Dinosaurs are rising from the dead. That, at least, is what a glance at the new novels section of any library or bookstore would seem to prove. But while dinosaurs deserve resurrection as much as the dodo or the great auk, the triumphant return of these hulking brutes to the literary stage is a mixed blessing. I'm ready to send all those fictional saurians back to the museums from whence they came.
It has nothing to do with literary merit. Yes, "The Lost World" (Knopf. 393 pages. $25.95), Michael Crichton's sequel to "Jurassic Park," is clunky and dumb. "Raptor Red" (Bantam Books. 246 pages. $21.95), by dinosaur scientist Robert Bakker, treats dinosaurs as living, breathing creatures, but when you get right down to it, a year in the life of a bird-brained lizard isn't especially inspiring either. And while James Gurney's elaborately illustrated "Dinotopia" and its sequel, "The World Beneath" (Turner. 160 pages. $29.95), are fun to look at, their stories are so maudlin it's hard to read more than three sentences without being embarrassed. Yet even this trio of bad novels isn't enough to justify dismissing a whole class of potentially entertaining tales.
The real problem with dinosaur fiction is that it confounds the distinctions between facts, theories, and idle speculation about what dinosaurs were, how they lived and why they disappeared. Because the facts - the fossilized bones, eggshells and footprints, along with the contexts in which they are found - are the hardest to report in a readable way, they are the first thing that gets edited out of a novel's pages. The careful underpinnings of scientific theorizing - the detailed arguments and analyses, with their accompanying footnotes, photographs and qualifiers - disappear next. Finally, the newest, flashiest and most dramatic speculation replaces every interpretation that came before.
It's a scientific parallel to Gresham's Law, that bad money drives out good. Sexy new ideas get the press, and solid, careful studies are ignored as stodgy and boring. Now I've been known to eyeball an attractive idea as enthusiastically as the next guy, but enough is enough. It's time to put dinosaurs back in non-fiction where they belong.
Wait a minute. Don't dinosaur novels offer an easy, entertaining way for readers to learn more about some of Earth's most intriguing species? Michael Crichton presents all of his stories as being about ideas - sexual harassment, biotechnology, economic competition with Japan, and so on - and while "The Lost World" may look like a clumsy pastiche of stock characters and frenetic action, the book is really, as Mr. Crichton's introduction claims, about the broader idea of extinction. "Raptor Red," written by a famously argumentative paleontologist who once taught at Johns Hopkins, isn't as much about a big-clawed Utahraptor named "Red" as it is about evolution and adaptation. Even the elaborate fantasy of "The World Beneath" is introduced by the claim that "Any similarity between the creatures of Dinotopia and creatures living or extinct is purely intentional."
The message is clear. While these authors all intend to entertain their readers, they also claim to instruct them. In a kind of stealth science, they pretend to be slipping real ideas under the radar warning screens of the MTV generation, who would surely (the assumption goes) reject education for entertainment if given a free choice.
What elitist claptrap. Every day, thousands of people visit museums all around the country to see skeletons, bones, dioramas and other kinds of dinosaurian exhibits. Children know dinosaurs by their scientific names and collect all sorts of dinosaur replicas and memorabilia, and every summer hundreds families pay big bucks (and consider themselves lucky) to participate in actual paleontological excavations. People know the difference between information and entertainment.
James Gurney's "Dinotopia" books are obviously fantasy, although he does try to get postures and proportions right in his illustrations. Michael Crichton's thrillers contain a few thought-provoking speculations, though the ideas that are good (dinosaur parents taking care of their offspring, for example) aren't new and the ideas that are new (such as his notion that increased specialization of species and increasing ecosystem complexity caused the dinosaurs to become extinct) aren't good.
Still, the incessant action and incomprehensible stupidity of Mr. Crichton's human characters make it clear that he fully expects readers to suspend their critical facilities when they step into his world.
"Raptor Red" presents a more serious problem. Robert Bakker is a serious scientist whose ideas reflect careful thought, thorough knowledge of the paleontological data and lots of discussions with other professionals working on the same general problems. So when he says he's telling us what the animals and environment of the Early Cretaceous were like, readers will be inclined to believe him.
A significant part of the information in Bakker's novel is worth taking seriously. Unlike the dinosaurs of Mr. Gurney and Mr. Crichton, the creatures described in "Raptor Red" all lived at the same time. They also lived in a landscape like Mr. Bakker describes; not in a Costa Rican rain forest or on a lost Atlantean continent. Evolution works the way Mr. Bakker says it does, albeit much more slowly. But many of the things he asserts about dinosaurian behavior are, to put it mildly, speculative, and non-expert readers have no way to separate what is good from the bad and the downright ugly.
Mr. Bakker describes Utahraptor as hot-blooded, pair-bonding, curious and smart. "She sniffs strange objects and pokes her snout down holes." His 500-pound Utahraptors climb trees, hunt cooperatively and communicate with "a lot of exaggerated body motions - head-bobs, torso-squats, tail-swooshes - because the range of their facial expressions is so limited." They learn an amazing range of things by smelling dung, which Mr. Bakker calls "the queen of media in the Cretaceous." To understand the courtship and parenting behavior of these creatures, he admonishes us, "Don't think 'lizard,' think 'bird.'"
Because modern birds are descended from dinosaurian ancestors, many of these assumptions make sense. Still, there are problems with taking the parallels as far as he does.
If you are really interested in what we know about dinosaurs, a newly published book called "Discovering Dinosaurs" (Knopf. 204 pages. $35), by Mark Norell, Eugene Gaffney and Lowell Dingus, is full of honest-to-goodness information. The book doesn't have footnotes or contain a list of sources, but it is wonderfully illustrated and its question-answer format makes it easy to use. For more technical information, try Christopher McGowan's 1991 book "Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons" (Harvard University Press. 365 pages. $29.95) or "The Dinosauria," edited by Johns Hopkins professor David Weishampel, Peter Dodson and Halszka Osmlska (University of California. 700 pages. $42, paperback). Most important of all, never, ever forget that if a book is labeled fiction, there's generally a very good reason.
John R. Alden is an archaeologist and is currently working on a dig in northern Chile sponsored by the National Geographic Society. He writes frequently about natural history and anthropology for Natural History magazine and for Smithsonian magazine. He also writes a column on science fiction and fantasy for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. He has collected fragments of dinosaur eggshells in Montana and watched ostrich-like rheas in South America's Atacama Desert.