By Matthew Kresal
Whether we view alternate history as a setting or a genre in its own right, even a cursory overview of it shows human-centric it is. It is something that, more often than not, deals with the issues of human history, brimming as it is with political quarrels and wars. It can be easy to forget that humanity's time on this planet is, as Carl Sagan reminded us in Cosmos, nothing more than the development on this latest day of the cosmic calendar. It's something that the Scottish paleontologist Dougal Dixon put at the front of his 1988 book The New Dinosaurs, which, three decades on remains, worth seeking out even as it's become something of a collector's item.
The premise of Dixon's book is simple enough. What if the K-T Event, most likely the impact of an asteroid some 65 million years ago, hadn't occurred? It's a question that anyone interested in these incredible creatures that once roamed this world for millions of years has asked. Of course, Dixon reminds us in the book's opening pages evolution wouldn't have stopped just because the asteroid didn't fall from the skies, producing the titular creatures who populate much of its 120 pages.
Featuring a mix of informed speculation from the heart of the Dinosaur renaissance to support his sometimes odd creations, Dixon presents a vision of our world populated by dinosaurs. I say "our world" because the Earth of The New Dinosaurs is geographically and climactically nigh-on identical to ours today but occupied by creatures familiar and quite strange. Those lumbering beasts we're all familiar with having given way to a myriad of new animals, big and small, roaming every major landmass and islands, flying through the air and swimming in the oceans, sometimes with echoes of then and others with now.
Some of the creations here are, by their very nature, bizarre ones. To Dixon's credit, a number of them feature feathers and something akin to fur, which put him ahead of many in the field of paleontology at the time. A number of them, such as the Rajaphant and the aquatic Birdsnatcher, might even offer up explanations for real-world cryptozoological mysteries such as Mokele-mbembe and various lake "monsters." There's also the odd mention of relic populations of more familiar dinosaurs, such as the stegosaurus, having survived until comparatively recently on the larger islands of the South Pacific.
That said, perhaps because Dixon sought to make his creations both palatable and plausible, a fair number of them are a tad too close to existing animals as to be absurd. Perhaps the most infamous of his these, criticized both then and now, being the Lank. This animal on the African savannah is written and illustrated so even the most uninformed reader will immediately recognize it as a cross between a giraffe and a dinosaur. Indeed, analog creatures are present throughout the book, including the manatee like Watergulp and the flamingo-esque Cribrum living in Australia. These aren't the majority of the animals presented, but they are perhaps the ones that stand out the most, for better or worse.
Somewhere the book is lacking, and something apparent perhaps only in hindsight is in the oceans. Describing them as "quite barren," Dixon's imagining of these new dinosaurs in the sea takes up the shortest section of the book. It's a surprising fact, given the sheer amount and variety of species found to be occupying our oceans, or how the discovery of still living coelacanths helped change perceptions of creatures from the era of the dinosaurs. In Dixon's defense, much of our perception of life in the deep sea has changed since the book's publication but even given the knowledge present in the late 1980s, it feels like a glaring oversight.
Even so, Dixon's self-proclaimed "alternative evolution" is helped immensely by the fact that it's beautifully illustrated. Taking full advantage of the book's large format printing, it features numerous illustrations created by a group of artists that bring these creatures to life. Even those most absurd of potential animals are well presented, sometimes with a great dramatic flourish, as the skin-crawling depictions of the Coconut Grab or the display of the sheer size of the aquatic Kraken, put on full view. Indeed, the illustrations, as much as Dixon's hypothesizing, helps explain both how The New Dinosaurs become a collector's item while wondering how the book ever went out of print.
Even with its more absurd creations, The New Dinosaurs remains an engaging and enthralling read. More believable in some places than others, to be sure, but never dull and thought-provoking. If you can get a hold of it, it's well worth a read for a reminder that alternate history is not limited just to humanity but to the billions of years and species that came before us.
And whether you're a kid or a kid at heart, who doesn't love dinosaurs?