Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dinosaur Planet by Anne McCaffrey (1978)

Cover blurb

Stranded on a strange world

THE MISSION

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.

THE PROBLEM

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.

THE NIGHTMARE

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.

My thoughts

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.

Trivia
  • 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.
Reviews

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dinosaur card game Apex back on Kickstarter

Missed out on the Kickstarter for Apex: Theropod Deck-Building Game the first time around?  Now you have a second chance to pick up this excellent game, and with better quality components.

Die-Hard Games is running a Kickstarter for the second edition of the game. As of this post, there was 19 days left in the campaign. Backers can pick a copy of the original game, except this time it comes with a playmat, a better box, and a T. rex miniature.The publisher also is offering four expansions that let you play as different prehistoric predators. Check out my review for more information about the game.


I should note this Kickstarter isn't without controversy. Several backers of the first edition, including myself, are upset that a higher-quality second edition is coming out so soon after the first edition. In addition, many first edition backers have yet to receive their copies of the game. (I only received mine because I paid an extra $15 after the first Kickstarter ended to be moved up the mailing list.) The new edition also is quite pricey: A copy of the core game and expansions will set you back $100, once shipping is thrown in. You can back both individually for about half that price.

All that aside, if you have money to burn and like card games, you can't go wrong with Apex.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ten books to read after Jurassic World (and five to avoid)

I generally avoid writing Top 10 lists because I believe every book should stand on its own merits. However, I see the writers over at Tor.com have thrown together not one but two separate lists of recommended dinosaur fiction. (Here and here.) The gauntlet has been thrown: I think I can do better.

In all seriousness, I’ve received a handful of requests over the years to do a recommended reading list. The release of Jurassic World provided a good excuse to do that. The titles below are not provided in any particular order; they simply reflect what I believe are the best examples of dinosaur fiction reviewed for this site.

I didn’t include any comics or art books in this list because they are not prose fiction, but if I had, I would have listed Xenozoic Tales and Dinotopia. Both series are highly recommended.
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Let’s get this one out of the way. This is the novel that won me over to paleofiction. From my review: “Jurassic Park is a book where the entertainment value overshadows its negatives, probably as pure a 'summer read' as you'll ever find.”
  • The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The granddaddy of paleofiction remains one of the best novels on the subject: “Doyle strikes exactly the right balance between mystery, adventure and humor in a plot that never seems to have a dull moment.”
  • Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker. The famous paleontologist penned this fun tale about a female Utahraptor in the early Cretaceous: “The exotic nature of the setting keeps the novel from becoming trite after the first few chapters, and Bakker’s quirky sense of humor comes across in several passages.”
  • Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear. This young adult novel about an expedition to a lost world captures the sense of adventure many of us feel when we hear the word "dinosaur": "It’s light, breezy entertainment and should be accepted as such."
  • Carnosaur by Harry Adam Knight. A dumb novel that knows its dumb and runs with that: “The fun thing about Carnosaur is it's B-grade entertainment and the author knows that -- he doesn't make the mistake of playing it straight.”
  • End of an Era by Robert J. Sawyer: This short, strange novel about the reason the dinosaurs went extinct may be a little too wacky for some readers, but I like it: “It’s hard not to like this book even if it does take itself a little too seriously given the craziness of the plot. It’s only 200 pages long, the appropriate length for this sort of thing.”
  • West of Eden by Harry Harrison. An entertaining clash-of-cultures tale set in an alternate Earth where dinosaurs didn’t go extinct: “West of Eden still works as an old-fashioned adventure story with a good sense of wonder.”
  • Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick. A moving, novel-length eulogy to the dinosaurs: “It’s a wonderful story, filled with believable characters and intriguing speculation about dinosaur ecology.”
  • Rivers of Time by L. Sprague de Camp. This collection of humorous short stories about a time-traveling safari guide should bring smiles to most readers’ faces: “None of the stories are quite as good as (the lead story) ‘A Gun for Dinosaur,’ but they’re all entertaining and the book is worth owning.”
  • Dinosaurs! by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. An anthology of short stories about dinosaurs that includes several classics: “No point beating around the bush: Dinosaurs! is the best collection of dinosaur-themed short stories ever put together.”
Finally, I can’t resist mentioning some of the worst books I have reviewed. The following titles are definitely not recommended.
  • Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex by J.F. Revkin. A book that somehow managed to make lost civilizations and dinosaurs boring: “I’ve tried hard to erase this book from my memory since reading about three or four years ago, and I’ve been mostly successful. It’s simply awful, with eye-rolling dialogue, ugly writing, and no sense of story structure.”
  • The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly. Basically Jurassic Park with dinosaur-like dragons and atrocious writing: “I'm not a supporter of book burnings, but reading The Great Zoo of China is closest I've come to reconsidering that position.”
  • Carnivore by Leigh Clark. About as close to a SyFy Channel movie put to paper that has ever been penned: “Every time I hear someone talk about how hard it is to get a novel published these days, I whip this baby out. Actually, that's not true. I don't want to admit I read it in the first place.”
  • Dinosaur Nexus by Lee Grimes. A novel where poor plotting and bad writing ruin what could have been an intriguing premise about the consequences of time travel: "There's nothing in Dinosaur Nexus that is particularly memorable."
  • Deathbeast by David Gerrold. A bad book by an otherwise good author. The premise about a T. rex hunt gone wrong is sound; it's the execution that's lacking: "A little subtlety in the writing and a cast of humane characters would’ve gone a long way toward improving Deathbeast."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Beyond Jurassic World: A guide to current dinosaur media

So you've seen Jurassic World. Maybe you loved it. Maybe you hated it. Either way, you were left wanting more fiction about dinosaurs. I'm here to help.

The first Jurassic Park film was accompanied by an explosion of dinosaur-themed books, comics, and magazines that were published to take advantage of the dino-craze the movie generated. That trend diminished with each successive film, and I'm sorry to say it is barely a trickle this time around. Still, there are a few titles out there to help sate your appetite for anything dinosaur related.

Note: These are all mainstream titles. Self-published titles are listed in separate posts.

Books

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan: Jurassic Park meets Game of Thrones is how George R.R. Martin describes this novel. The plot mixes high fantasy with prehistoric animals. You can learn more about this upcoming title on the author's website.

By Tooth and Claw by various authors. The second in a series of anthologies set in a world where dinosaurs didn't go extinct. The first anthology was Exiled: Clan of the Claw.

Dinosaurs and a Dirigible by David Drake. This anthology collects Drake's four Time Safari stories. A fifth steampunk story also is in the collection.

Dinosaurs! and Dinosaurs II by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. Two excellent anthologies bringing together many classic short stories about dinosaurs.

Movies

Dinosaur Island. This isn't a good movie, but it is an entertaining one and notable for being the first feature film to showcase feathered dinosaurs, including a feathered T. rex. It may be a good alternative for children too young to see Jurassic World.

Cowboys vs Dinosaurs. Low-budget direct-to-video movie about modern-day cowboys up against prehistoric monsters. Looks awful.

Comics

Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians by Ricardo Delgado. Delgado is back with a new Age of Reptiles story, this one about a Spinosaurus. The first issue is out and it is very, very good.

Savage Empire by Tim Lewinson. A Kickstarter project for a comic about a dinosaur invasion of Los Angeles after a massive earthquake. The creator worked on the 2008 video game reboot of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.