From the first illustrated edition of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1867, dinosaurs and prehistory have fascinated readers. Writers would time and again come back to dinosaurs as an element of fantastic fiction, often using these creatures – through the venue of the written word – to reflect the world of the writers’ own time.
This literary survey examines how paleoliterature originated, developed and matured to the present day. It follows historical trends on the crafting of classic dinosaurs, investigating the enlivened figurative and metaphoric meaning of fictional dinosaurs and related prehistoria. Also discussed are the ways in which dinosaur fiction mirrors contemporary ideas about subjects such as geology, the Cold War, environmentalism, time travel, evolution and bioengineering.
Featured authors include Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, and Poul Anderson, among others. In select cases, the novelizations of movie scripts are also utilized. An appendix provides brief summaries of deserving dinosaur texts.
Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction is a more thorough overview of paleofiction than I thought it would be when I first picked it up. Despite my love for the subject, it took me some time to get around to reading the book – the $55 cover price is a big disincentive for those of us on a budget. There’s not enough material in its scant 220 pages to justify the high price, but lovers of the genre won’t be disappointed either.
Debus starts at the very beginning, scrounging up a few obscure 19th century poems that marked the first appearance of ancient creatures in fiction. Still, the first true work of paleofiction was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists find a huge cavern populated with prehistoric beasts – although, ironically, no dinosaurs, since they hadn’t captured the public’s imagination yet. Debus makes a convincing argument about how Verne’s work was really a trip backward through time, at least from the perspective of how Victorian-era scientists viewed prehistory.
He then moves on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which, in my mind, is the true granddaddy of the subgenre simply because it created many of the clichés later writers would use in their stories. He travels at warp speed through the 20th century, moving from dinosaurs in the pulp era to the tie-ins with B-cinema to Jurassic Park, before ending with Dinotopia and other examples of how writers have started portraying dinosaurs more like humans than animals. There also is a handy, but spoiler-heavy, appendix at the end of novels and short stories concerning prehistoric creatures.
As I’ve already stated, Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction does a pretty good job encompassing the subgenre given its varied and often hard-to-find titles. More than a few works only get the briefest of mentions, but Debus covers enough of them that the book rarely feels incomplete, and his observations about the trends in paleofiction are pretty much spot on. The author does cheat a little in the middle and starts delving into dinosaurs in cinema, which, unlike prehistoric fiction, has been covered extensively by other writers. Also, some of his writing comes dangerously close to imitating postmodern literary criticism, meaning that it is stylistically dense but intellectually hollow. These are only small complaints, however.