One Heck of a Summer Vacation: Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Greg Bear is one of the most respected science fiction writers to emerge in the latter part of the 20th century, producing books on a great variety of subjects, in a wide range of settings, with all of them being well-constructed and engaging. So, when I saw that he had written a sequel to one of my favorite novels, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, I knew it was a book I had to read. A tale of high adventure and dinosaurs, a chance to revisit one of my favorite fictional settings, written by a great author—how could I pass that up?

I am long overdue in reviewing the work of Greg Bear in this column. While I thought I’d saved almost every book I read since graduating from college, I seem to be missing a number of paperback books from the 1980s and 1990s, and that hole in my collection unfortunately includes most of my copies of Bear’s work. Happily, I recently found a copy of Dinosaur Summer in my favorite used bookstore, and jumped at the chance to buy it and finally feature one of Bear’s books in this column. Fans of Bear’s work might question picking this book as my first choice—after all, this is a juvenile or young adult book, and Bear has written a lot of books people may see as being more serious or seminal. But like I said above, all of Bear’s work is of the highest quality, and thus there is really no wrong place to start…

Dinosaur Summer was published in 1998, and is a follow-up to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, written in 1912 (which I reviewed here, in an article that also discussed my longstanding fascination with dinosaurs). When I opened the new book, it did not disappoint. The first thing that caught my eye, as a long-time fan of illustrated books, were the well-executed drawings by Tony DiTerlizzi scattered throughout the book, along with little dinosaur footprints at the head of each chapter.

Bear quite wisely doesn’t make this a direct sequel to the original story. Instead, it takes place half a century after Conan Doyle’s adventure, and is presented as an alternate history, with the point of divergence from our world being the discovery of dinosaurs on that far-flung plateau called El Grande. At first, many dinosaurs were captured and removed from the plateau—to be used in reptilian versions of bullfights, and shown in circuses in the United States. But when hunting and exploitation started to destroy the ecology on the plateau, the Venezuelan government shut it off from the rest of the world.

Now, many of those dinosaurs removed from the plateau have died, and only one American dinosaur circus is still operating. Some real-world figures appear in the book, including special effects pioneers Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, whose lives took a different turn in a world where movies using special effects to create imaginary monsters never took off because of the existence of so many real-world monsters. Other Hollywood figures like Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and John Ford also make appearances, along with circus people like John Ringling North.


About the Author

Greg Bear (born 1951) is a highly respected author, primarily known for his science fiction, but has written in other genres as well. If I’m not mistaken, my first exposure to his work was the chilling “Blood Music,” a pioneering story of nanotechnology that appeared in Analog in 1983, and took both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novelette. Those awards are included in Bear’s lifetime tally of five Nebula awards and two Hugo awards to date. During his prolific career, he’s written over fifty books, covering a wide range of subjects, including hard science fiction, techno-thrillers, horror, and fantasy, along with novels in franchises that include Star Wars, Star Trek, and Halo. Since I don’t have room to mention all his works, I will just list a few I’ve enjoyed and would recommend, including Forge of God, Moving Mars, Eon, and War Dogs. His books are invariably well crafted and tightly plotted, with thoughtful scientific extrapolation and realistic, compelling characters.

Greg Bear is one of a trio of authors, nicknamed the “Killer B’s,” who burst onto the Hard SF scene in the 1980s, just as many of the writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction were retiring. The other two are Gregory Benford (whose work I reviewed here), and David Brin (whose work I reviewed here).


Picking Up Where Others Left Off

Collaboration between writers has long been a common practice in the literary world, and certainly in the field of science fiction. This can include authors collaborating with others as equals, or senior authors bringing on junior partners to aid in the writing process. There are also “shared world” books, where different authors write stories set in the universe established by the series editor. These include Robert Lynn Asprin’s Thieves’ World series, Jerry Pournelle’s War World series, and George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. In some cases, the motivation fueling collaboration is largely financial, since the name of a known and popular author can be counted on to generate sales more reliably than a new one. But in other cases, the participating authors are enthusiastic volunteers who sign on because they enjoy the chance to “play in someone else’s sandbox.”

Sometimes, the death of an author results in another writer taking up the story. This may involve the use of notes or outlines from the original author. A recent example of this is The Wheel of Time series, where author Robert Jordan died while in the process of wrapping up the epic tale. Brandon Sanderson was chosen by Jordan’s widow, editor Harriet MacDougal, to take up his notes and complete the series. But there are also cases where entirely new tales are created using characters and settings from the original work.

Continuing the work of other authors is such a frequent practice in the science fiction genre that it even has an entry devoted to it in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction or SFE (Sequels by Other Hands). Sometimes an estate or publisher will commission the new story, while at other times, it is the author who wants to continue an older work they admire. The SFE article cites stories based on the work of authors like H.G. Wells, L. Frank Baum, and many others from the science fiction community. Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is cited as one of many continuations of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. (Incidentally, the article also cites the collaboration of the “Killer B’s” on a prequel trilogy set in the world of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.)

Not all of these continuations are as successful as the stories that inspired them, but in the right hands, they can bring an open-ended tale to a satisfying conclusion, deepen our appreciation of the original, and produce a story that stands well all on its own.


Dinosaur Summer

We meet Peter Belzoni living with his father, Anthony, in a seedy New York tenement. His father is a freelance writer and photographer, and they live a transient life, comfortable when the jobs come in, but lean between paychecks. Anthony is veteran who, only a few years ago, came back from World War II a changed man. He is moody and difficult, and has problems with alcohol. Peter’s mother has divorced Anthony and returned to her family as she is a cautious woman who was unable to deal with his lifestyle. As in many coming of age tales, Peter must come to terms with his parents and their flaws as he becomes his own man, and the insight we’re given into his internal journey is one of the highlights of the novel.

Anthony comes home one day with exciting news. He has a lead on a job: a good assignment working for National Geographic, which involves covering the closing of the last dinosaur circus in the United States. And Anthony has arranged for Peter to write a companion piece to his own. To prepare himself, Peter reads The Lost World, a book by Professor Edward Challenger (as told to Arthur Conan Doyle) that recounts the Professor’s adventures on a long-lost plateau where dinosaurs survived to the present day. They take a train to Lothar Gluck’s Dinosaur Circus in Boston, and on the way, stop and purchase sturdy new clothing and camping gear. Peter doesn’t know exactly what his father has planned, but begins to doubt that watching the circus will be the end of their new job.

They meet the impressive dinosaur trainer Vince Shelabarger, who shows them the animals. His charges include smaller, bird-like struthios named Dip and Casso; a stocky, herbivorous Centrosaurus named Sammy; a heavily-armored Ankylosaur named Sheila; an Aepyornis titan named Mrs. Birdqueen, and the massive carnivorous venator known as Dagger. Doyle had previously only described a few of the dinosaurs Challenger encountered, and Bear fills out the reptilian cast by depicting dinosaurs that fit modern paleontological theory and have features like feathers. Peter and Anthony also meet filmmakers from Hollywood, who are there to film documentary footage that will complement the articles and still photos they are providing to National Geographic. Peter learns that they will be accompanying the dinosaurs to Tampa, which he assumes will be their home after the circus closes.

Upon arriving in Tampa, however, Peter finds that there is a larger mission, which explains the interest of Hollywood and National Geographic. They will be on an expedition to return the dinosaurs to their home in Venezuela. The expedition will be headed by Shelabarger, and in addition to Peter and Anthony, Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien will be accompanying the team to film the effort. During their journey at sea, Shelabarger takes Peter on as an apprentice in caring for the dinosaurs; as Peter learns the trade, Bear does a great job giving the creatures personalities, fleshing them out as characters that are just as vivid as the humans.

Their arrival in Venezuela and efforts to get to the plateau create quite a bit of tension, as the government is torn by internal strife, and there is conflict involving the army, the native tribes, and oil companies whose exploitation efforts are disrupting the local economy. While there are few female characters in the mix up to this point, Bear does introduce a governmental official, Catalina Mendez, in a pivotal role. As the expedition moves forward, a guide from a native tribe, Billie, joins the crew. His father has disappeared on the plateau, and despite governmental prohibitions, Billie is intent on following his dreams, setting out on a kind of vision quest to trace his father’s path.

It will be no surprise to readers that all these plotlines eventually culminate in a situation that temporarily strands Peter, Anthony, Ray, Willis, and Billie on the plateau, where they must face one danger after another, and one strange creature after another, struggling to survive until they can be rescued. Bear also introduces some new creatures into the mix. Rather than imagining the dinosaurs on the plateau as unchanged since prehistoric times, he speculates on the interesting paths evolution might have taken after the plateau was cut off from the rest of the world. This brings up my one criticism regarding the art in the book: the fact that there is not enough of it. I wish there had been more pictures of the dinosaurs, especially the new species that the characters encounter.

I will say no more to avoid spoiling the most exciting parts of this extremely compelling narrative, but readers can be assured there will be adventure, death, peril, and also self-discovery and growth before the tale ends. I strongly encourage those who have not yet read the book to seek it out.


Final Thoughts

Dinosaur Summer ranks among my favorite books. It is a well-written and action-packed tale, and while it is accessible to younger readers, it is genuinely enjoyable for readers of any age. It revisits the setting of another of my favorites, The Lost World, in a way that is respectful of the original tale, but tells a gripping story that stands by itself.

Now I’m interested to hear what you have to say, including any comments on Dinosaur Summer, if you’ve read it! I’m also interested to hear about other dinosaur tales you’ve enjoyed, or recommendations you might have for similar sequels to earlier works written by different authors.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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