THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR AND OTHER STORIES
by James Patrick Kelly (Golden Gryphon Press, 1997, $22.95)
THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR arrived, and I thought of Theodore Cogswell. I read John
Kessel's Introduction, even though he warns the reader to read the stories first, progressed to
the stories, and later I went and re-read Cogswell's THE WALL AROUND THE WORLD.
And then I started re-reading THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR. They have a lot in common -
THE WALL AROUND THE WORLD comes with an introduction (by Boucher and Pohl),
collects material from a previous decade, and effectively stands alone as its author's identifying
work. Oddly enough, although John Kessel repeats some of the critical material about Kelly
(his contribution to a cyberpunk/humanist division in 1980's sf) from THE ENCYCLOPEDIA
OF SCIENCE FICTION, he seems less complementary than the encyclopedia's entry, and
certainly less boosting than Boucher or Pohl were.
The jacket calls this Kelly's "first major retrospective", but it reads more like a selected short stories, some of them not science fictional at all. Although "Faith" and "Heroics" appeared in ASIMOV'S they belong with the Johns - Updike or Cheever. The other material divides into two - the harder science (the title story say, and "Mr Boy" and "Big Guy"), and the much softer material, set in the near future. This softer material and the realist stories share a locality - Kelly's own home in southern New Hampshire and Massachussetts - thus providing a continuity, but the discontinuity between the possible lives is never explained. "Faith", in fact, is almost redemptorist in the eponymous heroine's discovery of a miracle horticulturist as she looks for love in the small ads, while "Pogrom" features a woman who could be a very old Faith living amid resentful barbarians who do not have access to her pension rights.
Kelly sees increasing technology bringing a "death of effect" and the loss of human values. In
"Big Guy" Murph works as a security officer surveying CCTV pictures six days a week
(literally), never going outside his compartment, so that he can earn time on-line, in which he
can live in another body, meeting the women of his dreams, living vicariously. He is moving
towards perversion when he pays the girl delivering his meals to let him feel her hand. In the
cyberworld Murph meets Cat, and she persuades him to let her visit. But if there is surveyable
crime enough to employ Murph and his colleagues for six days a week, what threat might Cat
be? Will she destroy his manhood and the world of illusion he has created? Or is her offer no
more than a ruse to get through his locked doors? Murph has to bring down both the literal
and figurative doors to find out, but he might be able to escape from the isolation imposed by
the acceptance of high technology.
This exploration of illusion reaches its grotesque zenith in "Mr Boy", set in an illogically near
future (but not on the same time line as "Think Like A Dinosaur"), where body shaping has
reached the extent of a woman living as a three-quarter model of the Statue of Liberty, her son
the form of a twelve year old while his thirteen year old friend lives as "a grapefruit-yellow
stenonychosaurus with a brown underbelly". Meanwhile the poor people are still living on the
streets, and the last hippies now run franchises in the malls where they sell plants and greenery.
Treemonisha Joplin is the bored daughter of hippies - "No one has adventures in the mall" she
says. In his love for her Mr Boy will give up his neotatism and his collection of post-mortem
photographs, then close down his mother.
Mr Boy cannot kill his mother to escape her Oedipal grasp, however, because he realises that she has long since downloaded herself into a computer. She is not there in that Statue as he is in his body. He did, though, set out to kill her before he discovered there was no longer a "she" to kill. In "Think Like A Dinosaur" there is an equally unmentioned need to kill.
"Think Like A Dinosaur" describes a matter transmitter station run by sentient reptiles with a
human assistant. Copies of the passengers appear on distant planets unaware they have an
original untouched here. Michael's job, to stop undesirable duplication, is to kill the original
immediately the transmission has been a success. On this occasion there is a gap before the
reptiles can be sure, but Michael will still have to "balance the equation". The phrase, which is
repeated, brings an echo of Tom Godwin's "Cold Equations", with which story John Kessel
suggests it is in dialogue, as if "Think Like A Dinosaur" were a major moral text. It might be
in dialogue, but that then ignores the implications of "Mr Boy", where Mr Boy has to be
capable of murdering his mother in order to break free. "Think Like A Dinosaur" and
Christopher Priest's THE PRESTIGE were published in 1995, both using the idea of
transmission creating duplicates which have to be removed. To either the professional
sapientologist on the way station or the professional conjuror the "death of effect" is necessary
in order to get on with the mundane job of work.
Kelly and Priest would be more unwitting echoes of each other than in dialogue, and I would
be dubious of extending the idea of texts in dialogue in this book. Is Murph's handholding
meant to be in dialogue with, say, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE, which also features paid
handholding? Or a title like "Standing In Line With Mister Jimmy", which (I think) is a direct
quotation from a Rolling Stones' song, and could call on the implications of Jagger and
Richards's world-view? Or the phrase "Live Free" which Mr Jimmy sees in the story - are we
moving into a Gene Wolfe world? Or does "Live Free" mean something more to U.S. citizen
than a British reader? (It's a state motto). I can't be sure. How can I think like a dinosaur when
I cannot even think like an American; that is, like another human being?
Ultimately, though, the stories which have the most effect are the ones most immediately threatening. "Pogrom" stands out. In the very near future the old who have pensions guaranteed will live in reasonable conditions while the young will have lost their benefits, social security and the chance to have high paying jobs. They will be resentful and show it. Kelly follows Ruth through her day as she takes food to a friend, risking leaving her house, risking public transport, and not understanding, or being too frightened to understand, what she could do to get on with the young. Equally, Ruth does not have a pension high enough to pay for private transport - she too is a victim almost obliged to torment the poor. She cannot think like another human being, at least to imagine herself in the position of one of those suffering and so her responses are always inappropriate. And Kelly cannot suggest an alternative to this. There will not be an alternative. What Kelly writes best is warning.
Return to Home Page