Bone Wars

by Brett Davis
Baen Publishing Enterprises,
P. O. Box 1403, Riverside, NY 10471 1998, 320 pp.
ISBN 0-671-87880-8
$5.99 (US)

And the sequel:

Two Tiny Claws

by Brett Davis
Baen Publishing Enterprises,
P. O. Box 1403, Riverside, NY 10471 1999, 288 pp.
ISBN 0-671-57785-9
$5.99 (US)

 

 

 

 

Click to see Biography

W. J. T. Mitchell, in The Last Dinosaur Book (Mitchell, 1998), gives an astonishing account of dinosaurs, not as objects for scientific study, but as cultural icons. Dinosaurs are the totems of the modern world, and in the popular imagination and media they appear as heroes, villains, symbols, and dreams made real. In fact, dinosaurs are us, in a real sense: modern humanity's ambivalence about itself gets played out in countless books, movies, and TV programs about dinosaurs. This accounts for the often contradictory roles that dinosaurs take. Dinosaurs can alternatively be ferocious monsters (Tyrannosaurus or Godzilla) or gentle and nurturing (Maiasaura or Barney). They symbolize giants of industry (Sinclair Oil, or Andrew Carnegie) but are also a metaphor for inefficiency and impending extinction. On the other hand, raptors are as efficient, cruel and ruthless as the corporate suits in Jurassic Park (or, as Mitchell slyly hints, as ruthless as Microsoft). Dinosaurs live in multicultural harmony (James Gurney's Dinotopia books) or else in constant, savage battle (Disney's film Fantasia). They act out a child's struggles with adult authority (the dinosaurs in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes) or Frankenstein-esque fears of the dangers of science overstepping its bounds (Jurassic Park again) or political worries about immigration and exploitation of workers (Karel Capek's novel War With the Newts).

Of course, the same is true of two other American icons which are the subject of countless books, stories, and films: alien beings in science fiction, and the denizens of the American West in the 19th century. All three are in some sense real, grounded in science and history. Cowboys, wild Indians, gunslingers and the Seventh Cavalry really did exist, as surely as Tyrannosaurus rex existed. And while intelligent alien life hasn't been documented yet, most science fiction writers today take pains to make their creations scientifically plausible or at least intelligible, sometimes incorporating a good deal of sound physics and biology. But the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the planet Hyperion are distant enough, unreal enough, to become stages upon which some very human social and philosophical concerns play themselves out—to be "a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition", as author Robert J. Sawyer put it. Aliens, more often than not, represent very human interests and problems: Cold War fears (the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers); U.S. involvement in Vietnam (Robert Haldeman's The Forever War, Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero); the presence of God, whether benign and loving or just plain weird (C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet and Philip K. Dick's Valis, respectively); and so on. And the Old West is also a setting for very modern concerns. Notice, for instance, how the changing role of Native Americans, from villains and obstacles in the way of Progress (an awful lot of traditional Westerns) to romantic heroes (e.g. the film Dances With Wolves) mirrors modern ambivalence about industrial expansion, the environment, and such.

This being the case, it makes a kind of sense to mix all three. Dinosaurs and science fiction have been associated almost since its beginning, in tales by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle. Science fiction dinosaurs have evolved from large, slow beasts whose main purpose is to get shot by the hero, in classic stories such as the 1956 "A Gun for Dinosaur" by L. Sprague de Camp (in Greenberg 1996) or Ray Bradbury's 1952 "A Sound of Thunder" (in Jablonski 1981). Just like today's scientific reconstructions of dinosaurs, today's fictional dinosaurs are much more complex creatures than the cold-blooded, stupid lizards of a few decades ago. There are stories of dinosaurs as aliens (e.g. Robert J. Sawyer's Far-Seer novel series), and of dinosaurs alive in the Wild West (Sharon Farber's 1988 story "The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi" and Howard Waldrop's 1982 story "Green Brother," both in Greenberg 1996). And everyone knows that there are aliens in the Wild West, at Roswell and Area 51 and in who-knows-how-many stories and novels. So why not combine all three? Surely that's a recipe for a cracking good yarn. And that's the tack that Brett Davis's series takes (if you can have a series with only two books). The Wild West already meets dinosaurs in the tales of the Bone Wars: the exploits and shenanigans of arch-rivals Edward D. Cope and Othniel C. Marsh, and the later (and much friendlier) rivalry of Charles Sternberg and Barnum Brown. All that remains is to add alien invaders—two different alien races, in fact, who both have more than a touch of dino-mania—and we're off.

"Anyone looking to see where this tale runs off the rails of history will not long be disappointed," says Davis at the end of Bone Wars. He's quite right; the storyline is fanciful, to say the least. In the late summer of 1876, Marsh has left the comforts of the Peabody Museum to shadow Cope, and both are digging in the Judith River beds of Montana (when they're not spying on each other). Unfortunately, they're both having rotten luck, the field season is almost over, and rumor has it that Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Sioux warriors are on their way, pursued by a U.S. Cavalry eager to avenge Custer's Last Stand. Marsh's hired horse-handler, "Al Stillson", whom Marsh is paying to spy on Cope, has turned double agent. Worse still, a mysterious third paleontologist called Alf Swenson, claiming to be from Sweden, seems to be getting all the bones—with the help of an invisible forcefield, strange glowing weapons and tools, a small army of robots, and a tent that looks like a giant metal saucer, and flies like one too. (Let's just say that he's not really from Sweden.) When both Cope and Marsh both become overly curious about Swenson's weird camp and his astonishing luck, Swenson strikes a deal with Cope to trade some bones in exchange for misdirecting Marsh away from the dig. Swenson lends Cope a complete skeleton of an unknown horned dinosaur, which Cope promptly names Monoclonius and ships back East. Enter yet another paleontologist, "Thornton Grieg", who's (not exactly) from Iceland; he cuts a deal with Marsh to help steal Swenson's fossils and divide them up. As it becomes increasingly obvious that neither foreign paleontologist is what he claims to be, Cope and Marsh form an uneasy alliance to stop both of these mysterious "foreigners" and keep all the bones for themselves, with the help of both the Sioux and their enemies the Crow. In the end, after a raid on Swenson's flying saucer, a showdown with Swenson, and a dogfight between spaceships that unfortunately destroys most of the bones, Cope and Marsh recover some of the aliens' booty, making it a successful field season after all.

By the way, there's one sex scene in Bone Wars, on page 118. It's short, tender, relevant to the plot, and in my opinion tastefully done. However, some parents, teachers, school board superindendents, etc. might consider it inappropriate for younger readers; use your own discretion.

Two Tiny Claws picks up the story at Barnum Brown's field camp in 1907, with Brown hunting fossils in the Judith River beds, in part as a distraction from his grief over the death of his wife. His peace of mind is interrupted by the arrival of bank robber and desperado Luther Gumpson, pursued by gangs of bounty hunters only slightly less lawless. As if that weren't enough, more aliens appear, and naturally Brown ignores the obvious warning signs until it's too late. We learn why the aliens are competing for dinosaur bones with the humans and each other. One of the alien races, the Nes—who look like reptilian bipeds when not walking around disguised as Icelanders—is in fact descended from dinosaurs, and has come back to gather their bones as a religious duty to their creator goddess Mother Naga. The other race, the Hrvoi—beings of pure energy, who for some reason prefer to disguise themselves as Swedes—claim to have actually created and tinkered with the dinosaurs through genetic engineering, way back in the Mesozoic. Their genetic tinkering not only explains why Tyrannosaurus rex had such short forelimbs, it's also how they created the Nes. (Or so they claim—Davis never resolves the contradiction between the "Swede" and Nes accounts.) Now, in a bid for interplanetary respectability, the "Swedes" are trying to hide the evidence of their meddling. There's no way to summarize the ensuing chaos neatly. Suffice it to say that, despite their advanced technology, the "Swedes" are no match for human ingenuity, cunning, and luck. With the help of a renegade alien-cloned human named Earth Reclamation Unit 17, and some brave Nes agents in disguise on board the "Swede" ship, Brown and his crew survive alien attacks, bad whiskey, trigger-happy gunmen, alien brain implants, and rampaging T. rex, and manage to come out of it with the first complete T. rex skeleton known to science, which is packed off to the American Museum of Natural History.

It may be a mistake to read too much into these books, which owe much to the "pulp" science fiction tradition. It's quite possible to enjoy them for their tangled, fast-paced plots alone. Davis's twists and turns will keep you turning the pages right to the end. But Davis raises a nagging question: Who owns the bones? The Nes, for whom the dinosaur bones are sacred relics and the land is their ancestors' home? The American humans, who now control the land? Or the "Swedes", who allegedly created the dinosaurs, and whose technology is superior by far? Do the legitimate owners have the right to steal "their" dinosaur bones back from anyone else, as both Cope and Marsh do with no qualms? Set against the ultimately futile struggle of the Indians to keep their lands and their culture against the unstoppable influx of settlers, the question is not an idle one. I couldn't help wondering if the books were a subtle commentary on the long custody battle over "Sue" the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, which was excavated by private collectors (humans?) on what turned out to be Sioux reservation land (Nes?) and then seized by the U.S. government ("Swedes"?) before finally being reclaimed for humanity by a giant Museum of Natural History.

Davis's sympathies definitely lie with the humans. Cope says to Marsh, "This is America, and these are our bones" (p. 217, Bone Wars), and Barnum Brown declaims, "I don't care who else came here and what they were doing, the bones should stay" (p. 252, Two Tiny Claws). Cope, Marsh, and Brown share a "first committment. . . to cold, hard, science" (p. 243, Bone Wars), and the purity of this noble motive, it seems, gives them first claim on the bones, and also allows Cope and Marsh to make peace for a while. Davis is, however, sympathetic to the Nes, whom he protrays as deeply spiritual beings and technological underdogs. Their "Swede" enemies are simply arrogant, linear-thinking, unimaginative bureaucrats who rely too much on their own technological wizardry. By their own admission, the "Swedes" who tinkered with the dinosaurs were "decadent"—they created T. rex to be nothing more than impressive riding mounts—and thus their corrupt science and ham-handed attempts to cover it up make them morally unworthy of the prized bones. This is really the same territory that Jurassic Park has already covered. Reflecting public ambivalence about science in general, Davis and Crichton both pit the imaginative, unsophisticated, but pure paleontologist "good guy" scientists against the soulless, power-hungry, genetic engineer "bad guy" scientists. In both, the "bad guys" recreate living dinosaurs for ignoble purposes, which the "good guys" manage to escape or outwit. This isn't an original theme, and some readers may be annoyed by how simplistic it is.

There are some minor typos: "trilobite" is consistently misspelled "trilobyte" (as if they were some kind of computer memory unit), and scientific names are not italicized. More annoyingly, some of the plot devices seem contrived and unrealistic. (Hold it right there, Waggoner! The books are about aliens in flying saucers stealing dinosaur bones, and you're complaining about lack of realism?!) Let me rephrase that: Even in the most far-out science fiction, authors shouldn't pull miraculous gizmos out of their sleeves without some sort of explanation that makes good plot sense and has some kind of scientific logic behind it. Here, for instance, the alien "Swedes" are able to project gonzo 3D computer simulations of live dinosaurs that are so realistic you can ride on them, get trampled by them, and even eaten by them, and if that happens you're really and truly dead. There's no explanation of how you could get a computer to do this, but it makes for some fun scenes: Cope may have described Monoclonius, but his arch-rival Marsh gets to ride one in Bone Wars, and desperado Luther Gumpson shoots it out with bounty hunter William Kinney while both are galloping on angry tyrannosaurs in Two Tiny Claws. But the device still seems jarring and implausible, and I'm not convinced it was really necessary to advance the storyline. It's as if the author or editors decided that any science fiction book that mentions dinosaurs just has to have live dinosaurs, and any Western just has to have some bronco-busting, and couldn't figure out a better way to work them both into the plot.

But despite these flaws, I found both books to be a lot of fun. If you're the sort of person who watched Star Wars and found it necessary to explain to everyone around you that explosions in outer space don't really go "boom!", then you probably won't like them very much. But all in all, they're enjoyable reading in the "pulp" tradition, with a complicated but fast-paced plot that mingles pathos, adventure, irony, drama, and slapstick. There are still some threads left hanging at the end of Two Tiny Claws, and I hope Davis writes a third installment. Is Roy Chapman Andrews in for some unwelcome visitations in Mongolia? Will Henry Fairfield Osborn be forced to take time out from wining and dining the cream of New York City society, when flying saucers buzz the AMNH? Or will Kevin Padian and Alan Feduccia be abducted and forced to fight to the death in an alien arena, like in that Star Trek episode? We can only watch the skies and wait. . .

Copyright: Coquina Press
22 October 1999
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