BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Nick Abadzis & H. Sycamore’s (2007) Laika

3 November 2013


If one has no other choice, then better immoral than hypocritical.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Nick Abadzis & H. Sycamore’s (2007)[1] Laika

This graphic novel by Nick Abadzis an colored by Hilary Sycamore covers the events leading up to the first orbital flight in space of a terrestrial higher organism—the dog, Laika—around the earth.[2] As part of the Soviet space program, this event was one of the many firsts achieved by the Russians, which included:

the first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), first satellite (Sputnik-1), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2), first human in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1), first woman in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6), first spacewalk (cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on Voskhod 2), first Moon impact (Luna 2), first image of the far side of the moon (Luna 3) and unmanned lunar soft landing (Luna 9), first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe (from here).

The story of Laika has built-in pathos because, thanks to international politics, the Soviet engineers were not given time to develop a means for orbital recovery and so from the beginning of the mission they understood that Laika would not return from her trip. When news of this reached the Occidental world, much supercilious outcry went up—I say supercilious, because quite obviously no one shed any tears about the technical incompetence that resulted in the death of previous US experimental animals or the vest number of animals getting tortured and mutilated in experiments in the US and Britain at the time (to say nothing of since).

Abadzis does a good job of avoiding overt bathos most of the time, which seems impressive given that the story involves a trusting, naïve, even sweet animal who gets “willfully” sent to space to die.  The author has stated he intended to avoid anthropomorphizing Laika (and the space dogs generally),[3] but it seems more accurate to say rather that he does not play this up as extensively as one could or likely would: for example, we only occasionally see Laika’s dreams (of flying) and have very brief bubbles indicating her “thoughts”.[4] The conceit hinges on Abadzis (attempting to make) these anthropomorphisms seem to originate in the human people looking at Laika rather than the dog herself. With the (female) dog handler, Yelena Dubrovsky, Abadzis almost always consistently manages to make clear that her point of view provides the angle for the dog’s text in the book, though not always persuasively. While this doubtless helps to keep any excessive bathos in check, the book still often reads as if or has echoes of giving Laika’s point of view.

For me, the most touching moment comes when one of the chief managers of the project takes Laika home to spend an evening running around and playing with his children before she gets sealed irrevocably into her space capsule. The dramatic irony works especially well—Abadzis doesn’t linger over the scene in any case—and it suggest how we might give condemned (human) inmates a similar chance to run and play, to have a memorable experience of freedom and pleasure and happiness, before sending them into the long dark tunnel of death (space) as well.  Or, if such a proposal seems hopelessly utopian (if not practically impossible), the fact that we see such a condemned (canine) inmate treated humanely prior to carrying out her death sentence points to how inhumanly we treat our condemned (human) inmates.

Partly the scene works because Laika spends (and has spent) so much of her time in very small places. Abadzis includes an opening interlude (a flashback actually), which shows how Laika loses her more or less cozy existence as a pet to living on the streets as a stray, but one who nonetheless lives outside of  a cage. Abadzis has stated he (inevitably) had to make up these details simply on narrative grounds and for narrative purposes, since no historical records exist for Laika’s earlier life, but I think his emphasis (in the interview) on the “beloved pet” angle resonates less, finally, than the contrast of her relative freedom at that time compared to the extensive confinement she later lives. After all, whatever affection Laika experienced from the little girl who previously owned her, the program’s female dog handler Yelena Dubrovsky certainly doesn’t scant Laika any affection.

Abadzis ends the main text of his book with a now widely known quotation from one of the key project participants, Oleg Gazenko: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog” (from here). I have to wonder why Abadzis (or anyone, besides Gazenko—more on that below) would emphasize this point, but two clarifications first. The article just cited and written in 2002, which does not actually include Gazenko’s fuller quotation included by Abadzis (discussed more below),[5] opens:

HOUSTON, Tex. (USA) —  Forty-five years and five hours ago, the first Earthling broke through the atmosphere and into space.  It wasn’t a man, a woman or even a monkey; it was stray dog.

That much is public knowledge, but a secret that has been kept for 45 years was just released last week at the World Space Congress in Houston.  “Laika”, the first astronaut of the planet Earth, died of fright just after take-off.

Exactness in historical matters, when possible, matter.

As a first point, then, and depending on what one means by “earthling”, then Laika does not represent the first terrestrial creature to “break through the atmosphere into space”, as the United States’ fruit flies, the dead monkey, and the dead mouse mentioned above indicate.[6] But I too had heard the story that Laika died almost immediately or during the ascent. By contrast, Abadzis’ text (based on the actual historical record) makes it clear that Laika not only reached space, i.e., went past the 100km point in the Earth’s atmosphere, but also made it into orbit and died during her fourth orbit around the Earth. Thus, she did not die of fright “just after take-off” unless by just after take-off you mean four or five hours later.

Not that we have to expect rigorous journalistic factualness from a paper devoted to dogs in the news like The Scoop, nonetheless this sort of factual error bears an obvious trace of Cold War mentality. I remember an article that came out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union about a (suddenly ex-Soviet) cosmonaut in the space station Mir, who found himself effectively stranded there by the disappearance of the government that sent him up.[7] The very short article had an almost scoffing tone, as if to say the Soviets continued their demonstration of an inability to do things correctly: couldn’t run a government, couldn’t even get their guy down from space. But, of course, the curious dilemma for the article involved admitting, in the first place, that the Soviets even had a space station. Surely this came as news itself to any number of readers.

In the face of the US’s wounded vanity that we were always playing catch-up with the Soviets in the so-called space race, mocking the Soviets for problems that arise in the course of having accomplished the building and manning of a space station itself resembles the sort of outcry that beleaguered Soviet scientists for not figuring out in only one month how to safely bring back a living organism from a successfully operational orbital vehicle.[8] And in the spirit of that querulousness, emphasis gets placed on a falsely claimed failure, that Laika died immediately upon launch, rather than on the facts of the case, that she survived for several hours in actual orbit.[9]

If one has any sympathy for Laika—as we anthropomorphize away—then it becomes bizarre to say her accomplishment (the accomplishment of the spaceflight involving her) constitutes a failure or to disseminate a version of the story that falsifies what actually happened. As the spirit of propaganda, this exposes any seeming sympathy for the dog as little else than the same kind of political exploitation we saw in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, where grieving (white) parents got paraded around for the sake of trying to push another gun control effort.[10]

And so this brings us back to Gazenko’s statement, which often gets repeated to serve a number of purposes in our Occidental discourse. For one, the lingering Cold War traces make it serve as a confession of Soviet incompetence and cruelty, as if (1) our space program hadn’t already incompetently destroyed living creatures, and (2) the Soviets hadn’t already sent up an retrieved dogs from space.[11] When the statement does not get invoked as part of an unconvincing piece of vanity, its general tenor may also serve to speak to the pointlessness of space travel generally (not just in its Soviet, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, or US versions, but in any).

Just as it seems dishearteningly ignorant to laugh at the Soviet space program for failing to get its cosmonaut out of Mir (after the government collapsed), if we would understand Gazenko’s statement as “proof” that we should laugh at the Soviet space program (or space programs in general) with regard to Laika then this seems equally (if not deliberately) wrong-headed. Gazenko’s point, his primary criticism, involves that not enough good science could have been obtained under the conditions of Laika’s mission. Just as the US moon landings have been (at times justly) criticized on  similar ground as more of a stunt than any actual necessary step in a properly conceived space program,[12] Gazenko (as a scientist and a human being) objects (rightly) to the (politically motivated) stunt of Laika’s mission.

We needn’t necessarily ask at this point whether the losses of human life incurred in the effort to put human beings on the surface of the moon provided good enough science or not compared to Laika’s death. One can quibble over the scientific value of human sample collection (the Apollo program) compared to robotic collection, which the Soviets had pursued and deployed with successes and failures from 1959 to 1976 and which included moon orbiters, sample collectors, and surface rovers. In fact, at one moment while US astronauts stood on the surface of the moon one of the Soviet’s lunar retrieval projects actually crashed into its surface—a strange moment of both countries being on the moon simultaneously.

Of course, scientist everywhere might gripe about “politically motivated” projects, as if the projects they do work on don’t have political motivation behind them (especially where Department of Defense contracts get involved). But Gazenko’s quotation opens an additional can of worms. In the version of the quotation cited by The Scoop, we see only the emphasis on the bad idea of this mission; Abadzis includes the sentence immediately before this, “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak” (201), which specifically invokes an ethical concern in working with animals in the first place.

Abadzis’s book actually emphasizes this continuously; a smart move since it helps to avoid bathos (mere anthropomorphizing of Laika) and keeps the human reaction to the situation in the foreground; i.e., the emphasis falls on the people of the story who understand the consequences of their actions more than the book dwelling on the consequences for Laika herself. Thus, we see the players as they find themselves caught in a situation they feel they cannot change, and if they generally silence any protests, nonetheless these protests form an integral part of the story.[13] More precisely, almost no one engages in any easy justifications in the face of the moral problem the mission presents. Almost nobody says, “Actually, this isn’t a terrible thing; we can justify it on these shallow or disingenuous arguments.” Only one character cruelly rubs Dubrovsky’s nose in the realities of Laika’s situation and no significant character—as I remember it—attempts to justify the mission by saying, “Laika is just a dog,” as if that excuses what will happen to her. At one point, two random men exchange:

FIRST: I wonder what she’s dreaming about up there.

SECOND: Dogs don’t dream.

FIRST: Of course they do. You ever seen one asleep? They dream about chasing rabbits. They twitch about, just like they’re running.

SECOND: Rubbish. Dogs don’t dream. They’re just dogs (174).

Abadzis plays this for pathos, allowing Laika’s biggest supporter (Dubrovsky) to overhear these words and to feel haunted by the exchange, but even “they’re just dogs” gets refuted here with evidence (that they dream).

By pointing to the ethical aspect of Gazenko’s criticism, which the 2002 article does not, I do not mean to invoke only some merely vast abstraction about the use of animals in research; Gazenko specifically says, “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog”—not that “we can never learn anything by putting animals potentially in harm’s way.” This belies a sense of ethics—or more simply, a humanity—typically absent from experimental scientists, who tell themselves whatever they have to to go on poisoning, infecting, mutilating, and killing mammals (and other sentient creatures), even when we do not learn enough from the vast majority of experiments done to justify the death or suffering of thousands of creatures.

This developed ethical sense evident in Gazenko’s statement reminds me of the fact that on at least two specific occasions Russian military commanders received unambiguous go signals, indicating they should launch retaliatory nuclear strikes. By all rights and military protocol, they should have obeyed refused to do so. We may contrast this with the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the justificatory bullshit still continuing to this very day that one hears for those atrocities. By contrast, Gazenko does not allow himself any “Laika is just a dog” excuse, just as the humanity of the Russian commanders refused the signal received from a non-human system designed (in principle) to keep Russia safe. Gazenko does not permit himself easy consolations—whatever all of the factors in play that led to the circumstance of sending up the loyal and pathetic figure of one of humanity’s best companions over the millennia, he still acknowledges the specific mistake of it in that specific instance.

And so the lesson we might learn from this involves not that our “enemies” represent “idiots” and us the “wise,” (oh those silly Russians, always fucking up), but how we might better keep abidingly significant ethical components always in the foreground. Of course, we can pay some nice fellating lip service to the idea—that we should conduct scientific research in a humane way—and we will (most of us) nod our heads in agreement while meanwhile immediately offering up no shortage of inane justifications for the vast numbers of animals put to death every day for useless experiments that tell us nothing of scientifically significant value (never mind all of the critters we eat). The point does not (finally) boil down to “Laika’s life was thrown away”—that would be the ecoterrorist’s or the “Love it or leave it” US ideologue’s point of view, whether because all (commercially driven) animal abuse (for “science” or “dinner” alike) must stop this very instance or because US exceptionalism allows us to condemn in others what we do more extensively ourselves.

We can argue till the end of time what deserves the name necessity, but whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in how we respond to them as human beings becomes the far more significant human aspect. One could say that the scientist taking Laika home served as a kind of penance; perhaps he really had no heart (it seems otherwise), but watching the little dog running around on the carpet of his apartment, knowing how easily he might just drive out into the taiga and let her go, or hide her in the basement, could not have brought him too much joy. He didn’t low himself any easy consolation and, in a way, punished himself by giving Laika what small freedom he felt he could. He didn’t tell himself, “She’s just a dog.”

And if we would say that he should have let her go, if we would question his claim to care in light of the fact that he did not free her, then we might just as well say the pilot of the Enola Gay might have turned off course or that any executioner in any death row in a US prison might have refrained from pushing the lethal injection machine’s on button. Perhaps one would say these situations have no equivalence—indeed, to fail to destroy one’s whole career by not releasing a single dog bears little resemblance to the situation of refusing to annihilate hundreds of thousands of people in a nuclear attack or refusing to bring to bear the State’s whole weight against a single individual who, in all likelihood, got molded into the very criminal the State calls him or her by the State itself. It seems not at all insignificant to me that the Russian still sees a need for ethical honesty in the case of Laika, whereas his US counterpart with regard to human victims decides ethical honesty can go out the window.[14]

This seems to me the principal value and moral of Gazenko’s statement, even though it may function in Abadzis’ book as a summary claim of “wasted life”—that the Soviet mission stands as worse than a merely a failure but also an ethical monstrosity. Instead, I see in Gazenko’s admission—because, except that Laika’s memory haunted him, nothing compelled him to make it—a piece of hopefulness, in the sense that when people do terrible things, he shows that people can acknowledge it, rather than trying to offer some tortured bullshit to justify it. I do not think Abadzis at all intends for me to read the confession in this way.

Behind Gazenko’s confession, which operates so to speak (and at least in part) on behalf of Laika’s memory, I hear the same sort of thing as comes out in a Truth Commission, a witnessing to the actualities of an event that prevailed during a secret time. Nothing in Abadzis’ text gives me reason to think he found himself motivated to produce this text for this reason,[15] but his considerable interest in historical accuracy (rather than reproducing again the usual propaganda, as The Scoop article above does) at least results in something resembling a Truth Commission kind of gesture. Even so, I’d still prefer if the “last word” of the text proper were something other than a phrase that so easily drops into the well-worn grooves of (Occidental) Cold War discourse.[16]


[1] Abadzis, N., & Sycamore, H. (2007). Laika. New York: First Second, pp. 1–205.

[2] In 1947, the US had sent fruit flies into space—i.e., above a 100 km in the atmosphere; the formal definition of where space begins—as well as a Rhesus monkey in 1949 that died when its return parachute failed, and again in 1950 a mouse that died when its parachute failed as well. It was in 1951, then, that the Soviets sent up two dogs into space and successfully retrieved them. Laika’s accomplishment specifically involves getting into Earth’ orbit, albeit only for a few hours before she died.

[3] Spurgeon, T. (2007, 1 September). A short interview with Nick Abadzis. The Comics Reporter [online], accessed 31 October 2013 from here.

[4] Though admittedly far more plaintive questionings by Laika just in advance of being sent up, thus “milking” the pathos. The question hinges whether Abadzis has actually built up enough narrative mass to warrant that kind of heart-string tugging or if he indulges in easy pathos. I’d say we see a bit of both; he could have trimmed some back.

[5] Which runs: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

[6] After all, why shouldn’t fruit flies count as “earthlings?”. But one might also object to the article’s writing that the 100km mark does not indicate the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere but rather the point beyond which normal aeronautical physics no longer apply due to the thinness of the atmosphere and thus the edge of (the beginning, at least) space. Any exact boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and empty space must (except by fiat or consensus) remain contested, but at all events it currently lies well beyond the 100km mark.

[7] One may read a version of this story from here. The implied foolishness of the Soviets comes across in the first paragraph of this article, which conflates “Russian” and “Soviet” as synonymous: :MOSCOW — Cosmonaut 3rd Class Sergei Krikalev, stuck in a space station as an orbiting hostage to budget problems on the ground in Russia, returned on Wednesday to a bewilderingly different country than he left 10 months ago” (¶1). In attempting to describe the bizarreness of the situation, the article states in the sixth paragraph, “Even his home town changed its name while he was in space-from Leningrad to St. Petersburg” (¶6). This disingenuous details takes no cognizance of the fact that no one in the Soviet Union ever seriously lost sight of St. Petersburg’s historical name. It is not until paragraph 12 that the space station Mir had operated from 1986, but even this acknowledgment gets followed by an announcement that Mir has turned obsolete: “Designed to house up to 12 cosmonauts, the huge Mir station has been manned almost continuously since 1986 and was the focal point of the Soviet space program. ¶ Some experts say the station is nearing the end of its usefulness and must be either modernized or destroyed” (¶12–3). One might well wonder what experts, this sort of anonymous source too familiar from and endemic to gossip articles in the National Enquirer or Weekly World News, but even so one can still sense the almost bit-chafing unwillingness to acknowledge the technical feat of the Mir in the first place.

[8] We recall that not only had the US failed to place any vehicles in orbit around the Earth, except for fruit flies, what creatures they’d launched past the 100km mark (into space) had died on impact when the vehicle parachutes failed to deploy.

[9] I will not tally up a comparison of creatures blown up on US launch pads or killed when parachutes failed to deploy; off-hand, it seems that the US program has killed more animals than the Russians. As far as human fatalities go, the Soviet had a fatal parachute failure in 1967, and three deaths at their Salyut 1 space station in 1971. US fatalities, 14 in all, occurred in 1986 and 2003, both events late in the history of space flight. Training fatalities include two Soviet (in 1961 and 1968) and one Russian (1993), and 8 US fatalities from 1964 to 1968. Numerically, more astronauts have gone up from the United States, and “Soyuz accidents have claimed the lives of four cosmonauts. No deaths have occurred on Soyuz missions since 1971, and none with the current design of the Soyuz” (from here).

[10] And for every article like the one note above on Sandy Hook, one can find equally shameless counterexploitation by disingenuous fuckers decrying such exploitation for their own political ends (e.g., here)

[11] While it remains indisputably true that our failures in our space program do not justify Soviet failures, the mistakes of the Soviet program also do not justify ours either.

[12] It has also been called the greatest engineering feat in human history, but people will say anything: “The Apollo missions were born from hurt pride: the Soviet Union was winning hands down in the race to the Moon. The United States finally took up the gauntlet, and issued a challenge that many thought impossible: to land the first man on the Moon’s surface” (from here).

[13] In one case, a character’s objections burst into the foreground of the story. Everyone in the situation then has to “manage” the ripples an consequences of this.

[14] I acknowledge that no shortage of people find it easier to sympathize with animals than humans. It seems easier to find ways to pretend that humans “deserved it” (as opposed to animals), which explains why critics almost inevitably point to child-victims, because we find it much harder to believe that a child deserved Hiroshima, &c.

[15] It seems pretty speculative to wonder if his Greek parent had experienced any of the violence of the regime of the colonels and, even if so, that that could have suggested a sort of “truth commission” angle in his text. I’d like to imagine so, but …

[16] The book does features something of an Afterword but it, precisely, lies “outside” of the text as one encounters it. It also does not challenge in any way Gazenko’s quoted remark.

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