Dinosaurs: The Final Chapter

One thing most people know about dinosaurs is that they went out in spectacular fashion. Roughly 66 million years ago, a large asteroid crashed into what is today the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing an apocalypse that wiped out three-quarters of species living at the time. Not all dinosaurs died—birds survived—and there were other victims, but the disaster movie ending for the paleontological superstars has gripped the public imagination since it was first proposed in the 1980s. At the time I write this, the movie 65 has just hit theaters. It is Hollywood’s first whack at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction (or K-Pg extinction; Cretaceous is abbreviated as “K”), and perhaps its last attempt given the poor reviews for the film and its lackluster box office performance. Still, the demise of the dinosaurs has been retold many times in the pages of fiction, and an asteroid isn’t always the culprit.

Listing every short story, comic book, and TV and movie property referencing the extinction of the dinosaurs would be a time-consuming effort and I don’t pretend to be that well-versed in literature or popular culture. Fortunately, a lot of that work already has been done through the crowdsourcing site TV Tropes, which has two entries on the subject.

The first entry—”Phlebotinum Killed the Dinosaurs”—lists the many fantastic explanations writers have invented for the dinosaurs’ demise. One example comes from the popular British TV show Doctor Who, where the asteroid was a spaceship that traveled back in time and crashed into the Earth. Another can be found in David Drake’s short story collection Time Safari, in which time travelers accidentally introduce a modern-day avian disease in the late Cretaceous, with the characters speculating the virus will eventually bring about a massive dino die-off.

The second category—”The Dinosaurs Had It Coming”—concerns stories that use the K-Pg extinction event to impart a moral lesson. One example: In Isaac Asimov’s short story “Day of the Hunters,” a university professor travels back in time to discover that a warlike saurian race killed the dinosaurs and then turned on itself. “You damned fools…how the devil do you think we’re going to end?” the professor tells a group of fellow humans blind to the similarities.

The following list consists mostly of longer works of fiction that have been featured on this blog, focusing on stories depicting the extinction itself rather than just using the event as a background element. Be warned: there are spoilers ahead about the causes each story gives for the extinction, although I try to avoid going into detail about larger plot details.

Time Machine 22: The Last of the Dinosaurs. I usually focus on paleofiction geared more toward older audiences but I would remiss not to mention this 1988 children’s book that helped spark my love for dinosaurs. Time Machine was a Choose Your Own Adventure-style series of books with an emphasis on edutainment. Each book focused on a period of history—or in this case, prehistory—and usually had only one ending, with readers who made poor choices required to re-read story paths they had already explored. (This was explained as readers getting stuck in a time loop until they made the right decision.) In The Last of the Dinosaurs, readers are time travelers tasked with discovering what killed the dinosaurs. They explore various extinction explanations by experiencing them firsthand—an asteroid strike, volcanic eruptions, disease, etc. The ultimate answer is a bit of a cop-out: turns out the answer is “all of the above,” but this book came out well before the impact hypothesis won out.

What made this book a favorite of mine is not just the fun subject matter but the black-and-white illustrations by famed paleoartist Doug Henderson, who draws the dinosaurs with a dynamism you didn’t see in a lot of children’s books from that decade. It also may be the first work of fiction to feature a feathered non-avian dinosaur, with the time traveler spotting a feathered Deinonychus at one point. (The text itself is somewhat ambiguous about whether the dinosaur is feathered but the accompanying illustration shows the Deinonychus fully decked out in plumage.)

Robert Silverberg’s Time Tours: The Dinosaur Trackers. Another children’s book, this one about a young tour guide in charge a group of rodeo-loving tourists visiting the Cretaceous. One of the tourists is obsessed is seeing the K-Pg extinction, and the protagonist must rescue her from catastrophe after she takes off on her own. The book is a straightforward adventure with no real twists on the subject.

End of the Era. This novel by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer sends two scientists back in time to learn what killed the dinosaurs. The answer? Martians. Or rather, an alien virus that inhabits and controls its host like a puppet. And the aliens use advanced technology to reduce the Earth’s gravity, which allows dinosaurs to grow much bigger than modern-day mammals. When that tech is turned off, well… squish!

Sea of Time. This 2002 novel by Will Hubbell is about a small group of people who travel back in time to establish a resort on the inland sea that once bisected North America. Turns out they have bad timing: The K-Pg asteroid comes crashing down, leaving the survivors struggling to escape the post-apocalyptic landscape.

Dinosaur Nexus. A 1994 novel by Lee Grimes in which a group of human explorers in the Cretaceous encounter intelligent, time-traveling dinosaurs from a future where the K-Pg extinction never happened. The novel teases conflict between the two groups over which future comes to pass, but it is confusingly resolved about halfway through the novel, with the rest focused on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two timelines.

Dinosaur Thunder. The third in a series of novels by James F. David starting with Footprints of Thunder, all dealing with the aftermath of a worldwide disaster in which huge chunks of the planet are replaced with their Mesozoic counterparts. This book is a fairly straightforward thriller focusing largely on a group of humans in the Cretaceous seeking to escape to the present day before the asteroid hits.

First Frontier: Star Trek #75. In this novel—co-authored by paleontologist James Kirkland—Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves in an alternate timeline where the K-Pg extinction never happened, meaning that humans never evolved and, as a result, the Federation no longer exists. The heroes travel to the Cretaceous to learn the cause of the change in time and ensure that the asteroid comes crashing down on schedule.

Evolution. This 2003 novel by science fiction author Stephen Baxter mostly is concerned about human evolution but its opening chapters recreate the K-Pg impact, as experienced by a small mammal living at the time. Still, that was not the end of non-avian dinosaurs in Baxter’s novel, with a later chapter speculating that the animals continued to thrive on Antarctica until about 30 million years ago, when the freezing of the continent finally did them in.

The Cretaceous Past. This short novel by Three-Body Problem author Cixin Liu is set in a fictitious past in which every species of dinosaur and ant are as intelligent as humans. The two societies form a symbiotic relationship that allows both to technologically advance, but over time, religious and philosophical differences cause them to go to war.

Boundary. This novel by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor—which I have not reviewed here at time I write this—is about a paleontologist who finds an alien fossil on Earth dating from close to the K-Pg extinction. This novel is more about space exploration than paleontology, but the connection between the aliens and the extinction are central to the plot.

“Dawn of the Endless Night.” (Published in The Ultimate Dinosaur) There are many short stories about the extinction of the dinosaurs, but this one is of note in that it was written by science fiction author Harry Harrison and features the reptilian Yilane from his West of Eden trilogy. That series of books is set in an alternate history where the K-Pg extinction never happened. “Dawn of the Endless Night” instead places the Yilane at the end of the Cretaceous, where they witness the asteroid impact.

Predation. A science fiction tabletop roleplaying game set at the end of the Cretaceous, with the players being the descendants of time travelers stranded in the period. The setting’s inhabitants know the asteroid is coming, although whether it is one year away or 100, they can only guess. The dilemma they face: Should they let history take its course and accept their fate? Or should they stop the impact and allow human civilization to begin anew 66 million years ago, possibly wiping future humans from existence? The book came and went without much notice, which is a shame as it is probably the best tabletop RPG with dinosaurs.

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