Stranded on a strange world
The Exploratory and Evaluation Corps of the Federated Sentient Planets had sent ARCT-10, with its mixed crew of shipbred and planet-bound technicians, to Ireta to catalogue fauna and flora and search for new energy sources. It was a simple mission. A standard crew.
Kai and his beautiful co-leader Varian, the best xenob-vet in the business, followed all the standard procedures – but the results of their investigations were totally unexpected. Not only were the planet's creatures larger than anyone had anticipated and the geological finds smaller, but the rescue ship had inexplicably disappeared.
Then suddenly on a world of giant swamp creatures and deadly predators, a curious change had come over many of the members of the ARCT-10 crew… a change that would lead all of them, in one way or another, into the primitive darkness of a future world.
Anne McCaffrey is best known for writing about dragons, being the author of the very popular Dragonriders of Pern series. However, in 1978 she took a break from fire-breathing reptiles to focus on their real-life prehistoric counterparts with Dinosaur Planet. It wasn't much of a stretch as the novel is set in the same science fiction universe as Dragonriders of Pern, although no dragons or Thread show up in its pages. That's a shame, as Dinosaur Planet badly needs an injection of excitement.
The story begins not long after the crew of the spaceship ARCT-10 have landed and set up camp on Ireta, a jungle world whose poles are hotter than its equator because of the planet's super-hot core. Their mission is to survey the planet for energy-producing minerals as well as catalog the wildlife they encounter. The crew's leader, Kai, spends a good deal of the novel trying to squash rumors that the crew have been “planted” - that is, abandoned on the planet by mission control in a not-so-subtle attempt to start a new colony. Varian, the co-leader, isn't particularly concerned about the rumors. Most of her time is instead occupied researching a native species of flying creature that shows tool-making capabilities. Trouble comes in the form of the “heavy-worlders,” a group of crew members much stronger than average because they were raised on planets with high gravity. After a series of discoveries, Kai and Varian begin to suspect the heavy-worlders have violated the greatest taboo of their future vegetarian society: They have eaten meat.
It wasn't easy for me to write the above summary because Dinosaur Planet is a book without much plot. It is a rather dull and rambling piece of fiction that feels much longer than its 200 pages would suggest. Large parts of the narrative are just long stretches of stiff, unnatural-sounding dialogue, the sort of which one would find in bad 1950s B-movies. Worse still is McCaffrey's lazy descriptive text. We only get the broadest brush strokes of Ireta's sights, sounds, and smells because the author never paints them in any fine detail. A character may spot a “herbivore” and that's all we're told. What did the herbivore look like? Did it have a crest? A long neck? What color was it? Did it smell? What sounds did it make? McCaffrey can't be bothered to provide such descriptive elements, and as a result Ireta comes across as a rather drab and generic place.
Dinosaur Planet also is lacking much in the way of action and mystery, and while neither are necessary for a good novel, the lack of other redeeming qualities makes the absence of the two that much more noticeable. McCaffrey would revisit the planet Ireta again in a sequel, Dinosaur Planet Survivors, which I have sitting on my bookshelf. I can't see myself cracking it open anytime soon.
- Ireta also is a setting in McCaffrey's Planet Pirates trilogy. I haven't read the books, so I can't say whether they feature pirate dinosaurs.
- Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors were collected in a single volume titled The Mystery of Ireta in 2003.
- The Many Works of Anne McCaffrey (contains spoilers)