Book Review:
Dinotopia: The World Beneath (James Gurney)

Reviewed by Stephen Bespalko

Lithosphere (December 1995); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA


Dinotopia: The World Beneath is the second book describing the fantasy world of Dinotopia. Most of the main characters from the first book return in this episode: Arthur, Will, Sylvia, Lee Crabb, and Nallab are all back as are the dinosaurs Bix, Brokenhorn, Cirrus, and Nimbus. The first book, Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, was reviewed in the Lithosphere in November 1993.

The premise of the Dinotopia books is that there is an undiscovered continent where dinosaurs (who are intelligent and can talk) co-exist with humans. The main characters are two Americans, Arthur Denison (a scientist) and Will (his son), who are stranded on Dinotopia. They are the lone survivors of a shipwreck which occurred in the 1860s.

The gist of this story is that Arthur returns to explore the caves he inadvertently discovered in the first book. As with the first book, there are myriad dinosaurs, including the Giganotosaurus recently discovered in New Mexico. (Unlike the one in the story, the one in New Mexico is quite dead.) [Ed. Note: Giganotosaurus was discovered in Argentina, not New Mexico.] Hallucigenia and Opabinia, both critters from the Burgess Shale (described in the book Wonderful Life by Stephen J. Gould, reviewed in the January 1994 Lithosphere) make cameo appearances.

Although I was quite impressed with Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, I was disappointed with The World Beneath. There are several reasons I believe this book is inappropriate for young people. Given the popularity of the Dinotopia books, these problems warrant a more detailed treatment than a book of lesser importance might command.

A serious flaw in the Dinotopia books, and The World Beneath in particular, is the lack of a theme. At the end of the book I was left wondering what the point was. It is a convention in fictional literature that the main character changes during the story. Either the character grows to surmount a challenge confronted in the course of the story or the character fails and is destroyed. The point where the change happens (or failure becomes inevitable) is called the epiphany of the story. This important part of the story is what gives the ending a sense of completion. At the end of this book, I felt no such cadence or resolution. In fact, as will be discussed later, the end of the story is quite unbelievable. The characters seemed unaffected by what they had been through, so the story lost significance.

Another problem with The World Beneath is that the story conveys several negative stereotypes. Thus, not only does the book fail to inspire, it could easily discourage young readers. Consider the following excerpt from The World Beneath. A new character, Oriana, is introduced after the Dinotopian elders seek information concerning the missing half of a key which Arthur found during his first expedition into the caves . . .

A woman wearing a musician's costume stood last in line, apart from the others. She was tall and silent, her eyes riveted on Arthur's key.

"What is your name?" asked Brokenhorn.

"Oriana Nascava."

"And what is your wish?"

She addressed Arthur. "Would you kindly give me, sir, the lost heirloom that is my right?" With that she produced a key that was a perfect match to Arthur's.

She continued, "This key is one of the only treasures passed down to me by my parents, who died soon after I was born. The other half was stolen from them many years before."

Arthur frowned. "But I need that key for my expedition. That is the purpose of this search."

"Very well, Professor Denison. However, it goes nowhere without me. I have a desire to join your expedition. The chain of my ancestors has been lost. My last name means 'born from a cave,' and I want to know why."

"My dear girl, I can't take you along. I'm afraid this is not a trip for -- ah -- ladies."

Bix sputtered a note of protest, prompting Oriana to say with some amusement, "Isn't Bix a lady? Didn't she save your life on your last expedition?"

Somewhat embarrassed, Arthur replied shortly, "Very well, Miss Nascava, you may come. And of course, Bix will be joining me again. But to ensure the success of our trip, I'll need to find an expert guide to help us."

It appears that in Dinotopia a woman is allowed to join an expedition only if she can extort membership on the team by literally holding the key to the puzzle -- not because she has an interest in exploring the realm of her ancestors. It turns out that the expert Arthur chooses is a treasure-hunting thief. Also, Bix is going because she can translate between the languages of dinosaurs and humans -- not because she has the right to explore the world of her ancestors either. So in this world, scientific men are on top followed by "expert" male thieves. Female dinosaur translators are next in the social order, but are only better than female humans. A great lesson to teach our youth!

There are a number of other blatant examples of women presented in a very negative light. In The World Beneath, Arthur little more than endures Oriana's presence during the expedition, then at the end of the story they fall in love. Not likely, unless women really do want to simply latch onto the first man that comes along. In the caves, Arthur, the scientist; Lee Crabb, the thief; and Oriana, the woman; stop to discuss their impressions of a rock formation. Respectively, they describe a rock, a skull, and a woman holding children. Even taking into account my limited experience with exploring caves, I can assure you that everyone in that situation would see a rock formation for what it was. Also, Oriana wears her musician's outfit the entire time she is on the expedition -- apparently only Lee Crabb and Arthur are smart enough to attire themselves appropriately. Finally, there are far too many illustrations of women wearing flower garlands, white dresses, and no shoes.

Arthur is portrayed as a shallow and selfish individual. The previous excerpt is a good example of this. We also find out that the first time Arthur explored the caves he returned with several ancient artifacts. He then withheld the treasures from Dinotopians until he needed information to prepare for his second expedition. This might work on Dinotopia, but it would very likely destroy a career if attempted today.

Not only is the scientist in this story a bad role model, science itself is not served well. The primary device for moving the plot along is Arthur's interest in recording data in his notebook. It is true that scientific notebooks are an important component of the scientific (or experimental) technique -- but filling them is not the purpose of science. Discovery of knowledge is fundamental to science, but so are the exchange of ideas and the sharing of information. Arthur is willing to take a lot more than he is willing to give. There are no examples of Arthur sharing knowledge he brought to Dinotopia -- only Arthur filling up his notebooks with what he sees. An important lesson for every professional researcher to learn is the value of collaborating with people outside their field. Gurney passes up a marvelous opportunity to explore this idea by not having the Dinotopians (in particular the dinosaurs) work more closely with Arthur. Something else that is missing from Arthur's lab is young people. I can unequivocally state that the most rewarding part of my work is the time I spend mentoring the graduate student and undergraduate student intern who are interested in my research. Even in today's competitive world, Arthur would not be well thought of as a scientist.

There is also a disturbing racial undercurrent in The World Beneath. Arthur has superficial relations with Dinotopians, only interacting with them when it serves his purposes. His use of the ancient artifacts demonstrates his lack of regard for his benefactors. When Arthur needs a pilot for his new mechanical flying machine he picks his son, an apprentice pilot, and passes over Dinotopian master pilots. Will then proceeds to crash the machine. Another example is a bizarre caption adjacent to a picture of a Triceratops with a human rider. The rider, a man of color, looks like an ornament on the dinosaur. The caption reads "A Triceratops likes to wear a human just as a human likes to wear a hat." Humans should not be regarded as decorative objects. In the first book, Arthur's reaction when he and Will meet the first dinosaur, the diminutive Bix, is to pick up a rock and injure her. Soon they become fast friends. Not possible -- there was no threat presented by Bix. Further, one could get the idea that hurting strangers who make one feel uncomfortable is acceptable behavior since Arthur never apologizes.

This story would be considerably more appealing if there were consequences for the inappropriate behavior exhibited by the main characters. Will should have been severely reprimanded for his cavalier disregard for safety when he flew the new flying machine -- or better yet, he should not have flown the machine at all. Arthur should have been censured for withholding the artifacts. Instead he is granted unquestioning help (even though his behavior clearly violated the Code of Dinotopia: "... Give more, take less. Others first, self last ..."). Bix and Oriana certainly could have made Arthur aware of how inappropriate his behavior was. Finally, Arthur's elitist attitude should have resulted in him being ostracized from the scientific community. There is a lot the author could do to make these stories more interesting and satisfying for all readers.

Given the popularity of the Dinotopia books, do any of the problems mentioned above really matter? I believe they do. To be sure, I am not proposing that every book must convey a serious message to the reader. There are many books that can be read purely as entertainment. In this case though, I believe that the bigotry will detract from the reading experience, particularly if the reader is a girl interested in science. Also, Arthur is a terrible role model for either girls or boys. It is for these reasons I can not recommend that this book be purchased.

Dinotopia: The World Beneath written and illustrated by James Gurney; Turner Publishing; 1995; ISBN 1-57036-164-9; $29.95.


Copyright © 1995 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the December 1995 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.


Last updated: 18 September 2002
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