Think Like a Dinosaur James Patrick Kelly (Golden Gryphon Press, $22.95, 275 pages). August 1997.
The beauty and saving grace of that much vilified and misunderstood literary genre termed Science Fiction, as we approach that most futuristic of datelines, the year 2000, is that it has become a field vast and broad, more so than ever before in its short history. Down the central swath of that field, from goal to goal, cavort the spawn of Star Wars and its ilk: space opera franchises and share-cropping novels, adventures no more adventurous in intent than what has gone before - mere shoot 'em up Cowboys and Indians in space, with different masks. Then, out on one wing is the Hard science lobby, whose main concern is the explication of science and technology - the rigorous, if puzzling to the uninitiated, insistence that future trends in science should be extrapolated from what is known today; the followers of Clarke, whose literary ability ranges from the gauche to the acceptable... On the other wing, adherents of what has been termed the humanist school of the craft, or practitioners of 'Soft' SF, are playing another game entirely. Not for them the restrictive remit of the Hard science fictioneers: they use the genre of the fantastic to their own ends to fashion stories spanning the gamut of the field, playing with the tenets of Hard SF, Soft SF, Horror, Fantasy, and Slipstream...
On this wing, James Patrick Kelly is king.
John Kessel provides an excellent introduction to this volume, avoiding the self-aggrandising, Ellison-esque tendency to over-praise. He delivers an essay on Kelly's strengths and an intelligent dissection of the best stories in the volume. In the course of the introduction, however, he states: 'In the midst of the cyberpunk-humanist dustup of the mid-eighties, when the conventional terms of the debate held that no writer could be interested in both traditional fiction of character with the gloss of high art and in cutting edge technology with an anticultural bent, Kelly was the only writer in the humanist camp to be included in Mirrorshades, the definitive cyberpunk anthology.' Included in the anthology he might have been, but whether it can be claimed that Kelly is concerned with cutting edge technology (and why should he be?) is another matter. The evidence provided in Think Like a Dinosaur suggests not.
The most traditionally science-fictional story in the book, "Think Like a Dinosaur", uses two props of the genre, aliens and matter transmitters, to set up the narrator's moral dilemma. Michael Burr works for the hanen, an alien race resembling dinosaurs: he guides infrequent human star-travellers through the 'migration' process. In the course of the transfer, the humans are copied, one of the copies travelling on to their stellar destination, while the other is exterminated before regaining consciousness - the hanen way of thinking (hence the story's title) allows no sentimentality over the eradication of the copy left behind. When Burr releases a traveller from a malfunctioning device, only to discover that transfer has actually been effected, he must end the life of the copy he can only view as human... In this story, the technology is not cutting edge but a device of artistic licence, which aficionados of Hard SF might deplore - a clever method of achieving an artistic end: the unflinching examination of the human psyche, and Kelly does it brilliantly.
It is a technique he uses more than once in his SF stories: in the novella "Mr Boy", Kelly employs nanotechnology and genetic engineering to produce an effective, if over long, tongue in cheek satire on Western materialism: the eponymous Mr Boy has been genetically stunted to remain a boy by surgery paid for by his mother, herself altered to resemble a scale model of the Statue of Liberty; his friend is a human being modified to look like a stenonychosaurus. They lead a life of carefree adolescent hedonism - a kind of SF take on Clueless - though even in this light-hearted vein Kelly does not lose sight of the fact that we need to believe and care about the characters, and their motivations, no matter how bizarre they might appear.
"Breakaway, Backdown" is a first person monologue delivered by an ex-spacer to a shop assistant, describing the long term physical effects of life in space and the protagonist's emotional involvement with the lover she has left behind, rather than suffer debilitation and death in five years, inevitable if she remains in space. The penultimate paragraph contains this terrific one-line summation of the story's theme: "The heart is a muscle, okay? That means it shrinks in space."
In "Standing in line with Mr Jimmy", the backdrop is a future impoverished America, the hero a no-hoper street-kid. Chip is unemployed, lives on State handouts, 'maintenance', and is pacified during his waking hours by a computerised earpiece - the Mr Jimmy of the title - which talks to him, advises, plays music... (As in many of the stories collected here, the plot is slight: Chip applies for a continuation of his maintenance, is denied, joins a line of citizens queueing for something - we never find out what - and in line meets the woman who cut his maintenance and conscripted him to a road gang in Mexico.) The story works, despite the lack of tension and convoluted plot detail, on a human level. And again the technology is secondary to Kelly's main concern: the delineation of the human condition under the stress of a changed future.
This is most evident in "Pogrom", the collection's most pessimistic tale. It is a bleak and simple story of Ruth's confrontation with a hostile outside world, her alienation as a 'have' in a culture of 'have nots'. Suffering a self-imposed exile in her own home in a violent city, reduced to seeking human contact via wallscreens, she embarks on a hazardous bus journey across town to share a meal with an old friend. It is at once a frightening extrapolation of current inner city conditions and a clinical examination of one woman's incomprehension and fear of a changed world.
One of the delights of the book is its range: there are no two SF stories alike in idea or setting; and likewise the modern fantasies are nicely varied. "Heroics" is a simple story, beautifully written and superbly characterised, about a middle-aged school teacher who dreams of being a hero, and whose dream turns out to be ironically prescient. In "Monsters" we are allowed into the life of Henry, a corpulent sociopath and potential killer, who worships his Beretta in a shrine beneath the stairs. Henry battles to keep the monster within him from emerging. To Kelly's credit he makes the repulsive Henry at once believable and sympathetic, and conjures an unlikely and moving denouement. "Dancing with Chairs" is a slight though effective character study of a man who suffers rejection by his lover and a consequent bizarre disenfranchisement.
In "Faith", Kelly's powers of characterisation and social observation are at their sharpest. The quiet, involving love story charts Faith's affair with Gardiner Allen, a horticultural scientist with a remarkable talent. In his portrayal of Faith, a thirty-five year old mother whose husband has left her, Kelly shows a sympathy and understanding for ordinary people rarely matched in the genre.
Perhaps the finest story here is the unclassifiable, "The First Law of Thermodynamics". During the course of an evening, Space and fellow 60s students trip on acid, visit the farm of an ex-baseball star turned supplier, and daub political slogans on the interior walls of the liberal arts building. The idealism, egotism and hedonism of Space and his friends is beautifully captured, and put in perspective by the story's climactic final shift, a device that by all the laws of story-telling should not work but which, in the context of the story and its themes, is a tremendous and moving achievement.
Science Fiction, to reprise, is a broad field. While the prevailing
ethos in the genre seems to dictate that novels and stories should ideally
kowtow to the Big Idea - an ethos happily accepted by those who champion
Hard SF - it should not be forgotten that there is room for the quieter,
more reflective literary story which uses the furniture of SF as a metaphor
with which to examine the human condition. Thankfully, James Patrick
Kelly is doing just that.
Think Like a Dinosaur consists of fourteen stories - twelve reprinted from Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, one from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one from The Sycamore Hill Anthology - from between 1984 and 1997.
In an age when the bigger publishers are wary of issuing collections by anyone other than big names and known sellers, Golden Gryphon Press should be congratulated for showcasing the considerable talents of James Patrick Kelly. The quality of the stories is exceptional, the book as an object attractive and beautifully produced.
Think Like a Dinosaur is published by Golden
Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road Urbana, IL 61802, USA.
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© Eric Brown, 6 December 1997