Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Parasaurians by Robert Wells

"But what do we know about Nils Bodee except his name, his passion for drugs, his expertise with a rifle and the presumption that he is a millionaire?"
"Mm.  He's a Sternius type, isn't he?  Decided man of mystery.  But I don't find that so unusual.  As I've said before, the people you meet here are full of surprises." 

Years ago I read Robert Wells' Spacejacks, and I wasn't crazy about it.  I lost my notes about Spacejacks in a computer mishap (back everything up to "the cloud," people!), but I remember typing lots of smart alecky complaints.  Then there's my man tarbandu, who could barely finish Wells' Candle in the Sun and awarded it 1 out of 5 stars.  But by the time I saw The Parasaurians on the shelf at Snowball Bookshop in Barberton, OH (one of those bookstores where kindly elderly women dote on the resident cats and customers soon find themselves participating in the doting), the name "Robert Wells" had evaporated from my consciousness.  If I had remembered he was responsible for Spacejacks maybe I would have passed The Parasaurians by.  But probably not; I love the red dinocentric cover and I'm always ready to read about dudes hunting dinosaurs!

There's a long tradition of SF about hunting dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury's 1952 "A Sound of Thunder" is of course one of the classic time travel stories (I own the 1983 collection Dinosaur Tales with the quite fine William Stout illustrations for "Sound.") L. Sprague de Camp's "A Gun for Dinosaur" is also famous. During the period of this blog's life I have read (and enjoyed) David Gerrold's long, repetitive and goofy 1978 novel Deathbeast.  Today let's check out Robert Wells 1969 contribution to the dino-hunting canon!

College professor Rossell Fletcher lives in 2173, a time of robot servants, self-driving cars and rejuvenation treatments that can keep a guy like Ross fit and spry to age 120 or more.  A wealthy expert on ballistics who works at "the State Rocketry Foundation," Fletcher is also a gun enthusiast and big-game hunter, and one day receives an advertisement from a secretive firm that owns a South American island and caters to hunters of means, Megahunt Chartered.  Megahunt, Fletcher is informed in a face to face sales pitch, has created super realistic robotic dinosaurs and for a cool million he can join a safari and hunt down these mechanical titans.

Our man Ross leaps at the chance, and finds himself on safari with three mysterious characters.  There's Sternius, one of Megahunt's guides, a taciturn sort; Kit Namoya, an attractive half-Asian, half-Caucasian freelance photographer hired by Megahunt to film the robot dinos; and Dr. Nils Bodee, an eccentric pill-popping physician, like Fletcher a Megahunt client and expert marksman.

Over 160 of the book's 190 pages take place on the island, and revolve around Fletcher getting to know his three compatriots as they go through orientation and then travel around the hunting grounds, confronted by oppressive weather conditions (among them wearying heat, ferocious thunderstorms and dangerous floods), rough terrain (swamp, jungle, mountain), the saurian robots and each other.  Wells' pace is deliberate, some might say slow; the novel is half over before Sternius actually leads Fletcher and Bodee to any dinos they can shoot.  The main "action" is all the tension between the characters--Fletcher has the hots for Namoya, while Sternius, Namoya and Bodee all seem resentful, suspicious and fearful of each other.  These three are always trying to keep an eye on each other, and always sneaking off alone to do something unbeknownst to the rest of the party, and all three try to wheedle information out of the oblivious Fletcher, or enlist his aid in their mysterious doings.  Gotta feel for poor Ross, who spent a mil to shoot dinos, not get mixed up in these kinds of shenanigans!

Wells drops lots of clues as to what is really going on and what each character is really up to; The Parasaurians in many ways is more like a thriller or even a detective story than standard science fiction.  In fact there is very little reason for it to be set 200 years in the future; Wells doesn't describe social changes, and the high technology described in the first part of the book is just window dressing--on the island everybody hunts with bolt action rifles and rides around in a conventional truck, and they don't have any futuristic medical or electronic equipment; their single radio is a big heavy box like out of a WWII movie, their flashlight runs out of juice in just a few minutes, Namoya's cameras are big bulky affairs, etc.

In the last 35 pages or so all becomes clear: Sternius is a woman in disguise, a mad scientist who is conducting experiments outlawed by the world government--these experiments involve breeding real live tyrannosaurs!  Her tyrannosaur breeding ground is on an isolated peninsula of the island, but her creations have escaped confinement and are now among the robot dinos on the main part of the island! Sternius is desperate to make sure the inquisitive Namoya and Bodee (he turns out to be an undercover investigator for the world government) don't expose what she is up to, and is willing to go to any length to silence them.  As we kind of expect in these kinds of scenarios, the mad scientist's own creation kills her, and Fletcher and Namoya fall in love and (I guess) live happily ever after.

Wells includes some very vague hints of a theme of man's close relationship to nature, and how it is critical that we not forget it, even if we live in automated underground metropolises.  While in a swamp, Fletcher, in the throes of a fever, raves "Listen to our little brothers and sisters singing us awake.  Yesterday!  Yesterday, Kit, we crawled out of the same slime.  And they are still here waiting to welcome us back."  The decision to make the villain a woman who disguises herself as a man perhaps suggests that Wells' "message" is that we shouldn't mess with what mother nature has provided us. But all this feels like an afterthought.  (The late revelation that the villain was a woman, a crossdresser in fact, reminded me of two of the early Mike Hammer novels, I, the Jury and Vengeance is Mine!  And of course it makes sense for a character who brings new life into the world to be a woman.)  

The Parasaurians is competent if not extraordinary.  It didn't bore or irritate me, and kept me entertained, so I'll give it a mild recommendation.

Add The Parasaurians to the honor roll of paperbacks
which have given their lives in service to this blog

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