Foster's Dinotopia harmonious fantasyland

March 17, 1996|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,special to the sun

"Dinotopia Lost," by Alan Dean Foster. Turner Publishing, Inc. 318 pages. $21.95 "I have wrought my simple plan/If I give one hour of joy/To the boy who's half a man/Or the man who's half a boy."

These lines of prefatory rhyme, borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle's introduction to his classic dinosaur fantasy "The Lost World," do more than introduce "Dinotopia Lost" - they define its raison d'etre.

This book is written to entertain. More specifically, it is written to engage a reader who longs to escape the bleak reality of the late-night news for a wondorous world where animals talk, regular folks do great deeds and stories have happy endings.

Accepting this dictum, I tried to unshackle the appropriate aspects of my inner child every time I picked up this book. Nevertheless, finishing Mr. Foster's tale of honorable dinosaurs, elaborate treetop cities and greedy pirates witlessly trashing ancient relics was a struggle.

Has the Peter Pan in me been Wendyed into oblivion by an extended encounter with adulthood? I'd prefer to think not. Nor do I scorn the literary phenomenon of fantasy. Technically, the writing of authors like L. Frank Baum ("The Land of Oz"), Anne McCaffrey ("The Dragon Riders of Pern"), Robert Jordan ("Barbarian Adventure") and Brian Jacques (the Redwall series) is simplistic and often slapdash, and it is all too easy to find works of fantasy that are just plain drivel. But as creators of fantastic worlds and as storytellers - and these are the central elements of successful fantasy - these authors and others like J. R. R. Tolkein and Marion Zimmer Bradley have entertained millions of readers for decades.

The problem with Mr. Foster's book is that Dinotopia, a fantasyland created by the artist James Gurney, is not a very interesting place. It's too harmonious. Dinosaur and human children sing and play happily together. Gigantic brachiosaurs tread cautiously for fear they might squash some inattentive human. Sharp-toothed raptors study tai chi and live on an ethically approved diet of dead fish. And when a four-legged Dinotopian feels death approaching it marches off to the wilds of the Rainy Basin and offers its body as sustenance for its meat-eating cousins who have rejected civil society to live out their carnivorous destiny.

Foster labors mightily to overwhelm this sanitized blandness. He introduces a band of cutlass-clutching blackguards and a monster storm. He marches his cast down a silver brick road to a golden temple with a diamond dome, and regularly threatens various characters with being eaten.

Yet this aggressive storytelling never generates any tension. Dinotopia is as unthreatening as a theme park, and this novel is like one more ride through the mechanical marvels. If we ooh and aah, it's only out of a sense of duty.

John R. Alden is an archaeologist studying evolution and organization of ancient civilizations. He reviews books for the Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Philadelphia Inquirer and Smithsonian magazine, among others. For six years he has written a bimonthly column on fantasy and science fiction.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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