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A likely tale

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.



I read it in the original collection and laughed my head off.

However, this post suggests a new party game for SF fans - think of three or four unrelated things, and work out what story OGH might write based on them.


I also go to the Fountain (in Ely) on a Wednesday night, sadly with a bunch of wannabe writers (of which I include myself). I imagine next Wednesday, we shall also be discussing Dinosaurs and Sodomy, if I have anything to do with it.


On the story, I read it with the largest grin on my face. Well, I'm a twork!


Excellent work! Now, can you do an Asimovian Black Widowers story?


Arg! You must be punished for that!


That last pun had me in actual, physical, pain Charlie, you diabolical monster (creator) you.


I was enjoying that until the last sentence. There's now a forehead shaped dent in the desk.


You know that all Clarke's White Hart stories ended with a pun in the last sentence, right?


I know most of them do, but I'm not entirely certain about "The Defenistration of Ermintrude Inch"


You got Pharyngulated, so there may be an increase in traffic to the website...


Young Earth Creationists also believe that Jesus killed all the dinosaurs because they practiced Sodomy.


I remember Eastercon a year or two ago had an item for reading out participant's 'White Hart' tales; the stories were quite good, but none of them were very good as spken word - OK I guess, to read; but spoken word and tall tales in the pub require a rhythm of their own.


Fun stuff! The Tetrapod Zoology crew's argued quite a lot about the color of dinosaurs' feathers, with the answer being "boringly black and white if you believe in phylogenetic triangulation, but there's no evidence that this is a good hypothesis."

To unpack that for the engineers, the most primitive (earliest diverging) birds tend to have feather colors that are blacks, brown, grays, or whites. More advanced birds show all the other colors. Since birds are dinosaurs, one could argue that dinosaurs therefore had boring feather colors Thing is, there's no reason to assume that non-avian dinosaurs didn't independently evolve complex feather coloration, and that primitive birds were boringly colored for some reason (perhaps to hide amongst the dinosaur poop and avoid predation).

If I recall properly, reds tend to come from carotenoids in the diet, so I do hope they were feeding their tyrannosaur enough chili peppers to keep its pink pigment up. You do know that's why chiles are red, right? Their wild relatives are dispersed by cardinals and similar birds who get a pigment boost, and the capsaicin is there to keep mammals from eating the fruit and failing to disperse the seeds to the right environment (birds can't taste capsaicin).


You just made it up... but I like it anyway!


I'd forgotten. And the person mostly responsible for terrible puns in my social circle is currently working in Italy so my tolerance is lowered.


I like the pitch-perfect way you worked in the Rocky Horror reference. Well played.


It embarrasses me to admit it, but I cannot find any Rocky Horror references. Where is it?


I see that you're shivering with anticipation, so...

'go down (come up) to the lab and see what's on the slab.'


Okay, now I've read A Bird in Hand, and it would 'read' very well - not that I have any intention of practising on a train full of Dutch teenagers.

The final pun is quite dreadful, even by my abysmal standards.

Also: I have a latter-day anthology of White Hart tales and I don't remember reading that particular gem. Must do more research: there may be more anthologia on the wild.


You mean, it's not the faux-tyrannosaur in pink drag named Brad?


Ooh, and I missed Janet until I reread it. Friday afternoon Easter Egg hunt!


...and not forgetting Janet.


"A bioperl ninja"? AUGHGHGHGHGH!!!!!

I just spent the better part of a month trying to build that, and turn it into a package for CentOS 6, and it's a nightmare. I'd feed the maintainer and his buds to Brad, if I could....

Direct quote: "we don't mess with the system packages, we install our own perl...."

And I'm still waiting for the user who requested it to tell me if it works.

mark (sysadmin)

reads story Nice, bit punful at the end there, but otherwise a bit of a giggle.

reads comments

picks up the bits about the RHPS references

re-reads story

starts groaning about the point where the feather colours are referenced as Magenta...

Charlie, you are an utter bastard (in the Australian sense of the word). I may possibly owe you a beer if ever we meet.

Unfortunately, it's only 8.36am here and that means it's entirely too early for me to finish off that bottle of cider as brain bleach. Dinosaurs called Janet and Brad, a closeted gay fundamentalist preacher leatherman named Frank, magenta feathers.... sigh Oh well, at least Saturday can only improve from here.



I understand dolphins and whales have similar reproductive behavior patterns. I'm told more than one hippie has found his peaceful swim with the dolphins veer abruptly into "Deliverance" territory.


Rainbow Dinosaur can stay at school - Granby Massachusetts's town council has decided that the rainbow-colored dinosaur statue can stay in front of the local high school. There's a project to put dinosaur statues around town, like other cities random-thing-statues art projects, and the high school students decided to have theirs be rainbow-colored. Some local resident complained that the rainbow-colored statue represented town approval of Sodomy and Dinosaurs.


I thought you said humour was hard ....

As others have said - truly excrutiating....


why not use CPAN to install it.


I've just gone through my copy of Clarke's Tales from the White Hart, and none of the stories end in anything resembling a dreadful pun.


Speaking of Mr Clark.

I don't know how many of you saw this, but earlier this month someone talked (bribed) their way into A.C. Clarke's house in Colombo and took some rather interesting photos. Basically the house appears to be just the way he left it when he died. Anyways, they spotted a photo of a young man displayed in a rather prominent place and wondered about it. Afterwords, they went to the cemetery to pay their respects at the place where Mr. Clarke is buried, and guess who he is buried next to.


Thank you for the "go read the story first, before you continue below" advice -- following those instructions made the whole experience more enjoyable.

And, I home someone animates that short story some day.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 22, 2013 11:51 AM.

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