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Dinosaur World

Dinosaur World by Stephen LeighDinosaur World
ibooks, 1992
Price I paid: $2.50

TIME SAFARI, INC.
SAFARIS TO ANY YEAR IN THE PAST.
YOU NAME THE ANIMAL.
WE TAKE YOU THERE. YOU SHOOT IT.

The sign said it all, but the hunters soon became the hunted. The safari took them to the age of dinosaurs, but the hunt went terribly wrong, sending ripples of change throughout the timestream…

Aaron Cofield and Jennifer Mason are discussing their future when they make an incredible discovery: a newly laid dinosaur egg, ready to hatch! Before long, the two are caught in an astonishing trip across the millennia to Earth’s dim past, chased by a psychotic member of a Time Safari.

Racing against time, they face Mesozoic monsters, mysterious time travelers, and a strange new race of intelligent dinosaurs—humanity’s allies in their effort to rescue the future!

Confession: This isn’t actually my book. It belongs to my roommate, who has had it for a long time. Back when I decided to start this blog he put it on the pile and told me to review it. I am only now getting around to it. I’m not sure why it took me so long.

After last week’s time travel extravaganza, he brought it back to my attention and said it would be a good time to finally read it. In particular, he pointed out that in last week’s review I mentioned Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder,” so that’s a good reason to see if that story’s licenced continuation is any good.

It actually is!

For those who aren’t familiar with the original Bradbury short story, it features a Time Safari that takes people back in time to hunt things. Part of the schtick is that these expeditions are carefully planned out and monitored to make sure that history isn’t altered in any meaningful way. Spoilers: A guy steps on a butterfly in the Cretaceous and everything goes to crap.

I never felt that the story needed any kind of sequel. It’s pretty much perfect the way it is because it’s by Ray Bradbury. My expectation for this story, then, was that it would be a kind of sacrilege, even if Bradbury did sign off on it.

I’m amazed at how wrong I was.

This book did a lot of things right. The main thing is that Stephen Leigh didn’t attempt to write like Ray Bradbury. Bradbury has a voice all his own, instantly recognizable but hard to define. You can say it’s lyrical, like a sort of prose poetry, but that’s only about half of it. The best example I can think of is at the beginning of The Martian Chronicles, the segment called “Rocket Summer.” It makes me cry.

So somebody trying to emulate that could only result in failure, and to this author’s credit, he didn’t try.

The book still has a lot of Bradbury in it. Apart from the obvious, there are little references here and there that bring it all back home. Most notable is that our heroes hail from Green Town, a recurring setting in Bradbury stories, but not “The Sound of Thunder” (I think).

Our heroes are Aaron and Jennifer. They’re enjoying Aaron’s last summer before going to college. It’s all very sweet. They’ve only recently begun dating, although they’ve known each other their entire lives. They’re both afraid that once Aaron goes to college they’ll break up. Jennifer is about a year younger than Aaron, so she’ll be staying in Green Town for another year. That’s a lot of time for people to change. I know I said that this book did a good job of not trying to be overtly Bradburian, but the beginning is an exception. It’s sweet and a bit melancholy.

And then a dinosaur shows up.

Actually they discover one of its eggs and take it back to Aaron’s granddad’s house to look it over. And then the dinosaur shows up. But it’s dead.

Aaron is rather conveniently planning on studying paleontology, so he recognizes the dinosaur as an Allosaurus. What he doesn’t recognize is the guy they find near it. He’s all futuristic. This is possibly because he’s from the future.

He’s Travis, the tour guide/safari leader from the short story. He’s badly wounded, but manages to have just enough energy to recap the short story for everybody who didn’t read it before he passes out again.

Whereas the story ended with the titular “sound of thunder,” which was Travis turning his gun on the guy who ruined the time stream and shooting him, we learn here that the shot missed and Eckels, the guy who stepped on the butterfly, escaped into the time machine and fled. He’s back again in the late Mesozoic, probably doing untold damage to history.

The reason dinosaurs are showing up in 1990s Green Town has something to do with the damage to the time stream, as well as the elevated roads that all time travelers to prehistory were supposed to stay on. Eckels did a dumb thing when he escaped. He landed his time machine right on top of another version of itself, causing an explosion.

Somewhere along the way the group picks up a guy named Peter. He’s not much help. Peter and Aaron used to be friends. Peter and Jennifer used to be a couple. Drama!

The same time vortex or whatever that brings dinosaurs to the present ends up taking Jennifer and Peter to the past. There they meet up with Eckels, who at first tries to kill them but then gets a bit more rational and claims to want to help them. He says he’s been wronged by Travis and that all this is his fault. The book keeps us guessing about both Eckels and Travis and what their motives are. It does that well.

Aaron flies around time with Travis having his own adventures. They are the B plot.

In the past, we meet the “Mutata,” a race of intelligent dinosaurs. It’s not explained whether they were there all along or if they have something to do with the fact that time has been all wrecked up. A significant portion of the book is about them and Jennifer’s attempts to communicate with them. But here’s where things get interesting and the author gets a whole lot of credit.

So this book jumps points-of-view a lot. Usually it’s either in the head of Jennifer in the past or Aaron whenever the heck he is at a given moment. But it’s also in the head of SStragh, one of the Mutata.

The author does a dandy job of making these dino-people as alien as possible. He dealt with issues of language, for one thing. Mutata language is more than just vocalizations. They have a whole system of spoken, body, and pheromone language that serves as their complete set of communication. Attempts to communicate between the humans and the Mutata proceed slowly.

But the thing I liked best was how the author was able to change styles so well when jumping from the head of a human girl to a dinosaur person. The best example I can give is that he spells people’s names differently depending on who is being the viewpoint.

Humans and Mutata have different mouth parts. They’re going to pronounce things differently no matter what. So when SStragh is doing the thinking, that’s her name in both dialog and narration. When she’s talking or thinking about the humans, they are Jhenini, Peitah, and Eckils. On the flip side, when things are coming from Jenny’s viewpoint, the dinosaurs are named things like Struth and Fergie.

At first it was a little confusing but I grew to appreciate it.

On the other end of time, things are going poorly. An attempt to visit Travis’s time ends up almost killing him and Aaron when it turns out that everything is weird and there are giant blue snails and plants that shoot poisonous hair. They jump back to Aaron’s time and find things all wrong too. This is where they meet the World Spirit.

At this point I started to wonder if the book was about to go off the rails. I wondered if maybe this World Spirit was going to help put history back on the right path because it “knew” or something. But no, it turned out to be a decent little science fiction thing.

All the thing is is the result of a timeline where life on Earth developed into a hive mind. This thing, which eventually adopts the name “Mundo” (GET IT?), is a sort of embodiment of that. It manages to probe Aaron’s and Travis’s minds and they begin to communicate. It decides that if they go back and fix history, it will cease to exist, so it tries to prevent that. They logic-bomb it until it agrees to go back in time with them. It adopts the form of a monkey-thing and they all go back.

Jenny, Peter, and Eckels are still trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Their dino-mentor, SStragh, is trying her best to defend them from her tribe, as well as another group of dinosaurs called the Gairk. Where the Mutata are descended from herbivorous dinosaurs (probably some kind of hadrosaur), the Gairk are carnivores. We only see one of them in this book but I get the feeling they show up again in the sequels.

SStragh’s tribe wants to kill the humans, especially Eckels, since he’s managed to kill several of their tribe-osaurs. They also want to kill Peter, because so do the rest of us. Seriously, guy is just a big jerk the whole book, never contributing in any meaningful way.

But Jenny won’t stand for it, and neither will SStragh. SStragh finally decides to buck all her traditions (traditions are important to these dinosaurs because they’re a primitive tribal society, of course) and find a Mutata named Raajek to take over the tribe. Raajek was SStragh’s mentor until she was exiled for bucking tradition. It seems to be a kind of theme with these guys.

The book is, astonishingly, beginning to come to a close. I knew there were sequels, but I didn’t realize the book would end on so many cliffhangers. Raajek takes over the tribe and all the humans are spared. Aaron and Travis and Mundo go back in time where Mundo has a major freakout because he’s not connected to any of the life forms. He begs to go home. Aaron promises to lead him to the time portal that brought him here in the first place, and does. They walk through it and Mundo freaks out again, because this isn’t his timeline and everything is wrong. It’s Aaron’s timeline. Mundo runs off into the woods and Aaron heads toward the house calling for Jennifer and his grandfather, all happy that things worked out. And then the book ends.

So many things unresolved, plus the dramatic irony of Aaron not knowing that Jenny is trapped in the past and won’t be there to greet him. There’s also the strong possibility that this isn’t his proper timeline and that we’ll discover there’s no moon or that grown-ups turn into babies or something. And that’s pretty good!

While I wouldn’t call the book rollicking, I’ll definitely call it solid. This was a fun read. It helps that I like dinosaurs.

I don’t have any major complaints at all, to be honest. That feels weird.

One thing I’m having trouble deciding is whether this was a Young Adult novel or not. I haven’t seen any references to it online as being such, so that’s one thing. On the other hand, it’s got, well, young adults for protagonists, so that’s another thing. Also, there’s no overt sexuality or too much in the way of violence, and I think the strongest swear word to show up was “damn.”

Eckels gets a little creepy here and there, standing a bit too close to Jennifer so that she comments on it. I was afraid that things would get out of hand and lead to some trigger warnings, but so far we’ve been spared that. I think he’s supposed to come across as more of an insidious threat than an outright child molester. I hope so.

Violence-wise, there are some bits with blood and skeletons, and at one point a Gairk gets chopped clean in half by an unexplained phenomenon (maybe I should have mentioned that phenomenon in the review? I don’t know. It just came and went. Some kind of, I dunno, time storm). At another point some samurai show up, because everybody loves samurai, and the Mutata impale one of them handily. Still, none of that’s any worse than what you’d see in a PG movie.

But here’s the thing, unlike a lot of YA novels, this one definitely did not feel like the author thinks kids (teens?) are stupid. It had some good concepts and didn’t go off to explain elementary concepts like what dinosaurs are or something. Even though the protagonists are at most eighteen years old, they didn’t come off as children. They made decisions. Jenny is smart. She’s probably the smartest person in the book. Aaron’s no slouch, but he gets less screen time so he hasn’t really proven himself to be up to her level yet. There’s Peter, who’s dumb as a brick, but sometimes kids are dumb as bricks. That’s just a thing that happens.

There are five sequels to this book, one of which is entitled Dinosaur Samurai.

I think I’m going to like this series.

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