The Cretaceous Past by Cixin Liu (2021)

Cover blurb

All the years of human civilization represent an infinitesimal fraction of the time since life first burgeoned on planet Earth. How likely is it, then, in those great depths of time, that humanity alone benefitted from the spark of intelligence which gave rise to culture.

This is the question posed by China’s preeminent science fiction writer for more than twenty years and Hugo-Award-winner for The Three-Body Problem Cixin Liu in his magisterial new short novel, The Cretaceous Past. The answer he offers is unexpected, supposing an unlikely alliance between the largest creatures in the world of the deep past and some of the smallest.

And it all begins with a toothache.

When a Tyrannosaurus rex suffers pain from meat trapped between its enormous teeth, a nearby colony of ants risks entering the great creature’s maw to make their own repast from the remains of the dinosaur’s most recent meal. From this humble beginning, over the course of millennia, a symbiotic civilization achieves amazing advances, reaching dizzying heights in countless endeavors scientific and social, facing dangers and exploiting opportunities at every turn.

In this absorbing tale, Cixin Liu manages to describe the history of successive epochs of a might-have-been world, doing for the past what Olaf Stapledon’s classic Last and First Men did for the future. Here, Liu embarks on a new journey, sure to please the legions of devoted readers of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.

The Cretaceous Past offers Liu at his finest, demonstrating flights of imagination and depths of speculation sure to reward new fans and old alike.

My thoughts

Science fiction has provided many fantastic explanations for why the dinosaurs went extinct, from alien invasion to clumsy time travelers. The Cretaceous Past by Chinese author Cixin Liu is the latest story to give a creative answer to this mystery. But while labeled sci-fi, this “short novel” is more parable than speculative fiction.

The Cretaceous Past opens with T. rex taking a nap in the shade of a tree after a hunt. A nearby ant colony is miffed that the dinosaur didn’t drop any scraps from its kill before resting, so the ant mayor orders the other ants to climb into the T. rex’s mouth and pick out scraps of meat stuck between its teeth. Why do the ants have a “mayor”? Lui posits a world where every dinosaur and ant species has human-like intelligence. “A species undergoing continual evolution over the same timespan, no matter how stupid to begin with, will become intelligent,” the author writes in the story’s introduction. How seriously readers are supposed to take this nugget of dubious science is unclear as Liu is using the story to draw parallels with human societies. Anyone expecting a speculative take on dinosaur and ant cultures will be disappointed as the critters here are stand-ins for people — the difference being some people are the size of elephants while others are as tiny as grains of sand.

After the tooth cleaning, the grateful T. rex tells its buddies about the wonderful service the ants provided and they flock to the colony to get their mouths cleaned. This provides the ants with a steady source of food and a symbiotic relationship is formed between the two groups of animals. This relationship evolves over the centuries, growing more complex as both dinosaur and ant societies advance in technology. The ants become skilled at dinosaur microsurgery and designing micro-circuitry. The dinosaurs provide food, security, and creative thinking skills that the ants largely lack. Both groups of animals benefit from working and living together, but it doesn’t last.

Religion drives the first wedge. Dinosaurs and ants argue over whether God is a dinosaur or an ant, and war breaks out. One may think dinosaurs would have the upper hand given the size difference, but the ants are so small they can crawl into dinosaur bodies to implant small bombs. In addition, most dinosaur technology depends on circuitry that can only be manufactured by ants, as dinosaur hands are too big and clumsy. The conflict ends in a stalemate. The two sides continue to clash in later centuries. With each conflict, both civilizations grow more convinced they no longer need the other. Given non-avian dinosaurs are extinct, I’m not spoiling anything by saying this story doesn’t have a happy ending, although I won’t give away the cause of their demise.

Narratively, The Cretaceous Past is a throwback to Golden Age science fiction tales like Olaf Stapledon’s aforementioned First and Last Men and Issac Asimov’s Foundation. There are no central characters and the story lacks a traditional plot structure. It instead consists series of interconnected tales focused on the evolution of its fictional society rather than the individuals who live in it. The events of the story feel distant as a result. Readers don’t get to know any of the constantly rotating cast of characters or understand their plights. I also found the prose workman-like and dry, although this may be an artifact of translating the original Chinese into English.

There are bits of science scattered throughout this science fiction tale but again, none of this is meant as “hard” sci-fi. That said, as a parable or satire, The Cretaceous Past doesn’t say anything new or profound. “Societies are stronger when they work together.” “Protect the environment.” “Religious dogma can be corrosive.” All these messages have been communicated in more entertaining stories.

The Cretaceous Past is a short read. Most people will be able to finish it in one or two evenings. Still, I’m not sure it’s worth your time.

Trivia

  • Cixin Liu is probably best known to Western audiences for his novel The Three-Body Problem. He is also famous in his home country of China, with at least one movie — The Wandering Earth — adapted from his work.
  • The above publication date is for the U.S. translation of The Cretaceous Past. I do not know when the original Chinese work was published.

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