Monday, 9 January 2017

Deal Me in Challenge: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

Card Drawn: 

Life, um, finds a way.
*Cue Jurassic Park Theme Song*

Here is my first short-story of 2016 for the Deal Me In Challenge and it is a weird one! Winner of the Nebula Award in 2014, Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love immediately begs the question: what is the proper definition of science-fiction? Depending on who you ask will invariably produce different answers and whether or not this particular short story falls into this genre is bound to be polarizing. Darko Suvin's famous definition from 1972 tends to be widely accepted by most critics and scholars:

"Science Fiction is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment."

Remember, Suvin's analysis is not ubiquitous and there is still plenty of room for debate. However, his definition does offer an interesting theoretical approach to a story like Swirsky's since one can view it as both speculative fiction and science-fiction. Both genres share many similar literary elements such as an imagined reality, the fantastic or even the supernatural and it is difficult sometimes to separate the two from each other. 'Speculative Fiction' can be seen as a a branch of the broader Science-Fiction genre or vice-versa. For Suvin, Science-Fiction is often paradoxical (the conflation of empirical and rational science with fiction), involving a psychological "estrangement" caused by a recognizable 'reality' and demfamiliarization occurring almost simultaneously. This "imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" can certainly be applied to Swirsky's story that takes place entirely within the narrator's imagination but one can interpret the whole revenge-fantasy as contrary to Suvin's theory since this "empirical environment" does not exist at all. Yet, the counter-argument can be made that Swirsky's story does, indeed, fall under Suvin's definition since the narrator's only way to come to terms with her trauma is to distance herself from reality by indulging in an imaginative fantasy world that does contain elements of science-fiction. Depending on what side of the fence the reader happens to fall upon will likely determine their enjoyment of this story. Personally, I see this story as a hybrid between speculative fiction and science-fiction that is ultimately about dealing with unresolved trauma. Regardless of genre, Swirsky should be commended for writing a unique, tightly woven and emotionally charged story. Does it deserve to win the Nebula Award? Probably not but it is certainly memorable. 

You can read this story HERE.


  1. I generally consider speculative fiction to be the broader umbrella, and the necessary element of science fiction (versus fantasy or magical realism, and the like) being a science element. But "If You Were..." seems to fall into the genre according to Suvin's definition. A divisive story, I read it last year and liked it well enough, though I'm not sure it's even Swirsky's best work.

    1. Indeed, both genres are rather slippery to define, which is why I argue that this story can be both. However, I agree with you Katherine that Swirsky's story is SF, at least according to Suvin's theory.

      We also seem to feel the same way about this story which is good but lacked the 'wow factor' for me. What other works would you recommend by her?

  2. For some reason, Suvin's definition reminded me a little of that passage in the film "Dead Poets Society" where Mr. Keating has the class read the definition of how to judge poetry from the front of their textbook, then tells them to rip it out. :-)

    1. Haha, I take it you don't agree with Suvin then? :p

      I recall that particular scene from the film and you're interpretation is equally valid. There is never just one way of approaching any given text and as Katherine pointed out, this is a very divisive story.