The author, an Australian thriller novelist, is seven years older than me, but he, too, loved Jurassic Park, so much so that he considers it his favorite novel ever. “I loved the originality of it, the pace of it, and the fact it was a gleeful monster movie on paper,” he says in an interview included in the novel’s back matter. He openly admits that his new book is inspired by Crichton’s, but he thinks (wrongly) that he has made it completely different.
Unfortunately, Reilly lets one of his characters provide an unintentional review of the book by way of acknowledging his debt to Crichton: “It’s all pretty cool and impressive . . . if you never saw fucking Jurassic Park.”
The Great Zoo of China tells the story of the title zoo, which is a high-security facility located in a remote area of mainland China. There, the sinister Communist government of China is in the process of opening a theme park whose star attraction is dragons, which the government officials explain are actually a cousin to dinosaurs whose embryos are capable of one hundred million years of hibernation in their eggs, waiting for global warming to return the earth to temperatures suitable for their survival. The state of the art zoo differs from Jurassic Park by being in a valley rather than on an island, and the evil Chinese explain that they studied the movie Jurassic Park for tips on how to avoid catastrophe.
The Chinese bring a group of Americans, including the ambassador to China and some journalists, to visit the zoo before it opens. What follows is as close to a plagiarism of Jurassic Park as one could reasonably publish, with any pretense at science fiction replaced with little more than magical technology whose function is all but indistinguishable from wizardry; you could replace it with magic spells and change nothing in the book. To explain the differences would be to give away the plot, but imagine if Jurassic Park featured only giant velociraptors and that they could fly. That should give you an idea of how Reilly has taken Crichton’s raw material and made it bigger, dumber, and louder. When chaos inevitably breaks out, the story becomes increasingly ridiculous, even for an action novel, and I frankly wished Reilly had stuck closer to his model, or—better yet—weaved in some Congo to give the story the illusion of depth, which was always one of Crichton’s strengths.
Reilly chose to set his novel in China because he could conceive of no better place for a titanic project to have come to fruition entirely in secret, as he said in an interview:
With their Great Dragon Zoo, China is attempting to do something else entirely: it is trying to usurp the United States as the pre-eminent country on Earth. To do that, it needs to top America’s cultural superiority: basically, it needs to come up with an attraction that trumps Disneyland. To me, this is actually a real issue today and it gave the story a geopolitical reality that I wanted.
Since, though, mine is a blog devoted to the weird side of history, it’s worth noting that Reilly based his book on a fringe history lie he mistakenly believes to be true. In his interview, he explained that he believes “myths are often based on reality or real events.” Though he does not believe dragons are real, he did conclude that the myths of dragons have some sort of connection, as he said in his interview:
I realised that the myth of the dragon is indeed a global one . . . and yet there was no mass communication system in the ancient world. How could the features of dragons be so consistent all around the ancient world, from Australia to Meso-America to Greece and Norway, when there was no way to send information around that ancient world?
The bottom line is that The Great Zoo of China is a reasonably entertaining thriller, but one that doesn’t have a real reason for existing. Did we really need a Jurassic Park with dragons and an uneasy Yellow Peril theme?