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Underground Reading: The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson

The Shores of KansasThe hero of Robert Chilson's The Shores of Kansas is Grant Ryals, a Missouri hillbilly with the much-heralded ability to travel back in time to Earth's prehistoric past. Armed with axe, camera and good ol' boy wisdom, Ryals battles all the traditional dinosaur dangers (big toothy dinosaurs, little toothy dinosaurs, medium-sized toothy dinosaurs) to bring back important scientific evidence.

It is worth noting that The Shores of Kansas was written in 1976, back when dinosaurs were still allowed in Kansas. Were it written in 2008, it would be a much different book. Grant Ryals would pray real hard and learn the truth about the evil-utionary hoax perpetrated by liberal sodomites.

Fortunately, in the naive days of 1976, things like 'evolution' and 'prehistory' were taken as fact, as opposed to being recognized as the evil, Godless lies that they are. When he's not being chased by dinosaurs, Grant Ryal's problems in the modern era aren't Damnation and Hellfire, but, worse, wimminfolk.

The reader quickly learns that Grant Ryals, as a well-raised, independent Midwestern gentleman, doesn't really know what to do about the curvier, better-cooking sex. His time traveling exploits (and very big axe) have made him a modern sex symbol - we know all this because the author tells us, repeatedly. When he returns from the Jurassic, Ryals would happily curl up with some hot cocoa and a scientific periodical. Alas for poor misogynistic Grant, he's surrounded by cuddly giggly types that are looking to snap off a piece of his man-meat.

Grant, mind you, isn't gay - he happily smacks around a homosexual in a scene crafted to explicitly get this point across. Similarly, his man-parts all work. We learn that in a scene involving a mother/step-daughter combination that was also explicitly crafted to get this point across. Grant is merely distracted. He is obsessed with the cleanliness, purity and independence of the past, and feels soiled by his contact with the present.

Grant hates all the other trappings of modernity as well - bureaucracy, government, society, money and people-that-can't-do-their-own-plumbing. For each of these, Chilson is there to show us a situation, and then tell us exactly why Grant feels the way he does. The end result is a book with the political slant (and the subtlety) of a Ron Paul YouTube video.

The sole virtue of The Shores of Kansas is the handling of the science fiction element. Rather than waxing un-poetic about the science of time travel, Chilson just has it exist as a the plot-pushing device that it is. A few pseudo-scientific elements are inserted on occasion, but, overall, Chilson keeps the focus on the character, rather than the SF trappings. His descriptions of the prehistoric era are meticulously detailed (sometimes too much so), but that can be excused (or at least categorized) as part of the heavy-handed attempt to illustrate how Ryals feels more at home in the past.

As a piece of character-focused science fiction, The Shores of Kansas succeeds, although only because it is so unpleasantly overt about the task. Unfortunately, the character is so utterly distasteful that the book falls victim to its own dubious success. If Grant Ryals prefers the loneliness of the prehistoric swamp, I, for one, am happier to leave him there.