I was in the library, looking for another book by Alan Bradley, when the name Greg Bear caught my eye. I knew he was a science fiction writer, though I’m not sure if I knew that from anything other than the science fiction logo on the blue stickers on the spines of the library books that bore his name. If I hadn’t yet read anything by him – and none of the titles looked familiar – I decided I probably should. (I’m not sure why, the name just rang a bell, somehow.)
After looking at several books, I selected Dinosaur Summer. Unlike so much science fiction, it is not futuristic. It is historical fiction, but not a time travel novel. The basic premise is that The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was history, not fiction, and that dinosaurs have been circus exhibits for long enough that now people have gotten tired of them.
I read The Lost World a long time ago, probably when I was a teenager. I was never a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was intrigued to find out that Conan Doyle had also written science fiction, which I do enjoy. I don’t remember being all that impressed by The Lost World, but I liked the idea of another book based on it.
Bear also includes some real-life movie-makers in this book, Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, John Ford, Willis O’Brien, and Ray Harryhausen. Of these, I had heard only of Ford and Harryhausen, but it was interesting to see characters in a novel who were real people but not government or military leaders, as the real people in historical fiction tend to be.
The first half of the book moves pretty slowly, recounting in detail the difficulties of a voyage down to South America and then inland by river to the tepui where the dinosaurs lived. The central character, Peter Belzoni, isn’t sure whether he really wants this kind of adventure – like me, he is more comfortable getting a taste of adventure by reading about it. But he seems to have something to prove to his father, and to himself.
The second half takes place on the tepui, among the strange animals that have developed here in isolation from the rest of the world. I’m not sure to what extent these are based on what was believed about dinosaurs at the time the action in the book takes place (shortly after the end of WWII), or on more recent discoveries about what dinosaurs were really like.
In any case, Bear creates some interesting animals that Peter and his companions encounter. Some fit the typical view of the “terrible lizard” (the meaning of the word dinosaur), but Bear adds in animals that hunt in packs like wolves, a colony of creatures he dubs “communisaurs” whose behavior and social structure is like that of ants or bees, and one that hides its eggs in dinosaur nests so that its young can prey on the baby dinosaurs as they hatch.
Along with struggling to survive in this harsh environment, Peter also struggles with a strained relationship with his father, and with what he wants to do with his life (assuming he survives this adventure). There is some character development, but not a great deal. There are some interesting scenes with Harryhausen, but he doesn’t really seem to come to life all that much – and I have no idea how well Bear’s depiction matches the real person.
Reviewers point out that it inserts nineties sensibilities (it was published in 1998) into a book set some fifty years earlier – and their opinions differ on whether that is a good thing or not. For me, it was somewhat confusing – historical fiction works best when people think and act just as they would have in their own time.
On the whole, it’s interesting as speculative fiction, but not all that great as an adventure story, historical fiction, or as a character study. But as reviewers disappointed with this book say it compares poorly to Bear’s other science fiction, perhaps I’ll just have to try another of his novels.