Title: Dragon Teeth
Author: Michael Crichton
Publisher: Harper Collins
Having read Dragon Teeth in just under four hours, I have to agree with the official Michael Crichton website. Crichton’s third posthumous novel—after Pirate Latitudes and Micro—is definitely a “page-turner that draws on both meticulously researched history and an exuberant imagination”.
Still, there’s something missing.
Despite taking its name from the terrible lizards, Dragon Teeth is no Jurassic Park. Where dinosaurs took centre stage in the 1990 novel, here they are classic Hitchcockian McGuffins that are—quite literally—part of the landscape. So, if you want a Michael Crichton novel about dinosaurs, step away from Dragon Teeth and go (re)read Jurassic Park or The Lost World. And if you want a history-driven Crichton novel, go back to 1999’s Timeline.
In a short Afterword, Crichton’s widow Sherri says the author—who died in 2008—began working on what would become Dragon Teeth back in 1974. Which could explain why it is highly reminiscent of Westworld: Crichton had debuted as a Hollywood director just the previous year, and the Wild West was obviously still on his mind.
If you must, think of Dragon Teeth as a bridge between Westworld, the Jurassic Park series, and Timeline, which also looked more to history than technology as a narrative vehicle.
Set in an America where “evolution” was still a dirty word, rudimentary gold-rush towns were booming, and large swathes of land were still being colonised amid prolonged conflict with Native American nations, Dragon Teeth is a coming-of-age story that seamlessly merges fact and fiction against a backdrop of pioneering palaeontology.
At the beginning of the novel, William Johnson, the main character, is the “gifted” if “badly spoilt” 18-year-old son of a shipping magnate, who had no qualms about wrecking a yacht he had “borrowed” since sailing would have been “utterly tedious to learn”. Shortly thereafter, he sets off on a life-changing journey into unchartered territory—because he was too proud and stupid to back down from a bet. In the following pages, he is abandoned by a paranoid palaeontology professor in “a locus of crime and vice”, bands together with a rival palaeontology professor helps discover fossils of the hitherto unknown “thundering lizard”, discovers honour, and protects the fossils almost single-handedly.
Unlike in real life, where palaeontologists Othniel Marsh and Edwin Cope spent their lives trying to outperform and undermine the other using any means necessary in a feud that left them miserable and financially ruined, the “Bone Wars” in Dragon Teeth have been condensed into one cut-throat summer.
The characters—including a range of the Wild West’s most famous names—are colourful, if cardboard Esque, and give context to a relatively unfamiliar time period. The research is evident, even if you ignore the three-page bibliography, and the science is visible in the detailed descriptions of dinosaurs and paleontological processes. The “Indian threat”, a reality of the clashes between settlers and Native Americans, is narrated from a sympathetic viewpoint, with most tribes portrayed favourably. And amid the adventure and history, are flashes of subtle humour.
The sometimes-iffy writing can be excused if you consider that, maybe, this was an unfinished manuscript, left unpublished for a reason. Had Crichton planned to publish Dragon Teeth in his lifetime, I expect he would have fleshed out the characters, and fine-tuned the language.
However, lines like “They eventually could see nothing, and could only listen to the thundering hooves, the snorting and grunting, as the dark shapes hurtled past them, ceaselessly”—about a two-hour buffalo stampede—leave no doubt that you are reading a Crichton novel.
Overall, Dragon Teeth—which the National Geographic Channel is currently adapting for TV—is a fun summer read, just so long as you don’t expect Crichton’s “other dinosaur books”.