Book Review: Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear
Dinosaur Summer takes the 1912 novel The Lost World (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) as its starting point, imagining a world in which The Lost World is not fiction, but rather a history of a real discovery of dinosaurs living in an isolated world on a South American plateau.
It is 1947 when Dinosaur Summer opens, and the world has pretty much lost interest in the marvels of Conan Doyle’s discoveries. Dinosaurs had become so commonplace in the years since 1912 that all circuses had to have them — but in the post-war years, there just isn’t enough public demand to keep the dinosaur circuses running, and finally, the very last one is about to close for good.
15-year-old Peter Belzoni lives with his father Anthony, who is wild, impetuous, and prone to drinking too much. Anthony decides to bring Peter on the adventure of a lifetime by securing gigs for both of them with National Geographic, to photograph and write about an epic undertaking: the return of the last circus dinosaurs to their original homes on the El Grande plateau. Accompanying the expedition are filmmakers, trainers, and various local guides and authorities — and as the team sets sail and then journeys through the jungles and rivers of South America, the trip becomes more and more dangerous.
I read this book with my 11-year-old son, based on the recommendation of an old friend who is a terrifically well-read sci-fi connoisseur. But note: Dinosaur Summer is not a kids’ book! As far as I can tell, this is adult science fiction — but with an angle that definitely appealed to my kiddo.
We enjoyed the action, the drama, the danger, and the humorous dialogue. In Dinosaur Summer, the lost world of El Grande has evolved on its own, in isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, the animal species are unique (and fictional, for the most part). The author helpfully includes a “What’s Real, and What’s Not” afterword, and the kiddo and I had a good time looking up illustrations of similar dinosaur, reptile, and mammalian species. Most memorable (and life-threatening) are the death eagles (yikes), and weirdest are communisaurs, mole-like dinosaurs who live in hives serving a queen.
Dinosaur Summer has drawings throughout by illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. You can see a few from the book on his website.
A few minor quibbles: The story occasionally bogs down in details about political conflicts between the Venezuelan government, the army, the indigenous tribes, and the oil companies. Likewise, much of the catalyst for the expedition has to do with Hollywood interest, and there are a lot of characters introduced connected to the movie studios, to the point that the action drags a bit as we are introduced to producers, cameramen, studio heads, and more. Frankly, the names become overwhelming at times — although it was amusing to see some real-life Hollywood folks included here as characters in the story. (Most notably, special effects pioneer and movie great Ray Harryhausen is featured prominently as both a member of the expedition and a mentor to Peter, and I can only imagine how much he must have enjoyed the tribute when the book was published.)
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the draggy bits mentioned above wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d just sat and read this book on my own. It’s just that in reading it aloud, the passages and chapters that were so crammed with Hollywood names and political drama just didn’t flow. I will say, however, that this didn’t seem to bother my kiddo in the slightest — I think he just ignored the parts that he didn’t get, and focused on the action… of which there is plenty!
Some of the scenes toward the end are on the gory side for a bed-time story, not that my son seemed to mind. Still, I felt a teeny bit like a bad mother reading to him about dinosaurs chomping and eviscerating right before tucking in his blankets and turning off the light!
All in all, both my son and I were fascinated by Dinosaur Summer, which nicely blends high-stakes adventure with a surprisingly touching story of a boy growing up, figuring out who he is, and developing a more adult relationship with his difficult father. I recommend this book for adults looking for an old-school adventure, as well as for middle school to teen readers who don’t mind having to work a bit for a good story.
Title: Dinosaur Summer
Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Warner Books
Publication date: 1998
Genre: Science fiction