My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I won’t claim that Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is necessarily the best book that I’ve read over the past year, but it is decidedly my favorite.
Dinosaur Summer starts with the premise that the events of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World more or less happened. The world discovered still-living non-avian dinosaurs, which understandably caused something of a disruption. Circuses full of these prehistoric survivors are popularized as more and more adventurers swarm the Venezuelan tepuis; movies like King Kong never really catch on when people have access to the real thing. Eventually, though, public interest dwindles, and most of the dinosaur circuses fail, the owners never really understanding the beasts in their care, who die off and sometimes eat the audience. The Venezuelan government closes off the colossal tepui on which the dinosaurs may be found, for a variety of complex political reasons that we learn more about over the course of the novel. Eventually, dinosaurs largely fade from the popular consciousness, and only one dinosaur circus remains.
This is where we start the book: June of 1947, as the last dinosaur circus prepares for its final show. We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of Peter Belzoni, a high school student with a love for words and a lack of confidence in all things. He’s unsure of himself. He’s inclined to think that he might become a writer, following in his father’s footsteps, though he doesn’t have his dad’s easy ability to string together the written word. But his father, Anthony, is reckless and irresponsible; he was a geologist, but following traumatic combat experience during World War II, he became prone to anger, his marriage fell apart, and he drags his son across the country to pick up scattered jobs as a freelance photographer and journalist. Peter’s mother is overly cautious and reserved; she retreated to her own mother’s home, leaving Peter to his father, only occasionally keeping in contact.
Anthony picks up a job to follow the last dinosaur circus from its final show to a return to the campgrounds in Florida. Peter is to come along to write up his own perspective. Or at least, that’s what Anthony tells Peter. The mission ultimately becomes one of returning the dinosaurs to their Venezuelan home, and that’s where the real adventure begins.
This is a real treat to read. It’s a dinosaur story. It’s a classic adventure story. It’s a Bildungsroman. It’s loaded with memorable characters, most with clearly defined motivations, goals, hopes, and fears that transcend and intersect with the mission at hand. It builds on the lovely adventure of The Lost World, updating its dinosaurs to fit with current scientific depictions (seriously, this was published in 1998 yet still reads as cutting-edge compared to even contemporary paleo-stories) even while demonstrating speculative evolutionary developments to craft interesting new creatures, portraying those dinosaurs with personalities as varied and sometimes endearing as the humans themselves, creating an ecosystem that can be more plausibly explained, removing some of the more racist elements (i.e., the depiction of natives) and trimming the weirdness of the proposed primitive men in the original, and inserting a postcolonial narrative that treats indigenous people seriously and as full humans. It also has a lot of fun alternative history; for instance and most significantly, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, never able to succeed in a world that prefers the real thing over stop-motion, are documentarian protagonists on the expedition.
It’s also a really well-written book. It’s compelling reading, packed with vivid descriptions of characters and creatures and settings. Foreshadowing is used to great effect throughout the book, and there’s a mounting pace that accelerates as the adventure gets deeper and deeper.
I love this book. It’s an instant favorite.