by Guy Stewart
Author Guy Stewart recounts his publishing history with Analog, and discusses his wide-ranging historical interests, from Korea to eugenics, that inform his latest novelette. Read “Dinosaur Veterinarian” in [November/December issue, on sale now!]
I started reading Analog when I was thirteen, some four decades ago, checking out as many issues as I could find from my local library. After I read all of them, it still took a while for me to convince my parents that, “Yes, a subscription to a sixty-cent pulp magazine really IS a great Christmas present!” My goal, not long after that, was to see if I could get one of my own stories in Analog . . .
Twenty-six years later, (after a note from Stan Schmidt to shorten it by 600 words, which I did with trembling hands), “Absolute Limits” appeared in the August 1996 issue as a Probability Zero feature.
Twenty-six years after that, with seven other stories in between, “Dinosaur Veterinarian” appears in the November/December 2022 issue.
While the others have their own roots, “Dinosaur Veterinarian” picks up a few months after “Road Veterinarian” concludes. Javier Quinn Xiong Zaman DVM, also known as Doctor Scrabble© (Because in the game, J, Qu, X, and Z are the highest scoring tiles), carries the genes for a rare autosomal dominant mutation called piebaldism, the absence of mature melanin-forming cells in certain areas of the skin and hair. As he was the first time, he’s once again kidnapped in the night.
Javier met the intimidating, genetically engineered refugee from Canada, Sergeant Thatcher earlier when they had to stop another genetically engineered creature, a living road surface called CHEAPALIN, that was hot on the scent of an iron source. Unfortunately, the source is in Canada, the CHEAPALIN is in the Northwest Angle of Minnesota, and if it crosses the border, the prohibitive laws of Canada might consider it an invasion and react to it as such . . .
While their mutual attraction was undeniable, they also proved how inept two introverted geniuses could be. In the end, they worked out their differences, and after another more prosaic mission to try and figure out if there has been a deadly gengineered neurological virus outbreak, or if murderous terrorists are plotting to kill more innocent children with a chemical agent.
In “Dinosaur Veterinarian,” Scrabble and Thatcher work together again, this time to find out if there really is a pack of small, supposedly extinct dinosaurs hunting in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
A brief aside here: while I didn’t get to the DMZ in August of 2018 . . . because the Joint Security Area was closed to tourists part of the time I was there, that didn’t prevent me from talking to people who had been there and reading about it.
I guarantee that reading about it from the U.S. gives an entirely different feel than the one I got reading about it while I was there, some 250 km south of “a buffer zone created by the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, between North Korea, China, and the United Nations Command.” The proximity of the DMZ only served to emphasize that the war between the two countries is NOT over. They are even now, technically, and sometimes physically at war.
This story, at first unconsciously, then more intentionally, became a parable of the state of “suspended war” between our feelings about genetic engineering and our clear feelings about the intentional improvement of the Human genome—once called (when it wasn’t biologically possible) eugenics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics; don’t just read the article, make sure you take a look at the BIBLIOGRAPHY and archival references in the References section).
Oh, the reason I was there? My son as a sergeant stationed at a joint South Korea/American army base near Daegu, near the Nakdong River where the South Korean and UN forces stopped the advance of the North Korean Army barely short of the southeastern coast of Korea.
Staff Sergeant Thatcher brings Dr. Scrabble up to speed about creatures reportedly making sounds like birds that have attacked and eaten not only an international group of bird-watchers, but also occasional North or South Korean soldiers. Tensions between the two nations are rising, as they do between Scrabble and Thatcher, who parted ways precipitously in “Road Veterinarian”. Investigating the reports and setting up a lab there, they end up working with a pair of scientists one from North Korea and one from South Korea. They don’t particularly care for each other, though there’s one person both loathe. Putting their animosity a little bit aside, then bend their skills to finding out what’s going on in the DMZ and who’s being threatened—and who is doing the threatening.
What was it that made the sounds? Has someone been playing fast and loose with genetically engineered organisms? What about gene switching (aka Alternation of Gene Expression)? Are birds equally close to the prehistoric dinosaur genome—chickadees and cassowaries for example; or are some closer? How easy is gene switching? They also discover that terror may not be the sole purpose of the creatures roaming the DMZ.
I’ve played around with gengineering questions for years, even in high school advanced biology classes. Genetics was one of several reasons I majored in biology. Realizing I didn’t have the academic persistence, nor the grades, to get into graduate school, I became a science teacher instead (and have been honored to help foster a love of science for several young adults who are PhDs now). I keep up with changes and papers in the field enough to know that my biology degree has aged. The Immunology text I’d used in the late 1970s never mentioned Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. I learned lots about it when my brother-in-law, a hemophiliac who’d received countless transfusions of whole blood began to get sicker than he’d been in a long time. By the time freeze-dried Factor XIII came into use, he was already HIV+ with active AIDS symptoms. The Human Genome Project was science fiction in 1980 . . . and became reality when it launched in 1990. In fact, it only achieved Level “complete genome” in May 2021, then completing work on the final gapless assembly happened less than a year ago in January of 2022. I still wonder at the fact that the insulin my wife has used at various times in her life, came from genetically engineered microorganisms tailored to synthesize HUMAN insulin!
All of these factors fermented in my imagination until I met Miles Vorkosigan in the ANALOG story, “The Mountains of Mourning” in the May 1989 issue.
If you’ve read the Vorkosigan stories of Minnesota author Lois McMaster Bujold, you might recognize a bit of Taura, first love of the iconic Miles Vorkosigan. Taura was an “eight-foot-tall female soldier, with fangs, claws, superhuman strength, speed and with that, a stunning appetite, brilliant intelligence and disconcertingly, emotional vulnerability.”
Staff Sergeant Thatcher isn’t quite that impressive, but she shares some of Vorkosigan’s and Taura’s tendency to be a bit of a smart mouth! I—and my family, except for my wife—all have a tendency to speak our minds; and I’ve grown to realize that most of the people I’m friends with have no trouble arguing a point. Like Scrabble and Thatcher though, the people I enjoy being with the most, leaven disagreement with humor and rarely take themselves too seriously. Life is short, and we need to spend it with the people who help us be the best people we can be.
I guarantee that I’d be happy to spend more time with Javier and Thatcher. I doubt I’ve seen the last of them, or they of me.