The Virgin and the Dinosaur by R. García y Robertson
Avon Books, 1996
Price I paid: $1.50
In a far-future Megapolis free of disease, pollution, and money, Jake Bento is master of the wormhole—until an unforeseen catastrophe nearly strands the professional time traveler and his beautiful young paleontologist companion Peg in a world of huge extinct beasts. Luckily, Jake’s deft manipulation of wormhole technology can bring them home—after several stopovers in more manageable eras—with enough 3V recordings to make them both legends in their own, and other, times.
There are those, however, who resent such newfound celebrity—specifically Jake’s dangerous erstwhile employers at FASTER-THAN-LIGHT. And now Peg and Jake must watch their backs, from Pleistocene to the present. For there are no treacheries their enemies won’t stoop to—and no time left in which to hide.
Let’s talk about this cover for a minute. Here’s what gets me. At some point somebody was working on this cover. And at some later point they sat back and said, “Yeah, that looks pretty good. Let’s run with that.”
And then they turned it in to somebody at Avon Books, who in return said, “Yeah, that does look pretty good. Here’s your check.”
And I only bring this up because I want to make it clear that they are both bad people.
I mean, jeez, this cover looks like something a high schooler with a copy of Photoshop knocked out over the course of, say, an hour, because their teacher gave them a burned CD with three pictures stored in a Briefcase folder and said, “Your homework, Jeremy, is to make a book cover out of these three pictures and the lessons you have learned over the course of this past week.”
Fun fact, did you know that Photoshop was first released in 1990? It’s 26 years old! How insane is that?
Not only is the artwork just hideous, it’s also apparent that somebody didn’t know what italics were, or perhaps didn’t have the capability to make them, because there’s a lot of underlining on this cover, both sides, and none of it looks good.
And furthermore, all of this outer material makes this book look a lot more exciting and danger-filled than it actually is. Of course, there is nothing surprising about this, so let’s move on.
For the first fifty or so pages of this book—which clocked in at about 275 pages, by the way—I fully expected to hate it. The cover didn’t help but I was willing to judge the book on the text and let the cover speak for itself and its artist alone. Nevertheless, the first sixth of this book had some really gross things worth quoting. I’ll just lay them all out here so you can get them all in one big gulp, the way I did:
There was no hard, fixed rule that team members had to fuck—but Jake expected it. With Peg, he put a priority on it.
He had a fabulous memory, 360K megabytes of RAM tucked in the compweb stretched atop his skull, alongside his navmatrix and music files.
Virginity had been cured ages ago.
Jake ran his hands over Peg’s hips, starting again where they had left off. Peg set the recorder down, rolling over to face him, eyes alight. “Do it. But quietly. Don’t disturb the dinosaur.”
Okay, now that I’ve unfairly given you four quotes devoid of context, I want to talk about this first part of the book. Our hero is Jake Bento. He’s a time-traveler. He leads people through time so the can do research or hang out with people or whatever. That’s his job, and he’s good at it.
This first part of the book also makes it clear that he is some kind of sexual predator. He spends the first fifty or so pages of this book just trying to have sex with the person he’s guiding, Peg. That’s all he wants to do. He’s in the Cretaceous, he’s supposed to be helping this lady do her job, and all he’s trying to do is dinosaur bone her. It’s really…disgusting.
What’s as disgusting is that eventually she’s like, “OK, we might as well,” and so they do, and we get the quote from page 58. To be fair, it’s consensual, so there’s nothing that bad about it, but it didn’t seem, for lack of a better way of putting it, earned.
What it does do, though, is make the title of the book inaccurate before it’s even a third done.
Outside of the sexual stuff, the plot of the book is straightforward. Jake and Peg are the first two people to time travel to the Mesozoic. Time travel in this book is a routine affair, but there are limitations. For one, it is costly in terms of energy. It’s stated that taking something through time requires the same amount of energy as taking it through space an equal distance in light years, or something like that, so yeah, 65 million years (which would put our heroes right at the end of the Cretaceous) is a big chunk of energy. For contrast, the Andromeda galaxy is two and a half million light years away. It cost our heroes roughly 26 times the energy to go back in time than it would have taken to go to the nearest neighboring galaxy. I’m not sure if the author intended that information to be quite so impressive or not, but he does state that our heroes originate several thousand years into our future, so maybe he did. The book does state that space travel is an even more routine affair in this future, and that our native spiral arm is almost completely packed with humanity. I like that.
Time travel works in an interesting way in this universe. There are wormholes. The wormholes are always shaped like four-dimensional funnels, which means they are wider in the past than they are in the future, so a trip to the past might land you anywhere within a few thousand years or so, whereas trips to the wormhole’s origin point can be refined down to minutes. Jake is especially good at navigating wormholes into the past, which is a dangerous proposition for a variety of reasons. To compound this, this particular wormhole to the Mesozoic has never been explored before, making it extra-dangerous.
So while he and Peg are out exploring dinosaur times, some things go wrong and they have to abandon the mission. The problem is that they got stranded far away from their wormhole and now they have to get back to it without many of the amenities they brought back from the future with them.
Now, if that were the entirety of the book I might not have minded. But this book jumped all around history and it had some major pacing problems. Now, since the wormholes only connect specific times and places, I can get how this might develop into a “jump-through-history” book where we get to see lots of times and places, and that would have been fine too, but again, there was a pacing problem.
The time periods visited in this book are:
- Page 1-60ish: The Mesozoic
- Pages 60ish-140ish: Mark Twain
- Pages 140ish-190ish: Jake and Peg’s Present
- Pages 190ish-210ish: The Pleistocene
- Pages 210ish to 220ish: Present Again, On Mars
- The rest of the book: The Mesozoic Again
What stands out to me is the massive amount of time they spend in Mark Twain times. How Mark Twain times? Well, it’s just before the Civil War and they are on a steamboat on the Mississippi River heading from Missouri to Louisiana and there is an apprentice pilot on this boat named Sam who has a mustache and smokes and, just in case you DIDN’T GET IT THE FIRST A HUNDRED AND TWENTY TIMES IT WAS REFERENCED, HE SIGNS JAKE’S COPY OF LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI.
…despite not knowing what it is because he hasn’t written it yet.
But yeah, that’s a full 80-odd pages in this time period. The Mississippi river is a much larger component of this book than either virgins or dinosaurs, except that this whole part of the book contributes nothing to the plot. It is an interlude between the dinosaur parts and the present, where we expect that Jake is going to have to fess up to a few things because he lots a bunch of equipment in the dinosaur part and also almost got killed a few times, not to mention being a goddamn sexual predator except, wait, no, apparently that’s okay in this future.
What happens on the Mississippi? We get a bunch of lectures about how slavery is bad (thanks, book, I really needed you to tell me that), Jake and Peg meet a lady named Charlotte and make friends with her, find out she’s subject to the “one drop rule” and is treated like property until our heroes save her. In the meantime there are card sharks and so forth, the sort you’d expect in this kind of interlude, and Jake handles them all without much in the way of problems because he has magic powers from the future. They save Charlotte and then go the future, after which she never contributes to the plot again. But none of this did, so there you go.
Back in the future our heroes are treated like, well, heroes. They are, after all, the first people to visit dinosaur times. They have all sorts of information to share, even though the expedition was a bust, since Jake has recording devices and so forth stored in his head, along with that massive 360K megabytes of RAM. What does that even mean? Are 360K megabytes just 360 gigabytes? Why didn’t he just say it that way? I’d like to add that this is yet one more case of underestimating computer growth. I mean, my PC here, the one I’m writing on, has 8 gigs of RAM in it, which is nothing to write home about in this day and age. I predict, and I expect that I’m being way too conservative here, that we’ll have home PCs with 360 gigs of RAM in them by, oh, 2030. That’s my call. Come back and tell me I’m wrong when it happens.
I predict brain computers with that kind of RAM about five years past that.
This is about the halfway point of the book, so I guess you’d expect the sinister parts of the plot to be cropping up here, and I guess you’d be right, although they’re not very sinister. The back of the book makes it sound like Jake and Peg have to race across all of time to escape their terrible fates, or something like that, but here’s what happens.
Jake’s employer is a group called FTL. They have a monopoly on time travel, at least for the moment. And it seems like they’re trying to get rid of Jake for some reason. Right now he’s a celebrity, but they angle things (a trip to the Pleistocene that goes badly) so that he loses his reputation and they all but fire him. In the end they send him and Peg and a team of scientists back to the Mesozoic. Jake is little more than a pack mule at this point. The guy doing Jake’s old job is named Kotor, which is just hilarious. That game was so good.
Things go badly again. Some members of the team are killed by a Torosaurus. Kotor is wounded, Jake interrogates him, Kotor explains that FTL is trying to get rid of Jake because they got news from the future that they would soon lose their monopoly on time travel because of something Jake did or will do, which means that none of the rest of this plot had anything to do with that, which means we just wasted a lot of our time reading about some dinosaurs and Mark Twain stuff.
And then there’s no resolution to that. Kotor and some party members go back home. Jake and Peg have some snuggles and then go, “Where to next?” and that’s the end of this book.
I’m not happy.
On the other hand, I do wish to point out that this book had some truly amazing action sequences. The author wrote in a way that made it easy to picture, which is better than most, and it came across as very cinematic when it needed to. Jurassic Park was only a few years in the past when this book came out, and perhaps there’s a chance that it was written to capitalize on that, but I feel like the descriptions of dinosaurs in this book were on par with the stuff we saw in JP, which is nice.
The ugly sexual stuff just died away after the first sequence in the Mesozoic, which was interesting. It was never really addressed, since I guess nobody ever saw a problem with it when the book was in the publishing cycle, but it did fade away once Jake and Peg got together good and proper. They did fall in love, for whatever that’s worth (for me, not much).
And of course our heroes never make any kind of a decision in this book, they just get ping-ponged around by forces outside their control until the book ends, which is, of course, pretty standard fare, but it’s worth mentioning because I don’t want you getting any funny ideas about these characters having any agency or whatever.
I’m coming down hard on the book now but a lot of that’s retrospect. Honestly, while I was reading it this book didn’t seem quite so bad after page sixty or so. The most notable worst bits were in that opening sequence, and after that it just got mediocre with a few great action sequences. Again, I gotta give it up for the action sequences in this book. Between dinosaurs and steamboats, it did its job pretty well on that front.
I’m completely aware that this is my second book in a row about dinosaurs. It was intentional, yes, but mainly on the grounds that I love dinosaurs. What was not intentional, but hilariously coincidental, was the fact that just before Jake and Peg jumped on their steamboat they were hanging around with Sitting Bull, which is a link I did not expect to see between two consecutive books at all. Awesome.
The author obviously put in a lot of thought into how the time travel in his narrative would work, and I appreciate that. It was interesting and led to some neat complications. I’ll give him that.
There’s a sequel with an equally bad cover and I hope somebody else reads it because I really don’t wanna, but I will if I have to.