West of Eden by Harry Harrison (1984)

WestofEden001Cover blurb

IMAGINE THE WORLD AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN…

THE WORLD WEST OF EDEN

From a master of imaginative storytelling comes an epic tale of the world as it might have been, a world were the age of dinosaurs never ended, and their descendants clashed with a clan of humans in a tragic war for survival.

It is the tale of Kerrick, a young hunter who grows to manhood among the dinosaurs, escaping at last to rejoin his own kind. His knowledge of their strange customs makes him the humans’ leader, the dinosaurs’ most feared enemy.

My thoughts

West of Eden is the start of a trilogy of novels set on an alternate earth where the dinosaurs never went extinct and have survived to the modern day. The asteroid (or comet) that killed off the great reptiles missed entirely, so mammals never got the chance to take over. One group of reptiles, the mosasaurs, have evolved into the intelligent but cold-blooded Yilane. However, humans also have evolved in North America, where the chilly climate has allowed mammals to out-compete the cold-blooded dinosaurs of Harrison’s world. A coming ice age is forcing the Yilane to spread out to find new territory, resulting in a violent clash between the two species.

West of Eden is essentially a more literary take on One Million Years B.C., although Harrison would probably loathe hearing it described it as such. Nonetheless, through the genre of alternate history, he managed to figure out a way to place dinosaurs and cavemen side-by-side and still keep some measure of plausibility in the story (more on that in a bit). The plot isn’t as original as the setting, but it serves its purpose. Kerrick, the main character, is captured by the Yilane as a small boy after the intelligent reptiles wipe out his tribe. He grows up among them, learning their language, their customs and some of their technology, before he is rescued by the leader of another human tribe. The Yilane want to exterminate the humans, seeing them as little more than vermin. Only Kerrick’s special knowledge of the reptiles will be able to save the human race.

What works best about the novel is the Yilane. Harrison spent a great deal of time crafting the species and actually sought out the help of two scientists in designing their biology and their language. Females are dominant, with the males giving birth. Their entire society is defined by their cold-blooded physiologies: They have no concept of metallurgy, because their bodies can’t stand the heat of an open flame, so their civilization is instead based on millions of years of selective breeding and genetic manipulation of other organisms. They make fascinating villains. Still, from a purely scientific point of view, it should be pointed out that the Yilane are impossible given it takes a warm-blooded metabolism to support human-like intelligence. And the species seems a little too alien for anything that could have evolved on earth. Why Harrison chose to have them descend from mosasaurs rather than a land-dwelling dinosaur is a mystery to me.

Given the effort he put into his villains, it’s too bad Harrison didn’t spend any time fleshing out the rest of his alternate world. Instead of having dinosaurs evolve in new and weird forms after 65 million years of evolution, he just plops in creatures known from the fossil record, even if they were already extinct by the time the asteroid came crashing down. The same is true for the mammals, which have evolved into their ice age forms rather than into forms fitting the alien environments they live in. The dinosaurs of Harrison’s world also are depicted as sluggish and cold-blooded despite the fact that other science fiction writers had already embraced more modern theories about active dinosaurs by the time the author was penning West of Eden. Harrison shows a remarkable disinterest in paleontology given the subject matter of the novel, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of his research of the science came from reading a couple children’s books about dinosaurs.

That said, West of Eden still works as an old-fashioned adventure story with a good sense of wonder. The Yilane are appropriately evil (although they do have good individuals), and it’s easy to sympathize with the Stone Age humans who are trying to avoid genocide at the hands of a technologically superior race. The only let down story-wise is the deus ex machina ending. It’s a book worth reading, even if more science-literate readers will be left wishing Harrison had used a little more imagination in crafting his world.

Trivia

  • West of Eden was republished in 2004, although I’ve never had any trouble finding copies of the book in used-book stores.

Reviews

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