Raising the Dead: Bringing back extinct animals in fiction

Note: This article was inspired by an essay about dinosaurs in science fiction appearing in Dougal Dixon’s The New Dinosaurs: An Alternate Evolution. I penned it several years ago and have posted it on the occasional Internet forum.


Dr. Frankenstein had it easy. He had all the body parts he needed when resurrecting his creature: a heart, some lungs, a brain. Writers of paleofiction are not so fortunate. The animals they write about have been dead for thousands of years, usually millions. The soft tissues have rotted away, the bones have turned to stone. In most cases, we don’t even know what the critter looked like.

Readers must expect to suspend their disbelief when delving into any science fiction story about extinct creatures, but the fact remains that the more plausible the scenario for bringing back the animals, the more acceptance a work will receive from the public. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned The Lost World at a time when large regions of globe were still unexplored and the prospect of finding living fossils in the distant lands seemed possible, if highly unlikely. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton played on fears of genetic engineering and was based on a premise that a few scientists said could become a reality. Even time travel, which almost certainly is not possible, has been used so much in science fiction that most people will accept it without asking too many questions about how it works.

Fantasy, of course, operates under different rules than science fiction, although fantasy authors usually are more interested in dragons than dinosaurs. Still, readers of the genre have expectations for scientific accuracy. One reason the Dinotopia books by James Gurney are so popular is because of the anatomical detail of the animals he paints, even if they are portrayed as smart as humans.

Throughout the years, writers have relied on eight plot devices to resurrect dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals in fiction, some more plausible than others. Many stories use one device. Others use two or more — a lost world story, for example, can be set on an alternate world. Then there are a few odd titles that don’t fit into any of the eight categories, but given they involve such things as dinosaurs walking around disguised as humans, scientific accuracy usually is not what the authors have in mind.

Through Their Eyes

raptorredReaders see through the eyes of a human or an animal to experience prehistory as it happened in this scenario. The stories here are set in the prehistoric past rather than the modern day, and they can be the most realistic take on paleofiction if the writer does his or her homework. That’s not to say using this plot device always means the science will be right, because it includes caveman-and-dinosaur melodramas such as One Million Years B.C.

One example of a serious take on the scenario is Raptor Red by Robert Bakker, which features a Utahraptor as its main character. Another is Evolution by Stephen Baxter, which traces human evolution through a series of stories, each told from the viewpoint of one of our ancestors. Baxter’s Longtusk, the second book of his mammoth trilogy, explores the Ice Age world through the eyes of a mammoth.

Comic books have depicted dinosaur life as red in tooth and claw. Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare and Age of Reptiles: The Hunt, both by Richardo Delgado, are set in the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. Jim Lawson’s Paleo: Tales of the Late Cretaceous is a little less gory by comparison, but its characters’ lives are still brutal.

The Lone Survivor

silverhairAn individual creature or small group of the same species survives into modern times in this scenario. This is the realm of cryptozoology, the pseudoscience concerning the search for unknown animals and living fossils, such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti.

Prehistoric survivors are usually hidden somewhere inaccessible to man, like the brontosaurs deep in the Congo jungle in the movie Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend. The most memorable tale to use this plot device is Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn”, in which the horn of a lighthouse summons an ancient and very lonely reptile from the depths of the ocean.

Stephen Baxter’s Silverhair is about a small herd of mammoths that still lives on an isolated arctic island. A wealthy Arabic family has been gathering prehistoric survivors from all over the globe for centuries in Bestiary by Robert Masello, a thriller set in modern-day Los Angeles.

The expansive and largely unexplored oceans provide plenty of territory for prehistoric animals to hide in. Both Meg and its sequels by Steven Alten and Extinct by Charles Wilson are about the survival of the super-shark Megalodon.

The Lost World

summerThe most famous example of this device is the book that gives it its name, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it, British explorers discover a South American plateau populated by dinosaurs and ape men. A lost world is different from the previous scenario in that an entire ecosystem survives hidden and unchanged, although animals from different time periods are usually thrown into the same setting.

This scenario was first used by Jules Verne in 1864 with the publication of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the heroes discover a giant cavern populated with extinct creatures. It became a staple of early 20th century pulp writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs in his The Land That Time Forgot trilogy, set on a lost continent, and his Pellucidar series, set inside a hollow earth.

The plot device has waned in recent years as the blank spots on maps have been explored, but modern examples include Dinotopia and its sequels by James Gurney; Subterranean by James Rollins; and Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer, a pseudo-sequel to The Lost World set in an alternate timeline. Then there is The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, a movie tie-in and illustrated guide to the wildlife of an island where dinosaurs continued to evolve and thrive.

Paul T. Riddell has written an excellent essay about the scientific implausibility of a lost world as portrayed in fiction.

Freeze and Thaw

fatalisIn the animated movie Ice Age, one of the characters stumbles upon a Tyrannosaurus rex frozen mid-stride in a wall of ice. That’s not far off from what some authors have used to resurrect prehistoric animals.

In the novel Carnivore, Leigh Clark freezes a T. rex egg in Antarctic ice so it can hatch in the present day. Author Jeff Rovin literally freeze-dries a pride of saber-tooth cats in Fatalis so they can stalk prey in Los Angeles. And in James Rollins’ Ice Hunt, a pod of walking whales chases after humans after awakening from hibernation inside an iceberg.

Attack of the Clones

jurassicYou’ve seen Jurassic Park, right?

Then you know that in this case scientists find ancient DNA and resurrect dinosaurs using genetic engineering. It should be pointed out that Michael Crichton wasn’t the first use this device. Harry Adam Knight — a pen name for B-movie historian John Brosnan — unleashed genetically engineered dinosaurs on an unsuspecting British public in his 1984 novel Carnosaur, which hit bookstores six years before Jurassic Park. Piers Anthony resurrects a Baluchitherium, the largest land-dwelling mammal ever to have lived, in Balook.

Time Travel

SeaofTimeTime travel is the plot device usually used to resurrect extinct species, for obvious reasons.

A tiny subgenre has sprung out of time travel stories: the dinosaur hunt. Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “A Sound of Thunder” deals with the consequences of time travel after a botched Mesozoic hunt. David Drake glorifies the trophy hunt in Time Safari, later republished as Tyrannosaur with a new opening story. L. Sprague de Camp’s time-traveling safari guide Reginald Rivers serves up a series of funny stories in Rivers of Time. “Trouble with Tribbles” writer David Gerrold speculates that laser guns may not be the weapons of choice when hunting dinosaurs in Deathbeast.

Humans have traveled into the past for more benign purposes. Explorers seek out the cause of the dinosaurs’ demise in Dinosaur Nexus by Lee Grimes. Mysterious benefactors give paleontologists the chance to study their subjects up close and personal in Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick. The time-traveling Doctor and his companion Martha Jones visit a museum where every species that has ever gone extinct has been saved and placed in suspended animation in Doctor Who: The Last Dodo by Jacqueline Rayner. Scientists find a wristwatch-wearing caveman beside the corpse of a Mammoth, by John Varley. Two researchers learn what really killed the dinosaurs in Robert Sawyer’s End of An Era. You get three guesses about what the expedition in The Virgin and the Dinosaur by R. Garcia y Robertson finds in the prehistoric past. And a couple who finds a time-traveling alien in their backyard turns the creature’s talent into a very profitable enterprise in Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak.

The prehistoric past can become a prison for those who are not careful. A family takes a vacation to the end of the Cretaceous in Cretaceous Sea by Will Hubbell only to be stranded as the K-T asteroid comes crashing down. One of the survivors heads back in the sequel Sea of Time. A scientist is trapped in the distant past and must come to terms with the fact he can never go home in The Dechronization of Sam Magruder by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. An Oregon town is transported to the Mesozoic Era in the comic Cavewoman by Budd Root, but luckily it has a scantily clad female superhero to defend it from the dinosaurs.

Sometimes the past comes intruding into the present with disastrous results, such as the case in Footprints of Thunder by James F. David, where time ripples replace chunks of modern-day Earth with their Mesozoic equivalents. The causes of the disaster are further explored in Thunder of Time. Our future is replaced by an alternate earth where dinosaurs never died out in First Frontier, a Star Trek novel by Diane Carey and James I. Kirkland, the change a result of alien tinkering in prehistory.

Aliens from Earth

foreignerIs it possible that on a distant planet with similar conditions to earth, evolution has produced dinosaurs and the alien equivalents of other extinct creatures? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped authors from using this device.

Beyond the Gates by Martha Wells hinges on convergent evolution on a galactic scale. Dinosaurs also are found on an alien world in The Mystery of Ireta, which combines the novels Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors by Anne McCaffrey, who usually writes about dragons.

Luckily, some aliens are environmentalists rather than invaders, and they have used their technology to ship dinosaurs to another world before they went extinct here. The Quintaglio trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer depicts a distant world where dinosaurs continued to evolve after they were transported there by a friendly alien force. The series starts with Far-Seer. Aliens have terraformed Venus and have populated it with prehistoric animals in The Sky People by alternate history writer S.M. Stirling. Pluto’s moon turns out to be a gigantic game preserve in Charon’s Ark by Rick Gauger. And in Icebones by Stephen Baxter, mammoths find themselves on a terraformed Mars.

Intelligent dinosaurs managed to escape extinction by fleeing into outer space in The Homecoming by Barry Longyear and in Dinosaur Wars and its sequel Dinosaur Wars: Counterattack by Thomas P. Hopp.

The Best of All Worlds

westedenWhat if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed? What would the earth be like today? The alternate world genre usually deals with changes in human history, but a few authors have reached further back in time to speculate on divergences in natural history.

Dougal Dixon depicts a wild world populated by the evolved descendents of dinosaurs in The New Dinosaurs: An Alternate Evolution. Harry Harrison speculates that mammals would have evolved in those parts of the world too cold for cold-blooded reptiles in the West of Eden trilogy, leading to war between humans and a race of intelligent reptiles called the Yilane. The series starts with West of Eden. The comic Neozoic also has humans and dinosaurs living side-by-side after alien interference nudges the K-T asteroid off-course.

The survival of the dinosaur seems a favorite theme here, but there are a couple examples of more recent changes. A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove depicts a world where Homo erectus rather than modern humans populated the Americas, allowing Ice Age mammals such as saber-tooth cats to survive into historic times. A group of teens finds a cave leading to a world where humans never evolved and Ice Age animals still roam in Steven Gould’s Wildside.

Fantasy worlds also belong in this category, given they are a type of alternate earth. The illustrated The Katurran Odyssey by Terryl Whitlatch and David Michael Wieger takes place in a world where both living and extinct mammals live side-by-side and can talk.

The Oddballs

Xenozoic3There are some works that really don’t fit into any of the above categories.

The novel Bone Wars and its sequel Two Tiny Claws, both by Brett Davis, involve early paleontologists encountering fossil-stealing aliens and holographic dinosaurs, so its prehistoric creatures are not real in the strictest sense.

Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia is a detective story in which dinosaurs are not extinct, but living and hiding among us in fake human skins.

The comic Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz is set in a future where every species that has ever lived has been resurrected. Schultz has yet to explain the reason for his weird world, but he hints at genetic engineering on a massive scale.

Devolution — that is, evolution in reverse — is the explanation for the future return of a world-spanning Triassic swamp in The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard. The cause is a sudden flare-up of the sun, which floods Earth with heat and radiation.

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