Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dinosaur Nexus by Lee Grimes (1994)

Paperback cover blurb

WHO OWNS THE PAST?

Time travel is a reality – as staggering new technology enables the crew of the Pegasus to journey back to the Late Cretaceous period. Here, in an era preceding the extinction of the dinosaur, a team of dedicated scientists expects to find answers to questions that have perplexed humankind for sixty-five million years. What they don’t expect is company.

The Heesh have come also – intelligent reptilian creatures from a parallel Earth, searching for the dinosaur they call the Prime Mother. And in this world of giant beasts, in a dangerous climate of fear and mistrust, human and Heesh alike must contend with one devastating possibility: that the success of either mission could condemn the other’s race to death.

My thoughts

Dinosaur Nexus starts with an interesting premise: Human time travelers in the Cretaceous period encounter intelligent dinosaurs from the future, and the two species come to realize that the very existence of the other may be determined by their actions in the past. Unfortunately, Grimes doesn’t stick with it. The plot is resolved rather unconvincingly halfway through the book, with the rest dedicated to a boring account about the start of diplomatic relations between the two races.

There’s nothing in Dinosaur Nexus that’s particularly memorable. Neither Cretaceous earth nor the alternate world of the intelligent dinosaurs is fleshed out in any great detail. I suspect it was written largely to capitalize on the dinosaur craze of the time, with the film Jurassic Park having been released the year before.

Trivia

  • Like the YilanĂ© of Harry Harrison’s West of Eden trilogy, the Heesh are dominated by females.
Reviews

Friday, June 29, 2007

Two Tiny Claws by Brett Davis (1999)

Note: This is a sequel to Bone Wars, reviewed below.

Paperback cover blurb

ALIENS ARE ABDUCTING OUR FOSSILS!

Hell Creek Formation, Montana, 1907. Barnum Brown, the star paleontologist of the American Museum of Natural History, aims to dig up more examples of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the most fearsome predator to walk the Earth, which he discovered just a few years before.

He's heard some colorful stories about what goes on in this country – according to an article in the Wild West Weekly, earlier paleontologists in Montana encountered both dinosaurs and creatures from outer space. Brown has been here before, doesn't believe any of it, and looks forward to a productive summer digging up fossils.

But the old west dies hard, and there’s trouble in the area from a more earthly source. A bank robber, the notorious sharp-shooter Luther Gumpson, is on the loose, and there are a lot of men who are willing to try to kill him so they can get the reward.

Then Brown learns Gumpson may be the least of his troubles. Strange things start to happen, and he finds out that those colorful stories are true. The creatures from outer space are not only real, but they're back, and they're mad. He also discovers that he won't just be digging up the bones of Tyrannosaurs. He will get the chance to see the awesome ground-pounding meat-eaters in the flesh...

My thoughts

Two Tiny Claws is an improvement over its predecessor. The characters are better realized, if still a little on the bland side. And this time the plot moves ahead at a brisker pace.

Barnum Brown really isn’t much of a player in the novel. Most of the action centers on Luther Gumpson, the last of the Old West gunslingers, and S.L. Burgess, the son of the female protagonist of the first book. It’s a shame because Barnum was an eccentric figure known to walk around dusty dig sites in expensive fur coats. (What do you expect from a guy who was named after P.T. Barnum?) Davis only hints at this weirdness in Two Tiny Claws.

Again, anyone looking for living, breathing dinosaurs will be disappointed, especially after seeing the cool cover art. But at least this time there's a story to care about.

Trivia Reviews

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bone Wars by Brett Davis (1998)

Paperback cover blurb

BONES OF CONTENTION

Montana, 1876. Othniel Charles Marsh, one of the two top paleontologists in the world, is in the state's Judith River fossil beds, doing what he does best: digging up the bones of dinosaurs. Montana is a big state, but Marsh can't rest easy. Edward Drinker Cope, his biggest rival, and the other top paleontologist in the world, is also in the area, and there simply aren't enough bones for both of them, leading them to play dirty tricks. And time itself is against them: the fierce snows of winter are on the way and, rumor has it, so is Sitting Bull, fresh from his triumph at Little Big Horn.

Another complication: two foreign scientists are also competing for the bones. One says hews from Sweden, the other says he's from Iceland. One of them enlists Cope to help him, while the other befriends Marsh.

Marsh and Cope don't want the fossils to leave the country, so they decide to bury the hatchet and work together to outwit the visitors. This turns out to be harder than they thought. The foreign scientists possess amazing technology, but that's because they are much more foreign than they claimed. They don't just want to take the bones out of the country – they’re fighting over who will get to take them clean off the planet...

My thoughts

The rivalry between Victorian Era paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh is legendary. These men hated each other, so much so they even ordered fossils at their sites destroyed so the other wouldn’t collect them. But the result of this feud was the discovery dozens of new dinosaur species, although both men tended to be sloppy with identification (which is why we now call brontosaurus “apatosaurus”).

Davis fails to capture either of the two men’s fire in Bone Wars. He could have a lot of fun with the premise of them joining forces, but their characterizations struck me as rather bland, and as a result the 300-page novel plods along about as slowly as a bronto… I mean apatosaurus. There’s no real urgency in what either character does given the situation they’re in, and when they have to swallow their pride and make amends, a moment that could’ve been the most colorful in the novel turns into nothing more than a polite chat.

Anyone looking for dinosaurs in the flesh and blood will be disappointed. Bone Wars is about the men who sniff out the bones, and space aliens.

Trivia Reviews

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bone Hunter by Sarah Andrews (1999)

Paperback cover blurb

Forensic geologist Em Hansen uses her keen senses and fascinating scientific background to uncover the buried secrets of the most baffling murder cases. Now Em travels to a Utah paleontology conference, where a renowned dinosaur expert is found brutally murdered…making Em, his houseguest, the chief suspect. Now, digging for clues amidst a canyon of suspects like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, Em’s gotta catch a killer, clear her name, and save herself from becoming extinct…

My thoughts

Bone Hunter is a murder mystery set at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Salt Lake City, and it's a fun one at that.

The best thing Bone Hunter has going for is its likable heroine and narrator, Em Hansen. Em is a “forensic geologist,” which must mean she does something similar to CSI, except her work isn’t as gross. She has been invited to speak about her unique profession at a paleontology conference by George Dishey, a dinosaur hunter admired by the popular press but not well respected by his colleagues. George is murdered before the novel begins (!) and Em is caught breaking into his house, having accidentally locked herself out. She quickly becomes the prime suspect so she sets out to find the real killer and clear her name.

Em is a wonderful creation. She’s funny, smart, and very insecure. Her character helps because the novel drags in a bit where it ventures away from its central drama, such as Em’s stopover at the home of a conservative Mormon family. Also, the resolution of the murder feels like a bit of a cheat on the author's part, but to give any more away would spoil the book.

Still, the novel is a compelling mystery sprinkled with science lectures, and I definitely recommend it.

Trivia

  • Bone Hunter is the fifth novel in a series of mysteries featuring geologist Em Hansen. Other titles include Tensleep, Mother Nature, and Earth Colors.
Reviews

Monday, June 25, 2007

Extinct by Charles Wilson (1997)

Paperback cover blurb

Six-year-old Paul Haines watches as two older boys dive into a coastal river…and don’t come up. His mother, Carolyn, a charter boat captain on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, finds herself embroiled in the tragedy to an extent she could never have imagined.

TO THE DEEPEST PARTS OF THE PACIFIC…

Carolyn joins with marine biologist Alan Freeman in the hunt for a creature that is terrorizing the waters along the Gulf Coast. But neither of them could have envisioned exactly what kind of danger they are facing.

TERROR COMES TO THE SURFACE…

Yet one man, Admiral Vandiver, does know what this creature is, and how it has come into the shallows. And his secret obsession with it will force him, as well as Paul, Carolyn and Alan, into a race against time…and a race toward death.

My thoughts

The disappearance of two boys swimming in the Mississippi River (or one of its branches) eventually leads biologist Alan Freeman to the discovery that the giant shark, Carcharodon megalodon, is still alive and has taken up residence along the Gulf Coast. He teams up with a single mom and an admiral obsessed with the shark to stop it.

Extinct desperately wants to be Jaws, and while it’s not a total loss, it fails to capture both the film’s terror and its likeable characters. The book is rather slow-moving – as a mystery it gives away too much at the beginning to be compelling, and as a horror novel it has too few moments of real suspense. But at least the author, Charles Wilson, makes an attempt to give readers a sense of what it would be like for people living at the lower end of the food chain. As far as giant shark novels go, it's better than Meg.

Trivia
  • The first three chapters can be read here.
  • The cover tells readers "Extinct" is "coming to NBC-TV." Trust me, it never came.
Reviews
  • None

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove (1989)

Paperback cover blurb

NEITHER MAN NOR BEAST

What if when Columbus came to the New World he found, not Indians, but primitive apelike men who were soon dubbed “sims”?

These immediate ancestors of modern man were less effective hunters, allowing prehistoric creatures such as mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to survive. Unable to learn human speech or conceptualize at a human level, sims could, however, be trained to do reliable work… as slaves.

Harry Turtledove probes this intriguing concept, exploring such historical and social issues as the Darwinian hypothesis, the Dred Scott decision and AIDS. Once again the author of the acclaimed Agent of Byzantium asks “what if” – and makes it a reality.

My thoughts

A Different Flesh is an anthology consisting of seven short stories chronicling the colonization of the New World, from the first English settlement of Jamestown to roughly the modern day. According to Turtledove, colonization of the West would be much more rapid, since man’s ancestors – called “sims” (not the little computer game people) – offer none of the resistance the Indians did. The politics are familiar but slightly different, the USA being replaced by the "Federated Commonwealths of America." Missing are the Indian names given to familiar landmarks and cities, such as the Mississippi river, which is now called the New Nile.

Also surviving are North America’s Ice Age megafauna, which play a major role in two stories: “Around the Salt Lick,” concerning the exploration of the virgin Appalachian mountains; and “The Iron Elephant,” about a race between a steam train and a domesticated mammoth.

Mostly Turtledove uses the sims to explore history’s moral dilemmas in a new light. Evolution is theorized long before Darwin. Slavery is abandoned because the less intelligent sims nicely fill the role of Africans. Sims also turn out to be great test subjects for treatments for HIV, although they’re far more human than apes or chimpanzees.

Turtledove is a skillful writer and every story is a good read. The sims are well-realized. They walk a fine line between human and animal, and Turtledove is careful not to push them in either direction, or to take sides on an issue in a story (although he lets readers know in his introduction his sympathies lie with the exploited sims).

Sadly, A Different Flesh is out-of-print and hard to find despite Turtledove’s current popularity. Cross your fingers and hope it will be reissued.

Stories

  • Introduction by Isaac Asimov
  • Preface by author
  • "Vilest Beast"
  • "And So to Bed"
  • "Around the Salt Lick"
  • "The Iron Elephant"
  • "Though the Heavens Fall"
  • "Trapping Run"
  • "Freedom"
Trivia Reviews

Saturday, June 23, 2007

First Frontier: Star Trek #75 by Diane Carey and Dr. James I. Kirkland (1995)

Paperback cover blurb

While testing a new shielding device, the U.S.S. Enterprise is caught in the middle of a Klingon/Romulan battle. When the Enterprise crew rescues a lifepod, they are confronted by a Klingon who claims to know nothing of human existence. Convinced the Klingon is telling the truth, Captain Kirk hurries to Starfleet Headquarters in search of answers. But upon arriving on Earth, the Starship Enterprise crew finds that Earth is a vast jungle-like paradise where large, reptilian animals rule…with no signs of human life anywhere. Now, Kirk must travel to the past in search of the key to the mystery – or face the destruction of the human race.

My thoughts

A race of intelligent dinosaurs from a distant planet are fed up with their third-class status in the universe, so they decide to use that stone-wheel-time-traveling-thingie from one of the original Star Trek episodes to travel to the Mesozoic Era and stop the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise is testing a new shield system when the universe suddenly changes around it. Kirk orders the ship to return to earth, and upon arrival the crew finds a world where the dinosaurs never died out. Soon Kirk, Spock, Bones and a few expendable crew members are traveling back to the age of dinosaurs to stop the aliens from erasing humanity.

I’m fond of the original series, but I despise the countless Star Trek novels pushing out more serious sci-fi from bookshelves. (Or maybe it's just bias, since I'm more of a Doctor Who fan.) What interested me in First Frontier was the involvement of paleontologist James I. Kirkland. It turns out he’s something of a Trekkie and had pitched the novel’s plot to Diane Carey, who has authored several Trek novels.

I was pleasantly surprised by the book. Kirkland brings a stamp of authenticity to the dinosaur scenes, which are well done. And Carey actually knows how to put together a coherent and well-paced story. Where First Frontier drags is in its standard Star Trek fare – Romulans, Vulcans and the like – which we’ve seen too many times before. The authors also decided, for some strange reason, that Kirk should spend the vast majority of the book suffering from an alien bug bite and have him constantly refuse pleas by Bones to get it treated, just to prove how much of a man he is, I guess. Still, if you can get past the Klingons and the starship battles, First Frontier may be worth your time.

Trivia
  • Kirkland co-discovered the Utahraptor, which is the main character of Raptor Red, a novel by another paleontologist, Robert T. Bakker.
Reviews
  • None

Friday, June 22, 2007

Time Safari by David Drake (1982)

Paperback cover blurb

HOT BLOODED DINOSAURS AND A COLD-BLOODED WOMAN MIX IN TIME SAFARI

Henry Vickers knows his dinos – tyrannosaurs with six-inch fangs, triceratops whose horns can flip over a truck, and their flying cousins with fifty-foot wingspans and beaks a yard long. Vickers has led more big-game hunters into the past than anybody else on earth, and he’s never lost a client.

But this time he’ll be lucky to bring ‘em back alive. It’s not that the beasts are the problem – it’s the hunters. Especially Andrienne Soames, who’s blond, beautiful and as good with a rifle as anyone Vickers has ever met. The trouble is, Adrienne handles males the way a Black Widow spider does –

And now she’s looking at Henry Vickers…

My thoughts

Time Safari seems to take its name from Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, “The Sound of Thunder.” The time-travel company in Bradbury’s story also is called Time Safari. But where Bradbury used the concept to explore the nature of time, Drake settles for old-fashioned adventure. That’s not a complaint. Time Safari is a fun little book.

The novel is actually three stories strung together, all following the exploits of big-game hunter Henry Vickers. The first is set in prehistoric Africa and features sabertooth cats and early hominids. The second and third stories are set in the Cretaceous and have humans chasing down the most dangerous prey of all: Tyrannosaurus rex. Drake’s dinosaurs are hot-blooded and very hungry, but as usual in safari stories, it is the humans who turn out to be the greatest threat.

Time Safari was reissued years later as Tyrannosaur (see review below), but I recommend reading the original if you can find a copy. The opening story of Time Safari was removed in the reprint, which was a shame. It is a quick-moving and action-packed novel that, at just over 200 pages, is the appropriate length for brain candy such as this. And the original novel comes with an afterword by the author.

Trivia

  • Drake writes on his web site that while he enjoyed researching the book, it probably wasn’t the best move commercially, although his ability to turn it in on deadline convinced his publishers to give him another project.

Reviews

  • None

Tyrannosaur by David Drake (1993)

Paperback cover blurb

Tyrannosaurus rex – King Tyrant Lizard – the greatest predator the world has ever known. He ruled the earth long before many evolved.

Now man has found a way to travel back to those distant, prehistoric days.

And the greatest predator of one age is about to meet the most efficient killer of another… MAN!

Who is the hunter, and who the hunted?

And who will win the battle for supremacy?

My thoughts

Tyrannosaur is a reprint of Time Safari (above) meant to cash in on the dinosaur craze of the first Jurassic Park movie. The cover art – a profile of a T. rex with its mouth open – is clearly meant to invoke the logo from the film. The opening story of the original book, set in prehistoric Africa and featuring early humans, was replaced with a new story to fit the dinosaur theme.

The new story concerns a T. rex terrorizing modern-day Borneo, with the hero, Henry Vickers, called in to mop up the problem. It reads more like a horror story than an adventure tale, and having read Tyrannosaur before Time Safari, I always thought it seemed out of place in the book given the other two tales are much more action-oriented.

I recommend picking up Time Safari rather than Tyrannosaur, but the fact is Tyrannosaur is much easier to find than the original novel. Two-thirds of the book are left pretty much untouched, so it’s still worth the cover price.

Trivia

  • I'm pointing out the obvious here, but notice the tag line on top of the cover: "Peril in the Jurassic!" Tyrannosaurus rex lived in the Cretaceous Period, not the Jurassic. No part of the novel is set in the Jurassic, but when you have a movie called Jurassic Park in theaters, who cares about accuracy in advertising?

Reviews

  • None

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear (1998)

Hardback cover blurb

It’s the year 1947, and nobody’s interested in dinosaurs anymore. Less than fifty years after Professor Challenger’s famed journey to the Lost World, America’s last dinosaur circus is closing down… but the adventure of a lifetime is about to begin. In a dramatic change of pace, multiple Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction master Greg Bear, author of Moving Mars, Anvil of Stars and Queen of Angels, presents a lavishly illustrated thriller that is certain to become a new classic of adventure beyond time…

DINOSAUR SUMMER

Peter Belzoni is dreading summer in Manhattan. Then his father, photojournalist Anthony Belzoni, offers the youth a job, and a byline in National Geographic… and a trip to South America. For Lothar Gluck Circus, once the world’s foremost dinosaur attraction, has gone bankrupt. Left behind is a menagerie of avisaurs, centrosaurs, and ankylosaurs, as well as one predatory raptor named Dagger. And now two filmmakers and the circus trainer plan to return the giants to the wild – with Peter and his dad chronicling the odyssey for Geographic. The task seems impossible. Many have died trying to bring beasts out of the Lost World, the plateau of El Grande in Venezuela, but nobody has ever attempted to transport nearly a dozen full-grown, multi-ton prehistoric creatures across continents, down rivers, through jungles, and up a mountain that has been isolated for 70,000,000 years…

The trek will strain the technologies of trains, cargo ships, barges, trucks… en route lurk robbers and hostile, trigger-happy soldiers… and each miles toward freedom excites Dagger toward an unstoppable, primal killing frenzy. When the unthinkable threatens to strand Peter and the rest of the crew in an uncharted realm, four modern Americans will face all the unknown dangers, mysteries, and terrors of El Grande…

My thoughts

Peter Belzoni gets to live out every boy’s dream: He will accompany his father on an adventure to a remote plateau in Venezuela where dinosaurs still roam. It’s a hell of a way to spend summer break.

It turns out that the Lost World discovered by one Professor Challenger is real. But in the 30 or so years since the discovery, things haven’t gone well. The Lost World was exploited for profit, and many of its animals were captured for zoos and circuses. While the public was at first captivated by the live dinosaurs, it soon lost interest as the fad came and went. King Kong, shot with real dinosaurs, was a box-office flop, and the last dinosaur circus is closing down. The owner of the circus, Lothar Gluck, wants to return his dinosaurs to the Lost World, now a protected sanctuary. Peter and his father will accompany the expedition, but after a bad turn of events, they’ll find themselves stranded in the Lost World, where things far more deadly than dinosaurs roam.

Dinosaur Summer is an unofficial sequel to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World from Greg Bear, a writer better known for hard sci-fi. It’s a fun read that’s really meant for younger audiences. The illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi, while excellent, reinforce that fact. The book is a tribute to the filmmakers that Bear grew up with – stop-motion pioneers Ray Harryhousen and Willis O’Brien, and King Kong creators Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. In fact, all four have major roles in the novel.

A couple critics have complained that Dinosaur Summer was Bear’s overt attempt to write a novel that would be turned into a movie. And yes, it’s true the book was published while Jurassic Park was still all the rage (although, contrary to the cover blurb, the book doesn’t feature a “raptor,” but rather an allosaurus descendant referred to as a “venator”). I think this novel was a labor of love for Bear, an attempt by the author to recapture part of his childhood. It’s light, breezy entertainment and should be accepted as such.

Trivia
  • Unlike in Doyle’s original novel, there are no ape men or Ice Age mammals roaming Bear’s lost world. However, there are several new creatures not known in the fossil record. Bear imagines a lost world where evolution doesn't stand still, so while there are dinosaurs that have changed very little in 65 million years, there are also animals that have evolved no where else, most noticeably the book’s villain, the Stratoraptor,
  • The illustrator, Tony DiTerlizzi, is a well-known children's book illustrator. His web site includes several examples of his work, but nothing from Dinosaur Summer, unfortunately..
  • Dinosaur Summer won the first Endeavor Award, a science fiction award for writers from the Pacific Northwest.
Reviews

Carnosaur by Henry Adam Knight (1984)

Paperback cover blurb

DRIVEN TO EXTINCTION
BACK FOR REVENGE!

The world’s most vicious predator is back – and he’s got company. Tyrannosaurus Rex, Deinonychus, Brachiosaurus, all have been loosed into the modern world by Jane Penward, the vengeance-hungry nymphomaniac wife of the man who cloned them. David Pascal is a small-time journalist who gets his chance to make it big by cracking the dino story. But the key to the truth carries a high price – it’s held by Jane. Before she’s through with David, the carnage created by the dinosaurs will spread for miles and climax in an apocalyptic battle between the primal monsters and all the technological forces that modern man can muster.

But can anything stand against the voracious prehistoric hunger of…

CARNOSAUR

* The cover and blurb are from the 1993 movie tie-in edition.

My thoughts

Carnosaur is a guilty pleasure of mine. The book is a fun little novel filled with dark humor. And although it's not apparent unless you know something about the author, the book is a homage to B-grade dinosaur movies of yesteryear.

The entire plot of the novel was scrapped in the 1993 movie, a cheap made-in-America effort to cash in on the Jurassic Park craze of that year. Carnosaur is set in England in the early-1980s. David Pascal is a reporter who writes for a small town paper and still lives at home with his mother. He comes to suspect that a series of deaths in the surrounding countryside are not the work of an escaped tiger, a story fabricated by one Lord Penward, an aristocrat who keeps a private zoo. To break the story, Pascal has an affair with Penward's wife, Lady Jane. He soon discovers Penward has more than just tigers in his zoo.

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. The climatic rampage of the dinosaurs across the countryside is a hoot, as is the twisted ending.

The characters are likable if a little silly, particularly the villains, Penward and his wife, whose motives are downright laughable. The dinosaurs are little more than movie monsters, although the author did incorporate what was then new ideas about warm-blooded dinosaurs. You never mind its shortcomings because the book, at little over 200 pages, is fast-paced and never boring. Also, there are moments of real tension, such as an escape over a barb-wire fence by our heroes as a hungry Tarbosaurus chases them down.

The book is out-of-print and hard to find: Try a used bookstore.

Trivia
  • Any conspiracy theorists out there? The cast of dinosaurs in Carnosaur may seem familiar to fans of Jurassic Park, but remember this work came out six years before Michael Crichton published his dinosaur story. There is a deinocyhus, which Crichton confused with velcioraptors; a Tarbosaurus, the Asian cousin of T. rex; and a dilphosaurus, the "spitters" of Jurassic Park. I think it is coincidental, but it is interesting.
  • Harry Adam Knight is the pen name for John Brosnan, who has written extensively on sci-fi and horror films, and Leroy Kettle. However, Brosnan wrote Carnosaur himself. The initials of the pen name -- HAK (as in movie "hack") -- are no accident. (Source: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.)
  • I may be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure Carnosaur is the only work of fiction to feature a character who is "the vengeance-hungry nymphomaniac wife of the man who cloned (dinosaurs)." Just imagine the possibilities if this was used in Jurassic Park...
Reviews
  • None

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Beyond the Gates by Catherine Wells (1999)

Paperback cover blurb

Few native species exist on the sand-whipped world of Dray’s Planet, home of the Children of the Second Revelation. And few people know about the ones that do live there. For the Children have cut themselves off from the rest of the galaxy for fear of their religion becoming “contaminated” by Unbelievers

But when a graduate student named Marta discovers a strange creature that cannot be classified, two rival scientists – both Unbelievers – are brought onto Dray’s Planet to help identify it. Defying her religious beliefs, Marta guides them to the forbidden continent of her homeworld to determine the creature’s origins. But soon, the scientist ruthless quest for personal glory traps Marta in a race not only to discover the truth, but to escape with it – alive..

My thoughts

Beyond the Gates is a moderately successful novel but not a memorable one. Marta – the heroine of the novel – has grown up in religiously conservative culture that apparently evolved from Islam. She’s a student who has found the remains of a creature on her desert planet that looks suspiciously like a dinosaur, so she calls for help from outsider scientists to learn its origin. Two rival scientists answer the call and, eventually, all three come to the realization that the answers they seek will only be found by mounting an expedition to a mysterious continent that Marta’s people have prohibited anyone from visiting.

What makes Beyond the Gates work is its central mystery, but I soon grew tired of the all-too-familiar plot about cultural conflict that really didn’t have anything new to add to the issue. The book plods along then suddenly hits a brick wall of an ending, which wraps up everything a bit too quickly, especially since the most interesting plot twist is revealed in the last 30 or so pages. This novel isn’t a complete waste of your time, but it’s one that will appeal to science fiction fans more interested in Star Trek than paleontology.

Trivia Reviews

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

Paperback cover blurb

BACK TO THE JUNGLE

Kerans could not remember how it had been before the violent solar storms shattered the ionosphere and turned the earth into a vast tropical heat zone, a seething world of jungle, swamp and fetid water…

In the drowned, lost cities, there was the eerie beauty of the lagoons, the towering sixty-foot-high plants, the once-proud buildings smothered in silt…

Above all, there was the colossal fireball in the sky, the giant solar disk that seemed to blind him with its rays, lulling him into a strange hypnotic state, seeming to lure him back to the dawn of preconscious, to another age when Man was yet unborn and reptiles ruled the earth…

My thoughts

A new Age of Reptiles has begun, and humanity is nearly extinct. A sudden flare-up of the sun has melted the polar ice caps and turned the world into a great primordial swamp. (The Drowned World was written before the modern concept of global warming.) Most mammals have died out, and reptiles and plants are devolving into their ancient, Triassic-period forms to adapt to the new environment.

Kerans is a biologist accompanying a military expedition to a submerged London to study the new plant and animal life. There’s one problem: he’s haunted by dreams that may be recollections of long-lost racial memories of ancient times, when reptiles first ruled the earth. Soon he suspects that it’s just not plants and reptiles that are changing to fit the new climate.

The Drowned World was one of J.G. Ballard’s first novels, and it’s considered one of his best, although it is extremely hard to find in the U.S. The work is not so much about ancient creatures as it is about ancient environments and how humans would change to fit those environments. Ballard’s descriptions of a near-future London overrun with Triassic-age swamps are among the most haunting I’ve read. The Drowned World is not a book with much plot or action. It’s mostly about atmosphere, and on that Ballard excels brilliantly.

The science – with references to devolution and racial memory – may strike modern readers as dated. The Drowned World also comes to a screeching halt in the middle when a gang of looters sacks London, although it finds its footing again near the end. Still, it’s not a book to miss, and it’s a crime it’s so hard to find these days.

Trivia
  • The Drowned World was the second book in Ballard's Elemental Cycle, a series of novels dealing with the end of the world, each disaster based on the elements of earth, fire, air and water. The element of The Drowned World was, obviously, water. Other titles include The Wind from Nowhere (air), The Burning World (fire), and The Crystal World (earth).
  • At least two of Ballard's novels have been made into movies: Empire of the Sun and Crash.
  • The novel was reissued in 2000 as part of the SF Masterworks series, which was released in the U.K..
Reviews

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder by George Gaylord Simpson (1996)

Hardback cover blurb

“I cling to being Sam Magruder. I want to reassure myself that I am I. That this is the same being who is to be born eighty million years from now and registered as Samuel TM12SC48 Magruder…”

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is one of the stranger works of fiction that has appeared in recent years. Its author, George Gaylord Simpson, was widely regarded as the greatest paleontologist of the twentieth century. He died in 1984, but the manuscript of this intriguing novella about a twenty-second-century scientist was not found by his daughter until 10 years after his death.

Did Simpson want this time-travel story eventually to be published? Was Sam Magruder Simpson’s alter ego, the scientist of his imagination who was able to observe the dinosaurs the way they really were?

No one will ever be sure of these answers, but what we do know is that Sam Magruder, a fortyish research chronologist, vanished on February 30, 2162, as he was working on the problem of quantum theory. Thrown back eighty million years to the prehistoric Jurassic era, Magruder, endowed with the intelligence of a modern man, discovers that he is the only human being in a valley filled with dinosaurs. Magruder, inventive and resourceful, keeps a stone-slab diary and struggles mightily to survive by feeding on lizards and scrambled turtle eggs, even as menacing tyrannosaurs try to gnaw off his limbs.

Filled with magnificent descriptions of dinosaurs as they were just before the great floods, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is not only a classic story told in the tradition of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but a philosophical work that astutely examines the reality of modern existence against the backdrop of our prehistoric past.

My thoughts

The story behind The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is nearly as strange as the tale itself. George Gaylord Simpson, one of the most renowned paleontologists of the previous century, died in 1984. He wasn’t known as a fiction writer, but his daughter stumbled across this manuscript 10 years after his death. Apparently, it was never meant for publication.

The novella begins with a philosophical discussion between some friends whose real names are never given. The “Universal Historian” asks his buddies to try to picture a situation where a person knows he will live out the rest of his life without ever seeing another human again. This proves more difficult than it sounds. A castaway on a deserted island, for example, can always dream of rescue. A prisoner locked up in solitary confinement can always dream of escape. The historian then relates the story of one Sam Magruder, a man transported back in time to the Cretaceous period through a laboratory accident, and whose tale is known only because he wrote it down on stone tablets buried in what one day became a major fossil site. Thanks to a complicated theory of time, Magruder knows there’s no chance of rescue – from his perspective, the future hasn’t happened yet. He will spend the rest of his life alone.

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is, more than anything, a rewrite of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, except this time the hero is sent back in time by accident instead of moving forward by his own will. The central philosophical argument is an intriguing one, and at times the work reads like a Greek dialogue from Philosophy 101.

A cover blurb by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss calls it the “best time-travel” story since The Time Machine. That’s hardly the case. It comes off as a little old-fashioned and Magruder’s psychology is never plumbed in any great detail given his predicament. Still, it’s a pretty good story – it will have you thinking after it’s over – although the hardcover price of $17.95 was way too much for a book just over 100 pages. You'll probably find it in the bargain section of your local bookstore now.

Trivia
  • Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke provides the book's introduction, while paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote an afterword.
  • Simpson, while a legend in his field, was an old-fashioned paleontologist. The dinosaurs in his novel are not only cold-blooded, they're downright sluggish. He didn't think much of emerging theories concerning warm-blooded dinosaurs, and has his hero pretty much say so at one point.
  • The cover blurb contains the strange claim, "(The novel is) filled with magnificent descriptions of dinosaurs as they were just before the great floods..." I have no idea where this comes from, but it sounds very creationist to me (Noah's flood). Gould couldn't have been happy about that.
Reviews

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Age of Reptiles: The Hunt by Ricardo Delgado (1996)

Blurb

His mother slaughtered by a pack of Ceratosaurs, a terrified Allosaur must make his way across the sweltering deserts of Jurassic North America -- or face the same fate himself. The Hunt is on in this new chapter of Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles! Told entirely in pictures, the Age of Reptiles series is regarded as one of the finest uses of the comics medium and is appropriate for all ages. Through his innovative approach, storyteller Ricardo Delgado has earned such renowned fans as Burne Hogarth, Ray Harryhausen, Mike Mignola, John Landis, Mark Schultz, and Steve Bissette -- and once you've read Age of Reptiles: The Hunt, you'll count yourself among them!

* Blurb from publisher’s web site.

My thoughts

Age of Reptiles: The Hunt is a sequel to Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare, although it doesn’t matter which order you read them in, because they share only the title. The first series was set in the Cretaceous. The Hunt is set in the Jurassic and follows the adventures of an allosaurus out for revenge.

The story opens with the protagonist watching his mother get killed by a pack of ceratosaurs. Years later, he is being pursued across the desert by the same pack when he stumbles across a lush valley filled with plant-eating dinosaurs. (Can anyone say “smorgasbord”?) Things happen, and by the end of the series the allosaurus is taking his revenge on the members of the pack, one by one.

Again, there are no speech balloons or any type of narration, with the story told entirely through pictures. The personalities of the dinosaurs, however, are highly anthromorphized, and the cast of characters isn’t particularly nice: It only takes a slight insult to get gangs of different species fighting to the death. (The allosaurs and ceratosaurs are not the only ones who don’t like each other.)

The comic lacks the coherence of the first series, often wandering away from its main story to follow not-very-interesting side stories, and sometimes things happen that make no sense at all. Spoiler alert, highlight with cursor to read: At one point, for example, a giant tidal wave wipes out the valley. Where did this tidal wave come from? Wasn’t the valley supposed to be in the middle of the desert?!

While the story is lacking, I can’t fault the artwork, which is top notch. The colors are vibrant, and the dinosaurs are detailed and well drawn. Since this is a comic meant to be looked at rather than read, it’s still worth the cover price.

Trivia

  • The ceratosaurs in the comic can change their skin color to make themselves practically invisible. A similar idea was explored in Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park, although in that case it was a pack of carnotaurs that could change color. The dinosaurs were left out of the movie.

Reviews

Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare by Ricardo Delgado (1993)

Blurb

Thundering herds of lizards roam Cretaceous America, and the earth trembles with their passage. Enormous yet graceful meat-eaters shred the still-living meat from the bones of placid plant-eating saurians. Tyrannosaurus rex, the most fearsome carnivore that ever lived, is king. But even T-rex isn't safe from the greedy eyes and the ravenous appetites of a band of bird-quick Deinonychus. A tale from an age before humans and language, Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare is a 128-page epic told entirely in pictures. Ricardo Delgado, production artist for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, has crafted the finest graphic novel about dinosaurs ever released.

* Blurb from publisher’s web site

My Thoughts

Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare starts with a pack of Deinonychus (i.e. “raptors”) taking out a sauropod only to have their kill stolen by a T. rex. One of the raptors, in a not-very-wise move, decides to take a swipe at the rex but manages to get himself killed instead. The raptors don’t take too kindly to the murder of one of their own, so they plot revenge, a move that will lead to escalating hostilities between the two tribes of dinosaurs.

As you may have guessed, Age of Reptiles isn’t about scientific accuracy. The dinosaurs don’t talk, there are no speech balloons or narration of any kind, but they are far too smart for real animals and their behavior is anthromorphized to the extreme. The comic is a fantasy about dinosaurs, a fun one at that. The panels are brightly colored and Delgado’s Cretaceous world is appropriately lush, with towering forests and deep blue seas. The dinosaurs themselves are well drawn, although they sport emotive faces and, in one case, a Carnotaurus is given bull-like horns to make it look more devilish.

The story serves as an appropriate vehicle to explore the world of the comic, and there is an interesting twist at the (very) end. The comic was first published in 1993 and features T. rexes and raptors, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact the first Jurassic Park film was released that same year. *cough*

Trivia

Reviews

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak (1978)

Hardback cover blurb

WELCOME TO MASTODONIA

Time-traveling turns into big business and big trouble when a causal walk down a farm path in a quiet Wisconsin town leads an archeologist into the Pleistocene era and he uncovers an interstellar mystery from before recorded time…

Asa Steel is unprepared for the incredible events that begin to unfold when Rila Elliot – a woman he loved two decades before – steps out of the past and his faithful dog Bowser starts loping into it through time trails he’s discovered in his own backyard.

Rila’s appearance is mere coincidence, but Bowser’s retrieval of fresh dinosaur bones is as inexplicable as is the curious crater in Asa’s backyard that seems to have been made by a spaceship from the stars.

And that’s only the beginning.

Soon Asa himself trips in time, led into prehistoric eras by an enigmatic cat-faced creature. Unable to communicate with his alien guide except though a local simpleton named Hiram, Asa attempts to understand the meaning and the purpose of these time trails. Meanwhile, Rila, always looking toward the future, arranges to turn them into one of the biggest money-making travel ventures of all time.

In short order, the time trails in the quiet town of Willow Bend become the focus of global attention, government scrutiny and the target for an unprecedented solution to overpopulation.

But from the moment the first modern men begin trekking back in time, there’s more danger, excitement and trouble than any of them would have ever bargained for.

My thoughts

Mastodonia, in my opinion, is a novel with an interesting idea that doesn’t have a story to realize its potential. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, because it will keep you entertained for the two or three evenings it takes to read through its short 200-or-so pages. But the author never quite figures out to do with the time travel device -- or, in this case, time-traveling alien -- he gives his protagonists.

The novel is narrated by Asa, who stumbles across a mystery in his own backyard when his dog starts hauling in fresh dinosaur bones. Once the mystery is solved, which happens about a third of the way through the novel, the rest of the story is about how Asa and his lover Rila exploit the discovery of time travel for their own personal gain. That’s what turned me off most about this work: Here we have two protagonists who make the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, yet they use it for their own selfish reasons and we, as readers, are supposed to be rooting for them. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling capitalist enough when I read it. Anyway, one of their first actions is to establish a nation in the prehistoric past called Mastodonia, mostly as a way to avoid paying taxes. The secret is soon out, and the couple starts offering trips to prehistory, but only for the super rich. We peasants must settle for the occasional photograph of a dinosaur or a sabertooth cat.

Mastodonia has some good moments, such as a couple trips back to the Mesozoic era, and it is light-hearted in tone, but there is really no direction to the story. Once the opening mystery is solved, Simak seems to be making it up as he goes, and the ending isn’t so much of an ending as a point to stop writing. Some people may appreciate this. After all, real life leaves loose ends and it doesn’t have tidy conclusions. But real life doesn’t have you discovering living mastodons in your backyard either. Mastodonia feels very much like a book rushed to meet a deadline.

Trivia

Reviews

  • None