As anyone who reads the dust jacket will realize, Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (2017) is about dinosaur fossils and the obsessed palaeontologists who traveled into the American frontier during the Gilded Age to gently dig them up. Sadly, it’s not about dinosaurs eating people.
William Johnson is a student at Yale. The son of a wealthy Philadelphia family, Johnson goes west to win a bet against his rival. He joins Professor Marsh, an eccentric and paranoid man who specializes in the bizarre new science, palaeontology. It turns out that Johnson has entered the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and his nemesis, Edward Cope. Although I spent most of the novel expecting Johnson and his company to end in a gunfight against Sitting Bull and the Sioux, it instead turned into a comic western. Johnson is stranded in Deadwood with his bones, which everyone assumes is a cover for gold. Some readers may be pleased to learn that the Bone Wars between Cope and Marsh are drawn from history. Robert Louis Stevenson and Wyatt Earp also appear.
I did not find very much information on how finished Dragon Teeth was before publication, but, unlike Micro, there is no mention of another author who finished this work. It’s tempting to point out that this novel about fossils seems more skeletal than most of Crichton’s novels. The characters are flat, their interactions seem rushed, and every chapter is very short. There are moments of historical detail that are a bit more developed, such as when devout Christians express doubt about fossils and whether a perfect god could create something flawed — let alone something so flawed that it might go extinct. Even these details, however, feel like sketches.
At some point I accepted that even though it details how to dig up fossils, Dragon Teeth is not a technothriller. It’s more of a coming of age novel. And I think it’s intended as a sort of romp. The bickering between Cope and Marsh is supposed to be funny, as are almost all of Wyatt Earp’s actions in the text. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like romps — I don’t even like the word romp — and they’re not what I look for in a Michael Crichton novel about dinosaurs, or even dinosaur fossils.
It feels uncomfortable to dislike a posthumously published novel. In this case, it’s not clear to what extent the story was finished, nor is it clear at what time in Crichton’s career he produced it. The author’s bio in the dust jacket mentions that he directed the original Westworld film, a minor achievement in Crichton’s career, but a topical one now that it has been adapted for TV by HBO. That may explain why this story about Bone Wars and the frontier is being published now, after Micro and Pirate Latitudes. Regardless, fans of his earlier historical novels, Eaters of the Dead and The Great Train Robbery, will likely enjoy this novel more than fans of Westworld. As for me, I came to Dragon Teeth as a fan of Crichton’s science fiction and was disappointed.