Robert T. Bakker
Bantam Books hardback
Originally published October 1995
Jacket and frontispiece by Steve Youll
Endpapers and interior illustrations by the author
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And now for something - well, different.
Robert T. Bakker is best known as the primary paleontological proponent of what has come to be known as "hot-blooded dinosaurs," which is to say, the theory that some -- if not all - dinosaurs, far from being the creeping slow-moving dull-witted giant lizards served up in many text books through the 70's, were in fact dynamic, fast-moving, and, in many cases, as social as gazelles or naked mole rats.
Bakker was an informal consultant to Jurassic Park. So his bona fides, both professional and commercial, can't really be faulted. I read one of his earlier non-fiction books, The Dinosaur Heresies, in which he outlines the evidence he feels supports his central thesis of warm-blooded dinos. I'm convinced, because it all makes a lot of sense to me.
The issue here, however, is how good is he at fiction? I suppose it's no surprise that the answer is - he's kind of amateurish. The book is told from the point of view of Raptor Red, a female Utahraptor, which is a relatively newly discovered species of "giant" raptor, rather like the ones in Jurassic Park. (At the time the movie was made, there were no fossils of such a large velociraptor species. Speilberg wanted bigger ones for dramatic purposes, so he had his artists dream 'em up - but Utahraptor is just about as big as the ones in the movie, so Mr Speilberg probably feels vindicated. It was an easy prediction, from where I sit, but no matter.)
Bakker certainly knows his paleontological stuff - as far as details of how the dinos lived, and so on, I certainly can't fault him. I doubt anyone has ever done a better job with dinosaurs, in fiction. I'm sure that this is the way things were, or pretty close. His raptors are living, breathing creatures. He goes into a lot of detail about their day-to-day life. Raptor Red is originally paired with a male, but he is accidentally killed, leaving her bereft until she forms a family bond with her sister, who has also lost her mate and has three chicks to raise.
Bakker gives the critters differing personalities, and makes a convincing case for such differentiation by virtue of their superior intelligence. The problem is, personality or no, we remain at a certain distance from the creatures. They cannot speak or even think, really, which makes it a bit hard to empathize with them. Bakker never goes the Disney route, much less the Bluth route, of talking dinos, though he skirts anthropomorphism once or twice. Ideas do pass through their minds, and he is forced to use words to describe the concepts although he tries to make clear his belief that their memories work partly off of hard-wired instinct and partly off of learned responses.
But that isn't really enough to sustain dramatic profluence and Bakker clearly isn't experienced enough at writing fiction to be able to solve this problem. The book, which takes place over the course of a year, is heavily episodic. Occasionally Bakker has to break off to dramatize events in the lives of other creatures living near the raptors. These sections are interesting, but more so for their natural history than anything else - although Bakker returns several times to the appealing idea that the raptors dream when they sleep.
There are times when it's obvious that Bakker is simply showing off his knowledge. For example, he devotes an entire chapter to a long sequence in which Red watches a turtle lay its eggs. Far be it from me to cast any aspersions on the breadth of his scholarship, but who cares about a damn turtle, for heaven's sake? Something more exotic might have been a better choice for that section. Occasionally he switches off to a large pterodactyl that lives nearby, and those sections are lots more interesting because the canny old flyer, who follows the raptors around and scrounges off their leavings, is a good character, acting as something of a foil for the raptors.
The good thing about this book is that it allows Bakker to speculate about the social lives of the dinosaurs as well as how their thought process may have worked. Clearly he has devoted a lot of time to working these things out, and they help bear up the book. Most likely he wasn't able to work his speculations into any of his scientific papers. I suspect that Bakker's intent was less to produce an enduring work of fiction than to write a polemic that would help him elucidate his theories.
It might have helped had he studied Watership Down a little more closely, and fictionalized the dinosaurs in that way for a deeper reading experience, but it's clear that he is not really comfortable with fiction, hasn't written a lot of it, and lacks the patience to do it well. (Anyone who uses more than one exclamation point to end a sentence really hasn't got the idea.) That said, his Utahraptors are interesting dinosaurian creations unlike any others you have encountered.
I hope that if Mr. Bakker tries his hand at fiction again he will give us something from the human point of view. I for one would like to read a dramatization of his experiences out in the field. In his younger days, Bakker, who grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in New York City, was known to preach on street corners. No one could say he has not led an interesting and dynamic life. I hope he lets us into it a little more next time.
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