Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly (2014)

Cover blurb

In the blockbuster and bestselling tradition of Jurassic Park comes the breakneck new adventure from the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author Matthew Reilly whose imaginative, cinematic thrillers “make you feel like a kid again; [they’re] a blast” (Booklist).

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons—a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t…

My thoughts

I debated whether I should review The Great Zoo of China on this blog. Of all the titles here, it comes closest to violating my policy of only focusing on fiction about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The monsters of the novel are dragons, although ones supposedly rooted in science (more on that in a bit). I decided to go ahead and review the book for two reasons. First, it is now out in bookstores, and it is nice for a change to review a current title instead of one that is decades old. Second, after reading it, I felt guilty that I may have directed readers to this literary horror through a recent news item. While not the worst book I've reviewed on Prehistoric Pulp, it comes damn close.

The Great Zoo of China is Jurassic Park, except the setting has shifted to China and the dinosaurs are replaced by dragons. The Chinese are ready to open a secret zoo they have spent years building, so to announce it to the world, they fly in several journalists and some U.S. dignitaries. Among them is CJ Cameron, a herpetologist who walked away from her profession after an alligator attack left one side of her face horribly scarred. She is accompanied by her brother Hamish, a photojournalist/former Marine/party dude. Needless to say, the visitors are shocked to find that instead of pandas and tigers, the enormous zoo houses dragons. There are no cages or fences. The Chinese instead rely on sonic technology to keep the dragons from eating guests. Of course, the dragons find a way around the safeguards, but they turn out much less of a threat than the Chinese government, which doesn't want the story of the zoo's failure leaking to the outside world.

In Q&A at the end of the book, Reilly says Jurassic Park is the novel that inspired him to become a writer. The Great Zoo of China is something of a homage to Michael Crichton's famous work. Crichton was never a good writer, but he was a good storyteller. Reilly is neither. He shows no skill for building suspense or delivering logical, exciting action. Remember the famous scene in Jurassic Park where the T. rex attacks the visitors in the Jeeps?  Part of what made that scene so great in both the book and the movie was the way it built up tension before the attack, putting the audience on edge before the T. rex shows up. There is a similar scene in The Great Zoo of China involving a cable car, except when the attack comes, it comes with no warning or hint that something bad is about to go down. Reilly is in such a rush to get to the action that he glossed over the most crucial part of good storytelling: Setting tone.

Sadly, Reilly is no better at delivering action. Most of the narrative is delivered in short, one-sentence paragraphs with a liberal use of exclamation marks. The writing jumps around so much it is hard to follow, with certain characters disappearing and only re-appearing when they're needed in the plot. And the action is so absurd and over-the-top I began to wonder if The Great Zoo of China was set in an alternate universe with a different set of physics than our own. In one scene, the heroine dispatches two Chinese soldiers with a makeshift flamethrower created using a small can of hairspray and a lighter. The fire causes the grenades the soldiers are carrying to instantly explode, which somehow manages not to hurt the heroine even though she is close enough to set them alight using hairspray (It must have contained napalm as an ingredient, given its effect). The book is filled with such ridiculousness – I lost count of the number of times I rolled my eyes while reading.

Now let's talk dragons, which are the main reason most people will pick up this book. Reilly alleges his dragons are grounded in science, but that is about as true a statement as if J.K. Rowling claimed the magic in Harry Potter was grounded in quantum mechanics. The Chinese tell their visitors that dragons are actually dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction 65 million years ago. However, the heroine quickly deduces this is a half-truth to sell the idea of living dragons to a scientifically illiterate public. Dragons are actually a type of archosaur, a group of reptiles that include dinosaurs, although Reilly claims the designation is used to explain away any animals whose origins are uncertain. (Paleontologists may take issue with that.) Dragons lived and evolved alongside the dinosaurs but survived the extinction thanks to eggs that can hibernate for millions of years. Okay...

The scientific problems keep mounting. Reilly never says why his dragons have six limbs - two wings and four legs - when all vertebrae life on Earth is based on a four-limb body plan. (Even the silly 2004 British psuedo-documentary The Last Dragon – A Fantasy Made Real, which explored dragon evolution, provided an explanation for six limbs.) He throws in some hand waiving about hollow bones to explain why dragons can fly, even through the largest reach 200 feet in length and weigh several tons. And, in what is perhaps his worst sin, Reilly populates his zoo with different species of dragons, but the only difference between them is their skin colors. A more imaginative writer would have dreamed up different varieties of dragons to fill different ecological niches. Hell, the color-coded dragons of Dungeons & Dragons show more evolutionary adaptation than the ones in Reilly's book.

This review is among the longest I have written for this site, primarily because I can't recall the last time I've been so disappointed in a book. Jurassic Park remains one of my most-beloved novels, and while I didn't expect The Great Zoo of China to reach the same classic status, I did expect a small measure of literary competence. Here is a mainstream novel containing the worst traits of badly written fan fiction. Just how bad? I'm not a supporter of book burnings, but reading The Great Zoo of China is closest I've come to reconsidering that position.

  • Matthew Reilly is an Australian author who has penned several thrillers. His website is

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dinosaurs!, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (1990)

Cover blurb

They are the supreme lords of a wild and forgotten world. Stalking the ancient forests, crushing trees underfoot, and shaking the very earth itself, the mighty “thunder lizards” ruled our planet for thousands of years — then plunged into extinction.

The age of giant reptiles is long gone. But in mankind’s darkest dreams – beyond the boundaries of time and space – they live forever…


My thoughts

No point beating around the bush: Dinosaurs! is the best collection of dinosaur-themed short stories ever put together.

That may sound like faint praise given the very small number of dinosaur fiction anthologies in existence, but Dann and Dozois did a fantastic job combing through decades of science fiction literature to find some real gems. And while not every story is a classic, they are all fun to read.

Standouts include L. Sprague de Camp's dinosaur hunting tale “A Gun for Dinosaur”; “Poor Little Warrior” by Brian Aldiss; “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” by Sharon Farber; and “Time's Arrow” by Arthur C. Clarke. I was a bit surprised Ray Bradbury's “A Sound of Thunder” wasn't in the collection, but maybe the editors felt de Camp's tale was too close in theme.

The only downside is many of the stories in Dinosaurs! were republished in other dinosaur anthologies, so readers of paleofiction may have encountered them before. But if a majority of the fiction is new to you, I highly suggest picking up this book.

  • "A Gun For Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp
  • "Poor Little Warrior" by Brian W. Aldiss
  • "Green Brother" by Howard Waldrop
  • "Hunting Season" by Harry Turtledove
  • "Getting Away" by Steven Utley
  • "The Runners" by Bob Buckley
  • "The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi" by Sharon N. Farber
  • "Strata" by Edward Bryant
  • "Time's Arrow" by Arthur C. Clarke
  • "A Change in the Weather" by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
  • "The Night-Blooming Saurian" by James Tiptree
  • "Dinosaur" by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • "Dinosaurs" by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • "Dinosaur on a Bicycle" by Tim Sullivan
  • Both books were part of a series of science fiction and fantasy anthologies edited by Dann and Dozois and published regularly over 25 years, starting in the early 1980s. Each anthology explored a different animal or theme, so you had volumes collecting stories about cats, dragons, mermaids, time travel, etc. All the anthologies are now available through Baen's website.
  • None

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dino Island by Jim Lawson (1993)


October 1942. Pilot Amelia not-Earhart is attempting to break the record for fastest flight across the Atlantic Ocean when her P-51 Mustang takes an unexpected detour. After passing through a strange atmospheric anomaly, Amelia lands on an uncharted island inhabited by living dinosaurs. She quickly befriends a surprisingly docile Triceratops, encounters a small colony of other castaways, and finds a gigantic alien structure that may explain the island’s existence as well as provide a way home.

My thoughts

Dino Island is a two-issue comic book miniseries published to cash in on the interest in dinosaurs generated by the release of the first Jurassic Park film, which came out the same year. Writer and artist Jim Lawson is best known for his work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He is also something of a dinosaur nut, having self-published the wonderful dinosaur comic Paleo: Tales of the Late Cretaceous.

Dino Island isn’t as good as Paleo, in part because the dinosaurs take a back seat to a rather mediocre story about the origins of the island. Two issues were too short for the tale that Lawson wanted to tell. He introduces plot elements that go nowhere and there is no real logic in why anything happens over the course of the story – one moment doesn’t connect to the next. The series also concludes with a downer ending, which is surprising given its light-hearted subject matter.

The art is the bright spot. Lawson draws in a cartoony style that might put some people off, particularly when it comes to his human characters. That said, I found it rather pleasant to look at. I especially liked Lawson’s use vibrant colors, which was a nice change of pace from the black-and-white Paleo.

Dino Island ultimately is a comic that looks better than it reads. If Lawson had chosen a simpler plot and focused more on the dinosaurs, then I think he would have had a winner. Instead we’re left with a comic whose sole claim to fame is as a relic of the dinosaur craze that accompanied Jurassic Park.

  • The covers of the two issues form a single continuous image when laid side-by-side.
  • Lawson’s superior comic Paleo can now be read online for free.
  • None

Friday, January 23, 2015

New novel: Jurassic Park with dragons

If you're eagerly awaiting the next Jurassic Park movie and looking for something to sate your appetite for stories about theme parks with giant monsters, then you might want to give The Great Zoo of China a try.

The Great Zoo of China is the most recent novel by thriller writer Matthew Reilly. It is an unabashed clone of Jurassic Park, except the action is shifted to China and the monsters in question are dragons, not dinosaurs. However, these are not magical creatures, as Reilly provides a scientific explanation for the existence of the fire-breathing reptiles. (Turns out they are evolutionary cousins of the dinosaurs.) Reilly also says the novel is something of a homage to Jurassic Park, one of his favorite stories. Here's the cover blurb for the U.S. edition:
In the blockbuster and bestselling tradition of Jurassic Park comes the breakneck new adventure from the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author Matthew Reilly whose imaginative, cinematic thrillers “make you feel like a kid again; [they’re] a blast” (Booklist).

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons—a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t…
The Great Zoo of China comes out Jan. 27 here in the U.S. (Correction: The book is now out in hardback. The ebook will be released Jan. 27.) It has been available since November overseas. The reviews I've seen are somewhat mixed, but that doesn't matter for me, as I'll swipe up any book that invokes Jurassic Park. You can learn more about the novel on the author's website or the publisher's site.

And speaking of Jurassic Park, a bit of news you may or may not have heard about: Pictures of the new genetically enhanced super-dinosaur from Jurassic World have leaked online. You can view them here. I'm not giving away too much by saying it's basically an albino Allosaurus.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Crowdfund "A Walk Through Dinosaurland"

Comic book artist Jim Lawson - best known for his work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - is raising money for a new project: A sort of evolutionary accurate take on Jurassic Park.

Lawson just launched a Kickstarter for A Walk Through Dinosaurland. The graphic novel follows the adventures of a young boy in an amusement park that allows visitors to witness the evolutionary development of dinosaurs in real time. He is accompanied by a not-quite-ninja turtle named John. Here's what Lawson has to say about the project:
With this new book, A Walk Through Dinosaurland, I wanted to return to one of my favorite subjects. Also, I wanted to address one of the things that I've noticed with many of the dinosaur books and reference that I use in my work. Pretty frequently I see that dinosaurs from the same family are shown together in the same scene, even though they may have existed several millions of years apart. Often it's difficult to get a sense of when these dinosaurs actually lived and what the evolutionary progression was that resulted in a Tyrannosaurus Rex, for example. One of my goals with this book is to try to present these creatures in a timeline, where the reader (along with the 2 characters in the book) witnesses this.
If Lawson's name rings any bells for fans of dinosaur comics, that's because he is the creator of the excellent comic Paleo: Tales of the Late Cretaceous. (The whole series is now online.) Lawson also penned the two-part Dino Island back in 1993, which I'm in the process of reviewing.

Pledging $5 will get you a PDF of A Walk Through Dinosaurland. $20 will get you a signed hard copy. Larger pledges will get you other rewards, such as a copy of Lawson's Paleo comics. Head over to Kickstarter to support this project.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cowboys, dinosaurs, mammoths, and Legos

I like cowboys. I like dinosaurs. So I was happy to hear that fellow blogger Eccentric Cowboy is working on a Weird West novella set in an alternate American West populated by prehistoric beasts. He has some cool cover art, and here is what he has to say about the upcoming book, titled Primal Frontier, on his blog:
Primal Frontier is a Weird West alternate history setting in the 1860's and 1870's on a massive continent that is populated by all sorts of exotic creatures from our past, the most prominent being dinosaurs. It is a primitive and savage land, bristling with dangerous animals and hostile natives. This land of mystery and peril has been only scarcely explored. But brave men and women will venture into the unknown and encounter all manner of adventures.

Magna Terra is a monster continent occupying the space that North and South America used to take up, and even with all of the dangers that are present, the allure of adventure or starting a new life brings all sorts of people from the lands of Europe and Asia to explore its depths.

Enterprising hunters glide through the woods for dangerous prey in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Prospectors probe the hills and mountains for precious gold and opals. Miners dig into the earth for iron and copper. Railroads begin snaking across the countryside with their puffing locomotives. Bounty hunters and lawmen try to find deadly criminals. Militia try to fend off hostile tribals who thirst for blood. Daring sailors and river boatmen brave the murky waters that are alive with fierce water beasts and pirates. There are criminals hoping to escape organized law in the scattered lands while governments vie for control and expansion.

This series will have everything from men fighting man-eating dinosaurs to train robberies, miners fighting off bandits to sea reptiles attacking pirates, natives riding domesticated dinosaurs to archeologists discovering lost civilizations. Folks, I've thrown everything but the kitchen sink into building up this world and I hope it will be as immersive as I find it to be.
Cowboys and dinosaurs are not as strange a combination as you may think. Some of the first major dinosaur discoveries were made in the "Wild West" by Gilded Age paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope in a fossil rush now known as the "Bone Wars." Anyway, check out Eccentric Cowboy's blog for more details about his book.

Readers tired of dinosaurs who want something a little different can check out the self-published novel Mammoth Isle by Philip Linder. Here is the cover blurb:
For some it it the great race against many competing teams to bring the extinct ice age megafauna like the woolly mammoth, back from the dead; for others it is a race against time to stop them in their tracks. A group of scientists and students from St. Jude College intersects with all the factions on Mammoth Isle, somewhere north of Siberia. Their fates are inextricably entwined like strands of DNA. What is learned and experienced on Mammoth Isle during those few weeks in 2011 will forever change lives.
I haven't read the book so I can't comment on it, but it is nice to see some more recent prehistoric animals get some love from writers of paleofiction.

And for something that has absolutely nothing to do with paleofiction, here is a remake of the Jurassic World trailer using Legos. I just thought it was so well done I had to share it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Lords of Creation by Tim Sullivan (1992)

Cover blurb


In the deep Montana shale, paleontologist David Albee makes a remarkable discovery: a metal box containing prehistoric dinosaur eggs — warm, alive… and ready to hatch.

One week later, they are among us – newborn creatures from an age long dead. With uncanny intelligence, they adapt to their new world – driven by some strange, unknown purpose. Curious and hungry, they begin to feed… and grow.

But even as Albee struggles to protect his find from the wrath of government agents and religious fundamentalists, gargantuan invaders from a distant star prepare to make contact – armed with earth-shattering revelations that will destroy humankind’s every notion of nature and science… and God.

My thoughts

The 1990s in Tim Sullivan’s Lords of Creation were far different from what I remember. The United States, swept by a wave of Christian Millennialism, creates a Department of Morality to enforce religious doctrine and nearly outlaws paleontology as a heretical science. (The First Amendment be damned.) The political climate makes amateur paleontologist David Albee something of a pariah, so he is understandably a little nervous when he finds a metal box in a rock layer dating to the time of dinosaurs. Turns out the box holds fresh dinosaur eggs – and they’re about to hatch. The government learns of the discovery and sweeps in to cover up the find and its religious implications. When the dinosaurs finally emerge, they are far more intelligent than anyone ever guessed. Stranger still, the box broadcasts a signal that attracts the attention of aliens, who send a message to humanity that they’re coming for the dinosaurs.

Lords of Creation is a novel with a plot that sounds more interesting than it plays out. One problem is the narrative meanders along with no real build up of tension or mystery. Nothing ever feels of much consequence despite the world-changing events taking place (the discovery of living dinosaurs, first contact with aliens, etc.). We instead spend a large amount of time exploring the relationship between the main character and his ex-girlfriend, but both characters are so thinly drawn that it’s hard to care about their romance.  

A more serious problem is that most characters are just one-dimensional caricatures the author uses to bash political views he doesn’t like. I’ve complained before about conservative authors who fill their novels with straw men to make simplistic political statements (here and here). Sullivan shows liberal writers also can fall into this trap. He wants to make a statement about science vs. religion, but his conservative villains exist solely so the liberal good guys can lecture them on how wrongheaded they are. They’re not allowed to be real human beings or present their arguments in any sort of intelligent manner.

That said, I doubt readers with a conservative bent could get worked up about Lords of Creation because ultimately it is too bland to be memorable. The best thing I can say about the novel is it’s a good example of how not to use science fiction to explore a complex social topic.

  • Lords of Creation was ahead of its time in that it featured feathered dinosaurs. The film version of Jurassic Park, which came out one year later, depicted scaly velociraptors – a mistake that will continue into this year’s Jurassic World.
  • Tim Sullivan has authored six novels and was a co-author of The Dinosaur Trackers. He also is a screenplay writer and actor who has appeared in several films, according to his Wikipedia page.