INSIDE THE MILES-LONG SPACESHIP IT WAS 160 MILLION YEARS AGO
Day after artificial day, outwitting the carnivorous saurians that had devoured their shipmates, the two survivors of the Heinlein expedition to the mysterious object known as Artifact One picked their way through the vast, horizonless jungle that filled the hull of the star-traveling terrarium.
They did what a man and a woman fighting together to survive usually do.
They prayed for rescue.
They searched for a way to escape.
They fell in love
Then, from a rise in the forest, they saw a wall.
And something on the wall saw them.
Longtime science fiction fans may experience a sensation of déjà vu when reading the opening chapters of Day of the Dragonstar. The year is 2027, and in this future envisioned by the authors in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union is still around but allied with the United States. Humanity has established colonies on the Moon and Mars and has reached as far as the asteroid belt, although interstellar travel is a long way off. The story begins with astronomers detecting a large object approaching the inner solar system. They soon determine the object is a giant cylinder, roughly 200 miles (320 km) long and 40 miles (65 km) in circumference. At this point, some of you are thinking, “Wait! Isn’t that the plot of Rendezvous with Rama?!” Yes, it is, but there are some crucial differences. Unlike Rama, where the alien object makes a quick pass through the solar system before heading off to deep space, the object here—dubbed the “Dragonstar”—has been orbiting the sun for millions of years. And where Rama was filled with alien technology, Dragonstar is filled with dinosaurs.
An expedition is mounted to explore Dragonstar and attach rockets to the artifact so it can be brought into orbit around the Moon for further study. Once inside, the expedition team discovers that the cylinder is hollow and its interior surface is lined with artificial environments resembling those of “Jurassic” Earth. (The term “Jurassic world” is thrown out a few times, including on the book’s cover, which may be a bit off-putting for modern readers.) The team doesn’t get much time to admire the sights because they are attacked by dinosaurs almost as soon as they step through the airlock, leaving only the expedition leader, Ian Coppersmith, and a biomedical specialist, Rebecca Thalberg, alive. The pair flee the scene of the massacre and slowly make their way to the end of the ship containing the rocket engines, hoping to find safety there. Meanwhile, a second expedition is launched to rescue the survivors and complete the first team’s mission. And while all this is going on, a coalition of Middle Eastern and African nations make their bid for the artifact by having a death squad hijack a spaceship so they can travel to the Dragonstar, commandeer it, and claim the alien technology for themselves.
If that plot description came off as cluttered and confusing, that’s because Day of the Dragonstar is a cluttered novel. There is far more going on in the story than needed for the plot, which would have worked fine had it simply focused on the exploration of the alien artifact. The subplot about the death squad is the most egregious example as it exists solely to spice up the action with gun battles. Unfortunately, it also introduces the novel’s most problematic element through its racist portrayal of Muslim and Middle Eastern peoples. One Muslim character is a pedophile who is rewarded by his government with access to 10-year-old girls. The others are portrayed as terrorists or blood-crazed killers, with white people often berating their culture or dismissing them as “A-rabs.” At one point a white character even suggests Middle Eastern and African peoples should go back to riding camels and living in “mud huts.” At first, I thought the authors were setting up the guy as an over-the-top racist who eventually gets his comeuppance, but no, turns out he’s one of our heroes.
Putting aside modern concerns about “political correctness,” the reality is the rest of the characters are also poorly written. Female characters are defined primarily by their attractiveness and exist solely to reward the male protagonists with sex. The men are your square-jawed, muscle-bound heroes of a thousand action movies. As for the dinosaurs… well, they’re kind of interesting. Despite being published in 1983, the book contains surprisingly modern depictions of the terrible reptiles. There are no feathers, but animals are portrayed as active, hot-blood creatures with complex social structures. The authors do mix and match dinosaurs from different time periods together despite the “Jurassic” setting, but a reason for that seeming inaccuracy is provided near the end. The writers also invent a race of intelligent “dinosauroids” with an intriguing culture. (That isn’t a spoiler: We’re introduced to the species in the prologue.) Still, not everything is perfect: Predatory dinosaurs are depicted as raging Godzilla monsters; the writers seem to confuse dinosaur length with height, leading to supersized beasts; the dinosaur scenes are few and far between, taking a backseat to space stuff and gunfights.
Despite the bland characters and ugly ethnic stereotypes, there were times when I enjoyed Day of the Dragonstar, mainly when the protagonists were exploring the ship and interacting with its prehistoric inhabitants. The book could have worked as a simple adventure story focusing on survival and solving the Dragonstar’s mysteries. Instead, readers get an unwelcome injection of racial politics and shoot-’em-up action, with the more interesting stuff getting pushed aside as a result. Take those out and Day of the Dragonstar wouldn’t have been a great book, but it would have been more fun.
- Day of the Dragonstar is the first of a trilogy of novels published in the 1980s, the other two being Night of the Dragonstar and Dragonstar Destiny. However, the book can be read a stand-alone novel, as its central plot is resolved by the end.
- The novel was serialized in Analog Science Fiction magazine, starting with the Sept. 14, 1981, issue, which features an illustration of the ship on its cover.
- David F. Bischoff and Thomas F. Monteleone are both writers who have published multiple science fiction novels, although the Dragonstar books are their only collaborative effort. Bischoff died in 2018 while Monteleone was still active in publishing at the time of this review, as far as I can tell.
- Despite my critique of the authors’ portrayal of Middle Eastern/Muslim characters, the truth is such stereotyping was common in popular media when the book was published. The writers’ anger appears to stem from the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, which led to an energy crisis in the U.S. and other Western nations. The book’s villains all work for oil-producing countries whose fortunes declined after their oil reserves ran dry, forcing them to turn to the desperate measure of seizing the Dragonstar to plunder its technology.
- Not a trivia item, but I was dubious about the heroes’ plan for parking the Dragonstar near the Moon. Bringing a 200-mile-long object into close proximity to Earth struck me as an amazingly bad idea. What if you miscalculate and hit Earth instead? You’d cause an extinction-level event wiping out both humans and the last of the dinosaurs, a two-for-one.