Friday, July 24, 2015

Review of Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the aspects that sets science fiction apart from other genres is its continued heritage of short fiction.  A myriad of stories that approach life from all—literally all—manner of perspectives, the heritage is as dynamic as it is varied, and is truly a treasure just waiting to be explored by readers of only novel-length work.  And James Patrick Kelly is one of the best in short form.  Seeing his name the exposed reader knows they will be getting a well-thought out story written in effective prose that probes some of the bigger issues mankind confronts, almost always from a humanist point of view despite the window dressing.  Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (1997), Kelly’s second published collection, is a perfect example of this outlay, and one of the reasons why science fiction in short form is as vigorous as it is.

Starting things off with a metaphysical slap is the title story “Think Like a Dinosaur.”  The mind possible to be separated from the body and shot light years into space, the novelette is the story of Michael Burr, a handler of humans on behalf of an alien group nicknamed ‘dinos’ due to their appearance who have gifted the technology to Earth.  A clone body receiving the psyche at the other end, the body that remains must be disposed of, hence Michael’s job as ‘handler’.  Unfortunately for Michael, his job doesn’t go as planned one day.  Presented a scenario both ethically and existentially challenging, its twist on reality etches abstract consequences in the reader’s thoughts.  Another story using a sacrifice theme is “Breakaway, Breakdown”; after spending months in orbit; a person faces the choice, literally of a lifetime. The physical effects of life in space often glossed over in favor of laser guns and space ships, the story proves humanity will have a lot more on its mind when looking to live among the stars than just how to build a spaceship or alien invasion.

There was some talk in the eighties and nineties whether Kelly’s writing was cyberpunk or humanist.  The distinction meaningless, what the reader gets in his fiction is an effectual mix.  Mr. Boy,” the strong novella which closes the collection, possesses a strong flavor of cyberpunk.  Real and virtual existences, body biomodifications, synthetic drugs, economics out of balance, powerful information systems, etc. are featured, but at its heart is the story of a young man coming to terms with existence.  Rich and living the life, Mr. Boy—as he has legally changed his name to—is a twenty-five year old man living in the body of a twelve year old boy.  Smash parties, net raids, and unlimited credit, he eventually gets himself into trouble with a small but desired bit of media.  Eventually having to face the real world, the story amalgamates everything one expects from humanism and cyberpunk. 

“Big Guy” is another entry with a foot on each side of line.  The story of a lonely security worker, the few breaks he’s granted from watching monitors are spent in virtual reality chasing sex fetishes in his avatar, the titular Big Guy.  Kelly able to invoke both disgust and sympathy for the slovenly man, Murph’s yearning for more than virtual life, and the conditions of society around him, are to be pitied and feared.  Another piece which evokes dual emotions is “Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy”.  The story of a lazy, convicted druggie named Chip who somehow has acquired an expensive personal micro-computer (the titular Mr. Jimmy), at the start of the story he is headed to a meeting with his parole officer.  Face to face with the cold woman, Chip gets some bad news thrust upon his bad attitude.  Written in a nice, cutting style, Chip’s existence is not to be envied, but does come to some better state by the end.  A third story featuring a dichotomous main character is “Monster”.  Henry West, who works as a quiet, reserved dry cleaner, has a home life to shock.  Keeping a shrine to violence and rock and roll, he massages his pistol at home while maintaining anormal enough appearance at work.  But when a co-worker is fired one day, events evolve in a manner he is powerless to stop.

Holding to realism is the wonderful story “Faith.”  A piece of hope for nerds everywhere, it is the story of a new divorcee named Faith and the tough time she has adapting to and dealing with single life with a 13 year old son.  Kelly walks a delicate line of humor and mature emotion telling the woman’s story all the way to the poignant conclusion.  An age old dilemma (pun intended) located in a mild science fiction conceit, “Pogrom” is the story of Ruth, an elderly woman living in a world significantly downtrodden from that which we know.  The environmental and social changes largely pushed to the background, Kelly focuses on Ruth’s perception of youth as they try to cut out a life in the scraps of civilization that remain.  Scared to death of them, Ruth has trouble even making a simple visit to a friend without letting paranoia take over at the danger she perceives in the youth.  Witnessing their jargon and manners, she clutches her mace ever tighter. The elderly generally portrayed as bastions of wisdom, Kelly takes them to task in this interesting story for the manner in which their decisions damage the world for future generations—few jobs, little education, resource shortages, etc.  “Heroics,” like “Faith,” more than makes up for itself in its innate humanity what it lacks in speculative elements.  The story of an everyday man suddenly faced with an extraordinary situation, Kelly brings the definition of hero a little closer to home.

With echoes of Brian Aldiss’ fine story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”, “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is the story of a middle-aged woman returning to her father’s house, a man she has a troubled relationship with, to discover he has bought an android child and uploaded her memories into it.  The conversation between the younger and older self, later added to by the father himself, is fully human despite the science fiction conceit.  A partial re-working of one of the themes from the prior Kelly novella “Solstice,” it hones in on the value of history and memory with age.  An effective, touching piece. 

And “Rat”, what can I say about it?  A superb exercise in style, it captures a franticness, a sleeziness, a certain unidentifiable science-fiction-something that can’t be denied.  An itch that requires scratching, the few hours in the life of a drug dealer the reader is privy to is wholly cyberpunk and wholly surreal.  It grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and drags them all the way to rat’s nest.  The subtext endowed with layers of mood and atmosphere rather than theme, “Rat” is eye-candy of the most dynamic despicable.  The evil continuing, “Dancing with Chairs” is the classic devil on the shoulder story spun quotidian.  About a man cheating on his wife and contemplating leaving her, a chance meeting in a restaurant bathroom changes everything.  Funky and bizarre, “The First Law of Thermodynamics” is one of the best stories in the collection.  About a young man tripping on LSD in in the 60s, he has a surreal experience with Roger Maris that puts into the spotlight hippy ideology and what it meant to the generation.  

In the end, Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories is a good, quality collection of short stories, novelettes, and novellas from one of the undeservingly unheralded writers in modern science fiction.  Regardless cyberpunk or humanist, far future to near-future, Kelly keeps his stories grounded in a sense of realism relevant to the human condition.  His science fiction imagination very active, the stories are written in a range of complementary styles featuring post-apocalypse, mature romance, virtual lives, character studies, mind/body dualisms, social malcontents, cyberpunk scenes, urban decay, surrealism, and the difficult choices humanity may face as technology advances. There are bits of satire, cynicism, realism, futurism, but above all, it remains humanism, and is why Kelly is one of the best writers of short stories writing today.

Published between 1984 and 1997, the following is the collection’s table of contents:

“Think Like a Dinosaur”
“Big Guy”
“Dancing With Chairs”
“The First Law of Thermodynaimcs”
“Breakaway, Breakdown”
“Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy”
“Itsy-Bitsy Spider”
Mr. Boy

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