These fossils do not invite interest. They invite passionate commitment, they invite religious fervor and scientific speculation, they invite heated discourse and argument, but they do not thrive on mere interest.
Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton, and published posthumously, is NOT a science fiction novel per se, though it does feature science. I stress that because we all think of Crichton as the author of such sci-fi thrillers like The Andromeda Strain, and you should not be deceived by the title or the book cover that deliberately evokes Jurassic Park. Yes, dinosaurs are heavily involved but they’re all long dead and fossilized.
No, in Dragon Teeth, Crichton was returning to the realm of historical fiction which he explored in such works as The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead. Based on true stories of legendary paleontologist’s Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose fierce competition to dig up fossilized remains in the Great West during the 1870’s would become known as the Bone Wars. It lasted ten years, was the financial and psychological ruin of both men, a huge scandal for the field of paleontology, but in the course of things, they did make some truly astounding discoveries.
Crichton imagines a young, spoiled Yale scion William Johnson who, through a strange chain of events, becomes an apprentice photographer to both men during the summer of 1876. While with Cope’s expedition, Johnson is witness to the excavation of the titular ‘dragon teeth’ – molars from some hither to unknown reptilian beast whose proportions do not resemble anything yet discovered and which Cope names ‘brontosaurus.’ Little does Johnson know how much trouble those teeth are going to cause him.
Dragon Teeth works as both an engrossing adventure story AND a look at a fascinating moment in history as scientific discovery, lawlessness, the Indian wars, and intrigue all collide into place and time. Famous figures like Wyatt Earp and Robert Louis Stevenson appear to our delight. The different places and atmospheres from the genteel halls of Yale, the mansions of Philadelphia, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the crime ridden streets of Deadwood come alive. (This one, like so many of Crichton’s books, seems destined for a movie adaption.) Moreover, the story captures not only the cutthroat nature of the Marsh/Cope rivalry, but the genuine excitement and cutting edge nature of the work. In one scene, Cope actually comes to blows with a minister who informs him he’s doing the ‘devil’s work’ by producing evidence of evolutionary theory. Corruption and vice are always in the background and here was a place and time where there was truly no law to be found. It all makes for a rip roaring good yarn.
Credit for Michael Crichton’s photo: Jonathan Exley