsâ€¦ some of the characters in the book are beginning to understand this; others aren't. And yes, one of the things the book is about is how we, as the â€˜dominant' life form on this planet, tend to bulldoze through other lives in our attempts to make happen what we wish to happen, without worrying about the wider implications and effects. This, as a theme, isn't intended as a retrospective criticism of the Soviet Space Program at all, it's simply an observation upon how human beings tend to behave in technologically advanced societies; how we're all under pressure to conform and behave in a certain way. Thinking freely isn't something that a society gives us as a norm, it's something we learn when we decondition ourselves from certain rules and learned responses.
How do you feel about Laika's legacy? Do you think enough people, especially young people, know about the hard beginnings of the space race and the truth behind the "noble sacrifice" of the dogs (and in the Americans case, chimps) who were part of it?
I'm not sure that people, far and wide, young and old, know enough 20th century history at all. I can't speak for here in the USA, but in the UK I worry that history isn't taught in schools enough, not in a way that captures and stimulates the imagination or, at least, the investigative instincts of children. I'm not saying that there aren't imaginative history teachers out there â€“ of course there are â€“ but I worry that the curriculum isn't set up in such a way as to make history, sciences and arts attractive to kids. As to the "noble sacrificeâ€� of the animals in question, well, hopefully this graphic novel and James Vining's First In Space will go some small way to interesting people and making them want to investigate further the issues raised in the book. I know we may be the first to retell their stories, but we probably won't be the last. I want Laika to be remembered and that was certainly one of my reasons for doing this book.
I was surprised to see both of these books come out this year and in the graphic novel format. It seems that First Second in particular is dedicated to doing some impressive and unique work for young adult readers. Do you think stories like Laika's and Ham's [as told in First in Space] resonate stronger with readers when accompanied with illustrations?
I think part of it is that they're both very strong, true stories and part of it is the fact that both Jim Vining and I are are exploring what can be done with these sorts of stories using the language of comics. I can't override my own storytelling instinct, which is why I've been careful to point out that Laika is historical fiction albeit fiction heavily interwoven with established fact. Jim's a bit braver than I am and didn't embroider a thing but I do think we're starting out from the same place. Jim Ottaviani is another comics author who is experimenting in this area. But I'll emphasize that it's comics grammar that helps us retell these stories in a powerful way: I think it's an incredibly flexible medium of expression and communication.
After all the research you did, and confined by the specific length of this graphic novel, were you able to tell the story you wanted to tell? Is there something about Laika that you wish you had room to share?
It's always easy to look back over a work and wish that you had done things a little differently. But a book is kind of like a song in that, once performed, it's not your own any more. It takes on meanings to people who hear it, perhaps ones never intended by the original author. A book is the same, it's not your own once it's been read by others, and that's as it should be. I can't really lay claim to Laika's story anyway, I just expanded upon the known facts and interwove my own story with real history. A lot of people have stated that they were unprepared for how the final pages of the book gripped them emotionally. But, in many ways this is how a lot of people around the globe responded to the news of her plight at the time, and Eisenhower himself stated in his memoirs his bemusement about the fact that the news of her fate almost overshadowed the technical achievement of the mission. Personally I find this a good thing; that our emotions aren't so switched off by technological advancement that we can't have an emotional reaction. We need to control our emotions, certainly, but if having an emotional reaction gets us thinking and debating too then that can only be a good thing in the long run.
Is it only now do you think - with the passage of so much time - that we are able to look at the suffering of these animals (and the deaths of so many of them) with more cynical eyes? Did it take this long to see space flight as less than heroic?
Is it cynical? I'm not sure that it is. Maybe it's just realistic. Any piece of history or the way that it's been written is going to erode under examination from the present. We have the benefit of hindsight, which always allows us a wider angle on viewpoints held at the time of a historical event such as this. Looking back is also going to provoke a whole collection of modern and still-evolving viewpoints, which I think is healthy. It allows us to grapple with complex moral questions, to think about stuff that we might otherwise avoid or that might've been not been possible to consider at the time. But it's important to do this; to try to think about these kinds of moral problems from the vantage point of fifty years later or whenever, because if we all put our heads together we might eventually come up with some sort of workable solution to the issues it throws up that would actually help make us into better people and a better worldwide society. Perhaps that sounds a bit pompous, I don't know, but I believe that this is one of the purposes of history, to allow us a debate so we can learn from both our successes and our failures.
You can read my review of James Vining's First in Space here, and also my review of Jim Ottaviania's Wire Mothers as well. Both books are very well done. James has a web site and Jim not only writes comics, he also runs GT Labs, a great gn press that includes a lot of science history titles.
[Post pic is of Laika in her capsule - this picture never fails to hurt my heart.]