on September 20, 2000
An outstanding alternative future, where intelligent dinosaur and man collide.
When I bought this novel, I could not put it down. I really mean it, I started to read it one Friday evening, kept going all day Saturday (even when I had stuff to do!) to finish it that night. I tried to put it down, but I couldn't. Toilet breaks and food aside, I spent all day with this book (is that too much detail? What the hey, I'll leave it in).
This book must be the best written, researched, and thought about alternative futures ever written. What really impresses is the detail and the authenticity that Harrison brings to this alternative future. Things are so different that it really gets you thinking "what if...", and the story line is infectious, you just have to keep reading. The moment you put it down you start to wonder what's going to happen? It's almost painful to put down! Harrison is a master storyteller.
The story involves humans at a stone age/bronze age level, confined to North America. Mammals are abundant, but so are dinosaurs, but of the big and dumb variety. The humans don't like the dinosaurs, they consider them filthy and taboo. Over in Africa and Europe, however, there are no humans, and the dinosaurs have developed intelligence and also a sophisticated culture, far more sophisticated than the human one across the Atlantic. Here is where it gets interesting.
The Yilané (they're the dinos) culture that Harrison describes is totally different from any existing even now. Their speech is by means of sound, movement and colour of hands, arms, face and crest. Ability to speak their complex language is their main social determinant, only the best get to fully join society. Females are in charge, with the males confined to special compounds by birthing beaches, and they never join society. The males incubate the eggs, much as seahorses do, and rarely last past two or three seasons. Their technology is highly advanced, but is based on biology rather than physics, chemistry or engineering, as ours is. Everything is grown, from the cities (which span whole continents) to houses, to clothing. The Yilané have developed gene manipulating technology, and use it to grow things like giant Ichthyosaurs with large body cavities in their dorsal fins (kind of organic submarines!), and small frogs with hollow heads and large eyes that act as microscopes!
An ice age is coming, and the Yilané, who are cold blooded, are being forced south into Africa, their cities dying from the cold. One of the city leaders decides to move her city west, across the hitherto uncrossable sea, to North America. She sends her lieutenant, Vainté, a fearsome and ambitious yilané, to scout it out, form a beach-head and to sow the city seed. There she finds Kerrick, a young boy, who is taken hostage, and brought back to Africa (what a delicious irony, a white North American boy brought over to Africa as a slave to a terrible and alien culture!). There he learns the language, and becomes a kind of court favourite. Then he's brought back to America, where he sees humans again, but as horrible, filthy, dirty creatures, not like him, a clean, strong Yilané!
I'm sure you can guess where it goes from there, rediscovery of roots, torn between two cultures, neither fully understanding both, nor fully accepted by either. Vainté is the arch villain, and I found myself always worrying about what she was going to do next! She dominates the book. Another very strong theme is that among the Yilané a new religion has begun, with vaguely Christian overtones, but quite different too. This new religion is undermining the existing culture in all sorts of strange ways, and is persecuted by the Yilané social structure. Other features are the different tribes of humans the Kerrick's people discover as the flee from the Yilané, early farmers across the Rockies, and Eskimos further North (these guys are really cool, totally oversexed!). All of these forces interact, humans, Yilané, new religion, new technology, new ideas moving from one race to another, and produce fascinating results.
Harrison has done a fantastic job in creating an entirely new and quite attractive culture, with a very strong environmentalist tinge to it. I found myself wanting to be like them, and even speak like them! How sad is that? Still, that's a sign that this book profoundly impressed me, and not many do. What are you waiting for, buy this book!
Added bonus, there are two sequels. At least you won't have to wait a year and a half for the second book like I did!