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Book Review

An Odyssey in Time

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

This review originally appeared in Quill & Quire, July 1989
Russell, Dale A. An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America, University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Copyright © 1989 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

The bayous of Saskatchewan. The sand dunes of Nova Scotia. To Dr. Dale A. Russell of the Canadian Museum of Nature, these landscapes are as real as the dusty prairie, the Bay of Fundy. Indeed, his new book, An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America, is more about landscapes than dinosaurs, and that distinguishes it from the glut of other dinosaur books on the market. Lowland, upland, swamp, forest: each is a separate world to Russell, a tightly-woven ecosystem. He doesn't just tell us that thus-and-so-saurus was yea long and weighed mumblety tons, as so many others do. No, Russell paints the entire environment, showing how one beast related to another, as predator or prey, as parasite or partner.

Once again Russell has collaborated with Eleanor M. Kish, the Robert Bateman of prehistory (their earlier book, A Vanished World: The Dinosaurs of Western Canada, was published in 1977 by the National Museums of Canada). Kish's paintings are the ideal complement to Russell's prose, dripping with detail and new interpretations. Her latest crop of brontosaurs have a lean and hungry look that would put Cassius to shame; her full moon over a monsoonal rain pond is painted larger than it would appear in a contemporary sky, and the crater Tycho, formed after the age of dinosaurs, is missing.

Of course, the book must stand on the strength of Russell's prose. His writing perhaps isn't quite as solid as the giant columns of a brontosaur's legs. No, it's more like the nimble dancing of his favorite dinosaur, Troodon, a fleet fellow that had to keep moving, lest he lose his balance. Every time Russell looks as though he's going to topple, he pushes ahead and regains a surer footing. Still, he's got a bit too much of the scholar in him, and his prose periodically wanders dangerously close to academic writing.

He's self-conscious of this, or so it seems, for he attempts to compensate for his fondness for the passive voice, his flirtation with the polysyllable. In the early part of his book, he spends much time discussing mammal-like reptiles and proto-dinosaurs. These beasts, some our direct ancestors, are not well-known generally, and rather than have the reader trip repeatedly over thecodont and rhynchosaurs and a dozen others, Russell proposes his own plain-English names. But instead of simply translating the Greek tongue-twisters, he makes up completely new terms: gatorlizards, owliguanas, cowturtles. Ultimately, it's a disservice to the reader, and even Russell has trouble keeping his menagerie straight: the owliguana miraculously becomes an owlizard at one point.

Russell takes his title seriously: An Odyssey in Time is just that, a journey, period by period, through the Mesozoic. He devotes one chapter to the millennia before the age of dinosaurs; then a chapter to their dawn years, the Triassic (stepping far from the North America promised in his subtitle to do so); a pair of chapters to their heyday, the steamy Jurassic, when Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus held sway; and three chapters to the Cretaceous, the time of Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, the period preserved in the rocks of Alberta's Badlands. His odyssey builds compellingly, with the saurians evolving from tiny reptiles to giants, from just one of many forms of life to the lords of creation. And, as Bogey would say, there's a wow finish: the sudden extinction of 90% of the life on the planet.

Russell has a storyteller's feel for his material. He realizes that bones have come to life on his pages, and to stop now for a pedantic examination of theories would break the flow. Instead, he begins his penultimate chapter, "The Extinction of the Dinosaurs," with a brief note to the reader making clear that he isn't going to run through the usual litany of explanations that others set up just to knock down. Instead, he brings the story to a rapid end, diving into the theory he personally favors: the aftermath of a comet impact killed the great saurians and most of their contemporaries. Here, and elsewhere, he shifts into Carl Sagan mode, waxing pseudo-poetic:

When the comet crossed the orbit of the Moon it was moving at a velocity of 30 kilometers per second and the end of the Cretaceous was three hours away. It seemed to hang in the sky like a second moon, or the eye of God, but no dinosaur looked at it with understanding. It suddenly swelled in the sky, and then a dark mantle spread across the firmament.

The prose may be a bit much, but Russell brings to his writing a humility and — dare I say it? — a bone-dry wit that is missing from Sagan's.

In the final chapter, Russell looks for the meaning, if any, of the dinosaurs and their demise. He knows enough not to try to tack a moral on the end of his story, but he does leave the reader with much to contemplate.

All in all, Russell's done it right: in a world full of books about dinosaurs, he's taken a different approach. No protracted debate about warm-bloodedness, no endless thrashing over ideas about the extinctions, no bogging down in charts and statistics. Instead, just a refreshing, vital glimpse at dinosaurs in context, alive, going about their daily business.

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