East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Building a better Lost World

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It’s been pointed out to me that it’s damn hard finding a paleontologist these days, not to mention a paleontologist versed in science fiction.
I never thought of myself as a rare commodity before.
And as luck would have it, right now I am revising The House of the Gods, my novel of a lost world in the Amazon Forest, filled with dinosaurs and action.
In ten days I’ll send the final draft to my publisher, and then we’ll see.


But in the meantime, why not do a little paleontology/science fiction post about my preparation work for the novel?
I’m a rare commodity, but I can be had – for a price.

1159028Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had it good, and easy.
When he wrote The Lost World, dinosaurs where something else.
The general wisdom – that is dutifully reported by both professor Challenger and Professor Summerlee – was that the dinos had been a dying breed. Creatures at the end of their biological rope, too big and stupid for the world in which the mammals were taking center stage.
This being the model, it was relatively easy to imagine there were still pockets in which the creatures had survived. This was indeed a serious hypothesis, if dated – Thomas Jefferson himself had sent Lewis and Clark exploring the west of the North American continent in the hopes of finding if not dinos, at least surviving quaternary megafaunas. Jefferson was, after all, “the Mammoth President of the US” because of his passion for paleontology and natural sciences.

cover glass houses provaIncidentally, in my Hope & Glory stories and game setting, the Quaternary megafaunas did survive in small pockets of suitable environment – because Hope & Glory is a hard-SF steampunk setting, and its “hard science” is the science of the Victorian era.

But The House of the Gods takes place today – and today we no longer believe that “biological exhaustion” was the cause of death of the dinos.
Indeed, when the Great Death came, the dinos were thriving.

The general wisdom is, a meteor or more likely a comet slammed into our planet, causing a nuclear winter and acid rains that severely undercut the ecological system, killing off the dinos.
deepimpactThis is sometimes referred to as Nemesis hypothesis.
With the Nemesis Hypothesis there’s little hopes of any surviving colony of dinos1.
So what?

Well, there is an alternate hypothesis, called Shiva Hypothesis.2
The idea is that the dinosaurs were killed by the gas exhaled by the volcanic outpouring in Deccan, in India – huge volcanoes that were active for millenniums.
And this is much more interesting and flexible, because if we are talking about poisonous gas, then we might also call into play atmospheric circulation, chemical diffusion and height.
By some freak of atmospheric circulation, a mesa ten thousand feet above sea level might be spared – and the dinos living there might survive.

Yeah, sure – this is paleontologist me: there’s one possibility in a million.
Even better, make it one in a billion.
But indeed there were some studies done by the US Air Defense about nuclear fallout in case of war and the possibility of some US cities surviving due to their position and global circulation.
It was bogus, but writing science fiction a bit of bogus science can go a long way to help suspending disbelief.

The bit about creatures at the end of their biological run also helped Conan Doyle with another bit of technical problem: evolution.
Because if the dinos died out – mostly – 65 million years ago, then the survivors had 65 million years to adapt to their environment. But of course a clade that has completely spent its “vital energy” has little fuel to further evolve.
But we know the vital energy thing doesn’t work.
So what?
Granted, the environmment can be so incredibly stable that there is little actual visible change in the general design of the creature (see, for instance, sharks, that have been like that for far longer than the dinos existed), but there is always room for minor tweaks. And accumulating 65 million years of little tweaks can lead to some interesting – and unpredictable – changes.

I used this possible drawback to cheat – my dinosaurs are not those you find in the books.
They look like those, you can trace them back to their real world ancestors, but are a little different.
And have little or no feathers – because I like my dinosaurs scaly.

So, this is a summary of the conceptual design for the monsters in The House of the Gods.
And now you ask me, are there Nazis to feed to the monsters?
Because that would be cool, right?

But I’ll save the care and feeding of my dinosaurs for another post.

But as I am at it – if you are interested in the Nemesis Hypothesis, I direct you to two nice books, one by Alvarez, T Rex and the Crater of Doom, and one by Hsu, The Great Dying. If you’d rather have a look at the Shiva Hypothesis, Curtillon’s Evolutionary catastrophes might be a good introductory book.

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  1. except, of course, for the Hollow Earth. 
  2. there are actually two Shiva Hypotheses, one that connects mass extinctions with the presence of a runaway planet, and one that connects it with the Deccan eruptions and the Shiva Crater. So now you know. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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