March was a month for dinosaurs. I read two books about fossil law (and what could be described as heists, depending on who you believe), re-read a childhood favorite, and read a book I never got around to in childhood. I also read some museum-based poetry, a short story about growing pains as a young child and dinosaur, and a story about the last dinosaur cowboy. A great month for prehistoric reading.
Dinotopia: Sabertooth Mountain by John Vornholt – I loved Dinotopia as a child, and Sabertooth Mountain was my favorite of the books, earning itself a half-dozen re-reads as a child, and one more as an adult. I am delighted to report it still holds up. 13 year old Cai gets separated from his older sister after falling out of a hot air balloon and into the Forbidden Mountains. There, he meets Redstripe, the leader of a pack of sabertooths who are starving, and beginning to splinter along the lines of those who wish to maintain peace and seclusion from the rest of Dinotopia, and those who wish to eat the rest of Dinotopia. The divisions stem from an avalanche which has cut off the sabertooth’s food source from reaching the forbidden mountain – a caravan of dying megafauna, who normally offer their bodies to the sabertooths.
I think I didn’t care too much for Cai when I was younger, I really just thought Redstripe was cool. But reading the book now, I have a lot of empathy for him – he’s a very realistic portrayal of being 13. Kind of awkward, not sure where he fits in but longing to, occasionally overcome with weird unwanted fits of jealousy and melancholy. I felt for him a lot. Redstripe still remains very cool. I enjoyed the plot structure of the book, which was get from point a to b to recruit help in feeding the sabertooths in a fast-paced “car chase but its a kid riding a sabertooth” kind of way. I also really enjoyed that this book touched several times on Dinotopian death practices – something I didn’t remember from the book itself, and don’t believe the other books particularly cover. The dying citizens of Dinotopia offer their bodies up to those who have to eat meat. Prehistoric camels have their bones placed in ossuaries for their families to keep. Neat! All very interesting and surprisingly frank for a book series I remember as being kind of sanitized.
Sabertooth mountain also never shies away from the fact of sabertooth’s being carnivores (the deus ex machina of the story is a hot air balloon loaded with fish to feed the starving cats), but does so without dipping into the weird racially-charged “savage” language and imagery that Dinotopia books sometimes evoke. They’re just cats. Can’t say the same for the next book.
The Hand of Dinotopia by Alan Dean Foster – This book has been sitting on my shelf since it came out in 1999. For years I have thought the title was The Left Hand of Dinotopia but that’s…a different book. This is the only Dinotopia novel I didn’t read as a child, and I think it’s a combination of it being longer (and therefore more daunting) than the others, and that it advertise the made for TV movie on its cover. Thinking about the scene where the main dinosaur has to listen to some dude talk about what a “babe” his dead human companion was made me not want to read a book advertising that convo on its cover (why did the TV movie make me and that Struthiomimus or whatever he was experience that?) Child me was right! I thought this was overall fairly lackluster.
The human Will goes looking for his missing fiancee Sylvia, with the help of the protoceratops Chaz. They find her in the Great Desert trying to track down a forgotten artifact that points to a safe sea passage to and from Dinotopia. Will and Sylvia have that kind of straight relationship that’s written in short-hand – we’re supposed to believe they’re in love because they’re in love! What else would a man and woman be to one another? Will’s kind of dismissive of her, and is generally a stick in the mud, which should be hard to do in comparison to Chaz, whose whole character is “Stick in the mud.” The search for the hand of Dinotopia could be interesting – finding it promises to change the whole makeup of the island – a utopia of dinosaurs and shipwrecked humans living peacefully and now suddenly able to leave the island and make contact with the outside (and still violent) world. But the book doesn’t seem particularly interested with its own plot and is bogged down by side adventures and diversions. Flash flood, raptor attack, shark attack, peaceful raptor encounter. Its just too much – I would have preferred either a shorter book or one the same length that really deals with the implications of the safe sea passage. Instead, the last handful of pages reveal that the reason the artifacts connected to the sea passage and the passage itself have been hidden, is that at one point outside humans found it, and waged war on the dinosaurs of Dinotopia. This is a huge reveal for the characters and the world – war was previously thought to never have touched Dinotopia, and the risk of using the sea passage now is brought into sharp relief – the potential for contact with the outside world is alluring, but what if the outside world once again reacts with great violence to the presence of sentient dinosaurs? But this is all in like the last 20 pages – there’s no room to really let the horror or recognition of these world-altering discoveries breathe. Cut the shark attack and have some introspection. The peaceful raptor diversion is also incredibly awkward at best, and drawd on racist imagery at worst – the carnivores of Dintopia fall into “civilized” and “uncivilized” categories, and hearing characters with face paint and spears referred to as “Savages” repeatedly, while the two white humans have to teach them basic skills like fishing against a backdrop of a ruined civilization in a rainforest raises some dire specters. It’s all imagery and language that yes, is being used to refer to dinosaurs, but also is being used because it has distinct real-world connotations that the author wanted to use as short-hand for “the uncivilized.”
The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams – This book details the life of fossil finder and preparator Eric Prokopi, the attempted sale of a Mongolian Tyrannosaurs baatar fossil at auction, and the court case United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton. The Dinosaur Artist covers a tremendous amount of information, giving an in-depth portrait of Eric Prokopi based on personal interviews, covering the history of Mongolia, the fall of the Soviet Union, the fossilization process, an overview of Deep Time, a look at Mary Anning’s life, a history of the Bone Wars, and discussion about fossil law in the United States and abroad. The tremendous amount of information covered by the book is all delivered in an easy to read, conversational tone. I found myself rushing to get to the end, the way I would rush to get to the final climatic battle in a fantasy novel, or the reveal at the end of a Poirot mystery.
To nitpick, I think occasionally the conversational tone undermines itself. At one point Williams describes carnivorous dinosaurs as “ravaging” their way to the top of the food chain, which is a bit over the top. T-rex was just doing what it does to survive. Coprolites are described as actually being scientifically important, and the “actually” peeved me a bit, leaning into the audience’s worst impulses. (Like I said, nitpicky, but I know that coprolites are important). I also think the end notes could have been handled a little better – simple citations are mixed in with pages of explanation of Mongolian history, or longer delves into something mentioned in the chapter. I really wanted to, and did read all the notes, and wish the longer interjections had been handled as footnotes, or folded into the actual text somehow, so that I didn’t have to keep flipping back to the last few pages to get the whole flow of the chapter.
Tyrannosaurus Sue by Steve Fiffer – This book follows the discovery of Tyrannosaurus Sue by Sue Hendrickson and her excavation by the Black Hills Institute and Neal and Peter Larson, as well as the subsequent court cases between Maurice Williams, whose land Sue was found on, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, of which Williams was a member and who also claimed the land Sue was found on, the Larsons and Black Hills Institute, and the United States government who all laid claim to Sue. The book ends with the auction that saw the Field Museum of Chicago purchasing the fossil skeleton with the help of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the McDonald’s Corporation, as well as Sue’s installation at the museum. I had the opposite endnote problem in this book to the Dinosaur Artist, in that there weren’t any citations, which was a shame because I wanted more reading material. This book had a similar easily accessible style as the Fossil Artist, and covered some of the same ground, such as Cope and Marsh and the Bone Wars. It also foresees the arrival of the Fossil Artist, as the book briefly covers the way that the unprecedented auction of Sue potentially set up a larger demand for fossils among private collectors, the higher monetary valuation of dinosaur bones, and the black market to fill in those demands, which come into play with he later attempted auction of the baatar skeleton.
I wish the book had lingered on that a little more, as well as the way in which corporate interests became entwined in the museum world as part of the auction. The book briefly mentions the way corporate interests can sway museums to present or not present certain information, but only discusses the point for a page or two – this is a tremendous issue facing museums who often draw support from weapons manufacturers and big oil interests, and warrants a longer discussion. Similarly, I wish the book had spent more time discussing the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and their claim to Sue, but the tribe only gets mentioned in a cursory way as claimants to the fossil, while the majority of the book focuses on the Larsons. This is in some ways a fair stance to take, as the Larsons excavated Sue and were the main targets of the U.S. government’s court actions. However, as the museum world attempts to take Native American rights and claims more seriously, (even if just offering lip-service via half-hearted land acknowledgments), in my experience it’s largely been history and art museums that have done so, while natural history museums lag in their public statements. All dinosaurs found in the United States have been found and taken from stolen land, and I would have liked for the book to wrestle with that more, or at least acknowledge it more. I don’t think this is asking too much even for a book written 20 years ago, given that the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe did forward a claim to Sue. That being said, for what it is – a book focusing on the Larsons and their battle for Sue – it’s a very good book.
When Lydia Becomes a Dinosaur by Rachael K. Jones at Daily Science Fiction – Lydia is growing up and growing into a dinosaur. I really loved this story about the difficulties of being a girl who is growing into a woman, and the different ways society tries to force you into a certain shape, and punishes you, tries to find explanations for you, when you don’t fit that shape. Love that it’s hung on dinosaurs, I thing I loved when I was a little girl. And I love the ending, and its call to embrace being a dinosaur, being too big and too loud and something beautiful and something with teeth.
The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County by Jeremy Sim at Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Black Jonas rides his plesiosaur back to Benessa County to try and get the money he is owed, only to find Benessa changed, though perhaps still as violent as he remembers it. This was a fantastic story. From the food descriptions, to the colloquial dinosaur names, to the mournful tones of a dying frontier town, this story paints a beautiful and rich portrait of the life of a plesiosaur-riding-cowboy. Really love Jonas’ character arc which comes to a wonderful end with the final line, and was pleasantly surprised at Miss Carla’s role in the story after assuming she was a one-scene character. With just a few lines, Sim establishes the resource grab that led to the boom of the frontier town and its canals and dinosaur bays, as well as the architectural changes to society that dinosaur mounts would cause. Really scratches the itch for both weird western and prehistoric creature narratives.
Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London by Jenny Blackford at Strange Horizons – Brief detailing of eleven exhibits in a more magically inclined Natural History Museum of London. I love the repetition of things across exhibits – of cheese, of nessie, of the dangers of being a curator at this particular museum. I’m particularly interested in how this version of earth that exists slightly to the side of us, colonialism and museum theft still exists in a world that is also inhabited by yetis (and wondering how the yeti’s fared in the face of the continually encroaching French). What do repatriation efforts look like in this museum field – are dragons being returned? A very fun and charming poem all around.