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'Creatures of Another Age' celebrates dinosaurs in science fiction


‘Creatures of Another Age’ celebrates dinosaurs in science fiction

Reviewing ‘Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters’

Dinosaurs have been an integral part of literature since their bones were pulled from the British soil in the early 1800s, especially within the genre of science-fiction, which most historians agree first sprang into existence following the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818. Yet much of the early history of paleontologically-themed fiction (or paleofiction) remains shrouded in obscurity, lost like the dinosaurs themselves to the ravages of time.

Richard Fallon is a professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham, not a paleontologist, but like one he’s set out to uncover paleofiction’s own fossils in his new anthology Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters (Valancourt Books, 2021).

'Creatures of Another Age' celebrates dinosaurs in science fiction

From “The Terror of Blue John Gap” (image not included)

Creatures of Another Age kicks off with a short 10-page introduction which lays out a brief history of the emergence of the new science of paleontology during the “Long Nineteenth Century.” Fallon describes how celebrated fossil mammals like the European mammoth and the North American mastodon helped pave the way for dinosaurs to burst onto the scene first in Britain, with the twin discoveries of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, followed by the unearthing of such iconic American dinosaurs as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and, of course, Tyrannosaurus rex.

Fallon observers that the earliest technical writings about these animals, — by men like France’s George Cuvier, Britain’s Gideon Mantell and William Buckland, or America’s Edward Hitchcock – were often replete with poetic allusion and Romantic images. Prehistoric animals were likened to dragons and griffins, language which was conveyed to the public by writers like Henry Neville Hutchinson, author of the popular children’s book Extinct Monsters.

It was the writings of popularizers like Hutchinson and others that were in turn read by poets and early science fiction authors, who tended to literalize the paleontologist’s typically metaphorical language. This can be seen in Charles Jacobs Peterson’s “The Last Dragon” (1871) and Reginald Bacchus and Cyril Ranger Gull’s “The Dragon of St. Paul’s” (1899), two short stories that appear in Creatures of Another Age and which conflate real prehistoric animals with mythical monsters.

In Creatures of Another Age, Fallon has assembled a sampling of some of earliest popular writings on dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures with a curated collection of seven poems, 10 short stories, one play (T.D.A Cockerell’s “Progress: A Drama of Evolution,” 1916), one newspaper article (Henry Morley’s “Our Phantom Ship…,” 1851), and one theological treatise (Naden’s “Geological Epochs,” 1885); the latter of which should be of interest to students of the history of young-earth creationism. Each text is preceded by a brief introduction by Fallon who provides historical and cultural context, as well as suggestions for additional reading.

The collection’s poems are perhaps the most difficult to judge aesthetically, while simultaneously being the most fascinating. It’s not often you encounter lyrical verses dreamily reminiscing about prehistoric pachyderms, as in Hannah Flagg Gould’s “The Mastodon” (1847), or antediluvian fish-lizards, as in May Kendall’s “Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus” (1885).

Perhaps the two most interesting poetic pieces in Creatures of Another Age are “Similar Cases” (1890) —  its author is the celebrated American writer and suffragette Charlotte Perkins Gillman — and “The Sandstone Bird” (1836), by the previously cited American geologist Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s fanciful poem describes a series of tridactyl fossil tracks discovered in the Connecticut Valley, which the author ascribes to an extinct flightless bird of tremendous size. The announcement was prescient, as today these footprints are recognized as those of a Jurassic theropod dinosaur.

The short stories in Creatures of Another Age are far easier to evaluate, and they’ll likely be of the most interest to casual readers anyway, as nearly all of them fall into the subgenre of the lost world adventure. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) should be especially interested in three stories: Phil Robinson’s misleadingly titled “The Last of the Vampires” (1893), Bacchus and Gull’s aforementioned “The Dragon of St. Paul’s,” and Doyle’s own “The Terror of Blue John Gap” (1910), as all anticipate key aspects of the novel.

Robinson’s story starts off like a precursor to the film The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with an expedition into the Amazon following the discovery of the fossilize remains of a supposed “man-lizard,” but ends reminiscent of the classic Jonny Quest episode “Turu the Terrible” (1964). Bacchus and Gull’s tale involves an escaped pterosaur in London and ends with a massive police shootout. Doyle’s own story recounts an ill-fated English spelunking expedition by Dr. James Hardcastle, who runs afoul of a relic cave bear.

Two other stories which pair well together are Peterson’s “The Last Dragon” and Clotilde Graves’ “The Great Beast of Kafue” (1917), both of which involve cryptid dinosaurs in Africa. While Peterson’s story is an adrenaline-fueled action-adventure worthy of the men’s pulps of the 1960s, Graves’ tale is a melancholy contemplation about love and loss.

C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s “The Crimson Beast” (1898) also concerns a pair of explores who encounter an oversized (and very hungry) lizard in a cave. Conversely “A Relic of the Pliocene” (1901), by literary heavyweight Jack London, takes place in the vast, uncharted wilderness of the Yukon, where an intrepid hunter and the world’s last mammoth have a final, fateful showdown. By far the strangest story in Creatures of Another Age is be Wardon Allan Curtis’ “The Monster of Lake Lametrie” (1899), which I can only begin to summarize as a fusion of Frankenstein-like mad science with a lake monster cryptid, all set in the American Wild West.

From "The Monster of Lake LaMetrie," a story included in "Creatures of Another Age"

From “The Monster of Lake LaMetrie” (image not included)

Creatures of Another Age: Classic Visions of Prehistoric Monsters is a fantastic collection and should appeal equally to historians of paleontology, literary scholars, and fans of turn-of-the-century science fiction. The collection pairs nicely with Fallon’s recently published monograph Reimagining Dinosaurs in Late Victorian and Edwardian Literature: How the ‘Terrible Lizard’ Became a Transatlantic Cultural Icon, which likewise deals with the role of dinosaurs in late 19 and early 20th century popular culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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