17

I read this at least 30 years ago and it might be much older.

It is either a short story or a shortish novelette. No memory of where I read it, probably some collection.

I have a vague feeling that the dentist is the hero of a whole series of such stories, but I read only the one with the giant butterfly, so maybe this is the unique such story. There is some rather peculiar time-travel involved, but as far as I can reconstruct, though the dentist does travel in space from world to world, he himself does not do time-travel.

This particular giant butterfly is the king of his people. I think all his people are about as big and as toothed as the king, but he is the only one who can afford to hire this celebrated dentist from far away. And maybe his royal appetite went with royally bad buccal hygiene. The time-travel aspect is unusual, as the king butterfly does not send the dentist back in time but rather brings previous versions of himself forward in time from his youth for the dentist to treat cavities and teach his younger self buccal hygiene. The king butterfly is never fully satisfied of the result, and keeps bringing younger and younger versions of himself to the dentist. Finally he goes too far, reaches his caterpillar self (or maybe chrysalis) and dies in the process. The dentist faces the anger of the subjects. I forgot how he managed to get out....

25

This is the novelette Monarch by Piers Anthony. I read it in his fixup novel Prostho Plus. I don't think it has been anthologised so you either read it in the original magazine publication, Worlds of If, or in Prostho Plus.

What's keeping you from your grand tour of the universe? Are you afraid of being caught out in the vastness of space with a painful cavity and no one capable of fixing it? Well fear not--the galaxy is simply teeming with dentists!

For Dr. Dillingham, dentist of Earth, it was the shock of his life--captured by aliens, forced to fix a strange cavity in an even stranger mouth; then whisked off to deep space. But luckily for the good dentist, Dillingham discovered that he liked zooming about the galaxy, solving unprecedented problems and making new and decidedly different acquaintances. And when he was offered the chance to apply to the Galactic University of Dentistry as Earth's first (and only) applicant, Dillingham had a choice to make: go back to his safe little world of bored housewives and miles of braces, or make a mark for mankind among the teeth of the stars.

It was really no choice at all.

The scene you remember is when the dental hygienist Judy (not the dentist Dr. Dillingham - Judy was Dillingham's assistance on Earth) is treating the king on the butterfly planet Lepidop. The king keeps going back in time to improve his teeth, but the problem occurs when he tries to go take himself and Judy back to before the date of Judy's birth:

"I have had a taste of better health," the Monarch said, shaking his faintly orange wings. "It incites me to desire more. If twenty years did this, what might thirty do?"

That would be equivalent to sixty, by her scale. He would in effect be twenty—at the very prime of life. Of course, nothing short of a complete overhaul from the moment of conception on would provide him with absolutely perfect teeth, but—

"If I begin caring for my teeth in the flush of my youth, at the time I first emerged from the chrysalis, they will remain strong forever!" he cried.

She kept forgetting that the butterfly lifecycle differed from her own. Perhaps that was time enough.

"Come, my dear—take my hand."

She tried to stop herself, but his word compelled her just as though she were a butterfly subject. "Wait!" she cried, suddenly realizing what thirty years would mean to her. "I can't go back to—"

And the vertigo overcame her.

It was much worse than before. She felt as though she were being turned inside out through the mouth and dipped in lye. She felt, she fought, she expired, she emerged into—

Nightmare.

The choking crying bleeding miasma of extinction. Her arms were bound in mummy wrappings, her eyeballs were rotten. She screamed with the soundlessness of an anguished ghost. Maggots were feeding on her tongue, flames on her wings.

She had tried to go back to four years before she had been born.

But it was not her own demise she experienced. The Monarch was dead. His ancient husk of a body dangled from her hand when she stood, and when she tried to let go his desiccated appendage it fell apart.

Judy is sentenced to death for her part in the king's death. She is tied to the top of a tower and targeted by lasers: The death of a thousand lights! She is rescued by a robot that has sworn to protect Dr. Dillingham (how and why the robot is protecting Dr. Dillingham is another story).

Searching the site for the story I find it was asked about before in the question: Children's sci-fi collection - Alien orthodontist. In his answer to that question user14111 points out that the novelette can be read online at archive.org.

10
  • 1
    And here I had always thought Anthony was an OK writer until he went off on Xanth. Nov 20 at 19:51
  • 2
    @OrganicMarble The stories collected in Prostho Plus are written for young adults. I first read them as a young adult (I was about 11 I think) and loved them so much I reread the book several times. I haven't reread the book in the intervening fifty years mainly for fear of spoiling those memories. Nov 20 at 20:06
  • 1
    Wait, how did going back so far kill the king?
    – Vilx-
    Nov 21 at 10:22
  • 5
    @Vilx- because the plot required it! If you're looking for internal consistency you should probably not be reading Piers Anthony books. Nov 21 at 11:44
  • @JohnRennie Good point! 😆
    – Vilx-
    Nov 21 at 15:36

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