SCI FICTION, July 27, 2005

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"The Christmas Count" by David B. Coe

This week’s SCI FICTION Original, "The Christmas Count" by David B. Coe, details a birding trip of two friends, Jeff and Ron, a traditional pastime of many birders on Christmas. However, this trip is different—for the first time, people have the technology to bring back many recently extinct species, and the protagonists encounter passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets that have been extinct for decades. While the entire Audubon society delights in these sightings, Jeff, the main character, feels more and more uneasy. The fantastic element of this story is subtle, and the realism of the scenario makes this story all the more relevant.

The story is told at a leisurely pace, and the relationship between Jeff, a math teacher, and his friend Ron, a lawyer, is very well done. Jeff’s self-consciousness about his old car and sub-par binoculars contrasts nicely with Ron’s apparent obliviousness to Jeff’s financial issues. Ron makes an effective foil to Jeff primarily because they are friends who have birding in common; yet, their diverging attitudes regarding the GRIBS (genetically re-introduced bird species) create an undercurrent of subtle tension.

The trope of restoring extinct species based on their DNA has been done; and so has the idea that the species we bring back would act unpredictably. Crichton’s Jurassic Park covered the basics. However, the ethical questions of Coe’s story are deeply affecting and difficult: even if the species went extinct because of humans, should we still attempt to reintroduce them? The answer is neither obvious nor simple.

I was especially pleased with the discussion of these issues, since it is something that ecologists have been debating for a while, even with species that went extinct only locally or recently: will the reintroduction put a strain on the ecosystem that has already adapted to this species’ absence? The question of complacency is often debated as well, and Coe’s examines it with soul-searching intensity. If we have an ability to restore a species we have wiped out, would it lead to devaluation of life? Today, one doesn’t need to be a tree-hugger to realize that extinction is a serious problem, brought on by habitat destruction and increases in human population. If there are no consequences, what’s to stop the destruction? If we don’t have to live with the consequences of our actions, how will we learn?

A very well thought-out story, and something the proponents of Mundane SF have been advocating: a thoughtful examination of a current issue, and believable extrapolation of it.