The Ultimate Dinosaur (1992)

A different kind of popular science book

The Ultimate Dinosaur is a book that mixes fact with fiction, text and illustrations. It is a good example of the kind of thing that we could be doing with books aimed at a general audience.

Josho Brouwers

Spring is the time to clean out the house. I’ve emptied the attic (for the most part) and given away a few boxes’ worth of books. One of the books that I’ll never give away is The Ultimate Dinosaur, edited by Byron Preiss and Robert Silverberg, and published in 1992. I got this book as a present when I was still very young and very much into dinosaurs. It’s a curious book, and noteworthy.

The blurb on the inside of the dusk jacket does a good job of describing what The Ultimate Dinosaur is, so let me quote some of it here:

The Ultimate Dinosaur is a unique collaboration that vividly re-creates this prehistoric world in both scientific essays and short fiction, combining the talents of leading paleontologists, visionary writers, and dinosaur illustrators.

This is one of the books that I’m aware of that actually seeks out to combine non-fiction with fiction and have it all illustrated using beautiful, full-colour paintings. The book starts of with an introduction that includes two essays and two illustrations. The rest of the book consists of twelve numbered chapters, from ‘The dawn of the dinosaurs’ to ‘Extinction and discovery’, each filled with an uneven number of essays, illustrations, and ‘speculation’ (e.g. short stories).

Rounding out the book is a useful appendix featuring maps of the world at different epochs (Triassic, Jurassic, and so forth), along with picture references for common types of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, a few time lines, an overview of the contributors, and finally suggestions for further reading. All in all, this is a great way to introduce a topic in an engaging way.

However, one thing that I would include in a book like this would be drawings and photographs of fossils, the evidence itself. Such illustrative material would have helped make clear what both the writers and illustrators of this book were ultimately basing their ideas on. The last chapter deals partially with the story of palaeontology itself, but I would have preferred if the process was a little more visible instead of just focusing on the results (a gripe that I’ve also highlighted when writing about archaeological museums).

Nevertheless, I wish there were more books like this. Often, people draw too much of a hard dividing line between fiction and non-fiction. Fictitious takes on history (or science) can be just as valuable as non-fiction. Indeed, fiction is one of the ways by which people develop an interest into a subject in the first place: e.g. the movie Jurassic Park (1993) introduced general audiences to the idea that (some) dinosaurs evolved into birds, and a few moviegoers might actually have delved further into the topic because of it.

Likewise, there seems to be this odd notion that fiction should be regarded as creative writing, as if one need not be creative to write non-fiction. Certainly, there’s a fair share of utterly dull non-fiction writing out there, but there’s probably just as much indigestible pap when it comes to fiction, too. All writing requires ideas that need to be shaped by a creative mind. And the act of writing itself is a skill; one that you can learn, through study and/or experience.

But in any case, there need to be more books like this. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a book on, say, the Roman army – dare I suggest, The Ultimate Roman? – that features a mix of short stories and more or less scholarly articles on various topics, illuminated by original artwork, photos, and so forth. In fact, Ancient Warfare and its sister magazines already do something like that, except that they omit deliberately fictitious takes on the subject matter (though I did include a short story in our special, fiftieth issue, and every issue since IX.1 has a recurring department on depictions of the ancient world on screen).

So here’s to The Ultimate Dinosaur. It’s a worthwhile book to seek out, if only for the idea of the book. Of course, some of the essays are likely to be a little out of date; it’s been nearly 25 years after all! It must have been quite successful, since Amazon tells me a paperback version of the book was released in 2000 and is actually still available. Take note, publishers!