Time now for the romance of Raptor Red, the real-life drama of a young dinosaur who — when early Cretaceous life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair — fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many hot-blooded, 500-pound, kickboxing female raptors long to prove in their own lives: that the romance of youth can extend into middle life — and even beyond.
Only kidding. Well, half kidding. Robert T. Bakker, dinosaur curator of the Tate Museum in Wyoming and the ”unofficial” special-effects consultant for Jurassic Park, really has excavated the moldy old fossils of radio soap opera (which we can carbon-date at 50 years) to build a rickety plot-skeleton for his first novel. As zany as things sometimes get, though, it’s a pure delight as well. So don’t touch that dial.
When we first meet our spunky 8-year-old saurian, she and her mate — the happy couple ”locked together in Darwinian monogamy” — have just migrated from northern Asia into prehistoric Utah. But tragedy (cue the rumbling organ!) strikes suddenly. In the midst of feasting on an astrodon, Raptor Red’s mate is trapped beneath the 20,000-pound carcass and drowned.
Being alone and friendless in a brand-new kill-or-be-killed ecosystem takes its emotional toll on the grieving young widow, who loses a lot of weight and then has to fret over whether she’s too skinny to attract another dino-guy with good genes. Ah, but at life’s darkest hour often comes a ray of light. One evening, while snuffling in dried bracken, she is reunited with her long-lost sister and her sister’s brood of chicks.
Even 120 million years ago, however, family ties could prove a mixed blessing. Raptor Red’s oldest niece — a teenager in raptor years — turns out to be (duh) an irritating nuisance, while Red’s sister is a ”muddle of conflicting rages,” especially once an eligible bachelor appears on the floodplain and begins to woo Red with his spiffy courtship dances. Adding even more turmoil to the domestic situation, the new suitor gradually develops a keen desire to eat Red’s relatives — nothing personal, just an nstinctual thing.
It’s open to debate, I gather, whether dinosaurs were ever as social or as intelligent as they’re depicted here. But Raptor Red, which dramatizes some of the maverick theories that Bakker advanced several years ago in The Dinosaur Heresies, certainly makes you want to believe that they were. Let’s face it, when it comes to giant lizards (or were they actually giant birds?), we’re all 10 years old.
The novel’s portrait of the ”overwhelmingly green and brown” world (flowering plants were still newcomers back then) is both beautiful and enchanting, eerie as anything you’ll find in the best science fiction. At times Bakker can seem a bit professorial, interrupting his narrative to lecture us on saurian anatomy, migration patterns, dietary habits, and fear of ticks, but his lectures are always lively. (Often, they’re downright funny. Writing about the small, bug-eating aegialodon, he points out that its gene flow will eventually ”produce wonderful creations — giraffes, elephants, rhinos, whales, bats, monkeys, chimps, Democratic senators, Republican majority leaders.”) And for a paleontologist, the man can write terrific action scenes. Floods! Fights! Ambush!Extinction!
Unbridled enthusiasm often leads Bakker beyond Lost World soap opera to the cozy anthropomorphism of a Walt Disney cartoon, with sound effects — ”Ghurk-smurg-GULP” — straight out of an Alley Oop comic strip. Small matter, though. Even with its dings and its dents, this is still the coolest time machine on the lot. B+