The Spare Man: Part I, Gimlet

I’ve read one novel where the main character has a service dog.

I’ve never seen a movie or TV show with a main character working a service dog, though it seems almost monthly I hear of a new use for canine companions in the disability community or civil service. Even with the popularity of cute and/or heroic dog videos on Youtube and TikTok, Hollywood still hasn’t seemed to realize just what a cash-cow a service dog could be. Capitalism ought to be helping representation of service dog users along, yet somehow it hasn’t kicked in yet.

So, about that one book…

It’s not that I Read one book featuring an MC with a service dog a few years ago and hated it, or took issue with their representation and avoided picking up similar examples ever since. No, it’s that I’ve never encountered one until a couple of weeks ago – and it was REALLY, REALLY GOOD.

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

This locked-room murder mystery in space features a glamorous newly-wed couple navigating an imperfectly inclusive future, retro cocktail recipes, and a deeply satisfying portrayal of life with invisible disabilities. And, topping it all off, is an adorable – and actually useful – canine sidekick.

Tesla Crane, trying to avoid recognition as the fabulously wealthy robotics magnate while on her honeymoon, finds her husband framed for a series of disturbing (but not too gory) murders on the Earth-to-Mars space-liner Lindgren. Injured in body and soul by a horrific laboratory experiment, Tesla makes her way through life assisted by her PTSD-support dog Gimlet, a fluffy white West Highlands terrier.

If you want to know more about the book as a whole, check out its Audible page here, or reviews on Goodreads here. Here on The Dark Side, I’m going to focus on the accuracy and experience of reading this service dog user representation.

Gimlet’s Duties

If you read this post where I interviewed Lady X about her life with a PTSD service dog, then you’ll be able to see for yourself that Ms. Kowal clearly did her research when designing this character. Gimlet’s primary goal is to disrupt Tesla’s body’s over-active defense responses that send her into flashbacks. She does this by pawwing at Tesla’s leg, and then snuffle-kissing her face when it comes into reach.

Research has demonstrated that physical affection from dogs can help humans who struggle with transitioning between sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous states, as is the case with those suffering from PTSD. Yes, I’m saying that petting and playing with your dog can calm you down after a bad day, but it’s so much more powerful than that. Gimlet is successful in her disruption attempts several times throughout the book, and even remembering Gimlet’s behavior when Tesla is separated from her has a calming effect on our intrepid heroine.

Gimlet’s Behavior

Throughout the book, Gimlet displays several dramatic changes in behavior in response to wearing her vest or specific commands from her partner, Tesla. Her “on duty” and ‘off duty” mentalities don’t entirely portray two separate dogs, as Gimlet sometimes hesitates to obey when the temptation of a snack or a belly rub is present, but she masters her doggy compulsions with regular displays of professionalism.

I have personally experienced this with my first dog, Prada, and early on in my work with Greta before our troubles started. Ears prick, backs straighten, and tails relax to a middle-height posture indicating focus without arousal. It’s something to behold and feel when a dog’s head slips through a harness and settles into Work Mode.

I particularly appreciated Ms. Kowal’s description of how Gimlet, misbehaving, barked insistently whenever someone came to her partner’s door. Tesla notes that this was technically bad behavior, but that she found it actually supported her by making her feel more secure. Every service dog user that I know has found that the “initial programming” of their dogs needed some minor modification to personalize their work.

The training of service dogs exist to serve their human partners. If the training doesn’t serve, then it’s not worth maintaining. I wrote about this here.

Tesla, Gimlet, and the Public at Large

They don’t ask, they make assumptions, they seem to lose all self-control, they talk to the dog before acknowledging the person…Ms. Kowal checks all the boxes. It was both funny and disconcerting to find so many of my experiences with the non-partnered community portrayed so accurately.

I felt my shoulders clench as Tesla found she had to actually apologize for daring to tell someone “no, you can’t pet my dog” to receive reasonable treatment from both civilians and authority figures. Oh, Tesla, I’ve been there…

Once or twice Tesla blurs the lines between off-duty and on-duty rules for Gimlet in order to mitigate social complications. She pretends to have lost hold of Gimlet’s leash, whispers Gimlet’s “off-duty” command to mimic Gimlet running off out of her control in order to distract someone, and engages in a couple of other dubious shenanigans. And I love her the more for it.

If I felt as endangered as she did, I would have no qualms about bending the rules to further my quest for survival. But more importantly, I love how imperfectly Tesla behaves, like a normal human being. So often people with disabilities – and service dog users in particular – suffer under the unrealistic expectations of heart-warming positivity and perfectly aligned behavior, but we push boundaries and make mistakes and bend or even break rules at the same frequency as everyone else.

I felt seen, understood, vindicated, and understood by this author, and am grateful that she’s chosen to share her vision with more readers than just me. I hope many, many other readers will see this, see me, see themselves.

Here’s a podcast interview with women’s fiction author and blogger Deborah Klee where we talk about the isolating impacts of toxi perfectionism and its impact on the disability community.

And Tesla?

Well, analyzing Gimlet’s representation took more of a post than I intended. I’ll be happy to write more about Tesla next week.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks “what book made you feel most seen?” Share your answers in the comments below. Books are read alone but enjoyed in company.

3 thoughts on “The Spare Man: Part I, Gimlet

  1. Oo, I’ve read a few of Mary Robinette Kowel’s books, but not this one yet! I knew this one had a dog in it, but I didn’t know it was a service dog. Thanks for the recommendation—this book has moved WAY up my to-be-read list!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I definitely recommend the Lady Astronaut series, first book titled The Calculating Stars. The basic premise is: what if a meteorite hit the earth in the 1950s and started a 50-year countdown to extinction on Earth? Then mix in a main character who is a pilot and a mathematician for NASA who also has anxiety disorder, plus some commentary on sexism and racism that I found interesting and not preachy. I listened to the audiobook and adored it!


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