Both In the Late Cretaceous by Connie Willis and Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick touch upon the idea that dinosaurs are worthy of interest for their own sake. In Connie Willis’s story she does this by satirising the corporate-speak of a university manager forcing a confused concept upon a palaeontology department:
“As we move into the twenty-first century, our society is transformizing radically, but is education? No. We are still teaching the same old subjects in the same old ways.” He smiled at the dean. “Until today. Today marks the beginning of a wonderful innovationary experiment in education, a whole new instructionary dynamic in teaching paleontology. I’ll be thinktanking with you dinosaur guys and gals next week, but until then I want you to think about one word.Willis, Connie. The Winds of Marble Arch And Other Stories . Orion. Kindle Edition.
“Extinction,” Sarah murmured.
“That word is ‘relevantness.’ Does paleontology have relevantness to our modern society? How can we make it have relevantness? Think about it. Relevantness.” There was a spattering of applause from the departments Dr. King would not be thinktanking with. Robert poured a large glass of sherry and drank it down. “It’s not fair,” he said. “First the Parking Authority and now this.”
Swanwick works the idea into his story as part of a broader rationalisation behind time travel and to parallel the related (but quite different) subject of story of the mysterious others who have granted humanity access to time-travel.
One of the many things dinosaurs can be is an idea that we love. That affection for dinosaurs in turn motivates not just the art produced about them but our scientific inquiry into them. It’s a positive example of how our societal and aesthetic preferences influences science.
That affection for dinosaurs starts young. The field of dinosaur related fiction for young children is beyond the scope of this project but is it self vast. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s “How Does a Dinosaur…” series of picture books uses detailed pictures of dinosaurs placed in the roles of slightly naughty children exasperating their (human) parents. It’s an excellent example of how dinosaurs are seen as not just kid-friendly but the scientificism of the dinosaur is something that will be enjoyed by children. Complex latinate names with weird spellings such a diplodocus, triceratops of pterodactyl are not off-limits words for children.
I’m not covering any children’s stories in this series (apart from the mention above) but that association between dinosaurs and our societal child-like interest in them is an important theme in dinosaur fiction. Jurassic Park touches on it but in general it is not something we’ve seen in the other stories I’ve picked out.
Richard Chwedyk’s “Saurs” series of short-fiction is not children’s literature and touches on many darker themes about death, violence and casual cruelty. However, it does explore that connection between dinosaurs as animals and dinosaurs as objects for children.
Chwedyk introduced the saurs in his story “The Measure of All Things” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2001):
“Most people these days hardly remember them. The smallest saur is no more than ten centimeters long. The largest one is a meter and a half tall. They’re not “real” dinosaurs—that’s another business altogether—but they were modeled after them, sometimes to painstaking detail, but more often to the cuter, cartoonish caricatures that children of many generations before wore on their pajamas or had printed on their lunchboxes and notebooks. They were an outgrowth of that vision of dinosaurs as cuddly buddies, friends to all children everywhere: moving, talking versions of the plush toys they’ve always played with. That’s what they were designed to be. That’s why they were brought into the world. Forget for the moment that the manufacturers had plans to make enormous sums of money on them, at which they succeeded (several million were sold); forget also that the designers were trying to put forward their own subtle agenda: that bioengineering and its nanotech components could be safe and fun—cuddly, like a shoebox-sized triceratops—an agenda which was far less successful. Forget all that, at least for the moment. To the saurs themselves, they had come into being to be friends, buddies, giving out love and receiving affection from appreciative girls and boys. That’s what they were designed to do—that, and nothing else. The designers fidgeted about for a name – they didn’t like “life-toy,” since it contained the troublesome “life” word. They didn’t want the saurs confused with “animals,” since that would place them under hundreds of government regulations. “Bio-toy” passed with all the marketing departments, so someone went out and wrote a definition of it: a toy modeled from bio-engineered materials, behaving without behavior, lifelike without being “alive.”“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
These plush-toy sized dinosaurs defy the limits and expectations of their designers, just as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or Dino-Island do. The saurs are a failure as a toy because the attempts to anthropomorphise their personalities leads to beings that are genuinely intelligent and have their own characters and emotional depth.
Chwedyk’s stories take place long after the saurs are the must-have toy of the season and are set in a refuge/sanctuary for abandoned and abused saurs. The supposed toys are sentient (indeed intelligent creatures) that have suffered the inevitable physical and emotional abuse of being left in the care of small children.
I wondered if any of the saurs’ designers ever imagined their creations would end up in a house like this. They had guaranteed the investors, the executives and the buying public that the saurs were limited to a relatively few responses and reactions. They were supposed to be organic computers, and very simple ones at that. They could remember names and recognize faces, engage in simple conversations. They would sing the “Dinosaur Song” (a hideous thing that started “Yar-wooo, yar-wooo, yar-wooo/the dinosaurs love you . . .”), and if you told one you were sad he would know how to respond with a joke. Yes, the designers said, they were sophisticated creations, almost miraculous, a high point in what they had mastered by tweaking a few genes . . . but they were not to be confused with living things. They could respond to stimuli, they could retain data, but that doesn’t make something a “living” thing, they said.“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
The saurs in the home have lived past their expected life span and live complex lives with complex relationships between them.
“Take their life span. They were supposed to live for five years, tops. Doc over there is twenty-eight. And Agnes under the table is twenty-five.” “How dare you!” Agnes barked. “Tell him everything, why don’t you?” There were things I wouldn’t mention to the visitor, or to anyone else. Like Bronte, sitting on the couch, warming the orphan bird eggs that Sluggo brings to her. Some of them hatch, and Sluggo feeds them—little robins and sparrows and finches—until they’re big enough to fly from the window ledge. And then there’s the egg I found Bronte with the other day, the one that doesn’t resemble any bird egg I’ve ever seen.“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
The egg mentioned briefly in the above quote leads onto the second story in Chwedyk’s series: Bronte’s Egg. Further stories followed with the most recent “The Man Who Put the Bomp” in 2017.
Bronte’s Egg was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2003, the same year that Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth was up for Best Novel. The story did not win a Hugo that year but did win a Nebula award.
The main character of the story, Axel, is a distractable and energetic saur who sets out to build a robot. In the course of events, he also encounters a mysterious frog, helps Bronte incubate her egg and may have contacted alien life. His childlike enthusiasm both endangers and protects his fellow saurs in the refuge.
Like any story that attempts to deal with childhood and child-like enthusiasm, there is a tension between the sweetness of character and the traumatic back history of the denizens of the home. Like Axel himself, the story rushes around ideas and connections picking up threads and briefly forgetting them only to return to them later. Balancing the sentimentality with the energy and science-fiction elements is not always successful but the story as whole manages to bring its ideas together successfully.
Bronte’s Egg is utterly unlike any of the other stories I’ve covered so far and yet touches on so many of the same themes: humanity’s technological hubris, the nature of life, the nature of intelligence and the question of inquiry for its own sake.
There’s a conflict throughout multiple stories but exemplified best by Bronte’s Egg and Jurassic Park between science and technology. These aren’t normally fields we see as struggling against each other. However, science as pure inquiry (symbolised by Dr Grant in Jurassic Park or Alex’s insatiable curiosity in the Saurs series) and the perils of technology (from time machines to bio-engineering) keep repeating.
Dinosaurs for dinosaurs sake. The ‘pure’ motive of curiosity versus the messy moral consequences of making and doing. The protean capacity for dinosaurs to symbolise many things is inexhaustible.
Next time: You know what Hugo voters loved in the 2000’s? Doctor Who! But maybe they didn’t love Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that much…