Sunday, December 29, 2013

West of Eden by Harry Harrison

I read West of Eden in my early teens, I think, and have never forgotten the setting of the 1984 novel, though the plot very quickly faded from my mind. Now, almost 30 years later, finding time in the midst of a lot of holiday travel and visits, I have reread it, and have to say it is pretty good.

The Setting: West of Eden takes place in an alternate version of our world in which the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mosasaurs, etc., did not occur. Human beings evolve in one part of the world, but over most of the Earth the giant reptiles survive, and continue to evolve; at the time of the novel, in fact, a race of intelligent lizard people is the dominant form of life over most of the planet. While human beings have a stone age level of technology, hunting with spears and arrows with stone points, the cold-blooded, matriarchal reptile people have developed genetic engineering. Instead of having weapons and vehicles made of wood, stone and metal, they have bred giant squids to act as boats, huge ichthyosaurs to serve as ships, even living creatures that perform the roles of microscopes and cameras!

The Plot: The Earth is undergoing climate change, and the increasing cold is forcing the human tribes south to the warm areas where the dinosaurs and other cold blooded reptiles live. The humans have a violent hatred of the reptiles, and kill any they find. The lower temperatures are also making life difficult for a city of reptile people in Africa, so they are starting a new colony in the tropical region of the New World, exactly where the humans have just started hunting.  When the humans and lizard people meet a racist genocidal war immediately erupts!

There are numerous plot threads and subplots; this book is over 450 pages, after all. Happily, the book does not feel long, because Harrison moves the story along at a brisk pace and everything that happens is interesting or exciting. There are numerous human and reptilian characters, but each is distinctive enough that we can tell them apart and are curious what will happen to them. We watch the growth of the reptile colony and the politics among its members. A human child is captured and learns all about the lizard people’s language and society from the inside. That society is in the midst of major changes, not only because of the need to move to warmer climes, but because a new religion is blossoming amongst its members, a religion of peace which sees the war on the warm-blooded creatures as immoral.  We also get a look at religion and diplomacy among the nomadic human tribes.

As the book jacket informs us, Harrison corralled an international team of scientists to try to make this book “realistic.” For example, a British linguist helped develop fake languages for the humans and the lizard people. The lizard people communicate not only vocally, but with hand and body movements and by changing the color of parts of their skin, I guess like cuttle fish.  I'm a little skeptical about how much creating entire fictional languages for the characters actually adds to the novel - the reader only experiences these languages as aphorisms acting as pendants to some of the chapters and words sprinkled here and there in the text.  Maybe for some readers this helps create a believable atmosphere of alienness.  On the other hand, the biology and society of the reptile people is quite well realized and are at the core of the novel, so I think at least some of the scientists consulted by Harrison really did make a worthwhile contributions to the book.

I read a library copy of the 1984 Bantam hardcover. The book includes dozens of charming illustrations by Bill Sanderson, a pleasant addition.  I include two of these here, along with some fun hyperbolic blurbs from the jacket text that compare the novel to Clan of the Cave Bear and Dune, books I myself have not read. The cover, by David Schlienkofer, is just mediocre, I suppose a sort of ironic reference to the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent that echoes the novel's title.

West of Eden delivers the kind of stuff many of us like to see in a science fiction adventure: a cool alien society, action and suspense, plus mastodons and dinosaurs. And if you are into ruminating about gender roles, cultural conflict, imperialism, religion and that sort of thing, West of Eden does a little of that, too. I’m happy to recommend West of Eden.

3 comments:

  1. I am neither a lover or hater of Harrison. I think he's got great intentions, just not always the talent to embed them in solid characters, settings, etc. A friend of mine recently recommended the Eden series to me, however, claiming its the best of the author's s oeuvre.

    Have you read the other two books in the series? If you've read enough of Harrison's other works, how do the book(s) compare?

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  2. West of Eden is probably the best Harrison I have read. I haven't read the sequels yet, though I own them and plan on reading them, probably within a year.

    As a kid I read a bunch of Stainless Steel Rat books, the three Deathworld books, and the original Bill the Galactic Hero book. As an adult I have reread the first Rat book and all three Deathworld books. I think West of Eden is more serious, more ambitious, and less polemical than all of those novels. The main text of West of Eden has no jokes that I can recall, and if Harrison is pushing an agenda it is pretty subtle. The setting and characters are all pretty believable and none of them seems like a caricature of someone or something Harrison hates or an exemplar that embodies or voices Harrison's own views. I actually found just about all the characters interesting and sympathetic; they all act in ways that make sense based on their culture and experiences. I think in West of Eden Harrison was trying something new, stretching himself, and I think he succeeded.

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