West of Eden
The cover blurbs for my copy of West of Eden compare the book first to Dune, then to Clan of the Cave Bear. I’m not sure how a book can be crap, which I always assumed the latter to be, and still measure up to one of the titans of science fiction, but there you have it. If forced at gun point to make a decision, I would place West of Eden closer to sand worms than romancing cavemen, but it doesn’t belong on the same pedestal as Dune. (Very few books do.)
Preparing to write this review, I checked the response to Harrison’s opus on Goodreads. Some of the comments addressed the usual suspects of plot, characters, themes, etc., but a great many said, in effect, “HOLY CRAP HE HAS CARNAL KNOWLEDGE OF A DINOSAUR!!!” I think this does the book a bit of an injustice, though Kerrick (human dude) is indeed molested by Vainte (dinosaur chick) on a couple of occasions. Later on he scores with a human female whose cleft palate makes her resemble a lizard, which is apparently a good thing for Kerrick, so the diddling is not exclusively cross-species. But as I said, focusing on this sort of base, animalistic hoo-haw shortchanges Messr. Harrison and his remarkable world.
If the dinosaur-killing asteroid had not smashed into the Earth some 65 million years ago, we might be living in this very world right now. The Yilane are sentient reptiles that evolved from one or another smaller dinosaur species. The Tanu are stone age level humans, some of whom have figured out agriculture. The Yilane live primarily in Asia (and probably elsewhere), whereas the Tanu live in North America. An encroaching Ice Age is slowly freezing the Yilane out of their homes and forcing migration to the tropical regions of the the Americas. It goes without saying that “There ain’t room in this here continent for the both of us,” so the two species are driven to war.
World building is the real strength of West of Eden. There is enough packed into the Yilane parts of the book for at least a standalone novel, probably an entire series. Harrison figures out ways for the Yilane to have ocean going ships, guns, and even spy planes without the Yilane ever mastering fire. They have a complex and believable culture, and language that is at least partially mapped out in the book, and enough factions, sects and intrigue that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting that humans make up half of the story. There is also no question that the Yilane are the “bad guys,” as we naturally side with humans in this sort of conflict, but Harrison paints a broad enough picture that each race makes claims for sympathy.
The humans are also interesting, though familiar. Kerrick makes his way through several different tribes of differing belief and lifestyle. The main groups are hunter-gatherers, but some budding agriculturalists make appearances as well. It is the hunters that challenge the Yilane directly, so Kerrick spends most of his time with them. It is a shame that the two species can’t work together, as the Yilane society is in many ways better than the human one. In Harrison’s conception, this is impossible though, which is a bit sad.
I’m going to give this book full points for creativity, both for the Yilane world and the crazy notion to have sentient dinosaurs. It does well enough in execution and storytelling, though I don’t rank it among the most immortal stuff I’ve read. (What is it, exactly, that separates amazing books from the merely good? I guess if I knew, I wouldn’t be writing a small-time blog anymore.) Recommended for anyone needing a change of pace, or who thinks that furries just don’t go far enough.