There are times when I have a reaction to something without knowing precisely why I have a reaction. It’s always frustrating to think that I don’t like something without knowing precisely why I don’t like it. And one of those things is Rachel Swirsky’s short story; If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love. I didn’t like it and I honestly don’t know why it won an award – it certainly isn’t speculative fiction – but I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like it.
The story is extremely emotional – and it is good at conveying that emotion. I felt for both of the main characters, neither of whom deserved to undergo either real or spiritual torment. It’s the mark of a good author to get someone into the head of a character and Rachel Swirsky manages that very well. Indeed, I have never read anything else by her, but I will certainly look it up when I have the chance.
But I still don’t like the story. It wasn’t until today that I understood why.
It’s hopeless. The main characters have no hope.
From my point of view, the narrator is engaging in a pointless revenge fantasy, combined with wishful thinking. If her lover had been a dinosaur, he would certainly not have been attacked by the thugs who put him into a coma. If …
But he isn’t a dinosaur. And he’s still in a coma.
I was bullied at school, badly and relentlessly. Yes, I know what it’s like to feel helpless. I know what it’s like to wish for super-strength or something else that would allow you to beat up your tormentors or otherwise take control of your life … and then to go back, time and time again, to reality, where the truth is you’re defenceless. With that in mind, I understand precisely what is going through the narrator’s mind. If her lover was stronger, if he was better able to defend himself, the story might have had a very different ending. But he wasn’t and it didn’t.
If the story had been one where the victim learns how to fight back effectively and does so, it would have been a far better story. An uplifting version of the tale where someone turns the tables on the bullies would be far more thrilling. Or, perhaps, one where the narrator sets out to take revenge … maybe she becomes a crime-fighter, or a policewoman, or a lawyer … it would have been a far more satisfying story and it wouldn’t have been so hopeless. At the very least, even an ultimately doomed attempt to punish the thugs responsible for the attack would have made a better story.
There is a place for doom and gloom in speculative fiction, but I think it’s all about hope. Hope that the human race can overcome difficulties and take to the stars, where we belong. Even a story as seemingly apocalyptic as Dies The Fire and its sequels (SM Stirling) is ultimately about the human race overcoming its new limitations and rebuilding a viable civilisation. Or The Magic Goes Away (Larry Niven), which is a thinly-veiled analogy for oil shortages, has hope. There may no longer be magic, but humanity will go on and overcome. Human ingenuity will take us far further than the naysayers ever deemed possible.
A story that features the last survivors dying out, perhaps one cannibalising the remainder, is not a hopeful story. There is a reason The Screwfly Solution is a horror story. No matter what happens, there is no hope.
And there is none in If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love either.
(The Blue Lantern Ring of Hope)
It is my belief that we, the human race, are destined to go to the stars. Yes, we have problems; yes, we will overcome these problems. Our lives today are far better, on any number of counts, than the lives of our ancestors, even those who lived a mere 100 years ago. Our lives in the future will be better still, once we go into space for good. Stories that show humanity rising to the challenge and overcoming our problems – be they on a small or large scale – echo down the ages because they speak to the greatness inherent in the human soul. We’re humanity! We may make mistakes, we may be knocked down, but we get up again and keep going.
Uplifting stories will always be better, always be remembered longer, than stories that wallow in doom and gloom.
SF and speculative fiction isn’t the only place to find uplifting stories. A story about a young man overcoming racism, or a young woman overcoming sexism, or a homosexual overcoming homophobia might also be uplifting. Someone struggling against the limits of their society or a story about someone suffering a serious injury or illness, yet picking up and carrying on with their lives … yes, that would be uplifting. There would be hope.
And isn’t that what we all need?
Hopelessness will destroy us. The spiritual lassitude, the helplessness, of the narrator of You Were a Dinosaur, My Love is corrosive, weakening her ability to resist, let alone forge a new path or take control of her destiny. Resistance is not only futile to her, it is inconceivable. She thinks of herself – and her lover – as nothing more than the helpless victims of fate. In truth, they were beaten a long time before her lover ever ran into a bunch of thugs.
This says a great deal about the West today. We spent 50 years trapped in the shadow of nuclear war, a war that would destroy both sides. We were scared and we allowed that fear to hold us prisoner. Now, facing a far lesser challenge, we find it hard to stick up for ourselves, to raise a hand in our own defence. We spend more time coming up with excuses for the enemies of civilisation than we do plotting ways to fight them.
We lack hope.
FDR was quite right. The only thing we should really fear is fear itself …
… Because fear leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness leads to death.