"The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Rose Fox
When I heard about the ED SF Project, I leaped to secure the "appreciation rights" for this story, which I remembered so vividly even though I hadn't read it in years; indeed, I hadn't read it in years because I remembered it so vividly. Then I sat around for a while, trying to put into words what made it so deeply special to me. It's hard. I have to think back to a time when I didn't have fifty or so cubic feet of anthologies, because "The Ugly Chickens" was one of the four tales that pulled me in to my glorious lifelong love affair with the short story. (The other three are John Varley's "Press Enter" and Charles Harness's "Summer Solstice" via Carr's Best SF of the Year #14, which is still the first book I would grab if my house was on fire, and Tom Reamy's "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" in Edward Ferman's Best of F&SF #22. Most of my hopes for an afterlife center around the chance to spend an eternity at the Harp 'n' Halo Bar 'n' Grill buying drinks for these fine gentlemen, and when describing writers and editors I do not use such a term lightly.)
It sneaks up on you, that story. I reread it, and even knowing the first line and the last line and all the major points in between, it still snuck up on me. You want to say, this isn't speculative fiction; this is biographical, this is history. This is what really happened. What's this doing in a science fiction collection? There's science in it, sure, but where's the fiction? And then you read it a few more times and slowly it sinks in that it is fiction and those huge grotesque birds that he writes about with such demented love never actually pecked their way across rural America, and you find yourself mad and upset because they should have, dammit. It almost doesn't matter that the dodos are still dead. What matters is that, as stupid and absurd as they were, they never got the chance to live.
It took me a long time to understand why "The Ugly Chickens" pulled me in so strongly because I usually read for fun and I wouldn't say that my first few reads through it were fun. I had to work hard at reading it. A lot of good stories make you work for it, but usually you have some sense of what you're working for. With this one I didn't know why it was so important to keep coming back to it, but I did anyway, because something in me said that I needed to. I was, I don't know, thirteen or fourteen or something, plowing through piles of fluffy juvies and giving no thought at all to challenging myself, and "The Ugly Chickens" came along and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shook me until I became a better reader. I didn't even know it until I started writing this essay, but there it is.
I'm deeply grateful to Ellen Datlow for making this amazing story available to a wider audience (and to me, when I didn't feel like digging through those triple-stacked shelves for my battered old copy of Best SF of the Year #10) and to Mr. Waldrop for giving permission to do so. I had to work hard for this too, and it was worth it.
Link to story.
- Rose Fox