Weeding Womb

The Measure of All Things

The Measure of All Things by Richard Chwedyk. A good short story that's all too realistic, even before those Raelian nuts claimed they had cloned a human.

In a world of genetic engineering and nanotech, someone got the bright (and utterly deplorable) idea to engineer the next new toy fad up. Think of the Cabbage Patch Kids, think of Tickle-Me Elmo, think of Bio-Toy Dinosaurs. Cute and fuzzy dinosaur replicas (with a healthy dose of stuffed animal looks) meant as another toy for the children of the well-off, and another status symbol for their parents. But this story - save a short flashback - isn't about the fad. It's about the aftermath.

What happens when children treat this living thing, marketed as a toy, like they treat their other toys? What happens when the all-too-natural human habit of cruelty rears its ugly head?

... what happens when the fad dies out?

The story is set in a 'preserve' of sorts for the 'saurs'. Since they have no natural environment other than a house, this preserve is a large house - large enough to have a library for the literate saurs to expand their horizons with - containing some 98 of the beings, and one human. The saurs are shown to be a diverse lot, covering about the same size range as teddy bears*, from tiny to as large as a child. Their personalties and intelligences vary as well, over an almost human range**. Some were seemingly made dimwitted, some suffered abuses that left them unwilling or unable to use their full intelligence.

(*This comparison to teddy bears was not specifically stated, that I remember, but I think it was an intentional choice when the human character mentions the sizes of the largest and smallest.)

(**This too, I think was intentional and not stated outright. While quirks and things of specific saurs are stated outright, obviously, the author does a good job of letting the reader discover the species as a whole.)

The dinosaurs are a fascinating cast, from the childlike Axel to the irascible Agnes to the crippled, charismatic, and wise Hetman (who has the best line of the entire story, the one from which the title is drawn).

The human running this preserve, one of a dozen or so such structures, is Tom Groverton. The story follows his interactions with various beings, including saurs Axel and Doc (whose intelligence makes him in some ways Tom's caretaker) and two human visitors: First a businessman (only referred to as 'Danny') who wants to find the saur of his childhood, then Dr. Margaret Pagliotti, who visits weekly and checks up on the saurs.

A story like this could easily become weepy or oversentimental, but it doesn't. It does has some very powerful moments, like when we first meet Hetman, but thankfully the author doesn't wail over these moments with melodramatic overkill. The author also doesn't focus exclusively on the saurs, another danger of this kind of tale. We're shown that Tom is having problems of his own. In fact, on my third reading for this review, the most vivid part of the story was Tom's. It was a deeper level about one man withdrawing from the human race to be with a different group, composed of both his lessers and his equals. (The last scene of the story, especially Tom's last few spoken lines, is highly thought-provoking. It fits fine with the sentimental story, but there's more to it. You wonder if Doc and Dr. Pagliotti don't have reason to worry about Tom's mental and physical health.)

The story, on the surface, can of course be seen as a treatise against genetic engineering. It's not against all genetic engineering, just using genetic engineering (and science overall) for mercenary purposes and furthering agendas. It also touches on the dangers of trying to 'mainstream' a science while it's still very much in the 'black art' phase of development. Examples of this are the longevity of the saurs (designed to age and die gracefully after 3 or so years, the oldest are pushing 30 and showing no mentioned signs of dotage or frailty).

The story also doesn't have a neat little ending, either. It follows a day in the life of Tom Groverton, but you see side bits and hear comments that make it obvious that there's bigger things going on in this little world, both external forces pushing in and internal forces pushing out. And trapped in the middle are a few dinosaur 'toys' and their human caretaker.

A very good story. I don't hesitate to recommend it.

The Archon

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