Though not the largest extinction in the history of our little planet, the collective death of the dinosaurs still stings. But what was it that caused their untimely demise? The going thinking tends to agree with the Alvarez Hypothesis and points an accusatory finger at a large asteroid, with the smoking gun being the infamous Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan Peninsula. There’s also the notion of increased volcanism and other climate change issues too. But what if it wasn’t any of these things? What if a science fiction thing killed the dinosaurs?
Reign of Fire
Cause of Dinosaur Extinction: Burned by Dragons
Maybe dragons burned them! The dragons burned the dinosaurs. Got it? As the voice-over below explains (starting around 2:10) paleontologists discover dragons killed the dinosaurs by burning them all into dust, and the resulting ash in the air actually caused the ice age. This is said so quickly that there’s no time to ask questions like: how did we end up with dinosaur fossils then? Or, why did the dragons immediately go into hibernation after burning all the dinosaurs?
These are questions for a philistine! Obviously the dragons left a few dinosaur bones in the ground for us to discover because they knew it would be fun for us. Further, they went into hibernation after burning up all the dinos because it was hard work and they were sleepy.
The Corridors of Time by Poul Anderson
Cause of Dinosaur Extinction: Time War Retroactively Kills Everything
The notion of a war being waged across time is explored extensively in this Poul Anderson novel. If you can get over the idea of a sexy lady character named “Storm,” then the book is actually a fun read as a great exploration of how a “temporal cold war” might actually play out. Multiple timelines are in play at several points in this book, and one outcome which is gestured at is the idea that space battles stretching back into the past actually caused the craters on the moon to form and the dinosaurs to be wiped out. A future paradox where we are the cause of our existence, and thus the death of the Dinosaurs might be the most nerd-heavy application of an ontological paradox we can think of. Dinosaurs AND spaceships? Yes please.
“The Dreams a Nightmare Dreams” by Harlan Ellison
Cause of Dinosaur Extinction: Giant Evil Dream Monster Eats Them
In this very brief Ellison short story, the dinosaurs were not wiped out by some kind of conventional cataclysm limited to our universe, but instead by a trans-dimensional entity that feeds off of dreams and gobbled them up. Here, there was an entire dinosaur kingdom, complete with intelligent versions of the terrible beasts who lived in beautiful cities. But this giant monster, which was some kind of uber-telepath, invaded their dreams and caused them all to die out. Now, the creature sleeps beneath the Yucatan Peninsula and is only prevented from waking by humans concentrating on feeding it certain dreams, which keep it asleep. But if it wakes up, everybody is pretty much screwed. This story shows off what science fiction can do quite well when it wants to: be perfectly abstract by rendering something extremely specific.
Doctor Who: “Earthshock”
Cause of Dinosaur Extinction: Space Freighter Crashes into Earth
Part of what makes “Earthshock” such a great classic Doctor Who serial is the various reveals in each of the four parts get genuinely more exciting as the story goes on. After part one, it’s revealed the Cybermen are behind everything that’s going on. Then, everyone is accused of murder. Then there are tons of Cybermen marching towards the audience, and finally, Adric tragically dies and a spaceship full of Cybermen crashes into Earth causing the death of the dinosaurs! Because this episode features Cybermen and the death of a companion of the Doctor, it’s easy for the dinosaurs all dying stuff to get over-shadowed. Oddly, this piece of continuity has mostly stuck in the Doctor Who canon, with the only possible contradiction being Jack Harkness’s statement in Torchwood that he was present when the “asteroid” hit. Clearly, the Doctor didn’t ever bother to tell him the truth about that incident. “Earthshock” also sets up the whole dinosaur thing nicely with the Doctor remarking at the start of the serial that he always “meant to find out” why the dinosaurs died.
End of An Era by Robert J. Sawyer
Cause of Dinosaur Extinction: Time Traveling Paleontologist Does it While Fighting Martians
Originally published in 1994, this Sawyer novel sees a paleontologist named Brandy and his friend Klicks heading back in time to specifically figure out why the dinosaurs kicked it. Once there, they discover blue-skinned Martians who have changed the way gravity functions on Earth. The Martians are actually manipulating the dinosaurs, and occasionally controlling their minds. This leads to a situation where Brandy ends up being responsible for killing all the dinosaurs in order to restore Earth’s gravity to what it should be and allow for the mammals to flourish. The book indicates this is a kind of alternate timeline, which Brandy creates, one that is not the original way the dinosaurs may have died.
This book is notable because it’s almost shocking a novel had never been written with the exact premise before. How many times have all of us imagined a scenario in which Martians control the minds of dinosaurs? It seems like this thing would have written itself out of the ether ages ago. In all seriousness, this book is actually notable because it’s highly readable and despite having a goofy premise, is very moving and exciting.
Other Mesozoic Madness
The dinosaurs aren’t always killed by science fiction when they show up in the genre; sometimes even crazier stuff happens to them! Doctor Who of course brought the dinosaurs into the present day in the 3rd Doctor story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and the reoccurring species the Silurians can be seen as a kind of intelligent species of dinosaur.
This idea of smart, humanoid dinosaurs was ripped off borrowed by Star Trek: Voyager in the episode “Distant Origin.” In all fairness, this is pretty different from the Silurians insofar as these smart, talking dinos actually left Earth in search of a new place to live, whereas the Silurians stayed put.
Further, there’s Dino-Riders a cartoon/toy line in which guys from another planet (Star Wars/BSG style) crash land on Earth and strap lasers to the dinosaurs. These toys were totally cool, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been revived.
On the literary side of things, author Italio Calvino give us a wonderful short story in his collection Cosimicomics. The immortal character named “Qfwfq,” is someone who has been around the universe pretty much forever, always in different guises, and once was dinosaur! In the short story “The Dinosaurs,” Calvino postulates an odd take on evolution, where humanoid-type creatures seem to have developed, but have lost all memory of the dinosaurs. Here, a self-proclaimed dinosaur (and narrator of the story) is able to blend in with the other beings, owing only to the fact they don’t know what a dinosaur looks like. The results of this infiltration are both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Famously, of course, there’s also the Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a time-traveling agency allows you to go on a safari and shoot a T-Rex all Bungalow Bill-style. But, if you step off the path and mess with say, some butterflies, you might come back to a completely different alternate-universe present!
Finally, a depiction of dinosaur cloning can be found in an obscure novel and film series called Jurassic Park.
What about you, dear readers? What are some science fiction depictions of the dinosaurs? Comment below!
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. Shockingly, the first piece of writing he ever attempted to get published was a short story about dinosaurs, space travel, alternate universes and bad jokes.