Hugosauriad 3.3: Dinosaurs by Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams was a Hugo Award finalist in 1988 for his novelette “Dinosaurs”, a story famously without any dinosaurs in it at all. Williams has had a broad career working in game design, and writing in a variety of genres. He’s had a long association with the Hugo Awards and was the guest of honour at the recent 75th Worldcon in Helsinki.

Dinosaurs has a distinctly not dinosaur-like alien species being visited by a human diplomat. The aliens are justly outraged by human attempts to terraform their worlds. They have assumed this was a pre-meditated attack by humanity against them. The diplomat has been despatched to broker a peace agreement.

The twist lies in what it is to be human. The diplomat is not recognisably human. Centuries of modification and specialism has resulted in a being far more alien to us than the hapless creatures he is negotiating with. The diplomat has a diversified consciousness, with multiple different aspects of mind dealing with different kinds of thinking. The point of view ‘character’ is the diplomats executive function of its thoughts with other aspects essentially secondary characters. We also learn that the diplomat themselves is a highly specialised being, existing purely for the purpose of being a diplomat.

“Drill stood eighteen feet tall on his two pillarlike legs, each with a splayed foot that displayed a horny underside and vestigial nails. His skin was ebony and was draped in folds over his vast naked body. His pendulous maleness swung loosely as he walked. As he stepped across the open space he was conscious of the fact that he was the ultimate product of nine million years of human evolution, all leading to the expansion, diversification, and perfection that was now humanity’s manifest existence. He looked down at the little Shars, their white skin and golden fur, their strange, stiff tripod legs, the muzzles raised to him as if in awe. If your species survives, he thought benignly, you can look like me in another few million years.”

Dinosaurs by Walter Jon Williams in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 35). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.

The aliens make emotional appeals and present rational arguments but there is a vast conceptual gulf between them and humanity. Humans are now a remorseless empire, simply consuming on a vast scale. At one level deeply sophisticated but on another little more than parts of vast creature that simply consumes and reacts to threats with sudden violence and with thought processes that are so distributed that there is essentially no thought in the actions of humanity. As a character says towards the end of the story:

“You will have killed us,” Gram said, “destroyed the culture that we have built for thousands of years, and you won’t even give it any thought. Your species doesn’t think about what it does any more. It just acts, like a single-celled animal, engulfing everything it can reach. You say that you are a conscious species, but that isn’t true. Your every action is… instinct. Or reflex.”

Dinosaurs by Walter Jon Williams in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 35). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.

The dinosaur is humanity: a giant lumbering beast with a tiny brain and a voracious appetite. It is an old perception of dinosaurs (and one that we will see less of when actual dinosaurs are portrayed) but a persistent metaphor. Williams applies the metaphor to the future humans with a suggestion that even if the alien Shars survive the human encroachment into their space the best they can hope of a future where they also change to become the same kind of monsters.

It is also a depressing view of the future and a comment upon humanity as a whole — that we claim to be rational and capable of careful consideration but that we act collectively more like an unthinking monster. Fair criticism of humanity but dinosaurs might object to being dragged into the comparison 🙂

Lumbering, slow-thinking, over-specialised and lingering on are all aspects of the metaphorical dinosaur. The metaphorical dinosaur still exists in our common discourse hence the simple way Williams could title his story and people see what he meant. What has changed (and was already changing in how dinosaurs are represented in fiction) was the extent to which the metaphorical dinosaur is connected to our perception of actual dinosaurs. Of course, we’ve had examples of smart dinosaurs from the beginning of this dinography (e.g. A Case of Conscience) but from here on in the dinosaurs in the stories we’ll meet are no longer lumbering brutes. It’s very apt that our last example of the lumbering monster with an independent hind brain is from an author who points that image not our prehistoric creatures of wonder but at ourselves.

Next time: from a dinosaur story with no dinosaurs in it to a science fiction story with no science fiction in it. What will those wacky Hugo kids think of next! “In the Late Cretaceous” by Connie Willis.

10 thoughts on “Hugosauriad 3.3: Dinosaurs by Walter Jon Williams

  1. Thanks for this review. This story is one of the most memorable I’ve ever read: I read it in its original magazine appearance and it bent my brain.

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    1. Same. I read it sometime early in a series of flights from New York to Kampala, and it was all I could think about (forget sleep!) through multiple airports and jet lag approaching the hallucinatory.

      Brilliant, depressing, and haunting. Lovecraftian, even, told from the point of view of a great old one.

      The title is fantastic. Not only is Drill a metaphorical dinosaur, for the reasons Camestros enumerated, but the Shars are too—they’re doomed to extinction by something that amounts to cosmic forces completely out of their control.

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  2. This is just a brilliant, brutal story. Like Andrew, it just permanently lodged itself in my brain.

    I read it in the 5th edition of Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction. I’m not sure that anyone to date has had a run as editor to match Dozois’ tenure at Asimov’s from the mid-80s through the mid-90s, and his Year’s Best SF volumes from that same time period changed my idea of what SF could be.

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      1. Treating it as a horror story does make a lot of sense. It’s also a nice trick to make the non-humans much more psychologically familiar than the notionally human characters (Michael Flynn does that in his “Eifelheim” – the aliens in the past think more like modern humans than the past humans do).

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  3. This is one of those SF stories that I have memorized, ever since reading it in Dozoi’s Furthest Horizon anthology. Just unforgettable. EAT!

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