Apr 152015

unstoppable t-rexI’ve had a few people call me out on my statement that  Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” is simply good writing regardless of if it appeals to one’s taste or not (previous post). They said I should put my money where my mouth is and say why it is good.

Before we begin, if you haven’t read it yet and you’re going to read the rest of this post, go read it first. It’s 12 stanzas, average of 80 words per stanza. At under 1000 words most markets would count it as Flash Fiction. If you want to get straight to my argument, jump to section C.

A. The Disclaimer

This is the part where I grumble and make excuses about why I’m not the right person for this job.

First, I’m not any sort of authority. I don’t have a degree (in anything, actually, I dropped out of college). I don’t have any training as a critic. I’m not a respected authority. Hell, I’ve barely even been published. All I am is some guy with a blog who posts his opinions and reads a bunch. And I don’t even read nearly as much as I used anymore! (I blame all the new projects I’ve undertaken)

And second, as I stated before, it wasn’t my favorite story. I mean, it’s good, but there were several I liked more, none of which got on the Hugo ballot! In fact, it wasn’t even my favorite Rachel Swirsky story of that year. I feel like someone who loved it with their full soul would be much better at making this case.

B. The Googling

For that reason, I looked to see if someone else had already done this. I would like to direct your attention to these three fine posts, which do their part to explain what makes this story good.

Anaea Lay: “The only other place I can think of off-hand that has a structure like this is a lullaby and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s an extremely popular lullaby, and by subconsciously triggering associations with it, Swirsky is immediately lulling her readers, as it were, and invoking a sense of deep, unwavering love. …  the structure of the story as a series of If/then statements …  Her compassion for the families of the people who nearly killed her fiancé is so relentless that it interrupts the coping mechanism she’s using to deal with that same tragedy. Reader, Rachel Swirsky just stabbed you in the guts by breaking a pattern.  You have been shivved by a master.

Jody/Bookgazing: “Her word choice also makes him sound breakable and easy to damage; a person/dinosaur that requires the greatest of care. On reflection, this description sounds a warning bell for the story’s later revelations. … When it comes, the twist is the kind of quiet reveal that will knock you down and then flower into a hundred ‘ohs’ of understanding as you re-consider the entire story. Absolutely everything looks different after that twist … While the twist provides a real gut punch it was the simplicity of Swirsky’s story that drove it deep into my heart. I suppose it might be characterised as a slightly removed tone – the way someone tells the story of an alternate reality to comfort or to keep themselves from feeling what is happening around them. Perhaps the story teller notes so many sharp details to keep from absorbing the wider consequences of what is in front of her.”

Little Redhead Reviewer: “This is not a story, this is a kaleidoscope, with each touch, each incremental move of the barrel bringing something completely different into focus, taking you somewhere else, taking you one step closer to where the narrator is, at first, afraid to go.

C. My Own Sad Attempt At Explaining Myself

So what is it that makes this story artistically good, even if you don’t like it?

I. Structure.

This story is written to mimic the If/Then structure of the hugely popular “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” children’s books (which incidentally first came out while I was a child, so this story hit me right in the Target Demographic. But I assume by now everyone is acquainted with them, either as someone who’s had the books read to them, or as someone who read it to youngsters of their own). It’s a chain story, were each new section is a consequence of the previous one (If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk to drink with it. If you give him a glass of milk, he’ll want a mirror to avoid a milk mustache. If you give him a mirror, etc). It establishes this pattern immediately, so at the end of every page the child immediately thinks “I have to know what this crazy mouse will want as a consequence of the latest thing he got!”

First, Rachel taps into this same dynamic to keep us going from one stanza to the next. But more importantly, she evokes this childhood play structure that we’ve internalized (and as Anaea pointed out, it’s deeper than Mouse, it goes back to old timey lullabyes). And she exploits that by giving us a whimsical visual – a 5-foot, awkward T-Rex! She initially keeps the tone very much in the realm of whimsical, near-childish sing-song nonsense. He’d sing on Broadway! And all the while she’s slipping in these clues, these undertones that point to what’s coming, but we don’t notice because we’re thoroughly wrapped up in our childhoods, safe in our beds while our parents are reading us a safely child-friendly story.

So when she breaks that structure once, right in the middle, to reveal what we’re actually reading, it drops us right into cold reality. That stanza doesn’t start with an If. It is a straight-up sob, and we realize that the entire If/Then edifice is a fantasy the narrator’s using to avoid dealing with the horror of her life, and that fantasy has been momentarily pierced. The protective narrative is gone, reality is laid bare, the structure is broken, the narrator is broken, the world is broken, and everything is pain and pain and pain.

And then she returns to the If/Then structure. Begins to build that protective wall up again. Because reality is too shitty to face right now. The sing-song returns. But now that we know the truth, we see that she’s using her memories of childhood safety as a shield, and the shield doesn’t do a damn thing to make reality better. All it does is stab us repeatedly in the childhood, because Swirsky managed to evoke our childhoods so effectively and then link them to this horror. Which, you know – ಠ_ಠ But it’s damned effective writing.

II. Masterful Word Crafting

Notice that in under 1,000 words, while describing her lover almost entirely in dinosaur-related terms, and sticking with a lyrical, sing-song flow that is reminiscent of good children’s books, Swirsky managed to paint an extraordinary picture in our minds of her lover, and of their relationship. You don’t get to that point without a lot of practice and a great deal of skill.

Notice also that she slipped in all sorts of clues that created undertones that aren’t apparent at first, but that were priming us subconsciously for something bad coming up. Things that stand out like crazy in the second reading. Why does he sing unrequited love songs? Why can’t SHE marry him? The joke about “it’s best to marry someone who shares your genetic template” lets us breeze over something that should have stopped us. It’s unrequited, and she can’t marry him, because he’s basically dead. That was taken from them.

III. Theme

It’s a basic theme. It’s been an obsession of mankind since forever. Loving something is dangerous, it makes you vulnerable. If you love something, you can be hurt when that thing is hurt, or taken away, or murdered. Usually it’s better not to risk that. And when we do risk that, our greatest wish and fantasy is that this love be immune to the devastations of the world. That it be strong, with powerful jaws and flashing teeth that would rend any who dare harm it. The worst thing about the world is that the people we love die, and fuck all the gods for letting that be a reality. All we want is for our lover to be a dinosaur, so they/me/we won’t have to hurt.

Simply having a theme is not enough, which is why I put it at the end. Lots of stories have themes. Most of them fail to deliver them effectively, for many sundry reasons. But this particular story chose to deliver its theme through a structural laser-guided missile, and Swirsky did it right, with the help of mastery of the language.

Not all works of artistic merit have to have a strong theme, I guess? But it does help. And this one does.

D. The End

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what can make a work good. Nor are any of the three I mentioned *required* in any particular work in order to make it good. But they are ways that a story can be judged, and in all three respects this story succeeded amazingly. There are things you can dislike about it, but to say it wasn’t well-written is… wrong.

[EDIT: btw, may I recommend Vellum?]

  7 Responses to “Dinosaur Dissections”

  1. I’ve seen “if you give a mouse a cookie” used as a reference by itself which I’d been assuming was a figure of speech, but beyond that I’d never heard of the story, let alone had it read to me as a child. I’ll admit I never considered “it’s making references you’re not getting” as a hypothesis for why I was just thinking “this is stupid” throughout while others report being moved emotionally. But don’t we usually frown on works that have that failure mode?

    • >But don’t we usually frown on works that have that failure mode?

      I dunno. Aside from the most foundational myths, every work references earlier works, and builds off of them. My mother actually read my published story, which was sweet, because she doesn’t read SF (or fiction at all, for that matter). It opened my eyes as to just how much we in SF circles take for granted that isn’t common knowledge. There was so muchshe didn’t have any idea about and I had to explain to her, like cloning tanks, mad scientists, and the existence of James Bond-style movies. You have to reference something to move forward, you can’t reinvent the wheel every novel. So the question becomes just how important the reference is, and how narrow of an audience you are OK writing to.

  2. Thank you very much for responding with a detailed argument, so I’ll respond in kind. Sorry for the length, but there’s .
    I have four problems with the story, as it stands. Firstly, I’ve never heard of “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (before this post, obviously) so to me it’s just a cute series of if/then statements – filigree wordsmithing is neither a positive or a negative for me. The second is in the details of the story, the third on the theme and finally – how is this Fantasy?
    Looking at the story in detail, few of the scenes really work for me. These are reflections on my first read-through, but 10th time through nit-picking.
    In the first, there’s no problem with being 5″10, and I like the picture of the dainty dinosaur, but fragile bones? Why? There’s purpose in that.
    In the second, she’d keep him in a zoo and bring him food!? He should be roaming the plains, hunting down buffalo, with her riding on his back!
    In the third, she takes the Trex and teaches him to sing?! A T-rex should be stalking, not singing.
    OK, possible counter-argument is that she’s making Trex just like her fiancée, but she’s given him a perfect singing voice, but weakened his bones – or is Broadway just a freak-show? Unlikely.
    All of these extra “Ifs” act to detrexify the T-rex. Separate him from his nature, from what makes him a Trex. So we get to the fight. We’ve got a trex that’s been kept in a zoo, rather than been allowed to roam, been fed, rather than allowed to hunt, that’s been taught to sing, not stalk. It may have the appearance of a T-rex, but does it have the functionality? Given its life to date, it’ll probably choose flight rather than fight and get squashed by an 18 wheeler.

    Moving onto the themes: I find the sort to be anti-virtuous in two ways, anti-Love and anti-Rational. It is anti-Rational on two levels. On the detail level I’ve already explained how the “if’s” don’t add up. Yes, it’s fantasy, but all fantasy should be internally consistent. On the story level, she is disengaging with reality by engaging in flight of fancy (on top of flight of fancy) ^ 6. She can’t wish reality away, she’s got to deal with it as it is, and the greater the stress she’s under, the more important it is to be rational. She would be far better reading Epictetus’ Enchiridion (which makes exactly the same point as you about Love).
    It is anti-Love on the same two levels. At the detail level, she takes a T-rex, and de-trexifys him, she stops him actualising as a t-rex for her own selfish benefit. This is not Love, it is the opposite.
    On the story level, as you describe yourself, Love involves risk. If Love weren’t fragile and risky, then it wouldn’t be Love, as such, wishing for love to be without risk is to wish for Love to be not Love – both irrational and anti-Love.

    Finally, this isn’t SF or F. Before you respond What? Dinosaur! The only dinosaur here is an imaginary one, and they exist in the real world just fine. (Find an 8 year old playing Godzilla, it’s right there.) So I’m at a loss on how to classify this as SF/F.

    I’d like to offer up John C. Wright’s The Queen of the Tyrant Lizards as an example of a short story involving dinosaur transformation that is [spoiler warning].

    • >It is anti-Rational

      Well yeah, it is. People who dislike that probably won’t like this story. It’s all about trying to escape pain by hiding in a fantasy.

      > If Love weren’t fragile and risky, then it wouldn’t be Love

      Hm. I think I disagree… I would like a Love that isn’t risky. Children love their parents in this way, and they believe their parents are invincible and will never go away. Is that not also love?

      > Finally, this isn’t SF or F

      Yeah, I agree. A lot of people agree, actually. I suspect that is one of the reasons it didn’t win the Hugo.

      • > I would like a Love that isn’t risky…
        Well, yes, I’d like to commute to work on a flying unicorn, but unfortunately that’s not possible.
        There’s (a) the true nature of things, (b) what we perceive, and (c) what we desire. My position is that the true nature of Love is fragile and risky, while we might desire a risk-free Love, it’s not going to happen, so we’ve got to embrace the risk rather that waiting for something impossible.
        Similarly, children may love their parents and perceive them as being invincible, but, sooner or later, they’ll find out they’re not. When this happens, children still love their parents just as much as before, so the love isn’t dependent on immortality. What’s happened is that their perception of Love has changed and hopefully become less wrong.
        The more I think about the story, the better my other Love argument looks. She’s wishing to stop him becoming a true T-rex for her own selfish benefit. That’s just wrong in so many ways.

  3. Huh, that actually was pretty good. Shaky start, and … honestly, a shaky end as well. And the middle was also somewhat shaky, now that I think about it. But considering the length, it’s impressive and well worth the time taken to read it in terms of enjoyment.

    I … did have “if you give a mouse a cookie” read to me as a kid, actually. Huh.

    Still, I’d feel bad about giving this an SF/F award. A microfiction award, maybe, or an award for short stories involving dinosaurs, or an award for short stories about loss. But SF/F?

    I definitely wouldn’t say that it winning one is proof the contest is rigged, though, either. That’s just silly.

    (Where’s our blog post on why we should trust experts to say whether a work is “good” more than we trust ourselves, if we’ve both read the work? What is this objective property of Quality that critics must be trained to see clearly?)

    • >Still, I’d feel bad about giving this an SF/F award. A microfiction award, maybe, or an award for short stories involving dinosaurs, or an award for short stories about loss. But SF/F?

      Yep, I agree. I mentioned that I thought it should be Lit Fic rather than SF in my rundown of the Hugo-nominated works last year. I didn’t vote for it to win, and enough other people agreed with me that it did not win the Hugo. The puppies have a particular hatred for it though, so they’re offended that it was even nominated.

      >(Where’s our blog post on why we should trust experts to say whether a work is “good” more than we trust ourselves, if we’ve both read the work? What is this objective property of Quality that critics must be trained to see clearly?)

      That is beyond my ability to write, and I suspect beyond the ken of any mortal man. :) But after having run into a crisis of self-doubt with music appreciation a few months ago, I’m no longer willing to say that something is crap, and am far more inclined to say that I don’t like it and it isn’t to my taste -without going so far as to contradict those who are steeped in the culture of that-thing-appreciation.

      I still cast a leery eye at earth-fic when I’m in private tho. ;)

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