- John Gaines
Many novels with animal protagonists go to great lengths to anthropomorphize them, giving them names, extensive language, and culture that strongly resemble those of humans. Paleontologist Robert Bakker goes the opposite route with his novel Raptor Red. He creates a primeval world viewed through the eyes of dinosaurs and other creatures of the Early Cretaceous epoch.
There is no dialogue, no character names (except for the main character), or elaborate descriptions of the primitive world. Although its writing style may be too sparse for some readers, Raptor Red is an exciting chronicle of a world long past and the creatures that inhabited it.
Raptor Red is written in a format that utilizes the present tense extensively, as if it were a nature documentary describing current events in the lives of dinosaurs. It is mostly written from the perspective of the title character, a female Utahraptor, with some chapters told from the perspective of other creatures such as a primitive mammal and a pterosaur. Bakker’s writing has an appealingly folksy quality to it, describing events such as Utahraptors hunting Iguanodon as readily as a nature show TV host would describe a bear exploring the woods.
The main weakness to Bakker’s strategy of using descriptions and visual imagery instead of speech is that he is forced to use the characters’ internal thoughts as a form of dialogue to explain their reactions to the world around them. The narrative voices of a pterosaur, Utahraptor, and mammal sound similar, even though their places in the ecosystem are very different. Perhaps Bakker could have differentiated the narrative voices of the characters a bit more, but at only 240 pages, possibly a certain amount of simplification was necessary.
Where Raptor Red really shines is its descriptions of movement and action. All the hunting scenes, from the early Astrodon hunts to a sequence where a small mammal saves Raptor Red’s life by devouring parasitic insects, are exciting and evocatively written. The quieter scenes, which range from Raptor Red’s dreams to playing with bubbles in a lake, are fascinating and provide both a respite from the action and a chance to see how a dinosaur would interpret the world. Sadly, the non-Utahraptor characters are less interesting, the only standout being “the white dactyl,” a large, decades-old pterosaur nearing the end of his life. He is a wise, experienced creature, in contrast to Raptor Red’s youthful exuberance, and possesses a unique view of the Cretaceous landscape with his ability to soar high.
Raptor Red’s attention to scientific detail is phenomenal. It describes the biomechanics of dinosaur movement and vision in great detail and goes to great lengths to accurately reconstruct the lives of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Its only weakness comes from its own age. The novel was published in 1996, just before knowledge of feathered dinosaurs became widespread in the scientific community. But Raptor Red’s mixture of action and nature documentary remains a compelling read, nearly two decades later.