The idea of writting historical fiction is not new, but lately there has been a huge upsergence in the number of books written in this way. These can range from full scale novels about individuals such as Nietzsche or Ann Boyln to comic books such as Laika. Laika was a real dog, and she really did go into space in 1954. Laika was the first animal to orbit in space, making her a national symbol of Russian space technology. However, there was no return home for her since the rushed engineering team had not made her a way back. The scientists could only listen to her heartbeat until she passed on after only 5 hours, still in orbit around the planet.
Nick Abadzis takes the historical facts of Laika’s story and spins them into this heart-wrenching graphic novel which is sure to bring tears to your eyes. Filled with mantras to keep the tired and exhausted characters moving, Laika becomes almost a talisman of good fortune and hope. She reveals humanity and kindness in some, and the vile jealousy and pent up aggression in those feeling trapped by the world around them. She becomes a lens that examines every person she encounters including the rocket crew. The scientists have to grapple with what it really means to send Laika into space with no return plan. Some are deeply troubled, while others view their sentimentality as a burden to the project. Because of Laika’s trusting nature, she exemplifies the problems that we humans encounter while dealing with other non-human life and it is hard to see the cruelty dealt out by those who do not value Laika’s life.
As someone who studies biology, and knows why we use animals for our projects it can be incredibly difficult to read this book. It confronts our basic understanding of human progress by reminding us that lives are what end up fueling our scientific endeavors. I once mentioned to an English professor how moved I was to hold the fetus of a rat used for a dissection. It was one of the most incredibly beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. But she was deeply upset by this and asked “Do you feel guilty? Knowing that that rat and it’s babies died for you?” I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question. On the one hand I was at least partially responsible for that rat’s death, but it had also given me the chance to see embryonic development first hand. To understand more fully the working and layout of the mammalian body. Of my own body. I found it hard to feel guilty, and I found that lack of guilt hard to swallow.
At the end of the book there is a quote from the scientist responsible for Laika’s care, and her training for her space flight. He comments,
"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." - Oleg Greorgivitch Gazenko
We need to value the lives of our animals a little more heavily. We need to value everything we have a little bit more. So go read this book. Feel yourself pulled into her happiness and her tragedy. And brace yourselves. You might be in for a wild ride.