Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
Digital Audiobook narrated by Scott Brick
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on May 22nd 2017
Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction, Western
Length: 295 pages or 7 hours, 40 minutes
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Michael Crichton's recently discovered novel—an adventure set in the Wild West during the golden age of fossil hunting.
The year is 1876. Warring Indian tribes still populate America’s western territories even as lawless gold-rush towns begin to mark the landscape. In much of the country it is still illegal to espouse evolution. Against this backdrop two monomaniacal paleontologists pillage the Wild West, hunting for dinosaur fossils, while surveilling, deceiving and sabotaging each other in a rivalry that will come to be known as the Bone Wars.
Into this treacherous territory plunges the arrogant and entitled William Johnson, a Yale student with more privilege than sense. Determined to survive a summer in the west to win a bet against his arch-rival, William has joined world-renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh on his latest expedition. But when the paranoid and secretive Marsh becomes convinced that William is spying for his nemesis, Edwin Drinker Cope, he abandons him in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a locus of crime and vice. William is forced to join forces with Cope and soon stumbles upon a discovery of historic proportions. With this extraordinary treasure, however, comes exceptional danger, and William’s newfound resilience will be tested in his struggle to protect his cache, which pits him against some of the West’s most notorious characters.
This is not Jurassic Park.
Okay, so absolutely NOTHING in other reader’s reviews or in the description led me to the hope that this was going to be another Jurassic Park-esque novel. There were two things that let me to delude myself: the cover art, and the dinosaur. But this is not a dinosaur book. This isn’t even science fiction. Dragon Teeth is a western.
I prefer Crichton’s science fiction.
So, I think it’s important to note that Dragon Teeth was published posthumously. Crichton was a prolific writer and there were a lot of rough, half-finished manuscripts lying around either completely abandoned or set aside for later. Micro and Pirate Latitudes are among these. I find that this didn’t read to me like a Crichton novel… it wasn’t unreadable or anything like that, but it definitely felt like there was a ghostwriter involved. On top of that, this feels far more like fiction than anything else Crichton wrote (that I’ve read?). There’s that research layer underlying the story, but it’s not nearly pronounced enough to feel true to Crichton’s style.
Since I was raised on John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the story here feels fairly familiar. While there’s slight reference to paleontology (probably 20% of the book) this is a shoot-’em-up tale filled with stereotypical relations between cowboys and Native Americans, the town of lawless Deadwood, and even includes the famous Wyatt Earp as a supporting character in the last third. Dragon Teeth is the first western I’ve read, and celebrates a genre that is no longer common. People who enjoy those old movies and tales, especially popular in the first half of the 20th century, will very much like Dragon Teeth.
But here’s the thing.
Dragon Teeth definitely perpetuates stereotypes of Native Americans in the Old West. There’s talk of scalping and savage behaviors that of course are unfair and largely untrue. As modern writers and modern readers, we have a responsibility not to perpetuate these kinds of stereotypes and to set a fair and honest light on minorities. This is not my podium to take, but I would like to encourage readers to seek out positive representation instead of something like this… while the Sioux, Crow, and Snake nations are mentioned, for the most part, Native Americans are consistently referred to as “Indians”. All of the offensive, perpetuating material could be easily edited out and still tell roughly the same story, but that choice was not made. And I don’t fault Crichton for it, because like I said, this was never something he sought to publish. The joy of posthumous publication.
As far as general storytelling goes, there’s not a lot going on in the beginning. It takes at least half the book for the action to pick up. William Johnson is the most unlucky person in the world. He has only two consistent strokes of luck – he maintains his life, and he maintains the bones. And nobody believes that he’s carting around fossils, which is pretty funny at times. It’s almost a comedy of errors in this way, because people always try to steal his “gold”… but they’re bones.
There’s a good balance of dialogue, action, and downtime in the novel and generally speaking, it’s a solid piece of historical fiction (minus the complete lack of political correctness, mentioned above). I can see why people have enjoyed this book, and I never felt so exasperated or bored that I wanted to DNF it. That said, it’s not a book I would reread or want to add to my personal library. But if you’re a fan of Crichton and can take the Native American stuff with a deep sigh and a grain of salt, it’s an interesting book to check out.