The Cretaceous Past by Cixin Liu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a weird little book. I'm not sure if the author intended it to be a satire, a sometimes heavy-handed allegory, or a sort of hard-science Aesop's fable, what with the talking dinosaurs and ants. I'm also not sure it succeeds at any of them, no matter how you define it.
Cixin Liu, of course, was the first Chinese writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, a few years ago, for The Three-Body Problem....which, overall, I didn't like very much. I liked the second book of the series even less, and thought the third was the worst of all. Which begs the question, why did I buy this? Well, it's from the terrific small publisher Subterranean Press, which puts out lovely books. (I also got this in a dinged half-price sale, although I looked it over quite thoroughly and never did find the ding.) Perhaps I also hoped that at novella length, the author could control his penchant for "great whacking chunks of technobabble," and also since we're not dealing with any human characters in this story, they might be a little less...cardboardy.
Unfortunately, I hoped in vain. This is an alternate history of the Cretaceous, where intelligence evolved between two diametrically opposed species, dinosaurs and ants; but with the dinosaurs lacking manual dexterity, due to their huge clumsy claws, and the ants lacking (obviously) size and the dinosaurs' curiosity and creativity, two interdependent civilizations evolved instead. Basically, the dinosaurs invent things, and the ants engineer and maintain them, and neither civilization can really survive without the other.
This might make for a fascinating idea, but once again, the author falls prey to his propensity for little or no characterization (and in the case of the dinosaurs, making nearly every one of them an annoying, egotistical whiner with laughably bad dialogue and the cringing habit of injecting "Ha ha ha!" at the end of almost every paragraph). He needn't have bothered with any character names, as there was no telling the characters apart, and really not any reason to. We just have these two dysfunctional, co-dependent civilizations getting into fights and going to war with each other over and over again, until I finally started rooting for the asteroid to come along and end it all.
And at the conclusion of the story, I didn't even get that. This is an alternate history, after all, and while the Age of Dinosaurs did come to its end, it ended because of some human-style Mutually Assured Destruction weapons involving antimatter--which took an entire chapter, 13 excruciating pages, to describe. (Yeah, I use the word excruciating in these reviews a lot. That's what happens when the author insists on relating every damn detail of how his theoretical weapons work.) By that time, the dinosaurs were reduced to thinly disguised homo sapiens, with an Atomic Age, an Information Age, automobiles, computers, fossil fuels, environmental destruction, and a population of 7 billion. I kept expecting them to start morphing into humans at the end of the book, a la Animal Farm.
Which, come to think of it, might have made for a better ending than what actually happened: 3,000 years after the twin explosions of antimatter that scour the planet clean of nearly all life, two ants emerge from their subterranean nest and As-You-Know-Bob at each other for three pages, finally speculating about another creature with a smaller body and dexterous hands appearing and ushering in another Age of Wonder.
Well, gosh golly gee! Who on earth could that be?
Sorry for the sarcasm, but this book did disappoint me. I really should have known better, because I was so soured by the end of the Three-Body Problem trilogy. This was a cool idea...but cool ideas with no people (human or otherwise) do not good stories make.
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