Sometimes trunk novels need to stay in the trunk. That was my takeaway from Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, May 2017), a novel published posthumously earlier this year. (Crichton died in 2008.) As a novel of the Bone Wars, the bitter feud between rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, it drew my attention: fictional representations of the Bone Wars are, shall we say, a professional interest of mine, as I’m working on one myself.1
Set in 1876, it follows the fictional William Johnson, a feckless Yale undergrad who, on a bet, signs up with Marsh’s expedition to the west. Johnson spends the rest of the novel bouncing between the paranoid Marsh and the tempermental Cope, surviving the west in the immediate aftermath of Little Big Horn, being left for dead and surviving the lawless town of Deadwood.
You’d think this would be interesting, but I struggled to give a damn, partly because Johnson is literally the least interesting character in the book, a blank onto which the reader can project himself.2 The prose is spare, the description light—I haven’t read any Crichton prior to this (there have been audiobooks) so I don’t know if this is an underwritten first draft or Crichton’s regular modus operandi. But one gets the impression of an author laying down the beats, setting up the basic tracks, before coming back to finish it, and never doing so.
But it’s also because I’ve read plenty of stories about the Bone Wars, about Cope and Marsh’s expeditions, about Marsh’s relationship with indigenous tribes—and they were all more interesting than this. The fact that National Geographic is adapting this into a TV series boggles my mind; it’s unnecessary. Read The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe (Crown, 2000) or The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), detailed, readable historical accounts that appeared after Crichton wrote Dragon Teeth. Or track down Charles Sternberg’s memoir, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909). Or see the “Dinosaur Wars” episode of The American Experience, which ran in January 2011. Dragon Teeth was a disappointment in that as fiction, it did not add measurably to the real-life story, which is already kind of amazing. Crichton’s book is superfluous.
In the Jurassic Park movies, the Tyrannosaurus rex is more than a deadly predator bent on eating everyone and everything in its path. It also serves a key plot function above and beyond that of mere antagonist.
You are perhaps familiar with the concept of deus ex machina? Wikipedia calls it “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.” It’s the sudden rescue at the end, the long-lost relative who adopts you as their heir, the bacteria that kill the Martians just before all is lost.
I’d like to propose the idea of the T. rex machina—the plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of a T. rex.
Ever since tyrannosauroid fossils (namely, Dilong and Yutyrannus) started turning up with evidence of feathers, the idea that the Big T and its close relatives were at least partially feathered themselves was awfully intriguing. I mean, basal coelurosaurs had feathers, early tyrannosauroids had feathers—it stood to reason. But a new study examining fossilized tyrannosaur skin impressions concludes that Tyrannosaurus and its close relatives Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbosaurushad scaly skin rather than feathers. Size may be one reason why: large mammals are less hairy for heat-loss reasons (the exceptions being arctic dwellers like mammoths).
I admit to some disappointment: I was more invested in the idea of a feathered T. rex than I ought to have been.
When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I tore through every dinosaur book I could find in every public library I encountered. Some of those books were extremely dated. In the 1970s and 1980s books from the 1940s were still in the children’s section, even science books, so nomina dubia like Antrodemus and Trachodon showed up repeatedly, and the art was, in hindsight, anatomically risible. Kids these days have no idea how bad it used to be.
But there was one book — one I actually owned — that stands out in my memory even now: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs by L. B. Halstead. (The paleontology blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs covers it here and here.) Published in 1975, the book was on the cusp of the dinosaur renaissance and is, in Marc Vincent’s words, “an odd, uneasy melding of new and old ideas here, both in the text and in the art.” Some of those ideas were just plain weird, and since disproven: a species of Compsognathus with paddles instead of hands, stegosaurs whose plates lay flat against the body, that sort of thing.
But the weirdest thing in that book, assuming I’m remembering it correctly (I’m pretty sure this was the book I saw it in), was not a dubious interpretation, but a fossil: two gargantuan, eight-foot-long arms, discovered in Mongolia in 1965, named Deinocheirus. The arms were all that was known of the dinosaur.
What did the rest of Deinocheirus look like, I wondered. The arms had claws, so they clearly had to come from some gigantic theropod. But that would make it bigger than Tyrannosaurus and that’s just crazy talk. The mystery preoccupied me for years. In the eighth grade I actually made Deinocheirus the subject of a two-minute speech I was required to give in English class: I gave a junior-high cargo-cult scientific talk in which I speculated that Deinocheirus was a quadruped, a cat-shaped dinosaur predator. It was the only way I could reconcile the size of those arms.
But in 2014 the rest of Deinocheirus was announced to the world, and the truth proved more bizarre than my childhood imagination. It was an ornithomimosaur, but at 11 metres long and more than six tons in weight, one that traded speed for size and mass. It was horse-faced and hunch-backed, toothless and omnivorous, and apparently food for the local tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus.
Pickrell’s thesis that after decades of relative stability, the field of dinosaur paleontology is changing more rapidly than ever before. Thanks in part to a generation of Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologist, he writes, “More dinosaurs are being discovered right now than ever before — and not just a few more: the rate of discovery has been increasing nearly exponentially.” If libraries could get away with having decades-old dinosaur books on the shelves when I was growing up, that’s not the case any more. Even a dinosaur book a decade old is out of date.
The title is a little click-baity, especially coming from a university press; Pickrell is at pains to explain what he means by weird in the introduction: “Really, I mean dinosaurs that fall outside existing stereotypes, but dinosaurs are also weird in the sense that they display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” A weird dinosaur, then, is one that upsets that consensus and our expectations.
Pickrell has plenty of examples: Deinocheirus, to be sure, but also the batlike Yi qi from China, the double-sickle-clawed Balaur bondoc from Romania, feathered ornithischians from Siberia and Alaskan dinosaurs from north of the Arctic Circle. Opalized dinosaur fossils from Australia that had been broken up for their gem value before their paleontological worth was realized.
If you’ve been following paleontological bloggers like Brian Switek you’ll recognize many of the species and stories Pickrell recounts.
But Weird Dinosaurs isn’t just about the weird dinosaurs: each chapter is as much about the discovery of the dinosaur, the process and the people involved in the discovery (replete with colourful characters, intrigue and controversy in some cases — there are some great stories here) and the location it was discovered. One of the reasons why these dinosaurs seem so weird to us is that they’re coming from new sites in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Madagascar, Mongolia, Romania — even Antarctica. The fossil record is the tiniest sample of what existed: you can’t extrapolate the Mesozoic from the Cretaceous bone beds of North America.
So to a certain extent, what’s weird is simply what’s new — like an explorer finding something utterly ordinary for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs were always feathered: we didn’t know they were feathered until recently, and it wasn’t until even more recently that we began to understand that many dinosaurs were feathered — that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs may well have been utterly normal.
Weird Dinosaurs is science journalism: it’s not a technical book, but it’s not written at an introductory level either. A certain level of dinosaur knowledge is required. If you know the difference between a saurischian and an ornithischian, and know the general dinosaur groups (sauropods, ceratopsians) and the more commonly known species, you should be fine. But since these are the sorts of facts that dinosaur-mad children have down cold before the age of eight, this should not limit Pickrell’s readership too much.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.