Sunday Short: The Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Previously On: “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

Only one story in and I’m already rethinking my strategy for the year…
I decided on shorts from The New Yorker to easily find stories by authors I’d like to read more from (Munro, Wolff, Alexie, Smith…) and authors I’d like to try (Erdich, Meloy, Bolaño…). However—and I knew this going in—stories in The New Yorker can have more style than substance. There’s no guarantee that any of shorts on my list for the year will contain a proper story. Unfortunately, “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin is the first to fit this bill.

“The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is the final story of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, a book that I bought because of the beautiful cover and my curiousity about the title. I’ve been reading McLaughlin’s stories one at a time and months apart because they tend to be downers and because they all share a similar vibe. I thought it might be nice to have one review of a short fiction collection that didn’t say “I shouldn’t have read these all in sequence because doing so really highlighted their repetitive aspects.” I read this story for the first time for this challenge.

“The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” begins in the middle of things. The McLaughlin stories I’ve read all have this in common and I love it. This style makes every character feel more real because their words and actions don’t feel contrived for the reader’s benefit. It’s as though I’m opening the book to find them doing whatever they would be doing if I weren’t looking over their shoulders.

After an aside that Kate (the narrator) and Colman (her husband) no longer sleep in the same bed, they discuss how to set up a room for their visiting grandchild:

“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby anymore. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about…” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be just like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pajamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, heading across the landing. Later, she found his pajamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.

What is “this conversation?” You can hazard a guess from the opening pages, but details are filled in slowly. In a lot of ways, this story feels more like just a character study. There are few plot points, but they seem largely symbolic—less about the thing that’s happening and more about what it could mean. The general idea is that Kate’s daughter (Emer) visits with her child and new boyfriend. Emer seems impulsive and her kid (Oisín) accidentally leaks that they’re moving to Australia. Boiled down, that’s the whole story.

That said, since it’s about the characters and not about moving to Australia, I wanted Kate’s reaction to be more than one sentence and I wanted to see what sort of conversations she had with her daughter. Her relationship with Colman also contains a lot of question marks. To fill in the blanks, I’d just be making assumptions. I’d feel like I was gossiping about people I don’t actually know, but who all seem to be annoyingly non-communicative.

The only characters who talk are Kate and Pavel, but it’s also the most unnatural scene in the whole story. When “[v]ery softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb,” this seems like an outsize reaction. Isn’t this strangely intimate for two people who have just met, regardless of what they’ve discussed?

As for the title, Colman shows Oisín an old poster:

The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. [Kate] looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No”

There’s nothing technically wrong with this story. The prose is lovely and even. The characters are interesting, but leave me cold. Any guesses I make about Kate, Colson, Emer, Pavel, or Oisín are largely influenced by other stories in Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Much of the collection details characters struggling to live with mental illness or with their relatives who are (or might be) mentally ill. It’s hard not to slap an armchair diagnosis on Emer, to assume that the rift in the Kate/Colson marriage is somehow connected to their respective responses to their daughter’s illness (assuming she has one). There’s so much left unsaid that while it’s an interesting story, it’s hard for me to feel one way or the other about it.

Want to read it for yourself? “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is available on The New Yorker‘s website here.

Next Up: “All Ahead of Them” by Tobias Wolff

Sunday Short: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

This is a more of a novella (12,000 words) than a short story, but E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” made me want to read more short fiction this year, so here we are.

The timing of this story is the most interesting thing about it. If it hadn’t originally been published in 1909, it would be just another story about the hazards of social media and virtual reality. Instead, it feels eerily prophetic.

In Forster’s world, humans live in tiny underground cells inside the Machine. There’s no need to see anyone in person or leave one’s room when the Machine responds to every need. People exchange ideas, but their ideas are based on third- or fourth-hand experience. Direct experience and direct speech are considered base. Alone, Vashti sits in her little room:

Imagine, if you can, a small room hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk—that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Vashti can contact everyone she knows from this room—several thousand people!—with the touch of a button. Most recognizable is her plate (iPad) that allows her to contact (Facetime) her son. Sometimes stories set far in the future are difficult to read because of their technobabble and new parameters for what’s possible, but there’s little mystery here. Vashti’s devices are recognizable even when carried to an extreme. At times, they’re a little too recognizable… If Vashti needs a moment to herself, she can block all communications and be bombarded with notifications when she comes back online:

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date?

Though Vashti’s life seems sterile and lonely, she’s comfortable. She trusts the Machine in all things. When her son, Kuno, asks her for a visit she can’t understand why he needs to see her in person instead of through the Machine. To Vashti, there’s no difference, but Kuno wants to have a face-to-face conversation about his desire to see the surface of the earth:

“…The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”

Vashti’s journey to her son is one of the more affecting parts of the story. She has been holed up in her room for so long that small things shock and upset her. There’s a whole new etiquette for personal interactions and Forster’s brave new world morphs into something bizarre when it becomes clear how much of the human experience Vashti’s society has given over to the Machine. Her fear of “direct experience” is mentioned a couple of times and makes the point well. I can write-off some mechanics of Forster’s future world as impossible or ludicrous, but there’s no denying that the Internet’s anonymity makes some experiences easier. It’s not hard to imagine people retreating farther and farther into an online world, even if no one ever builds a giant underground honeycomb.

There are so many clever details as the story winds to its conclusion that I spent most of the time marveling that it was written in 1909. “The Machine Stops” isn’t subtle in the least, but its incredible relevance more than 100 years after its writing boosts it over some other staples of dystopian lit—Brave New World, for example, which seemed to be aging badly the last time I picked it up.

If you’d like to read the full story, here’s a link to the first chapter (out of three). It’s a quick read, but it’ll require you to spend more time on the Internet. As long as you talk to one person irl afterwards or step outside, everything should be alright.

Next up: “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin