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BOUND TO PLEASE / Rival paleontologists practice skull-diggery and skulduggery

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterDragon Teeth

By Michael Crichton

Harper, 295pp

Michael Crichton was a man of many interests. These included cowboys, as seen in his 1973 movie “Westworld,” and dinosaurs, the stars of his 1990 novel “Jurassic Park.”

Nearly a decade after his 2008 death, there now comes a new novel, “Dragon Teeth,” which combines both topics. It is based on the swashbuckling, vitriolic — and real-life — rivalry between paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, who scoured the American West in search of dinosaur bones in the late 1800s, at a time when the United States was at war with the Sioux people of the Great Plains.

The very existence of dinosaurs had been unknown until early in that century, Crichton writes, but interest in them quickly grew.

“It had been recognized since the 1850s that there were large numbers of fossils in the American West, but recovery of these giant bones was impractical until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.”

“Dragon Teeth” takes place in 1876. The protagonist is William Johnson, a young, rich, spoiled — and fictional — Yale University student who finds himself heading west with Marsh’s fossil-hunting team as the result of an ill-considered wager with a fellow student.

Cope has a team in the field at the same time. The inevitable clashes between the two sides are marked by insults, trickery and violence, adding to the dangers posed by gun-slinging bandits, stampeding buffalo, and the war with the Sioux.

Between action scenes, there are brief interludes for scientific discussion. One involves men sitting around a campfire and discussing the age of the sun. Since nuclear fusion had not yet been discovered, their calculations on how long it would take the sun to burn up all of its fuel are wildly off base, yet endearingly earnest.

After Johnson takes part in the discovery of a gigantic new dinosaur species, various twists of fate leave him with the responsibility of single-handedly transporting the fossils out of the wilderness.

It doesn’t help that there is a gold rush on at the time, and no one he encounters believes his assertions that the wooden crates he is hauling contain nothing but old bones. Some people wink and leave him alone, but others covet the crates for themselves.

The novel pretends to be based on Johnson’s own journals, which remained unpublished until long after his death. So it’s a case of life imitating art that the novel itself emerged from Crichton’s papers after his death.

An afterword by his widow gives little clue about when the book was written, although the idea for it is said to be traceable back to 1974, making it “a forerunner of his ‘other dinosaur story.’” Nor is there any clue within the book itself as to how much editing or additional writing may have been required.

A dinosaur skeleton, even if reconstituted from ancient fragments, still inspires excitement and awe. Whether or not “Dragon Teeth” came into being in a similar way, it is a fun adventure story from which you might even learn a thing or two.

 

Where to Read

At a museum, in the shadow of a dinosaur

Maruzen price: ¥2,560 plus tax (as of Aug. 18, 2017)Speech

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