DINOSAUR SUMMER
Greg Bear

 


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Warner Books, 1998
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Adventure. Alternate history, 1947. Western Hemisphere.

Peter and his father Anthony have been offered a career windfall. National Geographic wants them to report the story of Circus Lothar, the last dinosaur circus, as it gives its final performance and closes down. The ultimate plan is to make a documentary film of returning the remaining dinosaurs to their home in South America. On an isolated plateau called El Grande, dinosaurs have not only survived but continued to evolve. This “lost world” is where the circus dinosaurs were captured in their youth, and the only place where they could be set free. Carrying the circus’s remaining stock – most of them weighing tons and some disinclined to cooperate – with 1940s transportation from Florida to the Venezuelan outback is a challenge to say the least, and could easily be deadly.

Peter and Anthony first meet the dinosaurs through Vince Shellabarger, the dinosaur trainer, who gives them the tour of the circus’s backstage area. From Dip, the struthiomimus clown, to Dagger the venator, too dangerous to train but the biggest draw the circus has, Peter is mesmerized by the dinosaurs. Vince begins at once to teach him: their special foods, their physical care, how they think. The dinosaurs are spectacular: their appearance, sounds, texture, smell, diet, idiosyncrasies, moods, combine to give us the sensation that we are there in the tent with them. And all the while Dagger is waiting, waiting, for his moment of revenge. Once Dagger is freed…

El Grande, the titanic plateau, is an awe-inspiring setting for the climax of this adventure. If only Ray and O’Brien hadn’t lost their cameras, we think; but author Greg Bear’s words create the mesa vistas and jungle terrors just as well. It is populated by archaic species, some of whom we recognize from the study of fossils, others who evolved from the older species into impressive (make that jaw-dropping in some cases) new species. The venator, Dagger’s species, is evolved from raptors. The communisaurs seem somehow related to ants. The death eagle is Bear’s imagined peak of evolution of the avisaurs. El Grande teems with startling, vicious, mysterious, colorful life.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series are classics in this field. Greg Bear has kept DINOSAUR SUMMER from being “another Lost World book” by his determination to make his main characters living people. This he does better than either of the genre’s progenitors. Bear’s hero, Peter, is a smart, recognizable teenaged boy thrown into circumstances that force him to grow up into his own best self. Peter’s father, Anthony, is a born adventurer trying to combine having a life with a sufficient level of excitement and raising a son. Billie, a South American Indian caught between tribal life and “civilization,” is set on matching his father’s heroism, no matter what he must risk to do it. Wise Vince Shellabarger’s life centers around dinosaurs; now that there will be no more of them in captivity, what will he do?

Then there are the people Bear lifted from real life – I mean real real. For example Ray Harryhausen, the movie effects genius, is lifted whole from our world and set down among the marvels of a dinosaur circus; he is given a mentor, the also-real “Lost World” filmmaker Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen himself praised Bear’s ability to make him feel as if he were truly partaking of the adventure.

Greg Bear is the author of two Nebula Award winning novels: MOVING MARS and DARWIN’S RADIO. Rich characterization is one of the well-known traits of his writing, but in DINOSAUR SUMMER he has taken a vacation from his usual high technology. Instead he applies his knack for intelligent detail to the dinosaurs, revealing everything from their appearance to their psychology. It all combines to make DINOSAUR SUMMER an adrenaline rush for readers open to a trek into danger.

October 2005 Review

 

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