Reviewed date: 2011 Nov 28
I first read Sun Dogs about ten years ago. It didn't blow me away like Ender's Game or Battlefield Earth, but I remembered it as an amazing little book that nobody but me (apparently) has ever heard of. I decided to reread it, and I think I must have confused it with a different book. It's a bizarre book with an inscrutable protagonist, a convoluted plot, and no real denouement. I think there's a great story hidden in there, but it needs a discerning editor and a major rewrite to bring it out. As it is, it's not a bad story, but I'm not surprised to find it was McGarry's first novel.
Larry Tollens grieves when his uncle comes back from his stint on Morgan's World as an empty shell of a man. Tollens determines to follow his uncle's footsteps to Morgan's World and untangle the mysteries there.
Morgan's World is a frontier planet, a strategic Forcer outpost for Triumviratine Earth in its war against the alien Harbingers. The Forcers are setting up a small base, with help from the local population--called sun dogs, or helps. The helps are intelligent, but technologically primitive. They agree to do manual labor in exchange for basic tools and equipment. But they are truly alien, and seem to have strange herd instincts--e.g., they will at times walk off the job en masse, congregrate somewhere in the hills, perform mysterious ceremonies, and return a few days later like it never happened. Explanations are never offered.
Larry Tollens irritates his commanding officers because he so clearly has a personal agenda--to find out what happened to his uncle--and isn't concerned with helping the crew meet its construction schedule. On the other hand, nobody really tries to stop him; later, Tollens realizes it was all a setup--he was sent specifically to investigate the helps and figure out the mysteries of Morgan's World, but it was thought he'd do a better job if he had to do it on his own initiative.
As for the helps, as near as I can make out, their secret is an ability to transmit acquired knowledge genetically. I.e., Lamarckism rather than Darwinism. Moreover, the helps are infinitely adaptable. They can telepathically absorb the essence of another being, and use that essence to shape their evolution, even changing their biology. The helps, simply by working in close proximity with humans, are reshaping their race to match humanity. I think--but I'm not sure--that this process is what destroyed Will; in absorbing his essence, the helps damaged him. However, they've managed to improve their technique, and no longer cause damage.
I'm not sure what the helps intend to do once they mimic humanity. I can't even tell whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I certainly would feel threatened by any race that can reshape its very essence in a matter of a few generations. (The Forcers realize this too, and wonder if the helps may actually be the same race as the Harbingers.) On the other hand, the helps would be a great ally for humanity.