Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Night Shapes by James Blish (1962)

Cover blurb

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

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

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

* Blurb from the 2011 digital edition.

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

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

Game description

Choose to ATTACK or prepare to FIGHT BACK!

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

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

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

*Cover image from BoardGameGeek.

My thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Speaking of Dinosaurs by Philip E. High (1974)

Cover blurb

Beyond Evolution: A certain gifted engineer accepted the Theory of Evolution until he wandered by chance into a museum. In that museum was the skeleton of a dinosaur, and the skeleton got him thinking and enquiring with terrifying results. Attempts are made on his life and then, in a horrifying time-shift, he finds himself naked and unarmed in the distant past, facing one of the very creatures which had aroused his interest - a dinosaur!

My thoughts

Speaking of Dinosaurs begins with a tiny alien object entering an abandoned house and, using its “prodigious mental power,” building itself a human body while projecting new memories into the people inhabiting the surrounding community. Its mission is to keep an eye on one David Standing, an inventor who is to play a very important role in the intellectual development of humanity. Standing, of course, is not aware of any of this, and one day he decides to visit a natural history museum on a whim. His examination of the dinosaur fossils there leads him to a startling conclusion: Evolution is bunk. Aliens must have designed life on Earth. It is not long before Standing comes to realize he is being followed by mysterious forces that will go to great lengths to make sure his theory dies with him.

Speaking of Dinosaurs is a strange, slim novel that has very little to do with dinosaurs despite what is promised by the title and cover blurb. The animals make a brief appearance, but mostly the book is a tale of alien conspiracies and humanity’s next great leap in intelligence. The one thing it is not is a good novel, filled with shallow, one-dimensional characters, improbable science, and a meandering plot. I managed to read the book in a single, lazy afternoon, but it felt like a very long afternoon.

  • High was an English science fiction writer who penned 14 novels and several short stories before his death in 2006. There is a website dedicated to the author:
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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Robert Silverberg’s Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers by Thomas Shadwell (1991)

Cover blurb

In the next century, time travel is a tourist business… a very risky tourist business. Couriers can take travelers into any time they wish. But once there, they’d better not change history. The Time Patrol is watching, and those who meddle with the past may find themselves erased from it!


Time Courier Roy Jones encounters nothing but trouble when he leads a tour back to the Age of Reptiles. First his tourists plan to tame and ride dinosaurs, even though Roy tell them it’s forbidden. Then Roy discovers hunters smuggling dinosaur meat back to the twenty-first century.

If that’s not enough, Mallory Byrne, a nosy reporter, disappears from the group. Roy figures she’s gone alone to observe the most dangerous time of the Age of Reptiles – the moment when a giant asteroid hits the Earth. Roy must get her back before the asteroid crashes… and before the Time Patrol finds out she’s missing!

My thoughts

Roy Jones dreams of being a rodeo champ, but the closest he has come to an actual rodeo is through repeated viewings of mind tapes. (“They were the latest craze, better than video tapes by far,” says our protagonist from the year 2061.) No, he has the much more boring job of tour guide to time travelers. His first assignment? Escort a group die-hard rodeo buffs to the Age of Dinosaurs. Roy doesn’t relish the trip given that as a boy, he saw his father eaten by a T. rex. And his tour group turns out to be a troublesome lot, trying to lasso and ride every dinosaur they come across. Then there is Mallory Byrne, a journalist who wants to see the comet that killed the dinosaurs. When Roy refuses, Mallory disappears, and it is up to the tour guide to get her back.

The Dinosaur Trackers is a young adult novel set in a shared universe created by science fiction author Robert Silverberg. I haven’t read any of the other works in the series, but the gist of it seems to be that time travel is possible but risky given that travelers can change the past. As a result, a special police force called the Time Patrol has been created to prevent history from being altered. Despite the risks, tours of the past are allowed, with the warning that if you interfere with history you will be erased from reality itself. The setting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: Why permit tours if the past can be changed? And how would you know if history had been altered?

The novel isn’t concerned about these larger questions, instead offering up a light, breezy adventure in a slim 138 pages. The book is okay for what it is. It promises dinosaur action and it largely delivers. Roy, who is the story’s narrator, is a bit annoying, spending much of the book whining about his situation. And the plot relies on too many implausible twists to propel itself forward. But the novel’s short length means it doesn’t linger on its shortcomings, instead moving swiftly from scene to scene. I’m sure my 10-year-old self would have devoured The Dinosaur Trackers, and given that’s its target audience, I guess you can call the book a success.

  • Thomas Shadwell apparently is a pen name for three authors: John Gregory Betancourt (the editor), Arthur Bryan Cover and Tim Sullivan.
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