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The Great Zoo of China

2 Jul 2015

The Great Zoo of China
The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly (2015)
I fell in love with Jurassic Park when Michael Crichton's original book came out, before I knew there was a movie already in the works (Crichton showed the manuscript to Steven Spielberg before the book hit the shelves). Not many people recall it now, but the idea for extracting dinosaur DNA from amber was first proposed in an article of Omni Magazine. Omni was a brainchild of Bob Guccione, the publishing pioneer of Penthouse Magazine. Omni was a magazine of science and marvelous science photography before the Internet made such things available to all. It was a far cry from Penthouse, and gained Guccione respect he could never have otherwise earned.

Crichton read the same Omni article that I read, and soon turned it into a novel. In later years the amber DNA concept was proven impossible, but in the early 1990s it was enough to hang a book, and a movie, and now a movie franchise on. If Crichton were alive today he might be happy to cash the new paycheck, but I doubt he would be impressed with Jurassic World.

Jurassic World is so derivative that even before viewing it I began imagining a column called "101 Jurassic movie plots that would have been better than Jurassic World". Some of my ideas involved giving velociraptors the power of speech, fingers, things like that. Put the dinos on dry land and watch them go berserk. As it turned out the column wasn't necessary because once again an imaginative novelist has done it for me. The Great Zoo of China is in many ways a J-Park knock off, but it delivers quite a few of those creative improvements that I was looking for, including the top five.

As you might guess this zoo is not on an island in the middle of nowhere. It's in the middle of China, land-locked. China as a nation wants this park badly as a symbol of international dominance, but "The Great Zoo of China" has remained a secret while Chinese officials work out the kinks. You see, they too have seen Jurassic Park (referenced on pages 57 and 63), and they know what can go wrong. And it does go wrong. For some reason that knowledge does not prevent them from make the same mistakes, only bigger and worse. Before page 100 we have all-out warfare between guests and dragons. That's right, dragons. Hundreds of them - some pickup-sized, some bus-sized, and some Boeing 707-sized. And they fly. And just when the visitors think they have prevailed, another enemy emerges - but I'll let you discover that part for yourself.

The dragons are Great Zoo's twist on Jurassic Park. The author manages to make dragons more viable than J-Park's dinosaurs, though no more likely. These dragons are created from discovered eggs with extraordinarily long hibernation periods, which presumes to explain why they have been seen rarely, if consistently, throughout human history. That's at least scientifically possible, unlike the J-Park dinos. But from there the author gives them high intelligence, the ability to see the electromagnetic and sonic cages that imprison them, and the ability to learn vocalization. And oh yeah, they fly.

So why don't they fly out of the park? The electromagnetic cages react with surgically implanted microchips, causing pain when they reach the outer limits. Supposedly this keeps them in their virtual cage. It works about as well as the virtual fence on the Mexican border: Remember that electrified fence that was supposed to hold back the T-Rex in Jurassic Park? Yeah, well, these electromagnetic cages have the same flaw: When the juice goes out, all hell breaks loose. So of course the juice goes out.

The book is a bit more suspenseful than the J-Park scenarios because, being on the mainland, the protagonists can have a hope of escaping and running away. The reader can have a hope that the dragons will break loose. The author makes up for this with other impediments, which are too good to give away now. Just trust me when I say that if you need a summer J-Park fix, forget about J-World and read The Great Zoo of China instead. 3-1/2 stars.


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