Anne McCaffery’s Weyr Search won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella making her the first woman to win a Hugo Award. Weyr Search would go on to form the first part of her first Pern novel: Dragonflight. Unfortunately for this project, dragons are excluded from consideration despite their many commonalities with dinosaurs. It was a rule I regretted considering how often McCaffrey’s genetically engineered dragons would cross paths with the Hugo Awards. For example her book The White Dragon was a finalist for Best Novel in 1979^. Three of the other four finalist for Best Novel that year were women with Vonda McIntyre winning with Dreamsnake.
Interestingly (at least to somebody hunting for a dinosaur connection), The White Dragon was not McCaffrey’s only book published in 1978. Her other published novel that year was Dinosaur Planet which is far for more suitable for a dinography but much less suitable for a Hugo Award.
Dinosaur Planet simply is not very good. It fails in two essential dimensions: the plot is thin and the central characters are both uninteresting and unlikeable. Yet there are insights to be had by looking at unaccomplished books by an accomplished author. McCaffrey’s track record in producing works that were popular beyond fandom and critically acclaimed, makes it easier to state that the issue with the work were not due to a lack of talent or skill on McCaffrey’s part.
The background to the story is the Federated Sentient Planets, a coalition of space faring species that appears in several of McCaffrey’s series but which is not really an on-going continuity between them. In the case of Dinosaur Planet the FSP consists of three species: humans, the Thek (a kind of slow talking silicon life form) and the Ryxi (a bird like species). The humans are further sub-divided: regular ‘light world’ humans, ship-based humans who have never lived on a planet and ‘heavy world’ humans who live on higher gravity worlds.
The ARCT-10 is an exploratory vessel that has dropped off a human team to explore the supposedly untocuhed planet of Ireta. Elsewhere in the same solar system a Thek team are exploring another planet and the Ryxi another. The ARCT-10 goes off to investigate a ‘cosmic storm’ leaving the team to fend for themselves.
The team’s main concern is charting the mineral wealth of the planet, in particular heavy elements. Varian (co-leader and main protagonist) is an exobiologist and is puzzled by the seemingly incompatible range of animal life on the planet, including a bizarre geometrical creature as well as red-blood megafauna. Meanwhile the geological survey finds an odd lack of mineral wealth in the area they are surveying and then discovers evidence that the whole planet has been surveyed before.
Meanwhile, the heavy-worlders in the crew are acting funny and also supplies are being pilfered. To make matters worse, Kai (the other co-leader) has not been able to contact the ARCT-10 since it went to investigate the cosmic storm. A rumour spreads among the crew that they have been ‘planted’, that is involuntarily set-up as a colony mission rather than a survey mission.
Eventually the heavy-world element of the crew mutiny and attempt to stage the deaths of the team’s leaders in a stampede. The team leaders, making use of a mental discipline called “discipline” (which sort of springs of of nowhere in the story) escape death and take control of the shuttle (which the heavy-worlders have left behind) and hide it elswehere on the planet. With no immediate hope of rescue, the Kai and Varian decide that the remaining survivors will go into a hibernating sleep until somebody (either ARCT-10 or the Thek or humans who work for the Ryxi) come and find them. The End.
Well that’s the end of Dinosaur Planet, the story has just barely started by the time the book ends and for a complete narrative you need to read book 2 (aka Dinosaur Planet Survivors). You’ll note that I can recount the plot without saying “dinosaur”. The other big plot twist is that just before the mutiny becomes manifest, the crew work out that the big animals on the planet are actually literal prehistoric Earth animals — specifically the possibly sentient Giffs are actually pteradons and the fearsome predator called “fang face” is a t-rex. It would be an OK plot twist except, you know, “Dinosaur Planet” as a title kind of spoils the revelation.
I’ll get to Dinosaur Planet Survivors, which is better, shortly but first what is wrong with book 1? The overall plot sounds interesting but the story waffles and meanders before the story kicks into gear and once it does kick into gear…the book is over. There’s so much explanation and background but it is delivered in a way that is neither organic (trusting the reader to piece together) nor efficient (just explaining it simply). The description of the animals isn’t always sufficient to spot which ones are the familiar dinosaurs and which ones are other prehistoric animals and which ones are utterly alien. I’m guessing the dinosaur revelation late in the book was supposed to be a big twist but somebody decided that “Dinosaur Planet” would bring in the sales. Notably, the 2003 combined edition I have is entitled “The Mystery of Ireta” which hides the dinosaur aspect a bit better.
The time wasting narrative style isn’t the only issue. The depiction of the heavy worlders exploits racist stereotypes.
“There was, however, no question that their sheer physical presence–the powerful legs, the compact torso, massive shoulders, weather-darkened skin–provided a visual deterrent that prompted many sentient groups to hire them as security forces, whether merely for display or as actual aggressive units. Contributing to the false notion that heavy-worlders were ill-equipped with mental abilities was the unfortunate genetic problem that, though their muscle and bone structure had adjusted to bear heavy gravities, their heads had not. Consequently, at first glance they did look stupid”Dinosaur Planet, in The Mystery of Ireta by Anne McCaffrey, page 12, Del Rey 2004
Potentially there is an interesting idea there about human adaptation to different planets and ensuing racial stereotypes. McCaffrey is clear that the heavy-worlders have the same range of cognitive abilities as everybody else and some of the heavy-world characters are scientists. However, they end up being simplistic bad guys, worse the two main characters (who aren’t heavy-worlders) are dismissive and condescending about them. Taking a step back from the plot, the eventual mutiny of the heavy-worlders is laudable given how aimlessly patronising the two leads are.
Worse is the weird vegetarianism in the book. The main characters (and human society as a whole) is vegetarian. This is a plot point because the heavy-worlders start sneaking off to hunt dinosaurs and eat meat. This causes them to ‘regress into more aggressive and macho behaviour (including fighting for mating rights). Again, maybe, with a lot of skill, there’s a story there about cultural norms but nope. The smug civilised vegetarians are the good people and the heavy worlds are descending.
Kai and Varian are so deeply unlikeable that I was hoping a t-rex would eat at least one of them. This is how Varian is introduced:
“She was tall, as were so many types born on normal-gravity planet like Earth, with a slender but muscularly fit body which the one-piece orange ship-suit displayed admirably. Despite the articles dangling from her force-screen belt, her waist was trim, and the bulges in her thigh and calf pouches did not detract from the graceful appearance of her legs.”Dinosaur Planet, in The Mystery of Ireta by Anne McCaffrey, page 4, Del Rey 2004
For most of the book they meander, lie to the rest of the crew, drug some of the crew to make them more tractable and later trick some of the crew into going into a hibernation sleep that will last for decades. Although they sort of pick-up on the fact that the heavy-worlders are up to something, they are remarkably passive about it until everything is too late.
So what is going on? McCaffrey is a better writer and plotter than Dinosaur Planet suggests. The book isn’t lacking in ideas but they don’t come together. Wikipedia says of McCaffrey that at the time:
“Futura Publications in London signed her to write books about dinosaurs for children.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_McCaffrey#Writer
However, Dinosaur Planet isn’t a children’s book or a ‘juvenile’ although it has some features of one. In particular there are some children characters but they aren’t well used. It also doesn’t deliver on the dinosaur element.
What McCaffrey is attempting becomes clearer in Dinosaur Planet Survivors. Kai is wakened from ‘cold sleep’ by a Thek who has landed on the planet to check on what has happened to him. Several decades have passed. Once awakened Varian takes a flight in one their vehicles to scout out what has happened while they slept. On this flight she spots a handsome, semi-naked man fighting a T-rex with a spear*. She helps him out and discovers that he is a descendant of the heavy-world mutineers. His name is Aygar and he is out proving his manhood on a ritual hunt.
All of Dinosaur Planet really was a giant, over complex set-up to create a science-fiction backstory for Aygar. The use of ‘savage’ racial stereotypes for the heavy-worlders, the mysterious megafauna, the hibernation, the mutiny all work to create a situation where there is a planet with dinosaurs and hunky guys who hunt them. It’s like McCaffrey saw a classic pulp cover of a Conan like man fighting a dinosaur and thought “how can I get to this scene but via the medium of hard science fiction”.
Briefly, Ireta is as promised a dinosaur planet but it has been hard work to get there.
Unfortunately, it isn’t to last. The rest of Dinosaur Planet Survivors becomes focused on wrapping up the mutiny plot line and the ‘mystery’ of the planet. There are some better characters introduced or elevated: notably Lunzie and Sassinak who later were used in the non-dinosaur related sequels that McCaffrey wrote with Elizabeth Moon and Jody Lynne Nye in the 1990s (collectively called Planet Pirates**).
The mystery of the planet is revealed when the Theks remember that they set this all up millennia before but had forgotten about it. Which was a hypothesis in the first book but dismissed because the Theks don’t forget things.
In the end we have two books worth of back story. They are, in effect, a construction site. A huge, over detailed explanation of how to get a planet of noble-savages fighting dinosaurs in a shiny chrome plated science fiction universe. McCaffrey wanted to write a modern Pellucidar but establish its bona-fides with spaceships. Sadly, after all that work, we don’t ever get the Pellucidar aside from the one scene of Aygar fighting the dinosaur. There’s a tiny tease of a romance plot with Varian unsure of her affection towards Aygar versus Kai but that too comes to nothing.
Of course, McCaffrey does pull of this trick of a fantasy story underpinned by a sci-fi back story with her Pern novels and with great success. Dinosaur Planet is not a great story but its failure also exposes insights into the process McCaffrey was adopting. Flipping the story round and starting with Aygar and him fighting a T-Rex and then revealing the hidden history could have been a tremendous story. Instead McCaffrey had different books to write and given the love for the books she did create there is little point worrying about a better book that she could have written. Not every idea from a creative mind is a success.
Next time: Robert Silverberg returns…
^[I should also add that The White Dragon won the Gandalf Award for Book-Length Fantasy at the same Worldcon. The Gandalf’s were a not-a-Hugo awarded using Hugo rules https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandalf_Award ]
*[the man has the spear, not the T-Rex]
**[I haven’t read these but from reviews they appear to be a lot better than Dinosaur Planet]