August 6, 2012
One of the reasons Jurassic Park was so successful–as a novel and a blockbuster film–is that it presented a plausible way to bring dinosaurs back to life. The idea that viable dinosaur DNA might be retrieved from bloodsucking prehistoric insects seemed like a project that could actually succeed. Even though the actual methodology is hopelessly flawed and would never work, the premise was science-ish enough to let us suspend our disbelief and revel in the return of the dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, Jurassic Park brought up the tantalizing possibility that scientists might one day resurrect a Brachiosaurus, Velociraptor or Triceratops. And every once in a while, rumors arise about someone who might just give the project a try. According to the latest round of internet gossip, Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is hoping to clone a dinosaur for an exotic vacation retreat. Palmer has since denied the rumors, but, for a moment, let’s run with the assumption that someone is going to pour millions of dollars into a dinosaur cloning project. Would it actually work?
As Rob Desalle and David Lindley pointed out in The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, there were a lot of steps that Michael Crichton glossed over in his dinosaur cloning regime. The novelist never explained how scientists overcame issues of genetic contamination, figured out what a complete dinosaur genome should look like and, most important of all, figured out how to actually translate all that DNA into a viable dinosaur embryo. It’s not simply a matter of accumulating DNA pieces until scientists have mapped every gene. A creature’s genetics must be read and interpreted within a biological system that will create an actual living organism. There are innumerable hurdles to any speculative dinosaur cloning project, starting with the effort to actually obtain unaltered dinosaur DNA–something that has never been done, and may never be.
If Palmer, or anyone else, wants to create a dinosaur park, it would be far easier to set up a reserve for living dinosaurs. The cassowary–a flightless, helmeted bird–is sufficiently prehistoric-looking to make it a draw for visitors. True, it’s not a Velociraptor, but a cassowary is most certainly a dinosaur that does pack a mean kick. There are plenty of living dinosaurs that could use a hand through conservation programs, so perhaps it would be better to try to save some avian dinosaurs rather than bring their non-avian cousins back from the dead.
December 8, 2011
Who wrote the first dinosaur novel? For a long time, I thought the answer was Arthur Conan Doyle. His 1912 adventure yarn The Lost World set the standard for dinosaur-inhabited literature—at least until Jurassic Park came along—and Doyle’s story has lived on in at least six film adaptations that run the gamut from landmark film to cinema trash. But contrary to what I had previously believed, Doyle wasn’t the first author to prominently feature dinosaurs in a novel.
Tracking the pathways of dinosaurs through fiction is a difficult task. Contrary to their media dominance today, dinosaurs did not have a monopoly on prehistoric fiction during the time when authors began to incorporate fossil discoveries into their stories in the mid-19th century. Giant ground sloths, mammoths, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and other prehistoric animals were more popular choices for emerging science fiction and horror tales, perhaps because these animals were much better known. (The first dinosaurs to be described, in the 1820s—Megalosaurus and Iguanodon—were identified from fragments and were often reconstructed as nothing more than gargantuan lizards until the anatomist Richard Owen coined the name “dinosaur” and gave the creatures a makeover in 1842.)
Consider Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. As described by dinosaur aficionado Allen Debus in his review Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction, Verne’s novel was effectively a walking tour through prehistoric time modeled closely on Louis Figuier’s recently published prehistoric survey The Earth Before the Deluge. Yet there were no dinosaurs. Marine reptiles, prehistoric elephants, pterosaurs and even primordial algae all make appearances, but there’s not an Iguanodon or Cetiosaurus to be seen. In short-form fiction, too, authors often turned to other fossil muses. Writer C.J. Cutliffe Hyne resurrected a carnivorous crocodile in a cave for his 1898 story “The Lizard,” and in 1910 Arthur Conan Doyle characterized “The Terror of Blue John Gap” as a monstrous descendant of prehistoric cave bears that had somehow been loosed on the modern countryside.
Dinosaurs, if they appeared in fiction at all, typically made fleeting appearances. In the opening of his 1852 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens used a Megalosaurus metaphor—the unpleasant weather had turned the streets in mud wallows better suited to prehistoric life than travelers of Victorian-era England. (When Dickens wrote this, the theropod dinosaur was still considered to be an “elephantine lizard” and had not been given its more modern form by Owen’s scientific rival Thomas Henry Huxley.) Sadly, Dickens did not keep the dinosaur on as a character. Bleak House would surely be a very different novel if he had.
Authors may not have fully realized the science-fiction potential of dinosaurs until 1901. In that year author Frank Mackenzie Savile published his adventure tale Beyond the Great South Wall about explorers searching for signs of the lost Mayan civilization. That’s not all the adventurers find. The crew is menaced by Cay, a huge, reptilian carnivore revered as a god by the Mayans. Savile describes the monster at the outset of chapter 12:
High up the slope of the mountain-side, lurching slowly across the bare, bleak slabs of granite, was a Beast, and he was like unto nothing known outside the frenzy of delirium. Swartly green was his huge lizard-like body, and covered with filthy excrescences of a livid hue. His neck was the lithe neck of a boa-constrictor, but glossy as with a sweat of oil. A coarse, heavy, serrated tail dragged and lolluped along the rocks behind him, leaving in its wake a glutinous, snail-like smear. Four great feet or flippers paddled and slushed beside—rather than under—this mass of living horror, urging it lingeringly and remorselessly toward us. The great neck swayed and hovered before it, poising the little malignant head. The horny eyelids winked languidly over the deepset wicked eyes. The lean, red tongue, slavering over the thin, hide-like lips, wagged out at us as if in mockery. The teeth, and the nails in the webbed, puddy feet, were yellow and tusklike, and a skinny dewlap rustled as it crawled across the stones.
Though certainly embellished, Savile did not invent a new monster for his story. In a footnote, Savile assures readers that this was the last dinosaur of its kind—a living Brontosaurus excelsus that had apparently acquired a taste for seals and humans. Since the dinosaur did not simply pop in for a cameo, but was a real and persistent threat to Savile’s protagonists, the invention of the ravenous “Cay” may mark Beyond the Great South Wall as the major literary debut of dinosaurs.
And Savile wasn’t the only writer to beat Doyle to the dinosaurian punch. In 1910, the French horror and science-fiction writer Jules Lermina published L’Effrayante Aventure, recently translated and republished as Panic in Paris. While this strange novel involves the mysterious death of a boxer, flying machines and the invention of a new element, prehistoric creatures also show up as a prominent threat to the “city of light.” Lermina’s heroes discover numerous “preanthropic animals” frozen in a cavern beneath the Parisian streets. There are pterosaurs, mammoths, crocodiles and, of course, dinosaurs. Included in the cold menagerie is “a brontosaurus, the giant of the dinosaurs, with a length of more than fifteen meters and a weight of more than fifteen tons, which was lying full length, its long neck raising its minuscule head into the air.” The cavern seems to be the most authentic museum imaginable—the actual creatures, locked in place—at least until the Triceratops, Iguanodon and other prehistoric creatures thaw out and take a stroll through the city streets.
Regardless of who featured dinosaurs first, the works of Savile, Lermina and Doyle reflect a growing fascination with prehistory and the possibility that ancient life might survive in isolated, little-explored habitats. After all, paleontology was still a young science that had only just begun to catalog prehistoric life and understand the grand pattern of evolution. New discoveries raised as many questions as they answered, and the bones of giant dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Triceratops gave writers made-to-order monsters more fantastic than anything imaginable. Even though dinosaurs had come to be objects of scientific study and attention by the time Savile, Lermina and Doyle set about writing their novels, these authors and others continued a tradition that various human cultures have been carrying on for centuries. The peculiar bones in the earth raised questions about the nature of life and time—and Deep Time is an inspirational well for storytelling that never runs dry.
Update: Sometimes I like to be wrong. In the comments below, reader Robert Lebling notes that dinosaurs played a significant role in a novel even earlier than Savile’s Beyond the Great South Wall. The book is A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, written in serial form by James De Mille and published as a novel in 1888. This was a “lost world” tale that came more than a decade before Savile’s tale and more than two decades before Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. Rather than being a unique invention of a single author, the idea of there being a lost land filled with prehistoric creatures and ancient civilizations was a common literary device that plenty of writers took advantage of.
June 24, 2011
The rocky, shrub-covered landscape of the American West looks like it should be home to living dinosaurs. Even though Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus and many, many other dinosaurs inhabited a variety of environments quite different from the landscape as it is today, the places where dinosaur bones are found feel as if prehistoric creatures should still be making their homes there. The very geological formations which contain the dinosaurs create beautiful and strange landscapes of crumpled and shifted rock dotted with twisted junipers and fragrant sagebrush—these wild places have an air of the ancient to them, and it is difficult to resist imagining an Allosaurus lurking around the massive rock fins of a place like Arches National Monument or a Diplodocus set against the backdrop of Dinosaur National Monument. Sharon Farber drew out this idea in her short story “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi,” in which the feuding 19th century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh compete for a modern-day dinosaur. New author J.P. Carlson has followed suit with his novel Rex Riders.
Much like the graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex, Carlson’s book is not so much a dinosaur tale as it is a coming-of-age story. Zeke Calhoun, a 14-year-old boy living on his uncle Jesse’s ranch, is out of place in late 19th century Texas. Talkative and whiny, he often gets on his uncle’s nerves, and he stirs up a mess of trouble when he tries to return a rich rancher’s prize stallion and ends up looking like a horse thief in the process. Zeke’s mistake plays right into a long-running rivalry between his uncle and the wealthy rancher Dante D’Allesandro, but just when it looks like the teen has ruined his uncle’s business, a serious of fortuitous events gives him the chance to save the ranch and prove himself.
Zeke’s adventure, played out in three acts, is what you might get if you threw The Valley of Gwangi, The Lost World and One Million Years B.C. in a blender with just a dash of Cowboys & Aliens. Cowboys, dinosaurs, aliens and prehistoric people all have their own roles to play, starting with a Triceratops that rampages through the middle of town. Things get even stranger when Zeke stumbles across a small Tyrannosaurus outfitted with riding gear and the wounded, tough-skinned humanoid who controls the dinosaur, and this discovery draws Zeke, his family and his friends into a dangerous conflict between the inhabitants of a prehistoric world and the nefarious D’Allesandro.
Rex Riders contains plenty of complicated plot elements, but Carlson admirably balances them as the plot unfolds. The focus on Zeke’s personal development is the anchor for the story (though the reader does lose sight of the main protagonist for a while during the second act). Dinosaurs and numerous action scenes liven things up, but most play a role in getting Zeke to realize something about himself rather than just being there for their own sake. A few black and white illustrations by Jim Calafiore are a welcome addition to the book as well, particularly since they mix modern restorations of dinosaurs with a classic, Ray Harryhausen feel. There was only one aspect of the book I felt disappointed by: a group of native warriors called the Cragnon receive almost no description, making it difficult to imagine what they look like.
Naturally Rex Riders leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but the books also stands well on its own. Young sci-fi and dinosaur fans will almost certainly love it, and the book reminded me of many of the classic stop-motion dinosaur movies I spent countless afternoons watching when I was a kid. If you like Westerns but wonder what it would be like to replace cattle with Triceratops and horses with Tyrannosaurus, definitely give Rex Riders a look.