It’s not often that an author of the Golden Age of science fiction is the subject of a scientific academic paper these days and yet L. Sprague De Camp was central to a paper in Earth Sciences History (Vol. 38, No. 1, 2019) entitled: Did Nineteenth Century Marine Vertebrate Fossil Discoveries Influence Sea Serpent Reports? The authors (CGM Paxton and D Naish) explain:
In the autumn of 1848, British newspapers were gripped by the account of a sea serpent seen by the officers and crew of the corvette H.M.S. Daedalus in the South Atlantic the previous May (Anonymous 1848a; 1848b). Immediately there was debate as to what had been seen…Paxton, C. G. M. & Naish, D. 2019. Did nineteenth century marine vertebrate fossil discoveries influence sea serpent reports? Earth Sciences History 38, 16-27 [link]
… In a 1968 contribution to the dispute, science fiction writer and science popularizer L. Sprague de Camp suggested a canoe, possibly attached as flotsam to a whale, as the cause of the Daedalus sighting (de Camp 1968, 1983). In fact, such a suggestion had already been made humorously 110 years before by Punch magazine regarding the sea serpent reported by H.M.S. Plumperin 1849 (Bowbell 1849). De Camp (1968, 1983, p. 178–190) went on to suggest that “After Mesozoic reptiles became well-known, reports of sea serpents, which until then had tended towards the serpentine, began to describe the monster as more and more resembling a Mesozoic marine reptile like a plesiosaur or a mosasaur.” De Camp gave neither evidence nor a specific time frame for this assertion, though from context it seems reasonable to assume he meant the nineteenth century.”
De Camp’s intuition was that depictions of prehistoric marine reptiles newly discovered by palaeontology, changed the way sea monsters were reported. Serpentine, eel-like monsters became replaced with more reptilian creatures in reports from vessels. The 2019 academic paper found some evidence for De Camp’s hypothesis, although it was somewhat muddied between the description given by first hand accounts and second hand reports.
This kind of using speculative imagination to bridge culture and science was a feature of De Camp’s polymathic approach to his work. Beginning as an aeronautical engineer he went on to write science-fiction, fantasy, popular science non-fiction and broader work such as his excellent book on Atlantis Lost Continents: the Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. His work in fantasy included posthumous collaboration with Robert E Howard on Conan stories but also non-fiction biographies of HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. De Camp’s own autobiography won the 1997 Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Work (now Best Related Work).
I’ve seen A Gun for Dinosaur described as a reply to Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder but I don’t know if that was the explicit intent of De Camp. However, it is easy to read it as a response to Bradbury’s earlier story. The basic premise is very similar. Time travel has made it possible for hunting parties to go back to the age of dinosaurs for the thrill of shooting the ultimate big game. A tour leader has trouble with his guests who are not psychologically well prepared to face a tyrannosaurus and tragedy follows.
The differences between the stories are notable as well. Specifically De Camp rejects an aspect of the time travel ‘rules’ that is central to A Sound of Thunder. As the central character explains:
“Seems the ruddy machine won’t work for periods more recent than 100,000 years ago. It works from there up to about a billion years.A Gun for Dinosaur in Dinosaurs! ed Jack Dann and Gardener Dozios, Baen Books [link]
Why? Oh, I’m no four-dimensional thinker; but, as I understand it, if people could go back to a more recent time, their actions would affect our own history, which would be a paradox or contradiction of facts. Can’t have that in a well-run universe, you know.
But, before 100,000 b.c., more or less, the actions of the expeditions are lost in the stream of time before human history begins. At that, once a stretch of past time has been used, say the month of January, one million b.c., you can’t use that stretch over again by sending another party into it. Paradoxes again.”
De Camp was not one to reject the idea in general that changes in the past spawn a different path for history. On the contrary, he was a pioneer of alternative history style fiction, in which a key event puts history on a different course. However, here he is avoiding Bradbury’s more disturbing idea that apparently tiny inconsequential acts in the past can have essentially unpredictable consequences in the future. From what I’ve read of his work, De Camp preferred a kind of logic to how the past changes the future, that the consequences of the act could be reasoned to their specific future consequences.*
The overall tone of A Gun for Dinosaur is different also. The story is presented as a one-sided conversation between a man called Rivers who runs a time travel safari business and a potential client. The narrator speaks in the style of a stereotypical English hunter from the days of the British Empire. He calls his guests ‘sahibs’, says ‘jolly’ a lot and his partner is the former Raja of Janpur (and called ‘The Raja’ throughout). Rivers explains that the potential client is too small in stature to take dinosaur hunting. He explains this is because the size of the gun needed to hunt dinosaurs can only be handled by larger, heavier men. To mollify the disappointed client, he takes him to a bar and then recounts the story of the one time he took a smaller man on a dinosaur hunt and the tragedy that followed.
I found the prose style of the story hard work but I could imagine with the right character actor, the whole thing could work very well as a dramatic monologue. Women only appear in the story as secondary characters, quickly dismissed by Rivers:
“On the fifth expedition, we had two sahibs to wet-nurse; both Americans in their thirties, both physically sound, and both solvent. Otherwise they were as different as different can be. Courtney James was what you chaps call a playboy: a rich young man from New York who’d always had his own way and didn’t see why that agreeable condition shouldn’t continue. A big bloke, almost as big as I am; handsome in a florid way, but beginning to run to fat. He was on his fourth wife and, when he showed up at the office with a blond twist with “model” written all over her, I assumed that this was the fourth Mrs. James.A Gun for Dinosaur in Dinosaurs! ed Jack Dann and Gardener Dozios, Baen Books [link]
“Miss Bartram,” she corrected me, with an embarrassed giggle.
“She’s not my wife,” James explained. “My wife is in Mexico, I think, getting a divorce. But Bunny here would like to go along—”
“Sorry,” I said, “we don’t take ladies. At least, not to the Late Mesozoic.”
This wasn’t strictly true, but I felt we were running enough risks, going after a little-known fauna, without dragging in people’s domestic entanglements. Nothing against sex, you understand. Marvelous institution and all that, but not where it interferes with my living.
“Oh, nonsense!” said James. “If she wants to go, she’ll go. She skis and flies my airplane, so why shouldn’t she—”
“Against the firm’s policy,” I said.
“She can keep out of the way when we run up against the dangerous ones,” he said.
“Damn it!” said he, getting red. “After all, I’m paying you a goodly sum, and I’m entitled to take whoever I please.”
“You can’t hire me to do anything against my best judgment,” I said. “If that’s how you feel, get another guide.”
“All right, I will,” he said. “And I’ll tell all my friends you’re a God-damned—” Well, he said a lot of things I won’t repeat, until I told him to get out of the office or I’d throw him out.”
So not great strides in the representation of women going on here. Whether this is in improvement on A Sound of Thunder in which women are essentially invisible is another argument.
Eventually Courtney James returns and is apologetic. By this point in his story Rivers has another client, August Holtzinger. Holtzinger is a marked contrast to James — a smaller, quieter man who hopes to test himself with this safari trip but who is inexperienced in hunting.
The trip goes badly. Through James’s brash stupidity, Holtzinger is killed by a tyrannosaur. Rivers ends up fighting James and James threatens to shoot both Rivers and the Raja and leave them in the past. The Raja overpowers James and they return to the present. However, later James attempts to ambush the party in the past by using the time travel machine to deliver him to a time just prior to the safari’s original arrival. Unfortunately for James, such paradoxical actions are not possible with time travel and his attempt to break the laws of time travel end up killing him in the present.
River’s concludes his story by saying:
“I understand these things better now, too. The disaster hadn’t been wholly James’s fault. I shouldn’t have taken him when I knew what a spoiled, unstable sort of bloke he was. And if Holtzinger could have used a really heavy gun, he’d probably have knocked the tyrannosaur down, even if he didn’t kill it, and so have given the rest of us a chance to finish it.A Gun for Dinosaur in Dinosaurs! ed Jack Dann and Gardener Dozios, Baen Books [link]
So, Mr. Seligman, that’s why I won’t take you to that period to hunt. There are plenty of other eras, and if you look them over I’m sure you’ll find something to suit you. But not the Jurassic or the Cretaceous. You’re just not big enough to handle a gun for dinosaur.”
De Camp shows great attention to detail in the story. He’s careful with names of the dinosaurs and the story is peppered with accounts of how different dinosaurs behave. The tyrannosaur is a tyrannosaurus trionyches rather than a tyrannosaurus rex, for no plot reason specifically other than to add to the kind of detail that Rivers would add as a professional hunter and also to further De Camp’s educational aims in his writing. De Camp attempts to take the reader on a trip back to the Cretaceous based on understanding of it at the time.
Between the A Sound of Thunder and A Gun for Dinosaur we have not just two different approaches to how time travel might affect the future but also two different species of time travel stories. Bradbury’s story centres time travel as a thing that has narrative consequences specific to time travel. De Camp uses time travel as a portal to a fantastic (but scientifically real) other world, which he then explores. To do this he needs time travel to have very limited mind-bending consequences and the villain of the piece receives his just deserts when attempting to shift the story to the other type of time travel narrative with nested paradoxes and time loops. The distinction isn’t just the rules for causality established in the story but the extent to which those rules are explored in the story.
For example Alfred Bester’s story “The Men Who Murdered Mohamed” takes an even stricter premise for how time travel impacts causal chains into the future (the twist is that it doesn’t) but the structure of the story is very much centred on time travel itself rather than as a gateway to another world. (Bester story was itself a finalist for Best Short Story in the 1959 Hugo Awards but sadly the protagonists go no further back than the Pliestocene and kill a mastodon.) On the other hand, Brian Aldiss’s addition to the sub-genre of weekend hunters going back to shoot a dinosaur “Poor Little Warrior!” is focused purely on having a modern human in the setting of the Jurassic – time travel is just a plot device to get the character there. (Aldiss’s story technically shouldn’t be in this dinography because it wasn’t a finalist in 1959 but we’ll come back to Aldiss and 1959 in the next post)
Adapted and anthologised many times, A Gun for Dinosaur has lasted in multiple forms. Its appeal lies in the rich picture of a past world and the fantasy of big game hunters chasing dinosaurs. That the hunters may find themselves eaten, helps cement the story’s appeal. I note that both the first Jurassic Park movie and it’s sequel include a British actor playing an experienced game hunter as a character (Bob Peck in the first and Pete Postlethwaite in the second).
A Gun for Dinosaur was a finalist in the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, beaten by Murray Leinster’s Exploration Team, a story I haven’t read but which sounds like an exciting yarn from its description. The Hugos were still finding their feet but it was a year with an impressive set of winners including Robert Heinlein for Best Novel, Arthur C Clark for Best Short Story, Frank Kelly Freas for Best Professional artist (the second of many), Damon Knight for the now defunct category of “Best Reviewer” and newcomer Robert Silverberg for Most Promising New Author. Also Willy Ley won Best Feature writer but I should imagine that was for articles on rockets and space exploration rather than anything about dinosaurs specifically.
The Hugo Awards downscaled a bit the following year when Worldcon went to London. Unfortunately no dinosaurs were involved. We meet up again with a dinosaur themed Hugo until 1959. Next time we will leave the past behind and travel off planet to meet a very different kind of dinosaur in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.
*[Having said that I’m going off summaries of some of his alt-history/time travel stories rather than an extensive read of them]