Because it is Friday and I am bored, here is a short story of mine that you probably haven't read (although it was first published in 2011). It's called A Bird in Hand, and it's in the style of one of Arthur C. Clarke's "White Hart" stories—an account of a barely plausible scientific research project recounted among friends who hang out at a pub.
There is a reason for this, and below the fold I'll discuss the origins of this story in some detail (with spoilers). So go read the story first, before you continue below ...
The Arthur C. Clarke award, for the best science fiction novel of the year in the UK, was established in the 1990s with the financial backing of Arthur C. Clarke (probably the most famous British science fiction writer of the golden age; author of "2001: A Space Odyssey", among other things). Publishers can submit books to the jury, who try to read everything: the SF market is huge, but not quite as large as the fantasy market, and the British market is smaller than the US market, and in consequence it's just about possible for a masochist with speed-reading chops to plough through all the nominated works in a year. (More about the Clarke award and how the award is managed here.)
(Full disclosure: I have not won the Arthur C. Clarke award, although I have been shortlisted for it twice.)
Unfortunately Sir Arthur died in 2008. Which left the award with a bit of a problem. The Clarke award is unusual in that it comes with a cash prize attached; since 2001, the prize has been equal to the number of the year, in pounds (so currently about US $3200). It's also presented at an award ceremony in London. Consequently, it costs money to run, and although Sir Arthur supported it during his lifetime, it ran into a cash crunch in 2010-11.
Anyway, Ian Whates of Newcon Press came up with an idea to help bridge the gap: a fun-raiser anthology. One of Clarke's most beloved series of short stories, published from the 1940s through the 1950s, were collected in Tales from the White Hart. Structured like the traditional gentleman's club story, these were typically tall tales of science or engineering slightly over the edge (often structured as a shaggy dog story, with a dreadful pun in the last sentence). And so Ian decided to reboot the setting for the 21st century, with an anthology of stories paying homage to Clarke's creation: profits from the project went to the Serendip Foundation that runs the award.
Now, I don't write many short stories these days, but I'm a sucker for the right kind of charity approach. And besides, I had a hypothesis I wanted to test: that every short story can be improved by adding dinosaurs and sodomy.
No, seriously: click that link, it's work-safe but side-splittingly funny if you've ever been to a writers' workshop. And probably utterly incomprehensible if you haven't, so I shall have to unpack it for you ...
In Michael Swanwick's oeuvre—and he's one of the most perspicacious, indeed brilliant, exponents of the short story form in SF today—dinosaurs are a short-hand signifier for action, adventure, thrills, and chases: whereas sodomy is a placeholder representing introspection into the human condition, sensitivity to emotional nuance, and a great big bottle of lube.
So when he's telling students they need to add dinosaurs to their work, he's eliptically hinting that sensitive emotional nuance needs to be balanced by a bit of GRAAAH!! BITE!!! CHASE!!!!1!!!ELEVENTY (sorry, I got a bit carried away there). And when he tells them to add sodomy, he's hinting that there may be too much focus on the performance stats of the space super-dreadnought and not quite enough insight into the emotional trauma the steel-jawed captain is grappling with from her seat on the bridge.
Yeah, right. But what happens if you take the advice literally? After all, SF is the genre of the literal space ship, eschewing ironic metaphor in favour of naive wonder at the immanent apprehension of the unreal.
So I was thinking about dinosaurs, and Sodomy, and the challenge of writing a story in the style of Arthur C. Clarke that applied Swanwick's principles in a deliberately naive and unmetaphorical manner, when I saw this video (which is definitely not safe for work, unless you're me—you have been warned).
As this paper makes clear, the reproductive mechanisms of Muscovy ducks are just plain weird, and a bit disgusting on the side. But birds are basically the last surviving dinosaurs, so by a hop, skip, and a jump we can get all the way to dinosaurs and sodomy in a single duck-shaped package. Sometimes the matter of a story just gels in my head in a few seconds. "My Little Pony", H. P. Lovecraft's sexual neurosis and teenage nervous breakdown, and the extreme sexual dimorphism of Ceratioid angler fish collided in a matter of minutes to give rise to Equoid; and so it was with Muscovy ducks, Arthur C. Clarke, an obscure tongue-in-cheek piece of SF critical theory, and epigenetic modification of birds to produce dinosaurs (which is sort-of real).
Final ironic note: the final crazy element of this story appears to be plausible, given what the Institute for Creation Research think of the implications of reverse-engineering dinosaurs from birds for evolution.