The Dinosaur Diaries by Scott William Carter

Thursday, 09 September 2010 19:23 Steve Fahnestalk
Print

The Dinosaur Diaries

by Scott William Carter

Fantastic Books
(March 2010)

“The Dinosaur Diaries”
“Road Gamble”
”A Dark Planetarium”
“The Liberators”
“Tommy Top Hat”
“Shatterboy”
“Heart of Stone”
“The Tiger in the Garden”
“Directions to Mourning’s Deep”
“Motivational Speaker”
“The Time Traveler’s Wife”
“Epic, The”
“Happy Time”
“The Grand Mal Reaper”
“The World in Primary Colors”
“Father Hagerman’s Dog”
“With Dignity”
“A Christmas in Amber”

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

This book, subtitled “and Other Tales Across Space and Time” (with an introduction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch), has what appears to be a photo of a T-Rex on the cover. How imaginative! In case you didn’t get that it’s got something to do with dinosaurs, I guess… and the introduction put my back up a bit, because KKR is almost fulsome in her praise of Carter, whose name wasn't immediately familiar.

She says she read all these stories before they came out in book format (some in her writers’ workshops); and she says  “All are good. Some are spectacular.” Oh, yeah? Well, I’m from Missouri, lady—you have to show me. (Okay, you got me. I’m from California; my wife’s from Missouri. But I’ve been there!) I opened the pages of this book with a truculent attitude—but Scott disarmed me immediately in his introduction, by saying that although he thought these stories were the best of his fiction, writers are often the worst judges of their own work.

So what about the stories? Well, of the eighteen in this book, only one is original to the book; the other seventeen have been published in such diverse markets as Analog, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy and several original anthologies. Maybe I should have remembered his name!

“The Dinosaur Diaries” is about Jerry Dellanger, a seventeen-year-old boy from Iowa, whose T-Rex-obsessed father had died a year or two before, and his mother, Margaret (“Ma”), his sister Harriet, his girlfriend Ashley, and Ma’s brother Ed. Jerry has a problem; he’s about to graduate from high school and he wants to go to college in California with Ashley—but Ma can’t make it on her own. The farm won’t run itself—Ma let their only hired hand go—and Ma’s brother Ed keeps importuning her to sell him the farm, which Ma won’t do. Ed’s a weasel who has always resented that his father split the land equally among his sons, and Ed wants the whole schmeer.

To make matters worse, Ma’s been somewhat cracked ever since Jerry’s kid brother Harry died in a fire (and Jerry almost did) but is getting much worse; Harriet locks herself in her room with her computer and won’t come out to eat; Jerry’s brother Chuck at college won’t help out, preferring to sit in his dorm room and smoke (and sell) pot; and Jerry’s about to lose Ashley forever.

And now someone, knowing about Jerry’s dad’s obsession, is tormenting the family—making T-Rex tracks in the corn or in the drive near the mailbox, pretending to be his father and playing online chess with Harriet—is he the only sane one in the family? Who else knew about his dad’s “Dinosaur Diaries,” that he kept behind some books on a shelf in the cellar—diaries where Dad wrote as if he himself were a T-Rex living in the Jurassic with a mate and family? Jerry didn’t know, because he looked for them after the funeral, and they’d disappeared.

I imagine most writers of SF or fantasy have written at least one urban dinosaur story; I know I have, and I’ve seen many more of varying quality. This one, where the dinosaur is more than just a metaphor, is nicely handled; and the detail of the story—not the setting of the farm, not how the T-Rex looked, but the people and the family dynamics—were convincing enough to give me real sympathy for Jerry. You could say I can recognize the symptoms of a dysfunctional family because it takes one to know one, but whether Scott Carter has experience or just made it all up, it was very convincing. The rest of the story is, well, somewhat predictable—but what’s wrong with that?

“Road Gamble” is about a man named Simon, who has a totally different problem. Simon likes to gamble. Oh, not like last year, when he drove his small family into bankruptcy, but for fun, you know—small amounts out of his tip money. There’s no way Tracy needs to know about this; Simon’s supposed to be watching horror movies over at Steve’s, but the casino is so close, and he’s already got the stuff for Jana’s second birthday party tomorrow….

Only Simon’s other problem is Highway 18, where he has almost hit a motorcyclist from inattention—it was night, rainy, and the darned motorcycle didn’t have a taillight—and Simon was thinking about how it would feel, plonking his money down… but fortunately, he managed to squeal the Miata to a stop in time. And now, the darned motorcyclist won’t go over thirty, and the passing lane is miles ahead.

A nice little tale of human weakness, retribution and, yes, redemption. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be corny as hell. But somewhat like Stephen King with his “Night Flyer,” Carter brings it off.

”A Dark Planetarium” is corny as hell. Jack is taking his young son, Travis, to the Portland, Oregon, planetarium—but when they get there, the attendant is just putting up a sign: all shows cancelled tonight; equipment malfunction. Jack convinces the attendant (with the help of some cash) to let them in; after all, they don’t really need the equipment, as Travis is blind. Jack will describe the stars to him. A real tear-jerker,  but well handled.

“The Liberators” is space opera. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it somehow doesn’t seem to have the effect of Carter’s other fiction in this case. Major Steed is one of the leaders of the Unity Worlds’ force attack on the Dulnari on another in the long succession of worlds captured by the Dulnari. Where the Unity Worlds give newly-discovered sentients a chance to join their federation, the Dulnari just move in and take over. And then it’s up to the Unity Worlds’ military to swoop in and battle them until the sentients are freed.

Or is that what’s happening? We readers are used to being lied to, by our teachers, our parents, our leaders—but Major Steed is obviously not inoculated the way we are, because he swallows it hook, line and… well, you know. What happens when one military leader wakes up and finds out what really goes on? The story’s not really notable except for the way the deception is done; with today’s technology such a thing is becoming more and more possible.

“Tommy Top Hat” is the only original story in this book—and it's an odd one;  Kevin, the narrator, meets a street performer with a difference. Tommy performs simple magic tricks, does simple juggling and so on, but his audience eats it up like it was the best performance ever. And Tommy doesn’t seem to sleep, or eat. He just keeps repeating his mantra, “I have to reach more people. I have to make them forget.”

Kevin, who has suffered a personal tragedy, and lost his job as well, stays with Tommy as his manager—since Tommy seems indifferent to money, too; eventually they hit national TV and Tommy gets his wish to reach a bunch of people—just as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Then there’s a Twilight Zone-ish twist. Did I like it? I’m okay with it, but I don’t think it was one of his best.

“Shatterboy” is about Rebecca Wilson, whose husband of 36 years has just left her. Childless, Rebecca’s major interaction with her husband has been bringing him his beer in a glass. Tonight, she is taking the last of the empties to the recycling bin when she finds a boy made of glass. A living, breathing baby boy; Rebecca wraps him up and takes him home.

Where he immediately begins growing; in two or three days he’s the size of a four-year-old, and in another day he wants to go to school—but Rebecca has found the only thing in her 54 years she can really love, and she won’t let him. She breaks a precious wineglass to show him what might happen, but the next day she finds him gone. The story is well written and curiously affecting—although I’m not sure whether I really “get” the ending.

“Heart of Stone” concerns a five-thousand-year-old woman named Madeline, who had once been called “Medusa” by the Greeks—who is now married to a man named Thomas, an adventurer. In all her years, Madeline had not been with a man as long as she has with Thomas, who is blind. But now there is an operation, and Thomas desperately wants to see the woman he loves; but she knows that if he has the operation she will lose him—he will turn to stone. A nicely done fable and a new take on an old legend.

“The Tiger in the Garden” takes place on Regence, one of the Unity Worlds (cf. “The Liberators”), where Constable Jose Valcorez is about to meet one of the the Unity’s Agents for the first time. The Agent is a non-human, a Bal’ani, and his appearance sparks a primitive, visceral fear in Jose—that misshapen head, the metal-sheathed fangs in the large mouth—surely this is one of the Norslim they told us children about in the orphanage! But Jose doesn’t want to appear racist, and suppresses his fear and loathing.

The Agent, Korin, has come to arrest the orphanage’s gardener, an old man named Henry Thomas, who was once in the Resistance, and take him back to Earth for judgment and execution. How Jose thwarts Korin and turns his own arrogance back upon himself is very well handled. And the story made me empathize with Jose and Henry. Well done.

“Directions to Mourning’s Deep” is a two-page short-short. It speaks of loss and forgetfulness and something that the narrator can never find again. It’s something that could only be told in an SF/fantasy story.

“Motivational Speaker” is about Craig, and Lucy. Lucy is trapped in a cheap boom-box; a plastic portable stereo that transmits her voice; she doesn’t know who she is, or why she is “in” the stereo, but she does know that Craig is the most wishy-washy person she’s ever met in her life. Does Craig overcome his handicaps? Does he meet the “real” Lucy? I’m not telling… a bit clunky, maybe a bit forced, but I liked it.

“The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a story of devotion. Yolanda’s husband, Dr. Horace Green, is a university scientist about to embark on the very first human time-travel experiment. He is about to go a hundred years into the future, but he promises to return to the very same day for dinner. The reason he doesn’t return, and what happens to Yolanda form the basis for a very thoughtful story. One of the better ones in this book, actually.

“Epic, The” is in a familiar format… the writer (in this case, Scott William Carter) is writing a cover letter to his editor. Well, this is about a submission to an anthology that Carter is hoping to get into; unfortunately, his submission isn’t quite ready. What follows is a series of letters to the editor that frankly, had me almost literally rolling in the aisles. A familiar format, but better handled than I’ve seen in years. Highly recommended!

“Happy Time” concerns Dale, a salesman, who lives in routine. His route takes him from Chicago to Phoenix to Seattle, and he has the routine to keep him happy: a steak at the Space Needle, the mandarin crepes at the Iron Skillet in Chicago; the same meals and the same motels or hotels; the same CNN and the same USA Today no matter where he is, keep Dale from realizing how alone he is and how lifeless his life really is. Until he meets Eunice and remembers a life he never lived. A nice little story of stagnation and change.

“The Grand Mal Reaper” is about Jimmy, who is an epileptic. For that reason and one other, Jimmy’s pretty much a loner since his best friend Ray died in a swimming hole accident and Jimmy found out about his “super” power. You see, when Jimmy has a “grand mal” seizure, he can see the dying. He can neither touch them nor affect them, but they (and only they) can see him—he’s pulled from wherever his body is to where someone is dying nearby. This power, and his epilepsy, have made Jimmy an outcast, but he joins the world when he finally (thanks to Rita) finds a use for his power. Well done!

“The World in Primary Colors” concerns Doug, who’s learning how to see the world through his daughter’s eyes, all primary colors and simplified shapes. Why his wife Autumn can’t understand this, and why she is becoming all distant are questions the story resolves nicely. Another tear-jerker, this—but sensitively handled, methinks.

“Father Hagerman’s Dog” is about Marty, who needs to, has to, sell Father Hagerman a dog. (He’s not really a priest—got kicked out of the seminary for seducing nuns—but wants everyone to call him Father anyhow.) Marty’s dog is a robot; and if he doesn’t sell just one, he won’t be going back to school in the fall, and Father Hagerman is his last chance. But Father Hagerman already has a dog, named “Chib”—which stands for Cold-Hearted Insane Bitch—and he only needs one dog. I laughed out loud at the kicker on this one. A fun story.

“With Dignity” is a one-page short-short; a description of a life. I have to say Carter’s short-shorts are pretty good. This one is too.

“A Christmas in Amber” is another tear-jerker, and the most sfnal one in the book; Alan is Michelle’s grandfather. It’s Christmas, and he’s going to the Los Angeles space field to say goodbye to his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who are all going on the evacuation ship to a newly-discovered planet. You see, Earth is about to be hit with an asteroid, and only a certain number of people will be going; Alan’s not one. Well handled.

So. Did I think KKR’s statements about Carter’s writing were justified? More yes than no, actually. I know that I enjoyed this book—even after rereading all the stories several times, as I usually do when reviewing. They all hold up after multiple readings, and some are still gems—and a story has to be good to still work after you’ve read it the third time in a row. (He does have a tendency towards Twilight Zone kickers, but I think that’s a common trait among SF writers.)

Is Carter going to be a big name? My guess is that if he can continue to produce stories of this caliber, and continue to grow, he’s going to be at least a minor one. But a reviewer is not always the best judge of that sort of thing. All we can do is tell you what we liked, or disliked, and why. And I liked The Dinosaur Diaries. I think you will too.