Sometime during the summer of 1992, when I was eleven years old, I bought a paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which had been released at the end of 1990. I loved the book and must have read it three or four times before Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation was released the following summer. I remember making a scale model of the park using poster board, Legos, and little plastic dinosaurs. When the movie came out, I even painted a Matchbox car to match the iconic Ford Explorers used in the film. I also devoured most of Crichton’s other books over the next year, though only Congo made enough of an impression on me that I can recall much of the story two decades later. Jurassic Park gave the impression of being a book for smart people, filled as it was with long sections of research into genetics and paleontology and chaos theory, and when I was eleven that made it seem like a real grown-up book. Because it was something I loved as a child, I still have affection for the book even though I can recognize now Crichton’s shortcomings as a novelist.
This is a long way around saying that I should be the ideal audience for Matthew Reilly’s new novel The Great Zoo of China, which is pretty much Jurassic Park stripped of its science and cross-pollinated with a Fu Manchu novel. The book, which is already out in some parts of the world, will be released here in the United States in late January.
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.
But he has made the Chinese into stereotypical villains who would have embarrassed Fu Manchu with their lack of subtlety. The Chinese are, almost to the man, depicted as sinister, duplicitous, inhumane, cruel, and supremely insecure—easy fodder for vast hordes of Chinese to be felled by a ragtag group of (all white) Americans. The uneasy Yellow Peril imagery provides a somewhat bitter aftertaste to a book meant to be a fun, breezy read. It is precisely because Reilly does virtually nothing with either the Chinese setting or with the geopolitics of China that the choice of villain—and the choice to make them one-dimensional villains—makes this an unfortunate choice. Here Reilly manages to unintentionally reproduce one of Michael Crichton’s faults; his Rising Sun was accused of reviving Yellow Peril fears with borderline racist depictions of the Japanese back in the early 1990s—when the Japanese were the subject of America’s xenophobia. Reilly doesn’t imbue his villains with enough characteristics to be truly xenophobic; they could easily be swapped out for any generic villain without changing the story at all. Jurassic Park had an anti-corporate theme, where the corruption of big business was the real villain; here it seems unintentionally to be an entire country and culture.
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?
Here’s the fringe history lie: Dragon myths aren’t consistent at all. The Greeks and the Romans knew only of the drakon or draco, a giant snake, which lacked three dragon features: legs (though the sea version sometimes had flippers), wings, and fire breath. In Mesoamerica, the “dragon” is at times a feathered serpent—which bears little resemblance to the bald wings of the European dragon—or the giant snake of the Olmec (God I). In China, the dragon isn’t a reptile per say but a composite animal, originating as a large snake but adding to the serpent parts of animals such as the horse, stag, camel, eagle, etc. The animal that appears in The Great Zoo of China is pretty much the modern version of the dragon, derived from medieval European lore.
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?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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