DINOSAURS IN FANTASTIC FICTION
by Allen A. Debus
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Allen A. Debus clearly loves dinosaurs, whether viewing their reconstructed fossils at the Field Museum of Natural History, reading about their exploits in the works of science fiction authors, or seeing them brought back to life on the big screen. His latest work in tribute to these long lost creatures in Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction: A Thematic Survey. In this book, he traces the evolution of the portrayal of dinosaurs from the earliest illustrations through their cinematic and textual representations in the modern era.
Beginning with the scientific illustrators of the nineteenth century who attempted to make educated guesses about what dinosaurs looked like, although limited by the state of knowledge of the time, Debus looks at how those dinosaurs and the cult of the dinosaur arose until it was codified in Jules Verne's illustrated Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1867. Debus spends quite a bit of time explaining how Verne's voyage extraordinaire is the model for all dinosaur adventures that came after it, an argument he repeats, in some ways, with regards to Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" in a later chapter.
From Verne, Debus moves on to the Lost World scenario popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle's novel of the same name. Once dinosaurs had achieved a certain notoriety in our culture, people nursed the hopes of seeing them in the flesh and in the age of discovery that opened the twentieth century, there was the hope that they would survive in some realm far from civilization. As the age of exploration passed, dinosaurs took on the traits of our human fears, stylized in the form of Gojira (Godzilla) and other B-movies, including Eugene Lourie's "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms."
At the same time, science fiction authors began using time travel to bring man and dinosaur together. Debus correctly identifies Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" as a seminal work and shows how later authors, such as L. Sprague de Camp, responded to Bradbury's early look at time travel and chaos theory. If Debus overstates his case a little, claiming that all time travel tales dealing with dinosaurs pay homage to Bradbury's story, it may be forgiven.
The evolution of dinosaurs in popular fiction goes from time travel to space travel, with dinosaur and dinosaur-like creatures inhabiting other star systems. While in many cases, there is a direct tie-in, such as Robert Sawyer's Quintaglio series (described by Debus as "the greatest trilogy of tales ever written about intelligent, space-faring dinosaurs"), he stretches his point by including just about any reptilian race science fiction authors use to populate their universes (although he does manage to miss, for instance, James Blish's Lithians).
Of course, the most visual and flashiest representation of dinosaurs in recent years is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, both his novels and the films. It is clear that Crichton's depiction of dinosaurs, especially velociraptors, will be the primary image the public holds for quite some time, and Debus gives that depiction the consideration it deserves, also bringing in the scientific basis for it, particularly in the form of Robert Bakker, a paleontologist who also wrote the novel Raptor Red to refute Crichton's depiction of some of Bakker's research.
Debus's survey is far reaching. If at times he appears to focus primarily on one or two works, it is because of his stated belief that they are seminal, although it does have a tendency to downplay other works. Unfortunately, this also tends to downplay the importance of the seminal works Debus is discussing. Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction still provides an excellent survey of the evolution of the use of dinosaurs in the popular imagination, and with a lengthy appendix and bibliography that highlights many of the works of fiction available, it serves as an excellent reference work.
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