Speaking of Dinosaurs by Philip E. High
eBook by Gateway/Orion, 2011
Originally published by Robert Hale, 1974
Price I paid: $3.99
Most people accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Well, David Standing did…until one day he wandered by chance into a museum and saw the dinosaur.
As a gifted engineer his enquiring mind made him question how such a massive skeleton had been able to balance and move; his experiments proved it was impossible. Then attempts were made on his life… And, in a horrifying time shift, back to the distant past, he visits Primeval Earth – where, naked and unarmed, he comes face to face with the truth about the evolution of man…from Goodreads
Hey, that summary up top, the one that I think is supposed to come from one of the paperback editions? Golly gee it’s wrong! Don’t trust it like I did. I thought I was in for some dino-action. It’s what I bought the book for. There were not many dinosaurs in it!
Okay, I also bought the book because the author’s name is “High” and I thought that was funny.
From what I can tell, Philip E. High is somewhat well regarded in the sf community? He’s worth a Wikipedia page, albeit a real short one. Maybe that’s because of his thirteen other books or his short stories, because this book would not have given me that impression. If I rated books on some kind of scale, this book would fall right smack in the middle of that scale. It might well be the defining point of that middle. Platonic dialogues would cite it as the Form of Middles.
In a somewhat unusual twist, this time it’s not because the book was dreary or hard to read or even just bland. In fact, it had some things going for it, and it had some things going against it, and by gum they cancelled each other out perfectly. That takes a certain amount of skill.
Before I go on, I think I need to issue a retraction, or perhaps a now-I-have-more-data-ification. Back in March I read Singularity Station and I was effusive about how great and good and accurate the transition to eBook format was, and I praised SF Gateway for their work.
I won’t say I changed my mind, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that while that one and others I’ve read were indeed well done, Speaking of Dinosaurs did not make the transition well. It was full of typos, mostly of the OCR error type. Wrong letters, missing punctuation, all sorts of stuff. It might have something to do with Dinosaurs being done in 2011 versus Singularity Station‘s 2015? I don’t know. I just thought it was fair to point out.
I won’t completely dismiss the possibility that those typos are faithful reproductions of the paperback version. If someone knows for sure, drop me a line!
I also think it’s fair to say that these typos did not affect my feelings toward the book. There’s plenty else to discuss.
If someone were casting this book to turn it into a movie—a tremendously bad idea, by the way—it would be either very easy or very difficult. I can’t decide because I don’t know how casting works. Maybe casting directors would appreciate the fact that they could cast literally anybody because these characters have few identifying features. This is okay. This is an idea-centric book, not a character-centric one.
There’s a little bit of physical description. One of the mains, a guy named David Standing, basically looks like me. I know that’s not a helpful statement, but what I’m saying is that he’s short, pudgy, and balding. At least he is at the beginning, and here’s one of the things that bothered me most about this book.
David, along with another character, a woman named Violet Barraday, are both introduced as physically unattractive. He looks like me, she is described with words like “shapeless.” They fall in love with one another immediately. At first I thought this might be a somewhat refreshing change from every other book, although it felt weird that the narration kept drawing attention to it.
Then, of course, it happens that they both undergo a physical transformation that renders them utterly beautiful. Now, the book tries to do a half-hearted “the outer beauty was now a reflection of the inner beauty that was always there,” but what does that even mean? Is the implication that someone with qualities like compassion, empathy, and emotional intelligence somehow “deserves” to have an hourglass figure and a pretty face? This is bullshit on so many levels.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself, but there’s really not much plot to this book to begin with, so I don’t mind.
What plot there is basically goes like this:
We’re first introduced to David as he walks into a museum on a whim, wherein he sees a dinosaur, specifically a diplodocus. In a flash, he realizes that Darwin Was Wrong.
This is a plot that hinges a lot on hunches, flashes of insight, and only-just-now-remembereds. I think it over-relies on them. Eventually a lot of that is explained, when it turns out that some humans have access to both telepathy and racial memories. Narratively this is unsatisfying, because it makes the development of the story unguessable and impenetrable. Once you realize that at any point any character can just introduce a plot element out of nowhere, it makes everything else pointless.
It’s especially egregious here, where the whole point of the book is that there’s a mystery. It’s hard to say exactly what that mystery is. The best I can say is that you’re supposed to spend the book thinking “why is any of this happening,” but in a good way? Like, a buncha weird stuff is going on, and we’re continuing to read on the promise that the end will tie it all together.
Mysterious forces are trying to keep David from following his hunches. We get glimpses of those mysterious forces, but we don’t know their nature or intent until the last quarter of the book, which is a giant exposition dump.
David’s flash of insight re: Darwinism, though, isn’t a negation of the concept of species changing over time. He makes that clear, but it’s not a sensible kind of clear. His claim is that there is some direction to evolution, that something intelligent is propelling it for some mysterious purpose. Okay, I can relax my disbelief for the purposes of this kind of plot. It’s not wildly original, but maybe it’s going somewhere.
His reasoning is so dumb, though. He’s explaining this brainstorm to his pal, Wilkin, whose first name I cannot for the life of me find, and it’s things like “Okay, see the holes in the skull on this dinosaur, to make the head weigh less? Well answer me this, WHO PUT THEM THERE????”
This is one of those cases where I wish I were in the book so that I could slap the protagonist. Yes, he even says that evolution could very well just put the holes in there, but that his own theory “has just as much validity.” This is the “you can’t prove it didn’t happen” line of reasoning and straight up Russell’s teapot. It is infuriating.
The book does sort of redeem itself on these fronts, but it’s via the means that I’ve already complained about: racial memory. David’s kooky ideas and his belief in them aren’t the equivalent of “Oh man what if the sky’s the ground and we’re all underground, man? Pass the fig newtons” and turn out to be the actual truth coming to light.
David’s not the only person to be affected, but he goes through more than almost anyone else. He and Violet undergo physical transformations, but many other people in the world awaken to telepathy and genetic memories as well. I don’t know why those two characters are the only ones who get to mutate into hot people?
The world begins to divide itself between people called Strains, who have these powers, and Prints, who do not. These words are always italicized.
Strains also form a sort of hive-mind. Injury to one is injury to all, like the Wobblies say. They begin to suffer persecution at the hands of Prints, who heavily outnumber them.
Okay, so all this stuff is going on and we’re wondering what’s causing it and how it’s gonna shake out, right? Is the human race evolving? Is this a rip-off of the X-Men? Well, the mystery gets solved in not one but two of the least narratively satisfying ways.
First, there’s an alien observer on Earth. He’s assumed the guise of a fellow named Mr. Green. This is one of those cases where the alien observer makes it clear that he’s not allowed to interfere, so he’s not able to tell the protagonist anything, but then he just goes ahead and tells the protagonist things in the guise of “hints.” I mean, the fact that he’s acknowledged his status as an alien observer is telling the observed something and interfering.
His explanation as to his status is kind of elegant, though. He’s more like a lawyer than anything. See, a lawyer might have an interest in a case from an ethical or moral standpoint, but legally they are not allowed to offer legal advice until the case is presented to them officially and they are officially representing the affected party. So all David needs to do is build a case against…somebody?…and then Mr. Green will give him all the help he needs.
The last quarter of the book, then, is a trial. David learns what is going on and who is controlling Earth and its evolution, mainly because he just remembers it out of racial memory and that’s good enough. Mr. Green sets up the trial properly, with a robot judge and a robot jury, and now David can make his case against the aliens that have run the Earth. Mr. Green disappears into the background.
The trial consists almost entirely of David just dumping all the answers to everything into the ol’ exposition pile. There are aliens named the Ordnan. They’re your standard “conquer everything” aliens. Years ago they tried that, and failed thanks to the efforts of The United Intelligences, AKA the good guys. Unable to create new weapons, they looked for a loophole and decided that they’d breed new weapons because that didn’t count.
Those weapons were supposed to be humanity. It didn’t go well. See, the Ordnan kicked this all off by kidnapping some inhabitants of a planet called, and I’m not kidding you here, Terth. Those inhabitants are called Yewmans.
Using “blank genes,” the Ordnan transferred genetic data from some Yewmans to some apes on Earth and Uplifted them. They then directed the development of this new species to make them warlike. Unfortunately, the Ordnan misjudged something. They thought the Yewmans were a primitive race, but in fact they were super-frikkin’ advanced and psychic and had a hive-mind and genetic memory.
The Strains, then, are people who are awakening to their true natures. The Ordnan don’t like this, so they’re using the people who haven’t yet awakened to this nature—or perhaps who don’t have that nature?—to put them down. It didn’t work, and now they’re arrested for it.
This trial goes on and on and on. Dinosaurs come up again since they were apparently the Ordnan’s first experiment, but they failed when the Ice Age hit and killed them.
In real life, we know that the dinosaurs were likely killed by a catastrophic impact event. But did you know that that’s a relatively recent discovery? And that the story of that discovery is, hands down, some of the most exciting and dramatic nonfiction I’ve ever read?
It’s not often that I will say unreservedly that you should read a book, but you should read T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez (Princeton University Press, 1997). Even if you’ve read it already, read it again. Seriously, it’s probably my favorite nonfiction book, and it’s all about unravelling the scientific mystery that led to the identification of the Chicxulub crater as the likely result of the impact that ended the Mesozoic. It’s fascinating and exciting. God, I want to read it again right now.
Sorry for that digression. Back to this…ugh…now I don’t even want to think about this book anymore.
All sorts of “evidence” gets thrown around although really it just comes across as “I have a compelling story” and the Ordnan occasionally fire back that they’re being persecuted and this is all a sham. Apparently David is right, though, and so the Ordnan are found guilty. At first, the sentence is going to be something mean, but David has a better idea and pitches it.
Instead of punishing the Ordnan with sanctions or something, why not just fix them? They lack empathy and a conscience, right? So give them those things.
And so that’s what happens. The Ordnan are made to Feel Sorry for Their Crimes.
Okay, so on the one hand that’s appealing. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that it would be a really great power to force assholes into a moment of self-reflection. It would probably Fix the World, but I bet there are ethical concerns I haven’t thought about.
But here’s my problem with its use in this book: If the United Intelligences had this power, and they’re aware that there are species in the universe who straight-up lack empathy and they’re the root cause of all the problems, and they don’t seem to have any problem using it right now, then WHY THE HELL DID ANY OF THIS HAPPEN?
WHY WASN’T IT ALREADY USED? WHY ARE THERE ANY PROBLEMS AT ALL IN THE GALAXY?
You know, after evaluating the book critically for the past 2200 words, I have changed my rating from Right in the Middle to Ugh.
I dunno, the book held me pretty well while I was reading it, but now I’m just thinking about how it left a gross taste in my mouth so many times. I can’t remember what I liked about it that was supposed to balance out the things I didn’t. I guess the main thing was that I was left curious enough to want to know what the resolution would be. But that turned out crappy, too, didn’t it? ugh ugh ugh.
Maybe Philip E. High’s other books are better. Or maybe his short stories have something going for them. I’d be willing to try that out. A short story would, at least, be short. This book wasn’t long by any means, but it still felt padded. It was like he had the one idea but took so long to get around to it.
Oh, and you know how the back of the book mentioned him going back in time and being face-to-face with a dinosaur? That was a brief passage and a hallucination.
You know what would have been absolutely fine? The last quarter of the book, as a standalone. Skip all the “what’s going on” stuff and just show us the story of an alien species on trial.
I kind of feel like maybe that’s what happened! That’s the story that High wanted to tell, but it was maybe too long for a short. It might have served fine as a novella, but maybe the market for novellas wasn’t great in 1974. Or he needed the money that a novel sale would bring. So he padded the hell out of that story with some prologue and sold it.
The theory might take a lot of work, but you know what? You can’t prove me wrong.