Sunday, July 13, 2014

Danger: Dinosaurs! by Evan Hunter (1953)

Cover blurb

Owen Spencer would never have agreed to lead the time-slip expedition back to the Jurassic period - the Age of Reptiles - had he foreseen the terrifying experiences in store for the small group making the expedition. Chartering the expedition was Dirk Masterson, a treacherous big game hunter, whose alleged purpose was to take pictures of the enormous reptiles that roamed Jurassic times. Even when Masterson smashed the jeep into the force field, destroying the only protection that stood between the group and the lumbering beasts, Owen could not be sure it was an accident.

Evan Hunter has written a fast-moving tale of people stranded on earth in its infancy and forced to pit their ingenuity and strength against mammoth reptiles. It might not have been so bad if Masterson, with his mania for big game hunting had not continued to shoot at every reptile he spotted. But his madman tactics repeatedly aroused the fury of the hideous dinosaurs, whose attacks drove the farther and farther away from the relay area that would slip them back to the present when the week was up.

The weird circumstances that made Owen's brother, Chuck, take over the leadership of the expedition and the even stranger adjustment of the time stream that left the party with the inexplicable feeling that somebody was missing makes DANGER: DINOSAURS! an unusual and fascinating treatment of the ever-provocative time theme. The desperate search for the relay area, interrupted by fierce fights with flesh-eating monsters, and an earthquake that creates a chaos of stampeding animals give this story action that is as alien as any distant planet.

DANGER: DINOSAURS! is a juvenile science fiction novel, published first in 1953 as one of the books in the Winston Science Fiction series. The author, Evan Hunter, had a very successful writing career. He was also prolific and used a number of pen names. As Hunter, he wrote THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, a novel dealing with juvenile crime and the New York City public school system. It and the 1955 movie based on the book were highly acclaimed. He also had a successful screenwriting career, producing scripts for movies and TV, including the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's film THE BIRDS (1963). However, he is probably best known for the crime fiction he wrote using the pen name Ed McBain. His 87th Precinct series is often credited with inventing the "police procedural" genre of crime fiction. The books were turned into a number of movies and TV series.

*Blurb and cover art from the 2014 digital edition.

My thoughts

I’ve dredged up a lot of turkeys in my hunt for obscure paleofiction over the years, so I admittedly didn’t have much hope for Danger: Dinosaurs! when I downloaded the e-book version from Most science fiction novels that have been forgotten became that way for good reason. But it turned out I was in for a bit of a shock: While not a great novel, Danger: Dinosaurs! is a surprisingly good read with some well-researched dinosaur action.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Chuck Spencer, eagerly awaiting the return of his brother, Owen, a guide who leads tourists on photo safaris to the Mesozoic Era. Chuck is to accompany his brother on his next trip – a jaunt back to the Jurassic Period. The client is one Dirk Masterson, a rich blowhard who thinks his wealth gives him the authority to boss anyone around. Journeys to the Jurassic are usually dangerous affairs, but Owen is bringing with him a force field that will keep the dinosaurs out. However, once the time travelers arrive at their destination, Masterson drives a jeep into the force field, shorting it out. To make matters worse, Masterson then reveals he has smuggled in firearms so he can hunt dinosaurs, which is illegal. Chuck and Owen have no choice but to accompany Masterson, who pushes the party further and further away from the point where they need to be in a week’s time to return to future Earth.

The first thing to strike me about Danger: Dinosaurs! was how much research the author put into the book in order to make sure he got his dinosaur science right. While both earlier and later authors would mix creatures from various time periods in the same setting, Hunter’s dinosaurs are pretty much the ones you would expect to see in the Jurassic. His characters also delve into lectures about the Mesozoic that accurately reflect scientific thinking at the time the book was written. And while the dinosaurs themselves are described as dim-witted, they show reasonably complex behaviors, such as herding. Also, Hunter’s descriptions of the Jurassic environment at times border on poetic, with the author avoiding common mistakes made by other writers, like populating their settings with grass. Too bad the same can’t be said about Hunter’s take on the nature of time, which will leave readers scratching their heads once it becomes a central point in the plot. (To say anything more would spoil one of the novel’s most dramatic scenes.)

The story itself is appropriately action-packed with some scenes of real tension. That said, the characters could be better written. At times they make mistakes so easily avoided that it is obvious the author only had them behave in a certain way so he could advance the story. The villains’ motivations, once revealed, don’t make a lot of sense. Also, Hunter’s physical descriptions of a black man who accompanies the team are far from politically correct by today’s standards, although it should be noted the character in question turns out not only to be a hero, but a vehicle the author uses to critique racial attitudes of the era in which the book was written. Sadly the author’s modern views don’t extend to the novel’s sole female character, who we are told can’t handle the rigors of the prehistoric environment because she is just a “girl.”

Flaws aside, Danger: Dinosaurs! remains a fun little read that might surprise you on how well it has aged. The book is definitely worth your time if you’re a fan of paleofiction.

  • As stated in the cover blurb, Evan Hunter actually is a famous author better known for his crime stories written under the pen name Ed McBain. He also penned the screenplay for one of the most famous man vs. dinosaur films of all time, The Birds.
  • Danger: Dinosaurs! is one of several golden age science fiction novels recently reissued by Thunderchild Publishing.
  • Hunter wrote Danger: Dinosaurs! under the pen name of Richard Marsten.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Chronos Commandos: Dawn Patrol by Titan Comics (2013-14)

Cover blurb

When the Allies and Nazis develop time-diving technology that could see the Second World War derailed by creatures from the Cretaceous, only the Sarge and his hand of misfit soldiers can save the future – by saving history! Dinosaurs! Giant crocodiles! Albert Einstein with a machine gun! All that barely scratches the surface of the first issue of this astounding, fully-painted pulp spectacular!

* Blurb from the first issue of the five-issue miniseries.

My thoughts

Chronos Commandos starts with a time machine materializing in the Mesozoic. Out from it pour four U.S. soldiers in World War II uniforms. They are led by Sarge, a cigar-chomping macho man who just wants to complete the mission so he can return home and grab a coffee. After some gory encounters with dinosaurs and time-traveling Nazis, Sarge is the only one left out of his squad. He hops in the time machine and travels back to the future only to find his base under attack by Nazis. It turns out the Germans have stolen a vital piece of time travel technology and have fled with it to the Age of Dinosaurs. It is up to Sarge and a small squad of men to travel back in time and recover the tech or risk losing the war.

Chronos Commandos is a tough comic to review because its creators purposely set a low bar for themselves: It is meant as nothing more than a brainless tribute to the pulp comics of yesteryear, in particular The War That Time Forgot. Taking the comic too seriously would be a mistake. That said, there are some flaws that diminished my enjoyment of the title. First is the main character, Sarge, who is supposed to be a tough guy but instead comes across as a jerk more interested in his own preservation than the safety of the men he leads. Another problem is the depiction of the Cretaceous, with the creators mixing and matching dinosaurs from different eras in the setting. I know it is a bit silly to demand scientific rigor from a pulp comic, but I would have liked to seen a broader range of dinosaurs than your standard raptors, T. rexes, and stegosaurs. As for the art, it is serviceable – it does its job but is nothing to write home about.

My verdict of Chronos Commandos is a resounding “meh.” The comic wasn’t a complete waste of my time, but I wish its creators had been more ambitious. There is nothing wrong with B-grade entertainment, but that’s not an excuse not to shoot for something a little grander.

  • Chronos Commandos was not the only dinosaurs vs. Nazis comic series released in 2013: The year also saw the debut of Half-Past Danger.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Night Shapes by James Blish (1962)

Cover blurb

The continent lay before them, vast areas of it unexplored, its forests, plains, jungle and mountains teeming with forms of life unknown to modern man.

Here the witch-doctors reigned supreme, using their inexplicable and remarkable powers on men and beasts.

The purpose of the safari was mysterious, its members an oddly assorted group of people unlikely to have any sane objective in common . . .

* Blurb from the 2011 digital edition.

My thoughts

Kit Kennedy has no use for the Western world he left behind. The former schoolteacher has been living among the natives of the Congo rainforest for years when The Night Shapes begins. Kennedy simply wants to be left alone, but when a Belgian official threatens to alert the authorities about the expatriate’s expired passport, he agrees to guide an expedition into a previously unexplored portion of the jungle in return for the official’s silence.

The expedition’s leaders claim their goal is to provide medical aid to the local natives, but Kennedy suspects they have an ulterior motive. Why, for example, is the relief mission accompanied by a small band of well-armed marines? And who is the woman accompanying the group? The mystery only deepens as the land grows stranger the deeper they penetrate into the jungle. Then there is the legend, whispered among the natives, of a creature known as mokele-mbembe.

The Night Shapes is a lost world tale that is not quite sure what it wants to be. It’s obvious that Blish sought to tell an adventure story in the mold of H. Rider Haggard, but he also wanted to critique the casual racism that infests the genre. The result is schizophrenic, to say the least. A good chunk of the book is a screed against the Western exploitation of Africa and its peoples, but at the same time the novel is filled with simplistic stereotypes of native peoples and has as a protagonist a white hero who knows what’s better for the Africans than the Africans. The third act of the book also is a mess, with Blish quickly wrapping up his main storyline to go in a completely different direction with the plot.

As far as the novel’s paleofiction elements, prehistoric creatures play a critical role in The Night Shapes, but they are relegated to only a couple brief cameos. Blish is more interested in the African setting than paleontology, and as a result he makes some head-smacking mistakes in his descriptions of the animals.

I appreciate what Blish was trying to do in The Night Shapes, but he would have been more successful if he stuck to a traditional adventure story rather than the strange hybrid that he ultimately produced. This is a case where the simpler path would have been the better choice.

  • Blish was a well-known science fiction writer who won the Hugo Award in 1959 for his novel A Case of Conscience, which involved dinosaur-shaped aliens.
  • Mokele-mbembe is a mythical central African creature that some westerners allege is a living sauropod dinosaur. There is no evidence the animal exists, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making movies about it. The first film based on the myth was Disney’s Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend, released in 1985 to near universal scorn. The second was the equally bad The Dinosaur Project, a “found footage” film that came out in 2012.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jurassic Park III: Island Survival Game by Milton Bradley (2001)

Game description

Choose to ATTACK or prepare to FIGHT BACK!

Decide who you will control, the humans or the dinosaurs. Then battle in 5 dangerous action sequences.

Human players — Your goal is to move quickly across the island and get to the beach… alive! Each action sequence has a different breed of dinosaurs – just waiting to eat you alive! If a dinosaur catches you – get ready for the battle of your life! If you’re the first player to escape the island – you win!

Dinosaur players must stop the humans dead in their tracks before they can escape the island! Anytime a human enters an action sequence a new dinosaur comes alive and the chase begins! Catch the humans and attack! CHOMP! CLAW! GNAW! SLASH! Defeat all the humans before they escape the island and win!

*Cover image from BoardGameGeek.

My thoughts

I never had any intention of picking up this JPIII board game, but when I stumbled across it on eBay for a very low price, I shrugged and said “What the heck.” The game had a colorful board and plastic dinosaur figures, so maybe it would surprise me.

JPIII: Island Survival Game is at its heart a roll-and-move game – you role a die and move your pieces along the board the same number of spaces as the result. That said, it has some features that make it different from your average Chutes and Ladders clone. First, it comes with special dice that have an unevenly distributed set of numbers on them. Second, one player controls the dinosaurs, and it is that person’s job to try to eat the other players’ human pawns. Finally, players can take alternate paths on the game board, so it isn’t necessarily a straight-line race to the finish (although there is only one finish line).

The goal of the game is for the human players to get from one end of the board to the other without becoming dino chow. The board is divided into five sections, each representing a different scene from the movie. Different species of dinosaurs are confined to different sections, but unlike the humans who can move freely, the dinos can’t die. On a human player’s turn, the person rolls one die and moves one of his or her pawns the same number of spaces. If the player rolls a “3 GROUP,” then he or she can move all the human pawns on the same space three paces, including pawns belonging to other players. Certain spaces have “DRAW CARD” written on them, so when a players lands on that space, he or she draws a card and follows the instructions on it.

The dinosaur player moves between each of the human players’ turns. Dinosaurs have their own special die that determine movement. When a dinosaur lands on a space occupied by a human character, they must battle by each rolling a special die. Humans have a 50-50 chance of escape: If they roll “ESCAPE” on their battle die, then they move as many spaces away from the dinosaur as indicated by the die. If they fail to escape, then they take damage equal to the amount of damage indicated on the dinosaur die. Each character has a set amount of “life chips” at the start of the game, and if those run out… well, then the dinosaurs won’t go home hungry.

JPIII isn’t a particularly deep game but it does a good job of recreating the movie experience while remaining accessible to younger players. The biggest letdown was the components – the plastic dinosaur figures were nice, but the board is printed on thin cardboard and the human pawns are cardboard standees. I also would argue the game is a bit unbalanced given the human players have an advantage over the dinosaur player. That said, it is a fun little game that plays relatively quickly. If I had a choice between this game and getting stuck in a never-ending game of Monopoly, I would definitely pick JPIII.