Monday, February 24, 2014

Hey Hollywood! Forget Jurassic Park: Make this book into a movie instead

It may come as a surprise to learn I have mixed feelings about news that another Jurassic Park film is in the works. How can a guy who writes about prehistoric fiction not be excited about a big-budget dinosaur film? That’s because I’ve never really cared for any of the Jurassic Park movies, seeing them as pale imitations of the original novel. Add the fact that the film’s director has dismissed pleas to update his dinosaurs to reflect current scientific thinking, and I can’t see myself in line on opening day.

Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that as a reader of paleofiction, I know there are many other works of literature that would make excellent dinosaur films. Jurassic Park has had its run, and most people would say it has been a good one. It’s time for Hollywood to look for the next dinosaur movie franchise.

Of course, I have some suggestions. Six of them in fact. If there are any movie producers reading this, take notes.

Xenozoic Tales, aka Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

The pitch: Indiana Jones meets Jurassic Park in the jungle-shrouded ruins of the 26th century.

Summary: Cadillacs & Dinosaurs is a comic book series set in a future where every species that has ever lived has been mysteriously resurrected, and mankind shelters in the ruins of the modern-day world. Jack “Cadillac” Tenric cruises the countryside in retrofitted 1950s Cadillacs, defending wildlife from poachers and keeping an eye on ancient technology dredged from the ruins. His love interest is the beautiful Hannah Dundee, an ambassador from a neighboring tribe of humans. Despite the post-apocalyptic setting, the tone of the comic is more Indiana Jones than Mad Max, drawing inspiration from the adventure comics of yesteryear, such as Tarzan. The comic’s creator, Mark Schultz, has penned multiple stories set in the world of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, so it could easily sustain a movie franchise.

Would work best as: A PG-13 live-action adventure flick with plenty of opportunities for spectacular CGI: Besides the dinosaurs, much of the comic is set in a city half-submerged in the ocean.

I would settle for: A direct-to-video cartoon that doesn’t tone down the violence of the comic. The 2006 film Turok: Son of Stone is an example of how it could be done.

Dinosaur Summer

The pitch: A young boy lives the adventure of a lifetime when he and his father are stranded in a lost world of dinosaurs.

Summary: Dinosaur Summer is a young adult novel by Greg Bear about a boy who accompanies his father on an expedition to return dinosaurs from a circus back to the wild. The two end up stranded on a plateau in Venezuela where prehistoric beasts still roam. Film buffs will appreciate the story, as it features the legendary creators of King Kong and special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen as characters. There also is plenty of dinosaur action, particularly in the second half of the book. Given the central character is a child, this story will appeal to many younger audience members.

Would work best as: A PG movie in the spirit of the type of family adventure films Disney used to make.

I would settle for: A two-part TV miniseries, with the first half focused on returning the dinosaurs and the second half about escaping the lost world.


The pitch: A horror-comedy about a menagerie of genetically engineered dinosaurs that go on a bloody rampage across the English countryside.

Summary: Carnosaur was made into a movie by Roger Corman back in 1993, but the entire plot was thrown out. Also thrown out was much of the dark humor of the original novel. While not a comedy per se, the comedic elements could be played up in the novel’s next translation to the big screen while still retaining plenty of scares. Think Shaun of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods. The story concerns a British journalist who investigates the mysterious – and very gory – deaths of several of his neighbors. He soon learns that a madman is breeding dinosaurs. When the creatures escape, all hell breaks loose.

Would work best as: An R-rated gore fest that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I would settle for: This one would pretty much need to be a big-screen adaption to do the book any justice.


The pitch: Five teens must protect a gateway to a wild, untamed world from greedy government villains.

Summary: After the above titles, it is nice to throw in novel that doesn’t involve dinosaurs, but Ice Age mammals. Five teens find a tunnel leading to a parallel Earth where humans never evolved, meaning that extinct animals like mammoths and sabertooth cats still roam. Unscrupulous government officials soon learn of their discovery, and it is up to the teens to keep the Wildside from being exploited for its natural resources.

Would work best as: A PG-13 teen flick mixing adolescent melodrama with prehistoric thrills.

I would settle for: A TV series about the teens exploring the Wildside while working to keep it secret from the outside world.

Raptor Red

The pitch: Walking with Dinosaurs the TV show, but with a Utahraptor as the protagonist.

Summary: Raptor Red is a slim novel by paleontologist Robert Bakker concerning the adventures of a Utahraptor in Mesozoic North America. The animals don’t talk, but there is plenty of anthropomorphizing through their behavior. Raptor Red must find love (yes, really) while surviving in the prehistoric wilderness and protecting her sister’s hatchling.

Would work best as: A PG-rated faux nature documentary, but with no human voiceovers. The recent Walking with Dinosaurs movie is an example of how NOT to adapt the book.

I would settle for: A made-for-TV special, like the original Walking for Dinosaurs series.

Tommysaurus Rex

The pitch: A movie about a boy and his dog, except the dog happens to be a 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex.

Summary: Tommysaurus Rex is a children's graphic novel with a lot of heart. After Tommy loses his dog, he finds a T. rex that behaves just like his deceased mutt. There is no keeping the dinosaur a secret, and soon Tommy and his T. rex become celebrities. However, good times rarely last forever…

Would work best as: A G-rated animated movie for the younger crowd.

I would settle for: An animated made-for-TV special.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Roleplaying Game by Frank Chadwick (1990)

Note: This is a review I wrote for back in 2009. Since my thoughts on the game haven't changed, I'm simply republishing it here - complete with the corny jokes. (What was I drinking at the time?)

Chances are you've never heard of the Xenozoic, that as-yet-to-come geologic era when every creature that ever existed once again roams the Earth, and when what's left of mankind cruises the countryside in retrofitted 1940s and '50s Cadillacs. But if it sounds familiar, that's because it's the setting of a comic book series you might have heard of: Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.

Technically, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs (abbreviated hereafter as "C&D") is the nickname for a short-lived comics series titled Xenozoic Tales. It was the brainchild of Mark Schultz, who both wrote and provided most of the artwork for each of the series' 14 issues. C&D was the catchier title so it's the one that stuck.

The series may have only lasted 14 issues and ended mid-story, but it enjoyed a surprising amount of marketing success for an alternative comic. It was the basis for a beat-'em-up arcade game; a Sega CD shooter; a few toys; a sharply animated, if dumbed-down, Saturday morning cartoon; and even a music album with 1950s-ish songs. (The album is decent, if you can get past the corny lyrics: "We make love with fang and claw! Fa-a-ang and claw-w-w!")

Then, of course, there was C&D: The Roleplaying Game, written by none other than Frank Chadwick of Space: 1889 fame.

C&D is a 144-page, magazine-sized paperback published in 1990. Despite its age, it's still relatively easy to find on sites such as Ebay or, and I've spotted it a few times while browsing through comic and hobby shops. It uses the rules from another CDW post-apocalyptic game, Twilight: 2000, and that's its major downfall. The Twilight: 2000 system is a relatively tactics-heavy system, but C&D at its heart is a fast-paced, pulp adventure, and the two don't mesh.

Still, C&D provides a wealth of information about its setting, making it invaluable for anyone who wants to adapt their favorite system to the world of the comics.


C&D is set 450 years in the future after a planet-wide disaster destroyed most of civilization. While details of the disaster were only hinted at in the comics, Chadwick gives a very thorough and plausible-sounding explanation of what happened. (Chadwick will never be accused of slouching on his science.) The world after the apocalypse isn't a desert wasteland, but rather a lush, jungle world where dinosaurs, mammoths, sabertooth cats, terror birds, and every prehistoric animal you can think of live side-by-side. How it got that way is one of the central mysteries of the series.

In tone, the setting is a mix of The Lost World, Indiana Jones, and An Inconvenient Truth, with a dash of Mad Max thrown in. Schultz drew his inspiration, and his art style, from many classic comic strips, such as Tarzan and Prince Valiant.

Humanity is scattered into tribes that live on scraps of old world technology. Most of the action takes place around the ruins of New York City, which has become an archipelago of skyscrapers named "The City in the Sea." One of the main characters is Jack Tenrec, an "Old Blood Mechanic" who restores antique Cadillacs and preaches a form of environmentalism so unyielding it would leave Al Gore shell shocked. Sexual tension comes in the form of Hannah Dundee, the voluptuous ambassador (and spy) from the neighboring Wassoon tribe. Add to the mix a dozen colorful characters, from marauding poachers to a muscle-bound female villain who could bully Hulk Hogan into crying uncle.

The conflict between environmental stewardship and technological progress is a central theme of the series, with some characters trying to prevent the ecologic mishaps that led to the earlier disaster and others pushing for mankind to once again reign over nature. A healthy black market exists for dinosaur body parts, and the tribes repeatedly send expeditions into the interior in search of natural resources and old world technology. Those expeditions often don't return.

There also is plenty of political intrigue. Various factions in the City in the Sea vie for control of the tribe while the Wassoon jealously eye the vast hoard of old world relics their neighbor possesses.

And don't forget the Grith, an intelligent race of humanoid dinosaurs whose thought processes are so alien that no humans can understand them... unless they play Scrabble.


C&D may be only 144 pages long but it is a densely packed 144 pages, with two columns of small-type text on most pages.

Black-and-white illustrations coming almost exclusively from the comics make up the bulk of art. Schultz himself evolved as an artist over the course of the series, so some of his early work lacked the attention for detail that later issues possessed. Also, some of his best work appeared in the comic's final issues, which were published after C&D was released. The result is the art in the book is a mixed bag, although much of it is of higher quality than what you would find in most other roleplaying products. A disappointing exception is a bestiary that features several full-page renditions of silly-looking prehistoric animals. These images largely came from Schultz's early work, when he portrayed dinosaurs as tail-dragging behemoths.

As far as written content, Chadwick begins with a history of the disaster and how mankind managed to survive hidden underground. After the routine "what is roleplaying" introduction, he delves right into character creation (discussed below). A lengthy and nicely illustrated equipment section is next, with helpful pricing guidelines for various items. Next comes a section about GMing (here called the "referee") that contains many of the system rules. Rules for combat follow, and after that the relatively short bestiary. Then there is "The Known World," a guide to the world of the Xenozoic and the many characters who inhabit it.

Unfortunately, a rather boring adventure ends the book. The characters are ordered by the ruling council to journey to a research station to solve a mystery and then journey back to report their findings. It's about as prosaic as it sounds.

While the adventure itself is not up to snuff, much of the content is. Chadwick goes into great detail about equipping and launching expeditions, traveling overland, keeping equipment in tiptop shape, and encountering creatures in the wilderness. Yes, C&D makes much use of random encounter tables, but here they're put to good use given this is a setting heavy on wilderness exploration.

There also are rules for creating your own tribe as well as a nifty table that allows GMs -- I mean, referees - to randomly generate NPC motivations using a deck of poker cards.

While most rules are straight forward, at times Chadwick goes overboard on emphasizing planning and resource management. C&D, in my mind, really is a story-driven setting with its roots in adventure literature, but Chadwick aims for a simulationist approach: He seems to think that roleplaying in the fantasy world of the Xenozoic should be treated as realistically as exploring the American frontier of the 18th century. My guess is most players will just want to fight dinosaurs and uncover pre-cataclysm secrets, not spend a lot of time figuring out how much food and equipment they will need on their expedition.


C&D uses only two types of dice: d6s and d10s. The system at first seems blissfully simple, but once you get into the details of combat, it bogs down.

Characters have six attributes: Strength, Constitution, Agility, Education, Charisma, and Intelligence. All work pretty much as you expect them to. In addition, there are a number of skills linked to each attribute. Attribute levels are determined by rolling dice for random numbers or by assigning points. Skill levels are determined by choosing a background profession and by assigning bonus points to those skills you want to beef up.

Each attribute and skill is ranked from 1 to 10. A player must roll equal to or less than the governing attribute or skill on a d10 for an action to be successful. Say your character needs to repair a car and has a mechanic skill of 5. He or she must roll 5 or less to succeed. Some tasks require characters to use two skills or attributes, so they add the two together, divide by half, and then round down to get the target number.

Tasks can be easy, average, or hard. An easy task is twice the governing attribute or skill level. An average task is equal to the level. A hard task is half the level, rounded down. I rather like the simplicity of assigning difficulty, finding it infinitely more user-friendly for referees than picking arbitrary target numbers.

Simple is not how I would describe combat.

Combat basically uses the same task resolution rules as above. However, there are so many situation-specific rules for attacks, damage, and healing that require you to add, subtract, multiply, divide, or get the square root that they quickly become overwhelming. Keeping track of damage is a headache, given different body parts have different hit point values. Then there is a funky initiative system allowing some characters to take from two to five times the number of actions as others in a single turn, which really unbalances gameplay.

You also can be required to roll a lot of dice, particularly if you're using automatic weapons. One example given in the book has a character rolling 25 d6s in a single turn!

The combat system really defeats the overall pulp tone of the setting. Again, C&D is about two-fisted adventure, gun fights, and facing prehistoric monsters. Combat should be quick and light, allowing players to move from one scene to the other in relatively rapid succession. But the rules system here is unnecessarily complex and, at least when involving automatic weapons, potentially very deadly. It may be a great system for a gritty military game (such as Twilight: 2000), but here it's just out of place.


I'm a big fan of the comics, so I was happy as a Domo-kun chasing a kitten to find a roleplaying game based on them. I even bought two copies of the book. (They're pretty cheap these days.) I don't consider my money wasted because there is a wealth of information about the Xenozoic world, plus several helpful tables, maps, and rules for exploring that world. But it all comes attached to a combat system I really don't want to play and isn't a good fit for the types of adventures the setting lends itself to.

My suggestion is C&D is best used for background for building your own Xenozoic adventures using a pulp-friendly system. The first to comes to mind is Savage Worlds. (And given a Space: 1889 campaign is in the works for the SW system, is there any possibility Pinnacle will come out with its own C&D rulebook in the future, provided it gets the publishing rights?) Another good fit would be the Ubiquity system that powers Hollow Earth Expedition. Heck, move HEX up 500 years, tweak some of the character classes and weapons, and get rid of the hollow earth concept, and you essentially have C&D.

If another company ever acquires the rights to publish another version of C&D, all I ask is for a 50s-style pin-up of Hannah in a fur bikini to be included with the book. Qua-hoon!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Upcoming title: Dinosaurs by the Decades

Despite the popularity of dinosaurs, there are few books that explore the animals as a pop culture phenomenon. Now you can add one more to this short list: Dinosaurs by the Decades by Randy Moore, coming in July.

From the description:
Providing an appealing chronology of "all things dinosaur," this book covers these ancient creatures' roles and surprising importance in science, religion, and society at large.

This exhaustive, up-to-date book contains more than 2,000 entries about dinosaurs and dinosaur-related topics. It provides not only detailed information about their discovery, underlying science, and recent technologies and theories but also encompasses all of the facets of dinosaurs in society—for example, their use in consumer marketing and promotion, popularization of dinosaurs in the media, as "proof" for both evolutionists and creationists to substantiate their claims about life's origins, and as cultural artifacts.
The book is priced at $89, which is high but not unusual for a title from a small press. As for the author himself, Moore is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota who has written a handful of titles, mostly about the evolution-creationism debate.

As for other books that explore dinosaurs in popular culture, the title most relevant to this blog is the 2006 book Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction by Allen A. Debus. The author also penned a sequel of sorts, Prehistoric Monsters: The Real and Imagined Creatures of the Past That We Love to Fear, in 2009. Paleontologist Jose Luis Sanz wrote Starring T. rex!: Dinosaur Mythology and Popular Culture in 2002. Art historian W.J.T. Mitchell gave his own post-modern spin on the topic in his 1998 book The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon.

The subject even has its own magazine. Prehistoric Times is a quarterly publication all about prehistoric animals in science and pop culture, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Every issue contains reader-submitted art along with reviews of current toys and books about paleontology. I'm a big fan of the magazine and have been getting it for years - I recommend it if you have even the slightest interest in the subject.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The grass-eating, 200-foot-long brontosaur of the late Cretaceous, or common mistakes in paleofiction

Most authors try to get their facts right when writing stories about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. They know that in science fiction, a well-researched narrative adds a stamp of authority to the plot. But writers are only human. They make mistakes: They put dinosaurs from different eras in the same setting, or they have them eating things they couldn’t have possibly ate, or they make the animals too big.

The following is a list of five common scientific mistakes I’ve encountered in paleofiction. Now by “common” I don’t mean mistakes that pop up in every work, but they’ve shown up enough times they’ve caught my attention. Again, I’m not a paleontologist or any kind of expert in the subject, but I like to think I know more about the topic than most people.

1. Mix and match
At first, he thought it was a grounded blimp – then his eyes adjusted to the scale of the thing and he realized it was only a brontosaur. Not dangerous at all – well, not deliberately dangerous. There was the case of that hunter who was eaten inadvertently because the brontosaur’s eyesight is so poor it hadn’t see him in the tree – but that one really didn’t count. 
- Deathbeast, David Gerrold
There are many things wrong with the above excerpt. First, as any dinosaur-loving child will tell you, the proper name for Brontosaurus is Apatosaurus. Then there is the idea that the plant-munching Apatosaurus would eat a human, even accidently. (The concept is, to say the least, hard to swallow.) But worst of all is the setting: This particular dinosaur is spotted in the late Cretaceous, millions of years after its species went extinct!

The “brontosaur” isn’t the only out-of-place dinosaur spotted in Deathbeast. Later, our protagonists spot an Allosaurus, a dinosaur that lived during the Jurassic period, and it is promptly eaten by a T. rex, which lived millions of years later.

Authors of paleofiction have been mixing and matching prehistoric animals from different periods since the beginning of the genre. Jules Verne placed Mesozoic marine reptiles alongside Ice Age mastodons in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle populated The Lost World with dinosaurs, extinct mammals, and “ape men.” Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this prehistoric potpourri comes not from literature but from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, which included a scene with a Stegosaurus battling a T. rex – never mind there is more time separating the two species than there is time separating humans from tyrannosaurs.

This mistake arises from the popular perception of the prehistoric past as a single period of time rather than a collection of different eras, each with its own unique flora and fauna. The creatures of a thousand separate ages live side by side in the pages of literature, with authors usually picking their monsters based on an animal’s ability to capture readers’ imaginations, not whether it make sense in terms of the setting.

2. The carbon problem
“This does happen on very rare occasions, but there’s another problem: The bone isn’t old enough. It should be around sixty million years old.” 
“How old is it?” 
“Oh, I can’t tell really, but it’s clearly contemporary. The dating techniques we used show virtually no carbon-14 decay at all.” 
- Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex, J.F. Rivkin
Despite what some creationists may tell you, scientists do not use carbon-14 dating methods to determine the age of dinosaur fossils. The technique can only date organic materials back to 50,000 years. Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. That didn’t stop this mistake from appearing in Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex. It also appeared in Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers, where (bizarrely) it was used to date the exact moment of the comet crash that killed the dinosaurs.

3. The grass is greener
"I bet she ran into the grass to hide," Deadshot said. “I almost ran in there myself when you said I couldn’t shoot the blamed thing.” 
- Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers by Thomas Shadwell
What’s the problem with the above quote? The setting was the Jurassic, and grasses wouldn’t evolve until millions of years later.

I’ve come across many depictions of grass-munching dinosaurs in paleofiction. Perhaps the most egregious example was in the comic Cavewoman, in which artist Budd Root dreamed up a species of fictional hadrosaur that had evolved to camouflage itself in tall grass. Yes, it is hard for us to imagine a world without grass – it is everywhere in modern times – but throughout most of the Mesozoic it simply did not exist.

That said, recent scientific discoveries may have bailed out any authors who have made this mistake. Fossilized dinosaur dung described in 2005 had traces of grass in it, providing proof that at least some dinosaurs ate grass. The finding doesn’t mean the plant was nearly as extensive as it is today, with grass probably making up only a small part of dinosaur diets.

4. Pick up that tail!
Dr. Piltcher was about to reply when the branches behind him began to snap. The three turned to see a fifteen-foot-tall carnivore coming through the brush, towering above them. Its head and jaws were huge. It walked on two well-muscled back legs, but its forelegs looked smaller and useless. A long thick tail dragged behind. 
- Footprints of Thunder, James F. David
The concept of the lumbering, tail-dragging dinosaur is largely a thing of the past, but this image lasted longer than it should have.

Footprints of Thunder, published in 1997, is the most recent work of fiction to depict dinosaurs with their tails on the ground. (Although, to be fair, the above passage is the only example in the book I could recall.) This mistake is mostly confined to comics, with many comic book artists resisting efforts to modernize their dinosaurs. When Mark Schultz began Xenozoic Tales in 1987, his dinosaurs stood unrealistically erect. It wasn’t until later in the series that he drew them in scientifically accurate horizontal poses. A more recent and therefore more egregious example was the 1998 comic book miniseries Guns of the Dragon and its retro-looking dinosaurs – a pretty glaring oversight from a work that came out four years after Jurassic Park the movie.

5. The Godzilla syndrome
The attack came suddenly, from the left and right. Charging raptors covered the ten yards to the fence with shocking speed. Grant had a blurred impression of powerful, six-foot-tall bodies, stiff balancing tails, limbs with curving claws, open jaws with rows of jagged teeth. 
- Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Such was the first dramatic appearance of Jurassic Park’s main villains, the Velociraptors. The problem for Crichton was while the dinosaurs had a cool name, in real life they only came up to knee height on your average human. So he embiggened them, making them human sized. It was a mistake, although a deliberate one.

Writers and filmmakers have a habit of Godzilla-sizing their dinosaurs – that is, making them bigger than they probably were in reality. Another example also comes from Jurassic Park, in which Crichton describes his T. rex as standing 20-feet tall. Sue, one of the largest T. rexes yet discovered, was 13 feet high at the hips. (Remembering that with dinosaurs’ horizontal posture, the head was probably kept at roughly the same height.) That’s still plenty big, just not as big as Crichton depicted the animal. I’ve seen this 20-foot-tall T. rex myth pop up in a number of places. My guess it is left over from the days when museums depicted the dinosaur as standing upright, its tail on the ground and its head held above the rest of the body.

An incomplete fossil record gives writers some cover from this mistake. For example, after Jurassic Park the movie was released, Utahraptor was found. The dinosaur reportedly was even bigger than Crichton’s imagined raptors. Then there is the fact that paleontologists rarely discover complete fossils, so determining an animal’s size can come down to educated guesswork. One thing is for certain: If a scientist gives a range for a dinosaur’s estimated size, always expect writers to go with the larger number.

* Painting of Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight. Image from Wikipedia commons.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Sky People by S.M. Stirling (2010)

Cover blurb

Marc Vitrac was born in Louisiana in the early 1960’s, about the time the first interplanetary probes delivered the news that Mars and Venus were teeming with life—even human life. At that point, the “Space Race” became the central preoccupation of the great powers of the world.

Now, in 1988, Marc has been assigned to Jamestown, the US-Commonwealth base on Venus, near the great Venusian city of Kartahown. Set in a countryside swarming with sabertooths and dinosaurs, Jamestown is home to a small band of American and allied scientist-adventurers.

But there are flies in this ointment – and not only the Venusian dragonflies, with their yard-wide wings. The biologists studying Venus’s life are puzzled by the way it not only resembles that on Earth, but is virtually identical to it. The EastBloc has its own base at Cosmograd, in the highlands to the south, and relations are frosty. And attractive young geologist Cynthia Whitlock seems impervious to Marc’s Cajun charm.

Meanwhile, at the western end of the continent, Teesa of the Cloud Mountain People leads her tribe in a conflict with the Neanderthal-like beastmen who have seized her folk’s sacred caves. Then an EastBloc shuttle crashes nearby, and the beastmen acquire new knowledge… and AK47’s.

Jamestown sends its long-range blimp to rescue the downed EastBloc cosmonauts, little suspecting that the answer to the jungle planet’s mysteries may lie there, among tribal conflicts and traces of a power that made Earth’s vaunted science seem as primitive as the tribesfolk’s blowguns. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an enemy agent on board the airship…

Extravagant and effervescent, The Sky People is alternate-history SF adventure at its best.

My thoughts

We now know Venus to be the closest thing to Hell we have in our solar system, with sulfuric acid clouds and surface temperatures that can melt lead. But that was not always the case. Some early scientists speculated that Venus was a habitable but much younger world than Earth, possibly one covered with vast tropical forests. It didn’t take long for pulp fiction writers to run with the idea, populating the planet’s surface with dinosaurs.

Stirling’s alternate history novel The Sky People imagines a reality where Venus and Mars really were just as the pulp novels described them. Needless to say, the discovery two habitable worlds in the solar system accelerates the Cold War Space Race, with both the Soviets and the Americans scrambling to colonize the planets. The novel largely concerns an American rescue mission to save the crew of a downed Russian spaceship. In the process, they learn a little about how Venus came to support life.

The Sky People is a by-the-numbers adventure that’s fun while you read it but doesn’t leave any lasting impression. Stirling spends the first half of the novel exploring the world he has created, including the human societies that have evolved on Venus. It is really not until about midway that the plot takes off. As for the central mystery about Venus, it won’t take any science fiction fan long to figure out why the planet doesn’t resemble the hellhole of our timeline.

The dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters here serve mainly as window dressing. The author could have easily removed them and had pretty much the same novel.

  • The Sky People is the first in Stirling’s two-book Lords of Creation series. The second novel, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, is set on a dying Mars and doesn’t involve paleontology, so it won’t be reviewed here.
  • The popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game Space: 1889 also was set in an alternate universe where Venus is inhabited by dinosaurs and Mars is withering away. The similarities are due to the fact that the creators of both properties based their works on early science fiction depictions of the planets.
  • S.M. Stirling’s website is

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The rise of dinosaur erotica

I blame Michael Swanwick.

Swanwick is an award-winning science fiction writer and the author of the excellent dinosaur novel Bones of the Earth. But in 1999 he penned an odd short story titled “Riding the Giganotosaur,” which concerned a man who had his brain transplanted into a Giganotosaurus, a predator even larger than T. rex. He lives the life of the dinosaur – hunting, defending territory – and everything goes swimmingly until he encounters his first female Giganotosaurus:
She raised her head and made a warbling noise. George felt a strange surging sensation down below, in his cloaca and penile nubs. Distantly, the human part of him felt a kind of repulsed horror. This is bestiality, it babbled, it's sinful, it's wrong, it's disgusting. But that was mere intellectualization. Waves of chemicals swept up from the brain stem and overwhelmed his thoughts, tumbling and drowning them in wild tides of a lust more pure and primitive than anything he'd ever felt before.
You can guess what happens next. If not, let Swanwick spell it out for you:
They screwed right there in the open.
So was one of the first literary examples of dinosaur-on-human sex. Well, at least as far as I know. I doubt it really was the first time someone had depicted dinosaurs getting intimate with people, given the long history of literature and the dirty minds of many authors. But I was surprised dinosaur erotica would go on to become its own subgenre, thanks to

The online bookseller’s self-publishing program has allowed the release of many works of fiction that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day if the writers went through traditional publishers. One of the more successful authors has been Christie Sims, who has published a series of stories about women getting ravaged by prehistoric beasts and other monsters. Here’s a “warning” that comes with Sims’ Taken by the T. rex:
This is a tale of beast sex. This story was written to unlock your darkest fantasies and innermost desires. It is not for the faint of heart and is not your mother's erotica.
And who is the person who dreams up this stuff? According to New York Magazine, Sims is actually two people, both Texas college students in their early 20s. Sims writes the works with Alara Branwen, and the business has been so lucrative they have taken up writing full time, as Branwen explained in a Q&A with the magazine:
Combined, Christie and I make more money than our friend who has been working as an engineer at Boeing for a few years and Christie's friend who is a five-year accountant in Dallas, Texas.
But where did the idea for dinosaur erotica come from? Turns out you can blame Jurassic Park:
I wrote a lot of dragon-erotica stories, BBW romance, a few other things. But after a few months of writing about dragons having their way with busty maidens, I started getting burned out… But one day, I was walking and I thought about the movie Jurassic Park. My perverse mind immediately went to my work, and I pictured dinosaurs having their way with women. I died laughing. I was about to dismiss these thoughts as the workings of my freaky mind, but then I had an epiphany. Dinosaur erotica was something new that I’d never tried before.
Now you may be wondering at this point: Am I going to start reviewing dinosaur erotica for this site? The answer is no. Sorry, just not my thing, not that I have anything against people who enjoy it. But with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I didn’t want this small subset of paleofiction go without a mention. As it shows, there are some people who really love their dinosaurs.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Pax Britannia: Unnatural History by Jonathan Green (2007)

Cover blurb

Action and adventure in a new Age of Steam!

In two scant months the nation, and all her colonies, will celebrate 160 years of Queen Victoria’s glorious reign. But all is not well at the heart of the empire.

It begins with a break-in at the Natural History Museum. A night watchman is murdered. An eminent Professor of Evolutionary Biology goes missing. Then a catastrophic Overground rail-crash unleashed the dinosaurs of London Zoo. But how are all these events connected? Is it really the work of crazed revolutionaries? Or are there yet more sinister forces at work?

Enter Ulysses Quicksilver – dandy, rogue and agent of the throne. It is up to this dashing solider of fortune to solve the mystery and uncover the truth before London degenerates into primitive madness and a villainous mastermind brings about the unthinkable. The downfall of the British empire!

Pax Britannia is an exciting new science fiction series, set on an alternative Earth where the British Empire still reigns.

My thoughts


In a steampunk world where the British Empire never fell, government agent Ulysses Quicksilver sets out to investigate the disappearance of the evolutionary biologist Professor Galapagos. (*groan*) His investigation leads him to the London Zoo and its menagerie of living dinosaurs, as well as a terrorist organization called the Darwinian Dawn, which plans to literally make monkeys out of Londoners.

I don’t have much to say about Unnatural History because, for starters, it reads like bad fan fiction. The writing is clunky and amateurish, with villains delivering lines like “So, Ulysses Quicksilver, we meet again.” The characters are uninteresting and the world doesn’t make a lot of sense if you put much thought into it. (160 years and humanity hasn’t progressed beyond steam power?) The dinosaurs here have only a small cameo, providing the most entertaining scene in the novel when they go rampaging through the streets of London. Still, it’s not enough to justify reading this literary coprolite.

  • Unnatural History is the first in a shared world of steampunk novels by various authors. Green wrote a follow-up to the book titled Evolution Expects.
  • As of the time I write this, Unnatural History is available as a free download on and other websites. It may cost you no money, but you will lose valuable hours of your life you will never get back.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Turok is hunting dinosaurs again

Well, this comes as a surprise. I just found out that Dynamite comics is resurrecting Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, with the first issue of the comic hitting stores today. Here's the description from the publisher's website:

"THE GOLD KEY UNIVERSE BEGINS HERE! Classic Characters by some of Comics Hottest Creators! - Magnus, Solar, Turok and Dr. Spektor! Dynamite is proud to present an all-new adventure ongoing from superstar GREG PAK (Batman/Superman, World War Hulk) and incredible artist MIRKO COLAK (Red Skull: Incarnate, Conan)! Shunned from his tribe, a young Native American named Turok fights to survive, making a lonely life for himself in the unforgiving forest. But his hard-won cunning and survival skills face the ultimate test when man-eating THUNDER LIZARDS attack his people! Why are dinosaurs here? How have they survived? And will Turok use his abilities to save a society that's taken everything away from him?"

The comic looks like yet another spin on the character, who has had more incarnations than I can count. Most people know Turok from the classic Nintendo 64 video game, but the character got his start in 1954 as a comic book series concerning the adventures Native American who finds himself stranded in a lost world with a young sidekick, Andar. You can check out a gallery of covers from the original comic here.

Several comic book publishers have attempted to revive Turok over the years, and each time the character grew darker while his adventures grew bloodier. The lost world setting also became stranger, with later writers incorporating aliens, cyborgs, superheroes, and alternate universes. A 2008 reboot of the video game series threw out everything in the original comic, turning Turok into a space marine on a planet where dinosaurs have been resurrected thanks to terraforming. A direct-to-DVD animated movie released that same year, Turok: Son of Stone, was more faithful to the source material, the exception being that it was extremely gory. (The movie is surprisingly decent and worth tracking down.) Most recently, Dark Horse Comics resurrected Turok as a four-issue miniseries in 2010.

I plan to pick up a copy of the new series later today. It will be a while before I review it: I prefer to give comics a few issues for their stories to develop. Reviewing a first issue of a comic is like reviewing a book after reading only the first chapter. I encourage you to give Turok a try, if only to let publishers know we would like more comics with prehistoric animals.

Who wrote the first dinosaur novel?

That was the question raised back in 2011 by science writer Brian Switek. Many people would probably say Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was first published in 1864. "Yet there were no dinosaurs," Switek noted. "Marine reptiles, prehistoric elephants, pterosaurs and even primordial algae all make appearances, but there’s not an Iguanodon or Cetiosaurus to be seen."

Switek identified the 1901 novel Beyond the Great South Wall as a likely candidate, with its description of a Brontosaurus (now Apatosaurus). But a sharp-eyed reader pointed to an even earlier effort: The 1888 novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. According to Wikipedia, the plot is " is set in an imaginary semi-tropical land in Antarctica inhabited by prehistoric monsters and a cult of death-worshipers called the Kosekin."

Why did dinosaurs take so long to catch on in fantastic fiction? The truth is they really didn't capture the public's imagination until the start of the 20th century, when several American museums scrambled to find and mount dinosaur skeletons in what has been labeled the second Jurassic dinosaur rush. It was not that dinosaurs were unknown before then - it's just that the fossils of other prehistoric animals, like sea reptiles, were better known. It probably also didn't help that some early scientists, particularly O.C. Marsh, kept their finds hidden from public view.

Anyway, you can read Switek's article at Switek himself now blogs for National Geographic. And if you want to read a thorough history of dinosaurs in science fiction and fantasy, I recommend Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction by Allan A. Debus.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dinosaurs of the Lost World by Avalon Hill (1987)

Game Description



Deep in the impenetrable Amazonian wilderness of South America, an unscalable plateau rises from the jungle floor. This strange land has never been trod upon by Twentieth Century man — until now. Your band of intrepid explorers has made the ascent and now stands at the edge of a treasure trove of immeasurable value. Before you lies a land teeming in flora and fauna long thought extinct or has never been imagined in the mind of man. Strange, terrible bellows reverberate in the dense forest before you until, at last, the very ground shakes to the approach of a prehistoric beast. Truly, riches beyond measure await those who bring proof of these discoveries back to the civilized world. But behold… the cruel twists of fate or the greed of man has betrayed you. Your tenuous bridge across the gaping chasm is gone!  Marooned, the task now becomes one of survival and escape… certainly a frightening enough prospect against the background of such terrible prehistoric monsters, but even now other eyes are watching you from the recesses of the trees.

DINOSAURS OF THE LOST WORLD is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s class work of fiction: The Lost World. And just as that famous book was the prototype for a whole genre of “Lost World” literature, DINOSARUS OF THE LOST WORLD breaks new ground in the field of innovative game design. Players explore this Lost World, ever aware of its horrible inhabitants, in search of sites where they can embark on adventures yielding great scientific discoveries and means of escape. Each adventure site leads players through an illustrated trek of great peril and reward. Comic book style story lines give vent to the player’s imagination as his adventures are visually pictured before him in an ongoing narration as he proceeds from frame to frame. Front and back full-color views of the dinosaurs actually stand erect and loom ominously across the plateau.

DINOSAURS OF THE LOST WORLD is different from anything you played before and changes with every game you play. Although simple in concept, the game comes in two versions — a basic game suitable for 8-year-olds, and the full game which will challenge even the most erudite game player while allowing his children to be competitive in the same contest. With a playing time of approximately 90 minutes per game, it is great family fun. Actually three games in one, DINOSAURS OF THE LOST WORLD also contains an excellent solitaire version for those wishing to play alone - pitting themselves against the forces of prehistoric nature in a race against the clock.

*Box art courtesy of BoardGameGeek.

My thoughts

Dinosaurs of the Lost World is a board game I’ve wanted to get my hands on for a very long time. It took years, but I finally found an unplayed, almost mint condition copy at a reasonable price through BoardGameGeek. Was it worth the wait? Most definitely, although I acknowledge this is not a game that will please everyone.

There are two versions of Dinosaurs of the Lost World. In the first, up to four players lead competing expeditions into the lost world, trying to be the first to reach 25 victory points by making scientific discoveries. The second version is a solitaire campaign in which the player must earn 25 victory points in either 40 turns or before the volcano on the plateau erupts. Play in both versions is nearly identical, the main difference being that in the solitaire campaign, dinosaur movements are determined by a die roll rather than other players.

The game board itself is rather busy with three main areas. The first is an outer movement track. On your turn, you roll two dice and move the same number of spaces as the result. The space you land on tells you 1) which action you perform – such as draw an event card or move a creature – and 2) the number of hexes you can move on the central map, the second main area on the board. The map is covered with counters depicting various locations in the lost world where you can have adventures. These counters are face down, so you don’t know which location is which until you reach it and flip the counter. The third area is a chase track running along one side of the central map. This only comes into play if you lose a battle against a dinosaur or other inhabitant of the lost world: The creature chases you back to your camp, and every time it catches up to you, you lose one tool or a victory point.

As for victory points, you score one point every time you discover a new location. However, the main way to earn points is to go on adventures. Each location comes with its own adventure track, which is a large sheet of paper covered with comic book panels depicting various hazards and discoveries associated with the location. On a turn, instead of moving along the movement track, you can instead choose to go on an adventure if your pawn is at the appropriate location. You roll one die to determine how many panels you move along the adventure track, or you can use an experience card to move a predetermined number of spaces, as indicated by the card. The trick is to balance your die rolls with your experience cards to avoid the hazards and land on the discoveries.

The winner is the first player to earn 25 victory points and successfully escape the plateau. I’m leaving a lot out because this review is already a little long. But it is worth noting that quite often players are instructed to draw event cards, which can either be helpful or very, very bad. Also, players start the game by equipping their expeditions with eight tools, which is easier than it sounds. (Hint: You usually want to equip two rifles and a camera.)

My opinion? I won’t go as far as to say Dinosaurs of the Lost World is the best board game about dinosaurs ever made, because there are a lot of games I have yet to try, but it is one of the best adventure board games I’ve played. It is dripping with theme – you really feel like you’re exploring a prehistoric wilderness. A lot of little touches, like the chase track, make the theme come to life, as does the game’s excellent black and white comic book art.

As far as game mechanics, I really enjoy the simplicity of the design, but at the same time realize they may be the biggest drawback for serious gamers. Dinosaurs of the Lost World is not a game of deep strategy. It is one of luck. Your success largely depends on dice rolls. I don’t mind this because for me, the game about going on an adventure and seeing what crazy things happen along the way. But if you are a gamer who enjoys outsmarting your opponents or challenging gameplay, this is not a game for you.

My only complaint about the game is some of the components are of poor quality, particularly the cards and location counters, both of which are printed on thin cardstock. That said, it is a real crime this game is so hard to find these days. There has been a recent trend of game publishers reprinting older, hard-to-find games, like Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Talisman. Let’s hope that someday an enterprising publisher puts up the money to republish Dinosaurs of the Lost World – I’ll be the first in line to pick up a copy.

  • Dinosaurs of the Lost World is a family game published by Avalon Hill, a company that was better known for its complex strategy games. The company is still around, although it is now owned by Wizards of the Coast, which itself is owned by Hasbro.
  • The game was designed by Mick Uhl, who designed at least six other games, including Wizard’s Quest.
  • More pictures and additional information about the game is available on its BoardGameGeek page.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus rex by J.F. Rivkin (1992)

Cover blurb


Famous explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Brazilian rainforests in 1925. Almost sixty years later, young Christine Fawcett finds a mysterious package in the family attic that rouses her curiosity. Soon she’s on a quest to Brazil to find out what really happened to her illustrious ancestor.

Accompanied by her boyfriend, Tony, and his military buddy, Manuel, Chris sets out for unchartered territory and discovers something she hasn’t even been seeking – a Mayan pyramid where no should exist! But this temple is far more than just an exciting archaeological find. For the three intrepid explorers are suddenly thrown back into the Cretaceous epoch, confronted by deadly dinosaurs, and the deranged Percy Fawcett – still alive and trapped in the past after crossing through the same gateway to elsewhen… 

My thoughts

I picked up this novel expecting nothing more from it than a couple nights of old-fashioned pulp entertainment. After all it had: Dinosaurs! Lost temples! Missing explorers! Sadly, it failed even to  reach the very low bar I had set, thanks to some atrocious writing.

Christine Fawcett is the 29-year-old descendent of Percy Fawcett, a real-life explorer who disappeared in 1925 looking for a legendary lost city in the Amazon rainforest. (His story is recounted in the nonfiction Lost City of Z.) Rummaging through some old trunks, Christine finds a fresh T. rex bone. How does she know it’s fresh? She has it carbon-14 dated, which shows it’s not millions of years old. (No, no, no!) To track down where the bone came from, Christine and her slacker boyfriend head to Brazil, where they eventually find a Mayan temple that transports them back to the Age of Dinosaurs. And there’s a T. rex.

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. It weighs in at a slim 250 pages, but feels twice as long. Is there anything positive I can say about it? Well, it has some cool cover art.

  • Age of Dinosaurs: Tyrannosaur rex was supposed to be start of a series of dinosaur-themed novels, but I’m pretty sure no others were produced. has a listing for an Age of Dinosaurs: Stegosaurus by the same author, but no publication date.
  • J.F. Rivkin is a pseudonym for two unidentified authors, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. They are apparently best known for their fantasy novels.
  • None