Friday, June 02, 2017

Dragon Teeth

I have read most of Michael Crichton’s novels.  He was effective at presenting and developing his story lines.  His research was deep and thorough, and his ability to develop plots centered on scientific and technical issues in a way that seemed authoritative was partly responsible for his success.  Sometimes, he stretched the facts and inserted speculative ideas of his own—which is what a fiction writer can do.  I remember discussions with a geneticist friend of mine who found the idea of cloning as presented in the Jurassic Park novels (1990, 1995) completely implausible.  Where I felt Crichton typically faltered was in resolving his plots—then his novels became more formulaic and predictable.  I was bothered by his right-wing politics, particularly his denial of climate change (see State of Fear, 2004), and by his treatment of Japan and the Japanese in Rising Sun (1992).  His novels are, ironically, permeated by an underlying skepticism about technology that is both reasonably cautionary and also hyperbolic.

The posthumous novel Dragon Teeth (2017), a manuscript found by his widow among his papers, may be one of his best books.  It’s a well plotted story of fossil hunting in the Old West.  Though its main character, William Johnson, a young man from Philadelphia who on a bet goes on a fossil hunting expedition, is fictional, other important characters are based on fact: especially the paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose intense rivalry in the late 19th century as they hunted for dinosaur fossils has become legendary.  Robert Louis Stephenson briefly appears, as do other historical figures (Wyatt Earp prominent among them).  I was reminded of the novels of E. L. Doctorow, which often included historical figures.  The focus on Cope and Marsh is the novel’s strongest asset.[i] The novel is basically a yarn—though it centers on fossil hunting, it isn’t science fiction or fantasy.  It’s an Old West tale. At times Crichton seems to be developing an overview of the opening of the American West, of Native Americans, of fossil hunting.  But mostly this is an adventure story about a young and arrogant son of wealthy parents coming of age.  It was exciting and interesting from beginning to end.  It does not suffer from the problems in resolution I found other Crichton novels.

I would like to know to what extent editors or others contributed to the final form of the book: to what extent it is Crichton’s book, or some other person’s idea of what Crichton would have wanted.  Crichton’s widow provides an afterword which suggests the novel is primarily Crichton’s work, but one never knows, since the novel was never finished (though this published version seems finished and complete).

[i] See the National Geographic article on Marsh and Cope at

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