Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” was published in March 2013 by Apex Magazine and is available here https://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/ In 2014 it won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
The story is a lyrical text of twelve paragraphs. Each paragraph, aside from paragraph 9, starts with the word ‘if’. A narrator addresses ‘you’ throughout placing the reader in the position of being addressed by a woman to her fiancée.
Those first eight paragraphs initially appear whimsical, a flight of fantasy as the narrator speculates on what it would be like if ‘you’ we’re a dinosaur. She sets up rhetorical questions and answers and follows a chain of apparently trivial consequences.
“If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.”Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love” https://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/
But there is something (intentionally) not quite right from the start. A T-Rex? The tyrannosaur has been stomping through dinosaur stories throughout this project and in almost every instance they have been symbols of sudden violence and an agent of vengeance and punishment of the wicked or cowardly. Symbolically in dinosaur stories the T-rex has been a kind of saurian Fury punishing the cowardly or those who in hubris forgot to show the proper respect to time-travel or dinosaurs.
Yet, in the very next sentence Swirsky flips this around, emphasising the vulnerability and muted scale of this fantasy T-Rex. The tyrant lizard is more of a benevolent and humane despot with fragile bones like a bird and a gentle gaze. The contrast is severe and adds to the sense that there is something going on here other than a fanciful musing.
The contrast continues in the second paragraph. The narrator, imagining her lover as a T-Rex, casts herself in the role of a zookeeper. (I say ‘her’ and ‘he’ though the gender of both the narrator and her lover is not immediately obvious). Again the imagery is intentionally just a bit off. The T-Rex, fed with live goats and with a bloodstained mouth is still presented as vulnerable. The cage is for his protection and the narrator sees herself sleeping inside the cage and singing the creature to sleep with lullabies.
The rhythmic repeated structure of the story already has echoes with bed time stories. The overt connections between each paragraph are apparent trivialities. The third paragraph picks up on ‘lullabies’ and imagines the T-Rex developing a taste for music.
“If I sang you lullabies, I’d soon notice how quickly you picked up music. You’d harmonize with me, your rough, vibrating voice a strange counterpoint to mine. When you thought I was asleep, you’d cry unrequited love songs into the night.”Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love” https://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/
Which introduces another intentional oddity. The story has implied that the narrator and the subject of the story are lovers. Yet here the narrator imagines the T-Rex singing songs about unrequited love, despite placing herself there in the T-Rex cage watching over him. The implication is of her imaging not just a different species on her lover but a separate life.
The singing T-Rex is inevitably a huge hit, with a show on Broadway and tearful audiences who are overwhelmed by the sad beauty of the singing. This leads to scientists exploring how to bring back the dinosaurs from fossilised DNA or birds. The direction of the effort is to create a mate for the T-Rex. That leads to another tangent for the next paragraph with a dinosaur wedding.
Throughout, there have been three elements intermingled, terror, beauty and sadness. The persistent theme of sadness undercuts the surface whimsy. The dinosaur does not just sing but sings songs that makes an audience weep. The flurry of scientific endeavour is not science for science’s sake but an attempt to heal the emotional longing of the T-Rex.
The dislocation of emotion, sadness and beauty reaches a climax, naturally, in a wedding: an event in which we normally expect everything to be beautiful and for people to burst into tears. Yet the wedding both is and is not the narrator’s wedding. She has planned out the details from the flowers to the colour of the bridesmaid’s dressers but she is only a witness to the wedding of two dinosaurs. Yet she applies the old, new, borrowed, blue requirements for a bride to herself. The dinosaurs are both old and new, she is borrowing the happiness of the couple and she only lacks something blue.
“If all I needed was something blue, I’d run across the church, heels clicking on the marble, until I reached a vase by the front pew. I’d pull out a hydrangea the shade of the sky and press it against my heart and my heart would beat like a flower. I’d bloom. My happiness would become petals. Green chiffon would turn into leaves. My legs would be pale stems, my hair delicate pistils. From my throat, bees would drink exotic nectars. I would astonish everyone assembled, the biologists and the paleontologists and the geneticists, the reporters and the rubberneckers and the music aficionados, all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.”Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love” https://www.apex-magazine.com/if-you-were-a-dinosaur-my-love/
I had forgotten that this story, whose science-fictionalness has been much questioned, explicitly raises the contrast between reality and science fiction, and science fiction and fantasy. The narrator transforms into a flowering plant (flowers themselves being things of the Cretaceous) through a magical or perhaps alchemical process and in doing so changes the genre of the narrator’s fantasy, or rather asserts that despite the scientific trappings that it has been fantasy all along.
And then the story draws to its false conclusion. “If” now applies to the world at large and if it was a magical world, a fantasy world, then the narrator’s lover would be a dinosaur, even though this would be both sad and beautiful. Cut off there and the story would be maddeningly strange. The narrator imaging a quite different life for her lover, one in which they would both be sad and where they would be separated and yet together. She has imagined a world where her lover marries somebody else at a wedding where she sees herself as the bride.
Reality intrudes with the paragraph that breaks the cycle. The fantasy of the T-Rex remains but instead of speculating forwards, the story now looks at past events. The T-Rex also is re-established in its customary role as a being of savage vengeance.
The heartbreaking twist reveals a more brutal world in which the narrator’s fiancée was brutally beaten into a coma. The contrasted emotions of the first eight paragraphs are resolved. The hidden feelings are grief, revenge and guilt. Loss and coming to terms with having to let somebody you love go have been sublimated into a fantasy in which she can imagine surrendering the man she loves to a different life. What could have been pillow talk is revealed to be (probably) at the bedside in an intensive care unit.
The economy of the story telling contrasts sharply with the complexity of emotions. Everybody who has sat in a hospital waiting for news while a loved one is treated knows that mix of intense emotions tied to long stretches with nothing to say or do but to be alone with your own thoughts. The wish that things were just different and the attempts to bargain with the universe to just not let things be as bad as they are.
Is it science fiction/fantasy? I have broad criteria and it easily fits mine but I don’t want to be too dismissive of those from whom the story is too distanced from the fantastic by that repeated “if”. However, even if it lies on the wrong side of some arbitrary border, it is a story that is deeply engaged with the question of genre and what role it plays. It is a story that understands and examines our need for wish fulfilment and the role of the fantastical in our imaginings.
In terms of legitimacy for awards, well it is not only not the least science fictional story to be nominated for a Hugo Award it isn’t even the least science fictional story WITH DINOSAURS IN IT to be nominated for a Hugo Award. I think the eventual award outcome was the right one: the Nebula Award should be more of a writers award were writer’s craft plays a bigger role.
The level of craft in the story is inarguable, there is not a spare word in the whole thing — everything plays a role. To manage a story that combines both whimsy and brutality is remarkable. The story itself would become embroiled in wider events in fandom and the Hugo Awards specifically and as a consequence became a story whose content and structure was repeatedly discussed and examined. For many reasons it is a story that I’ve re-read many times now, sometimes just skimming through to remind myself of what was said where. I am always struck by how I find new things in each time but also how I remember things being there that are not there.
This story was hotly debated for several years, sometimes in good-faith yet contentious discussions. Like a dinosaur it has its own sharp teeth and claws and can defend itself.
Next time: Puppies both sad and rabid appear and who better to represent them than John C Wright and his own take on a vengeful T-Rex at wedding, “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards”.