The 1960s brought a new dimension to science fiction fandom with the arrival of what would become iconic television series. In the US Star Trek had an immediate impact on the World Science Fiction convention and the Hugo awards. The 1967 Hugo Awards had three episodes of the first season nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of which (The Menagerie) won the award.There are silurians hibernating underground…
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…
Michael Swanwick is a prolific author with a long record of involvement with the Hugo Awards including multiple wins and far too many nominations for me to count on his ISFDB page. Given that and his equally prolific contribution to the annals of dinosaur-related fiction it was inevitable that this project would cross paths with his career. His dinosaur related stories include Triceratops Summer, 3 am at the Mesozoic Bar and Five British Dinosaurs. However, the intersection of Swanwick’s Hugos and his dinosaurs is best exemplified by Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (Winner Best Short Story 2000) and The Bones of the Earth (Finalist Best Novel 2003).
The two stories are closely connected. The novel takes some of the plot threads and setting of the short story to create a longer and more involved novel. The core scene of the short story (an expensive dinner for wealthy future visitors time-travelling back to the Cretaceous) also appears in the novel but transplanted from a view of terrestrial dinosaurs (including the eponymous tyrannosaur) to an underwater dome with a view of aquatic reptiles.
Both stories are of the species of time-travel story that I refer to as time-wimey/jeremey-bearimy i.e. stories in which there are causally connected events but due to interconnecting timelines the connections of events do not follow a strict temporal order for all concerned. Indeed some events (or even people) may be products of a bootstrap paradox.
Scherzo…certainly gives a taste of the style of Bones of the Earth but the novel is a far more complex book with deeper characterisation. The novel follows the convoluted relationship between palaeontologists Richard Leyster and Gretrude Salley who become embroiled in an initially secret time-travel project. Hinted at in the Scherzo… behind the time-travel technology are other beings with their own mysterious agenda and it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that they are from even further from the future.
A side-plot about creationist terrorism leads to a tragedy where a party of scientists are trapped in the Cretaceous after an explosion. What is unclear until this event happens is how the ripples of this event have impacted earlier events in the story. While Leyster is more central to the main narrative of the book, it is Salley who is the more complex of the two. Unfortunately, as intriguing as she is as a character, her far more complex timeline leads to a more fractured and contradictory portrait of a person. Piecing together her actions, motivations and behaviour is something that can only be done by the end of the novel and even then it requires some explanations from herself to a different timeline of herself. Like River Song in Doctor Who, the complex chains of causality in her life lead to a non-linear character which in turn makes it difficult to follow the character development.
Of the stories I’ve looked at in this project, Bones of the Earth has the most naturalistic dinosaurs. They don’t drive the action as either monsters, agents of revenge or as avatars of human character flaws but rather just are. Aside from an unfortunate stegosaurus whose head ends up in an ice-box, the dinosaurs are dinosaurs in there natural state and in their right time and place. Even the tourism (the rich and powerful getting the chance to enjoy fine dining while watching vistas of prehistoric creatures — a feature of Scherzo… as well) is presented as carefully managed to prevent any impact on the dinosaurs themselves.
The section that deals with the stranded party of scientists is partly a story of survival in a dangerous environment but it is also one about discovery. The palaeontologists must struggle to live in the prehistoric past but they don’t stop learning and theorising about the dinosaurs. In the process they make audacious discoveries and develop a new theory as to why the non-avian dinosaurs died out after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.
Dinosaurs for dinosaurs sake is not a gratuitous role in Bones of the Earth. That we as humans might chose them and the Mesozoic over other time periods as the focus of study if given the opportunity for time travel but limited options not only makes sense but informs the mystery and motivation of the others who have granted humanity this opportunity. The symbolism of dinosaurs here is that of purity of inquiry, that our interest and excitement around dinosaurs is an aesthetic choice rather than a pragmatic one. We seek to learn about dinosaurs because we like dinosaurs and from that premise the events of Bones of the Earth unfold through its own looping causal chains.
Next time: we meet Richard Chwedyk’s saurs in “Brontë’s Egg”
In the deep past the Cretaceous was a period with warm shallow seas and copious sea-life. Our modern continents were beginning to take shape and on land T-Rex was doing his star turn. Along with T-rex, the other new charismatic living thing were flowers. Along with flowers came bees and butterflies.
For the Hugo Awards there’s no simple defining event for me to separate my Jurassic from my Cretaceous. I’ve simply picked the year 2000, the start (or year before the start) of a new millennium.
Change was certainly coming though. Online communities had been connecting fandom for many years by this point but the sheer volume of people online was steadily increasing. The World Wide Web had given more people an incentive to connect to the internet and internet services were becoming widespread. Blogging and early social network services were becoming more common place.
Technically ebooks existed but as yet reading online was less than ideal. I’ll confess to reading a copy of the first Harry Potter book on a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant not a Public Display of Affection). Amazon had already been operating for 6 years by 2000 but the scale of its ambitions were only beginning to become apparent. Amazon’s Kindle device would not appear until 2007 but even by that point, the online retailer was reshaping book buying.
The connectedness of fans was already reshaping fandom. There had always been connections across countries but those connections were becoming simpler, easier and more everyday. The world was changing.
The calamitous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 would impact world politics throughout this period. On a more basic level, the immediate aftermath led to fewer people travelling by air.
The Hugo Awards were reshaped by all these things. The awards took on more international aspects but also became, slowly and sometimes erratically more diverse.
The chapters I’ll be covering in this period are:
- 4.1 Bones of the Earth and Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick
- 4.2 Brontë’s Egg by Richard Chwedyk
- 4.3 Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
- 4.4 If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky
- 4.5 Extinction event 1: Queen of the Tyrant Lizard by John C Wright
- 4.6 Extinction event 2: Chuck Tingle versus the Alt Right – Space Raptor Butt Invasion
- 4.7 Extinction event 3: Vox Day, Alien Stripper and Voting Reform
- 4.8 The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters… by Brooke Bolander
The three “Extinction event” chapters deal with the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy reactionary Hugo campaigns. Chapters 4.4 and 4.5 look at different aspects of Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula Award winning story. I wanted 4.4 to look at the story independently of the Puppy antagonism towards it. 4.5 looks at the Sad Puppy reaction. Originally this was going to be “If You Were a Dinosaur…” part 2 but then I remembered that John C Wright had written his own ‘answer’ to Swirsky’s story. It’s pretty bad but a good basis on which to centre the Sad Puppies.
4.6 looks more at the role of the alt-right in the Puppy campaigns and also the weird and wonderful world of Chuck Tingle and how he fought his own campaign against neo-fascism. 4.7 completes the mini-arc with”Alien Stripper…” and the final demise of the Rabid Puppies.
4.8 brings up to 2019 with Brooke Bolander’s raptoriffic fairy tale.
Next time: A double dose of Michael Swanwick….
The winner of the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) was an episode of the fantastical sit-com The Good Place. Entitled The Trolley Problem it took as its premise the attempts by a deceased professor of ethical philosophy to teach morality to a demon in a fabricated after life. Specifically, it used a species of philosophical thought experiment called the trolley problem coined by British philosopher Philippa Foot.
Broadly Trolley Problems pose ethical dilemmas of life and death, presenting people with awful choices of who to save and who to sacrifice. Not unlike the infamous Kobayashi Maru training problem in Star Trek, the objective of such problems was not actually find the right solution but rather to examine the assumptions and reasoning behind the choices people make.
The situation in such problems are intentionally absurd and contrived partly to remove the Captain Kirk approach to such problems i.e. find a practical, situational solution that avoids the ethical dilemma that has been constructed.
The framing of such problems as a choice of one life over several lives is not confined to philosophical thought experiments. The theme is one that crops up in speculative literature, most famously in the 1954 short story “The Cold Equations”. That specific story was neither the first, last nor the best example of a character forced to choose between one life over many but for various reasons it has become the type-specimen for the sub-sub-genre. The story itself is over contrived in its efforts to make the ultimate decision by the pilot of a space craft to eject a young woman out of an airlock (see this discussion by Cory Doctorow https://locusmag.com/2014/03/cory-doctorow-cold-equations-and-moral-hazard/ ). The story circles us back to a broader field of philosophical scenarios known as lifeboat ethics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifeboat_ethics ) The emphasis being on tough choices and often dangerously skewed value judgements about people. There’s an excellent essay by Marissa Lingen in Uncanny Magazine (https://uncannymagazine.com/article/beware-the-lifeboat/ ) where she looks at these lifeboat tropes in science fiction. Well worth a read (and very timely for where I’m up to in this project).
However, the flow of scenarios between philosophy and science fiction is not one way. In the field of the question of personal identity the Teletransportation Problem overtly borrows from science fiction tropes to raise questions about who we are. The heart of the issue is teleport technology such as that used in Star Trek where the underlying principle is disassembling a person and then beaming them as information to somewhere else to be reassembled. As Commander Riker discovered in Star Trek The Next Generation, such a teleport can in principle be a device for duplicating a person.
The idea that a teleport is actually a machine that kills you and makes a living copy of yourself somewhere else has been explored in fiction including by Stanislaw Lem. The most famous philosophical example though is in Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons*. In Chapter 10 “What we believe ourselves to be” Parfitt opens with a sci-fi vignette:
“I enter the Teletransporter. I have been to Mars before, but only by the old method, a space-ship journey taking several weeks. This machine will send me at the speed of light. I merely have to press the green button. Like others, I am nervous. Will it work? I remind myself what I have been told to expect. When I press the button, I shall lose consciousness, and then wake up at what seems a moment later. In fact I shall have been unconscious for about an hour. The Scanner here on Earth will destroy my brain and body, while recording the exact states of all of my cells. It will then transmit this information by radio. Travelling at the speed of light, the message will take three minutes to reach the Replicator on Mars. This will then create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like mine. It will be in this body that I shall wake up.Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons (p. 199). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
This is a jumping off point for Parfitt to explore what it means to be the same person as we were previously.
Which takes me, at long last, to James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur”, a story that echoes the Cold Equations, delves into lifeboat ethics and uses Parfit’s teletransportation problem as a pretext for doing so.
The dinosaurs (which is why we are here) are hyper-intelligent aliens who strongly resemble dinosaurs. They have an advanced teleport technology which they are choosing to share with humans. The ‘dinos’ regard the humans as primitively emotional.
Michael Burr is a human who works with the dinos on a space station where people are teleported. His role is a particularly special one:
“Some Hanen technologies are so powerful that they can alter reality itself. Wormholes could be used by some time traveling fanatic to corrupt history; the scanner/assembler could be used to create a billion Silloins — or Michael Burrs. Pristine reality, unpolluted by such anomalies, has what the dinos call harmony. Before any sapients get to join the galactic club, they must prove total commitment to preserving harmony. Since I had come to Tuulen to study the dinos, I had pressed the white button maybe three hundred times. It was what I had to do in order to keep my assignment. Pressing it sent a killing pulse of ionizing radiation through the cerebral cortex of migrator’s duplicated, and therefore unnecessary, body. No brain, no pain; death followed within seconds. Yes, the first few times I’d balanced the equation had been traumatic. It was still … unpleasant. But this was the price of a ticket to the stars. If certain unusual people like Kamala Shastri had decided that price was reasonable, it was their choice, not mine.“Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 18). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
‘Balancing the equation’ is an imperative that must be done if humans are to have access to the technology.
The story was the winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novelette, and a nominee for the Nebula and HOMer awards. In 2001 it was adapted as an episode for the rebooted Outer Limits, with Enrico Colantoni playing the role of Michael Burr. Clinton has his own Hugo connection via his role as the leader of the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, which won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2000.
The Outer Limits version of the story shows Michael Burr as quite a different character and adds an additional human character to compensate for the way the novelette focuses on internal dialogue and thoughts. Both the novelette and the TV version make it clear that the people who use the teleport are aware that their body is destroyed at the end of the process. There is a consensual aspect to the premise that cleverly avoids some of the other potential ethical aspects of the situation.
In both versions, Michael is tasked with helping a woman, Kamala, prepare for transport. Unfortunately during the process the supervising dino reports an error. It appears (at least initially) that the transport has been unsuccessful. Consequently, rather than destroying the ‘body’ on the station, Kamala is revived but she is deeply traumatised by the experience. Only later is Michael told that in fact the transport was successful. Kamala (or a copy of her) is at the destination and therefore the ‘real’ Kamala has to be destroyed to ‘balance the equation’.
The novelette Michael and the TV Michael react in different ways but their choices lead to the same result: Kamala ends up murdered by airlock.
The additional twist is some years later, Michale meets Kamala again when she returns from the destination. However, Michael is now a changed man. The experience (in the novelette) has taught him too ‘think like a dinosaur’.
The TV version adds some extra motivation and present a more sympathetic character for Michael. Earth we are told is overcrowded and people are dying in its polluted atmosphere. The TV Michael that Kamala meets on her return is a broken man, emotionless who denies knowing who she is. The final voice over warns us that:
“We believe that human advancement should be attained at almost any cost, but what if the ultimate payment is one’s soul?”Think Like a Dinosaur, The Outer Limits Season 7 Episode 8
The novelette is less pointed but the implication is similar. The story responds to The Cold Equations not by pointing out the numerous flaws in the premise but questioning the heroism of the man who makes the ‘tough decisions’ – the metaphorical lifeboat captain who must decide who dies for the good of everyone else. Michael Burr characterises himself as hero:
“I don’t know how long it took. The thumping slowed. Stopped. And then I was a hero. I had preserved harmony, kept our link to the stars open. I chuckled with pride; I could think like a dinosaur.“Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 18). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
However, the implication is that he has become both alien and monstrous. Unlike the TV version of Michael, the novelette version takes pride in how he has changed but in both cases the implication is that the cost is his humanity.
It’s a point that takes us back to Philippa Foot. Her work in ethics was to help revitalise interest in virtue ethics — the idea of how what we do changes us and how that should shape how we practice being good. It is a concept that looks beyond ethics as either rules or as broader consequences. The psychological and character aspect of ethical decisions is more central within this perspective. It’s a fascinating perspective but not one that is fully explored in “Think Like a Dinosaur” but one that the story is open to in a way that The Cold Equations is not.
I have to say that I actually disliked this story quite deeply but I can’t help admire the depth to it. There is a callousness to it (mitigated somewhat in the TV version) that I found just too unpleasant. It is has a psychopathic aspect that is there for a reason but which I’d rather not partake in. I appreciate how it re-examines the trope of the young woman forced into an airlock for reasons but it is still another entry into the annals of young women murdered for the cause of making a point in sci-fi.
Perhaps I’m biased that James Patrick Kelly chose dinosaurs to be the representative of the brutal disregard for the lives of others (even if they are copies). I suspect I am being unfair and in his introduction to the anthology ‘A Fistful of Dinosaurs’ he is manifestly somebody who loves are saurian pals:
“Why are we (or is it just me?) so crazy about dinosaurs? We’ve certainly been fascinated ever since the Victorians gave a name and a shape to these incredible animals. Perhaps it is because they loomed out of the mists of time so unexpectedly to challenge our notion of ourselves.Introduction Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs . Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
To be more fair, he also presents his dinosaurs as not just intelligent but far beyond humans in the breadth of their technology and understanding of the universe. Yet this is also where those cold equations creep back in. The dinos know that the equation must be balanced and that Kamala must be killed. It is true that Kelly rejects that humans should take the evolutionary step to be more like them but the implication remains that there brutal position is from a place of wisdom. It is a brutal universe but Kelly implies that we should reject Burr’s reaction to that fact.
Next time: A new century, a new millennium, welcome to the Cretaceous.
*[I’m probably not going to persuade anybody to read it but the introduction starts like this “Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.” and you’ve got to love that.]
The aesthetic objective of a “sense of wonder” has been much debated as a goal or a specific quality of science-fiction. A full treatment of that long and on-going discussion is beyond me and beyond this project. However, I believe it would be fair to say that Steven Spielberg is a film maker who has been very much concerned with and influenced by some of the aesthetic aspirations of science-fiction. I’d contend (and not just because it suits this specific project) that a specific scene in his film version of Jurassic Park (1993) was an attempt by Spielberg to capture the more visceral aspects of the numinosity of the emotion. You probably know the scence I mean:
The scene starts with the jeeps taking Allan Grant (Sam Niell), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) from the helicopter landing pad to the centre of the park. The focus is on Grant with Sattler in the background puzzling over a strange leaf she has found. We can see that Sam Niell is overwhelmed by what he is looking at even though we can’t see what it is yet. He fumbles his sunglasses off as if he has forgotten basic movements. He can’t take his eyes of what he is seeing or string words together to get Laura Dern’s attention and just sort of tries to point her head at what he’s looking at. It’s like the view point of the camera is controlled by Laura Dern’s attention because as she now begins to stare the camera allows the audience to see the huge dinosaur.
Computer Generated Imagery had already been making great strides in film making but it’s use here is exemplary. It is just beautifully done and still looks stunning despite years of advances and over-use of CGI. The technology had reached a point that the dinosaur was simply impressive as a dinosaur rather than just as an impressive special effect.
The clip goes on with the two paleo-scientists excitedly sharing observations. When John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) also reveals that the park has a T-Rex, Dr Grant is simply overwhelmed and struggle to stay on his feet, finally having to sit down on the grass, only to look out over the valley to see more dinosaurs moving in herds across the rolling countryside.
I still get just a bit teary at that scene (no, really I do) because I remember watching it in a cinema and just being blown away by it. There is a kind of wholly justified sumgness to Spielberg’s direction. He knows that the scene is impressive (or at least he was banking that it would be) and matches the audience emotion to seeing dinosaurs that had escaped from the bounds of stop-motion on screen.
Jurassic Park is a film where the sub-text is wholly at odds with the text. Dr Malcolm present multiple arguments throughout the film of varying degrees of validity from the dangers of unintended consequences to more basic ‘don’t play god’ style warnings about hubris. The eventual deaths and chaotic collapse of the park structures the story into a clear morality tale that warns about doing things just because you can without asking whether you should. The message is written in bold and underlined. Yet, visually and viscerally the film is a non-stop propaganda for the idea that WE SHOULD BRING BACK DINOSAURS. If on leaving the movie I had been presented with a magic button that would magically return the dinosaurs to our world, I would have pressed it before more rational aspects of my personality could stop me. My inner Jeff Goldblum wouldn’t get a chance to be heard.
The rest of the film is a showcase for so many of the tropes we have already seen. The palaeontologists of course but also the big-game hunter (Bob Peck) as well as the cowardly characters who character flaws get punished by being eaten by a dinosaur (Genarro the lawyer for cowardly abandoning the children and Nedry for being a greedy bad guy). T-Rex gets a starring role, naturally but we also have the intelligent dinosaur trope represented by the ‘velociraptors’ (closer to deinonychus in how they are depicted).
Michael Crichton’s original novel was just the most famous in a number of stories that had raised whether dinosaurs could be returned by capturing their DNA. I’ve already discussed Robert Silverberg’s Our Lady of the Sauropods but Silverberg was directly referencing an earlier story, Robert Olsen’s 1974 “Paleontology: An Experimental Science”*
The film won a huge basket of awards, including Oscars for effects, an MTV award for best film and the 1994 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The Best Dramatic Presentation category has been around since 1958 but remains an eclectic and sometimes unpopular category. ‘No Award’ has topped the ballot on at least four occasions and more unusual winners include the Apollo 11 news footage and Gollum’s acceptance speech at the MTV Award’s (Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form 2004).
Jurassic Park‘s contenders in 1994 included Adams Family Values, a Babylon 5 episode, Groundhog Day and A Nightmare Before Christmas. As much as I love some of those, I think Jurassic Park was manifestly the best choice.
Next time: our last stop in the Jurassic as we get a new take on those cold equations with James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur”.
*[Which I haven’t read but which sounds fun. A pseudo-academic discussion of scientists who bring back dinosaurs.]