Wednesday 10 July 2019

Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time

Really good dinosaur books are few and far between. Despite the best efforts of pretty well every Science Fiction author at one time or another, one could likely count the most memorable attempts on one hand. Jurassic Park would enter most people's minds these days, though more by reputation of the film series than from having read Michael Crichton's novel for themselves. The unparalleled classic is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, published in 1912. His copious literary talent and careful attention to detail made this relatively late entry into the field of Scientific Romances a genre archetype of its own: the "lost world" story. More recently than The Lost World is another lost world story of a type, taking place in the Victorian Era and standing towards the head of the list of great dinosaur stories. This is Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time by James Gurney, published in 1992.

Image: James Gurney.

The irony behind Dinotopia's success is that Gurney is no Science Fiction author. Asked in interview about how deep an influence Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir H. Rider Haggard exerted on his series, he said that they didn't really. His main influences were the journals of actual explorers and scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Burton. It's not altogether uncommon that truly excellent examples of modern Scientific Romances come from people completely outside of any "scene" or "fandom" dedicated to it. Its success no doubt owes as much or more to the dinosaur fever of the early Nineties - Jurassic Park would be released to theatres the following year, in 1993 - as its Victorian Scientific Romance setting.   

Rather than a Science Fiction author, Gurney is a painter. The origins of Dinotopia find themselves in a collection of unique paintings by Gurney, showing dinosaurs and humans living alongside each other. Unlike countless scenes of antagonism between dinosaurs and cavemen, these paintings depicted idyllic scenes of parades processing past Greco-Roman columns. The idea of elevating these paintings to a narrative, to tell the story behind them and the kind of world they take place in, came to Gurney and the result is a work capturing the very essence of Scientific Romances.

Image: James Gurney.

Or, if we are to believe the prologue, Gurney was merely the recipient of a sketchbook once belonging to Arthur Denison, a naturalist who set sail on an exploratory voyage in 1862. His ship encountered a ferocious storm and was destroyed, pitching himself and his son Will on the shores of an uncharted island teeming with living dinosaurs. More astonishing than this, as though it could get more astonishing, is that these dinosaurs are highly intelligent, rational and wise beings who have taught generations of humans to live in harmony with them and with one another.

Image: James Gurney.

On this island, thought to be somewhere in the Indian Ocean perhaps, a group of dinosaurs escaped extinction in deep, subterranean caverns. They emerged to further develop their society, eventually encountering humans who, like the Denisons, found their way to the island by accident or incident. The dinosaurs imparted their millions of years of wisdom onto their new human wards, building a utopian society guided by the Code of Dinotopia:
Survival of all or none.
One raindrop raises the sea.
Weapons are enemies even to their owners.

Give more, take less.
Others first, self last.
Observe, listen, and learn.
Do one thing at a time.

Sing every day.
Exercise imagination.
Eat to live, don't live to eat.

The body of this first book is a tour around the island of Dinotopia, taking in the sights and lifestyles, learning what it mean to live by an ideal that benefits human, dinosaur and the environment alike. Some might consider the utopian ambitions a little preachy and naive, but then it is a utopian vision and that's what they are for. To the book's benefit, Gurney refrains from any detailed description of how the society functions. These sorts of things typically bog down more serious utopian fantasies. Writing itself is kept to the minimum necessary to narrate the multitude of wonderful paintings bursting from every page. Dinotopia is an easy utopian fantasy to admire. Who wouldn't want to live in a beautiful island filled with tame dinosaurs?

Well, one villainous character by the name of Lee Crab would not. The sole dissenting voice points out that the word "Dinotopia" literally means "terrible place." You'd have to be a pretty desperate character, though, not to be awed by these picturesque cities and their saurian inhabitants.

Waterfall City. Image: James Gurney.

Having created a handful of vistas that any sensible reader would want to dive into, Gurney does the charitable thing by taking that reader on a detailed travelogue. Virtually everywhere we might want to go, Gurney takes us, from snowcapped mountain peaks traversed by airship and woolly mammoth to Paleozoic swamps teeming with Tyrannosaurus to deep ocean crevasses in an iron submersible, surrounded by ammonites and mosasaurs. The child reader's proxy, Will Denison, gets the coolest job flying high above the island as a "skybax pilot", on the back of a Quetzalcoatlus. Their aerie is the Southwest US-inspired Canyon City.

Image: James Gurney.

Gurney not only excels at landscapes, but at the dinosaurs themselves. Though relatively unknown as a paleo-artist prior to the publication of Dinotopia, the popularity of the book catapulted him past the multitudes of dinosaur art specialists. Gurney was also commissioned, amongst other assignments, to produce a set of dinosaur stamps and companion book for the United States Postal Service, which also serves as a wonderful companion for the Dinotopia books.

Dinosaurs of Cretaceous America, for the US Postal Service.
Image: James Gurney.

The largest dangling plot thread from the first Dinotopia book was the mysterious "World Beneath": the forbidden caverns in which the dinosaurs hid to escape extinction. After taking us over the surface of the "Land Apart from Time", Gurney takes us beneath it in this second story, published in 1995. The World Beneath is a different sort of story as well. The structure is quite different, being a proper narrative rather than a series of journal entries. In fact, the climax of the story is how the Arthur Denison's journal escaped the island and made its way to the university library where it was found by the author. Within this structure, Gurney brings his utopian vision more fully into conflict with Western values.

The World Beneath. Image: James Gurney.

There were hints of Dinotopia's deep past in A Land Apart from Time and the implicit contrast of the continent's way of life versus our own. This is brought to the forefront when, in the World Beneath, Denison and his party uncover the lost artifacts of the sunken city of Poseidos. Poseidos is the type for Atlantis and all other sunken cities, against which the gods were angry. In this city, human civilization without the steadying hand of wizened dinosaurs developed along exploitative technological lines.

The greatest invention of the city-state were the "strutters", being mechanical dinosaurs powered by crystals. When rediscovered by Denison, he betrays his outworld bias in commenting, to his dinosaur friend Bix, that they're even better than dinosaurs. With strutters, humans would no longer have need of dinosaurs. Despite his time spent in Dinotopia, he still catches himself humanocentrically thinking of dinosaurs as livestock and human beings at the top of the order of being.

Denison continues on in his thoughts for a while, until a brief exchange with his ladyfriend Oriana. Thinking much as we do today, he remarks "Those engineers created machines on the verge of life... If we can tame them, harness them for the good of this island, we can bring back a golden age to Dinotopia, and age without vulgarity and drudgery." To this exasperating lack of comprehension, she replies "The golden age is here right now... You just don't see it. No engineer ever invented anything as miraculous as a flower or an egg or a living dinosaur. It's never drudgery to live among them."

Image: James Gurney.

In steps Lee Crab again. He not only sees it as drudgery, but believes that humans are the slaves of overbearing, knowitall dinosaurs. The discovery of the strutters is his ticket out of there. This serpent in Eden provides the larger part of the drama for The World Beneath and the Dinotopia series as a whole.

The first two Dinotopia books and the merchandise stemming from them were a wonderful and inventive addition to children's literature and paleo-art. Their success and the dinosaur summer of the Nineties prompted a full-blown franchise to develop. Other authors took up the mantle of writing up novels for young and adult readers alike, including a series of digest novellas and two novels by Alan Dean Foster: Dinotopia Lost and The Hand of Dinotopia. While decent enough, they lacked the primary draw of Dinotopia, which was Gurney's art. Hallmark took up an on-again, off-again film project that ended up not being worth the wait. The Dinotopia TV miniseries debuted in 2002 took place in the modern day and acted as a quasi-sequel to the books, but was generally disappointing. Not disappointing enough to prevent a 13 episode TV series, but still sufficiently underwhelming to have the series cancelled after six episodes aired.  For his own efforts, Gurney produced Dinotopia: First Flight in 1999, which may be said to be the "Episode I" of Dinotopia.

Gideon Altair and friends. Image: James Gurney.

Like its predecessor in the Star Wars franchise, this "Episode I" was what no one was expecting and what no one wanted. The deep past of the Land Apart from Time was explored by showing us the kingdom of Poseidos in its mechanistic glory and the rise of the first Skybax pilot Gideon Altair in opposition to it. However, instead of any kind of story depth, insight or maturity that was in the previous books, Gurney let himself slip into a formulaic trip between a young boy and his animal buddies as they somehow single handedly stop a massive invasion of the island by the evil empire. No children's story turns out well that takes its cues from The Phantom Menace.

Taking nearly a decade off after that outing, working freelance projects and dinosaur stamp sets in the meantime, Gurney returned true to form with Journey to Chandara in 2007. Whereas the first Dinotopia took its inspiration from the journals of the Victorian explorers in general, Journey to Chandara drew explicitly from Richard Burton's infiltration of Mecca. And whereas the first Dinotopia was an act of world-building and The World Beneath was an act of history-making, Journey to Chandara is Gurney exploring and playing with the lost continent that he created.

In the book's fictional backstory, Gurney had been looking for anything he could find on Dinotopia or Arthur Denison after finding the original journal. He hit paydirt in a Greenwich bookshop with another journal from Denison, outlining his journey to the isolated empire of Chandara. One of the great cities of Dinotopia, Chandara had cut itself off from the rest of the island after trade disputes with Sauropolis. Anyone attempting to enter its territories was turned away by border guards, leading to many strange legends. Persistence paid of for Denison, finally receiving an invitation from Emperor Hugo Kahn to enter the city. Unfortunately, as he and the Protoceratops diplomat Bix proceed to their destination, the villainous Lee Crab rears his head again, thieving the invitation and forcing the pair to take a more circuitous route.

Caravan to Chandara. Image: James Gurney.

Journey to Chandara demonstrates a maturing of Gurney's vision. Political realities, trade deals and the like, infiltrate his otherwise perfect dinosaur utopia. That's probably less intentional than simply the requirements of storytelling. It's unlikely that another Dinotopia book could have been sustained on a mere travelogue. Journey to Chandara is still a travelogue nonetheless, through the island's desert regions, but it needed a better pretense for for drama. Gurney also shows a bit of writer's rust with this story and can't seem to work out his timeline (if Chandara only went into isolation 50 years before the events of the book, and the citizens of Dinotopia can live for hundreds of years, how did any legends about the city arise?), but overall it is a much better and truer Dinotopia story than some of the works that intervened between now and those first two magnificent books.

Another decade has passed since Journey to Chandara and over 25 since Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time. It is more likely than not that the series has receded into the mists of time, that island becoming lost once again. Nevertheless, it is a fantastical world and one looks forward to visiting - or revisiting - it time and again.

Décollage nocturne, or the Nantes-Dinotopia express. 
A painting by James Gurney for the Utopiales Festival in Nantes, France, 2009.
Image: James Gurney.

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