Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction: A Thematic Survey
by Allen A. Debus
Cover Artist: Bob Eggleton (2004)
Review by Paul Haggerty
McFarland & Company Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0786426721
Date: 05 October, 2006 List Price $55.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Despite its name, Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction: A Thematic Survey is not just a book about dinosaurs. Sure dinosaurs play an important, even critical part, but what it's really about is literature and history. In these pages Allen Debus uses the theme of dinosaurs in books and movies to discuss the human frame of mind as we deal with the limitations of science, the dawning of environmentalism, fear of war, hope, despair, and down-right filthy commercialism.
Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction: A Thematic Survey is a well designed and authoritatively researched volume, complete with index, extensive notes, and a dinosaur fiction index.
The books is designed to be a critique and analysis of dinosaur related stories and moves from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1867, a time when little was really known about dinosaurs, and a lot of quite ludicrous tales were being told, up through to the present where modern paleontologists explain how little is really known about dinosaurs and why so many ludicrous tales are still being told about them. It's sobering to think how wrong scientists have been about things that were hard fact not too long ago, and doubly sobering to postulate that a good number of things we now know as fact are going to soon be rendered quaint.
Throughout the century and a half, dinosaurs in movies and literature have been used as objects of terror, examples of morality (or lack there of), noble savage icons, and reminders of humanity's need to be humble before nature.
In the early days, writers like Verne teamed up with illustrators and told cataloging tales, or as the author calls it, the subterranean Museum. In this context, all of prehistory is laid out along a route the travelers must follow, slowly receding in time as they progress farther and farther. Later came the Lost World generation where all prehistoric animals live together in some undiscovered corner. Both of these types of stories attempted to use actual scientific knowledge of the time to present these creatures in a thrilling manner allowing the reader to vicariously live amongst the monsters.
Later, we enter the Godzilla age where dinosaurs are returned to modern earth through various means, though usually something environmentally bad. These dinosaurs (whether related to known species or just made up monsters) usually are here to make us pay for our sins. Usually we win the battle, although sometimes not (the beast magnanimously just goes away), but in any case we have to learn the error of our ways.
Then there's the time-travel safari stories exploring what really wiped out the dinosaurs, and getting down to the fundamentals of man versus beast and what makes man superior. The return of the dinosaurs explores the reintroduction of dinosaurs to the world ruled by man. Genetic manipulation, ala Jurassic Park is one way to repopulate the various species. As is having the dinosaurs arrive in orbit to check out the old homestead and find that the vermin are running loose again. Instead of singular gargantuan monster threats, these stories deal more with how man interacts with the alien, even if it happens to be native to planet.
All of these concepts are covered in great depth and care, linking the writers to the events and concepts of the day and trying to figure out what point, if any, the author was trying to get across to the audience. The book is partly science, partly criticism, and partly historical analysis. But all of it is vastly interesting to read and think about.
Just make sure to keep an eye on the guy in the cubicle next to you. Because the latest wrinkle in the dinosaur conspiracy is that they never left. They just learned to disguise themselves really well. And you know never know when the deinonychus next door might be looking for a bite to eat in the late afternoon.