Subterranean by James Rollins (1999)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Paperback cover blurb


to a place you never dreamed existed.


a hand-picked team of specialists makes its way toward the center of the world. They are not the first to venture into this magnificent subterranean labyrinth. Those they follow did not return.


You are not alone.


where breathtaking wonders await you—and terrors beyond imagining…Revelations that could change the world—things that should never be disturbed…


toward a miracle that cannot be…toward a mystery older than time.

My thoughts

It takes a lot of nerve to write a lost world story set in the modern day, particularly one that borrows heavily from Journey to the Center of the Earth. But that’s exactly what we have in this techno-thriller.

Subterranean opens when the two main characters, paleoanthropologist Ashley Carter and expert caver Ben Brust, are recruited by the U.S. military to investigate an enormous cavern in Antarctica. There are archaeological ruins inside the cave dating back before humankind had evolved. Who -- or more precisely, what -- built the ruins? The answer lies deeper in the cave system. Carter and Brust will lead an expedition into the depths of the Earth to find out, a journey that a previous team attempted, but never returned.

The monsters populating Subterranean are not prehistoric survivors in the strictest since, but the plot and the setting rely heavily on paleontology, so I'm not bending the rules too much. The novel is about finding out what creatures inhabited Antarctica in the 30-million-year gap between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the coming of the ice. Many authors would've used aliens to explain away the pre-human ruins, and I will give Rollins credit for coming up with a more imaginative and more interesting idea.

That said, Subterranean isn't a good book by any stretch of the imagination, with boring characters and frequent action sequences that defy logic. The main villain will offend some readers because of the ethnic stereotyping, and the monsters will feel very familiar to anyone who has seen Jurassic Park. Still, for some reason, I liked it. Why? I'm not quite certain. Perhaps because it is an old-fashioned lost world story with an appropriate sense of mystery and wonder. Or maybe because I read it at a time in my life when I was looking for some popcorn-movie escapism, and it fit the bill.

Subterranean is a good "bad book" -- not one I could recommend if you prefer your literature to be, well, literary, but a fun one as long as you don't take it seriously. Be warned that it does weigh in at a whopping 430 pages, which is about 130 pages more than the author honestly needed to tell the story.

  • James Rollins is the pen name for veterinarian and amateur spelunker Jim Czajkowski. He has written several thrillers where evolutionary biology and archeology are the main focus.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)

This is where paleo-fiction started.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne was first published in 1864. The famous story is the first major work of fiction to feature prehistoric creatures surviving to the modern day.* Ironically, there are no true dinosaurs in the novel, since the beasts hadn’t captured the public’s imagination at the time the book was written.

The novel is narrated by Axel, a young man who is apprenticing under his geologist uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock. The two come across a cryptic manuscript alleging that a passageway to the center of the Earth exists inside an extinct volcano in Iceland. It’s a crazy claim, but Lidenbrock is open-minded -- or gullible -- enough to mount an expedition to the volcano in hopes of making the greatest scientific discovery of his time. The two are joined by a guide, and together the trio descend into the bowels of the Earth, finding a lost world hidden for millions of years. Getting out will be a different matter, however.

That’s admittedly a short description of a novel that has had a profound influence on science fiction, but the story is so well-known that most people know it by heart. A Journey to the Center of the Earth has been adapted into comics, cartoons, video games and movies numerous times, although few have been faithful to the source material. The best-known adaptation is probably a 1959 movie starring James Mason and country gospel star Pat Boone. (Boone recently called evolution a “false religion” in an opinion column, apparently forgetting that he once starred in a dinosaur movie.)

The book itself is one of Verne’s more famous titles, but I’ve never really considered it one of his better works. It’s a bit sluggish in parts, and it lacks any particularly memorable characters such as Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The humor seems forced by modern standards, and the whiny narrator can come across as annoying rather than funny.

Nonetheless, it would be unfair of me to leave you with the impression that this is a bad book. While it may not be Verne’s best, it’s still fun. There is a terrific sense of wonder in it missing from most of today’s science fiction. Verne just throws wonder after wonder at the reader, so much so that it isn’t until you’re near the end of the novel that you realize it doesn’t have much of an actual plot. No adaptations have really captured the full extent of Verne’s imagination, so even if you have seen two or three versions of the story, you’re still likely to be surprised by what the explorers find in the underground world they discover.

Also, how many science fiction novels are there where the authors write so lovingly about geology? It’s a topic that most writers find drab compared to quantum physics or space travel, but is just as fascinating in its own right. Paleontology really isn’t the central focus of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it’s pretty clear from reading the novel that Verne considered it a branch of geology rather than a separate science. The prehistoric creatures here are just window dressing, although when Verne does use them, he does so for maximum effect.

The novel is available for free on many places on the Internet, including this Web site.

* Some of the above information about the novel came from Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction by Allen A. Debus.


Monday, February 16, 2009

A gold figurine from Ashanti Province in Ghana, West Africa, and now located at the University of Pennsylvania Museum seems to depict a sauropod dinosaur. It was made as a trademark representing a particular family of gold dealers and resembles an Apatosaurus (bulky body, four legs, long tail), except for a relatively large head that looks more like a Tyrannosaurus. Some researchers see it as a representation of the Mokele-Mbembe. Margaret Plass, African Miniatures: The Goldweights of the Ashanti (London: Lund Humphries, 1967); “An Iguanodon from Dahomey,” Pursuit, no. 9 (January 1970): 15–16; Bernard Heuvelmans, Les derniers dragons d’Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1978), pp. 336–337.

In October and November 1924, an expedition led by archaeologist Samuel Hubbard and paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore explored the Havasu Canyon area on the Havasupai Indian Reservation west of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Near where the Tobocobe Trail intersects Lee Canyon, they discovered pictographs on the red sandstone along the trail, one of which seems to show a bipedal ornithopod dinosaur. Oakland Museum, Discoveries Relating to Prehistoric Man by the Doheny Scientific Expedition in the Hava Supai Canyon, Northern Arizona (San Francisco, Calif.: Sunset Press, 1927); A. Hyatt Verrill, Strange Prehistoric Animals and Their Stories (Boston: L. C. Page, 1948).

In July 1944, German merchant Waldemar Julsrud discovered a cache of clay and stone figurines depicting dinosaurs, weird animals, humans, masks, and vessels on El Toro hill near Acámbaro, Guanajuato State, Mexico. By the mid-1950s, he had found some 33,500 separate objects, which filled his twelve-room mansion and, it is said, forced him to sleep in the bathtub. The collection is no longer open to the public, and it is suspected that only a fraction of the original number of objects exist now. Though apparently seven distinct artistic styles are represented in the collection, none are typical of artifacts found elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Most, if not all, of the dinosaur-like figures are fanciful or composite animals, though some have seen resemblances to the sauropod Brachiosaurus, the ornithopod Iguanodon, and an Ankylosaurus. Other figures resemble such extinct Pleistocene fauna as Camelop s. Radiocarbon dates for the artifacts range from 4530–1110 b.c., though in some cases, laboratories have retracted these findings upon learning of their controversial nature, referring to suspected contamination or even “regenerated light signals.” William N. Russell, “Did Man Tame the Dinosaur?” Fate 5 (February-March 1952): 20–27; Charles C. Di Peso, “The Clay Figurines of Acambaro, Guanajuato, Mexico,” American Antiquity 18 (1953): 388–389; William N. Russell, “Report on Acambaro,” Fate 6 (June 1953): 31–35; Ronald J. Willis, “The Acambaro Figurines,” INFO Journal, no. 6 (Spring 1970): 2–17; “The Julsrud Ceramic Collection in Acambaro, Mexico,” Pursuit, no. 22 (April 1973): 41–43; Charles H. Hapgood, Mystery in Acambaro (Winchester, N.H.: Charles H. Hapgood, 1973; Kempton, Ill.: Adventures Unlimited, 2000); Dennis Swift, Dinosaurs of Acambaro, http://www.omniology. com/3-Ceramic-Dinos.html.

In 1966, Peruvian physician Javier Cabrera obtained a rock on which was a picture of a fish, seemingly carved thousands of years ago. He found where it came from and eventually amassed a collection of thousands of volcanic rocks with pictures of dinosaurs, kangaroos, mastodons, winged humanoids, telescopes, open-heart surgery, and other fantastic images. Now housed in his Museo de Piedras Grabadas in Ocucaje, near Ica, Peru, Cabrera claims they were made 1 million– 250,000 years ago by an unknown culture. Others have accused Cabrera of producing the stones himself or at least turning a blind eye to local forgers. Ryan Drum, “The Cabrera Rocks,” INFO Journal, no. 17 (May 1976): 6–11; Javier Cabrera Darquea, El mensaje de las piedras grabadas de Ica (Lima, Peru: INTI-Sol, 1976); David Hatcher Childress, Lost Cities and Ancient Mysteries of South America (Stelle, Ill.: Adventures Unlimited, 1986), pp. 29–31, 48–52; Michael D. Swords, “The Cabrera Rocks Revisited,” INFO Journal, no. 48 (March 1986): 11–13; Robert Todd Carroll, “Ica Stones,” in Skeptic’s Dictionary,


Until the 1980s, there was ongoing controversy (occasionally reflected in cryptozoological literature) over whether dinosaurs had a single ancestor or many different ones. In the current view, it appears that Richard Owen had it right in 1842 when he invented the name Dinosauria (“terrible reptiles”), based only on three known fossil genera that he thought had one common ancestor. The defining characteristic of the Dinosauria is now considered to be (along with a few other minor skeletal characteristics of the femur, humerus, ankle, and foot) a ball-andsocket joint at the hip, like the mammals, that supports the body weight and allows for an erect, bipedal gait in certain types. As a group, they flourished for 160 million years, from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous (225–65 million years ago). The most primitive dinosaur yet found is the 3-foot-long Eoraptor, discovered in northwestern Argentina in 1991.

Not all huge fossil reptiles were dinosaurs. The flying pterosaurs, the marine plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, the diapsids Tanystropheus and Champsosaurus, the mammal-like therapsids— none of these are classed with the dinosaurs.

The Superorder Dinosauria is subdivided into two orders, the Saurischia and the Ornithischia.

The Saurischia included carnivorous, bipedal therapods such as Tyrannosaurus and the herbivorous, long-necked sauropodomorphs such as Apatosaurus. They had in common elongated necks, long second fingers, and skeletal cavities housing air-filled sacs connected to the lungs. It was this type of dinosaur that survived extinction at the end of the Cretaceous in the form of Birds.

The Ornithischia included dome-headed and horned cerapods (such as Iguanodon and Triceratops) and the armored thyreophorans (such as Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus). They shared key characteristics of the jaws and teeth that enabled them to chew plants efficiently.

Giganotosaurus may have been the largest carnivorous animal that ever lived on land. A theropod dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Argentina that was first described in 1995, it was at least 42 feet from nose to tail tip. Vertebrae from a related species yet unnamed that was discovered in Patagonia in 2000 indicate an even greater length of 45 feet. The largest Tyrannosaurus rex was only 40 feet long.

At 110–120 feet, the herbivorous sauropod Seismosaurus of the Late Jurassic of New Mexico is the longest land vertebrate yet discovered, weighing in at 33 tons. Its tail alone was about 50 feet, and its head and neck were nearly that length. The Cretaceous sauropod Argentinosaurus of Patagonia may also have attained this size, though it is only known from vertebrae and limb bones. In late 1999, some vertebrae from a possibly even larger sauropod were discovered in southern Patagonia; preliminary estimates gave it a length of 167 feet.

Different species of dinosaurs went extinct throughout the Mesozoic, not just at the end of the Cretaceous. For example, more time elapsed between the death of the last Stegosaurus and the hatching of the first Tyrannosaurus than between the extinction of the last dinosaur and the birth of the first modern human.

There is no unambiguous evidence for dinosaur fossils after the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Dinosaur teeth mixed with mammalian bones in Paleocene deposits have been found in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, but it’s not clear whether they had originally come from earlier, dinosaur-bearing levels. Redeposition of older fossils into younger sediments by rivers or streams is not uncommon.

Surviving dinosaurs are not a zoological impossibility, especially in areas that have been geologically stable for the past 60 million years (such as Africa). Large dinosaurs that are coldblooded (ectothermic) would have a better time surviving in hot, equatorial regions than warmblooded (endothermic) animals with high metabolic rates. Ectotherms also require only 10 percent of the amount of food taken in by full endotherms. However, determining dinosaur energetics and thermal biology without living models is, at best, a speculative endeavor.

The two major types of African dinosaur in this section are the Mokele-Mbembe, which might be a surviving sauropod, and the Em ela- Ntouka, which some think might be a ceratopsian survivor such as Monoclonius. Both are known by many different local names. The others in the list are much less documented.

Mystery Dinosaurs

Em ela-Ntouka;


Mokele-Mbem be;

Partridge Creek Beast;


Silwane Manzi.


Percy Fawcett

A few rumors of huge, amphibious beasts in South America are on record, but no local Indian names have surfaced.

In 1882, an odd, 40-foot saurian was killed on the Río Beni, El Beni Department, Bolivia. It was said to have two additional, doglike heads sprouting from its back, a long neck, and scaly armor. “A Bolivian Saurian,” Scientific American 49 (1883): 3.

The explorer Percy Fawcett mentioned dinosaur- like animals briefly on several occasions as occurring in the Río Guaporé area on the border of Bolivia and Brazil, in the Madidi region of La Paz Department in northwestern Bolivia, and in swamps around the Rio Acre in Acre State, Brazil. Percy H. Fawcett, Exploration Fawcett (London: Hutchinson, 1955).

In late 1907, Franz Herrmann Schmidt and Rudolph Pfleng allegedly encountered an aquatic, dinosaur-like monster, 35 feet long, in a swampy area in the forested swamps of Loreto Department, Peru. It had a tapirlike head “the size of a beer keg,” a snakelike neck, and heavy, clawed flippers. Their bullets seemed to have no effect on the animal. Franz Herrmann Schmidt, “Prehistoric Monsters in Jungles of the Amazon.” New York Herald, January 11, 1911.

In 1931, Swedish explorer Harald Westin saw a 20-foot lizard walking along the shore of the Rio Mamoré on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. It had an alligator-like head, four legs, and a body like a distended boa constrictor. Harald Westin, Tjugu års djungel- och tropikliv (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1933).

Leonard Clark heard rumors of an animal resembling a sauropod dinosaur from Peruvian Indians around the Río Marañón, Peru, in 1946. Leonard Clark, The Rivers Ran East (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1953).

In 1975, a Swiss businessman hired a seventy-five-year-old guide named Sebastian Bastos, who told him that the Amazonian Indians knew of animals 18 feet long that overturn canoes and kill humans. Bastos himself had survived an attack several years earlier. Liverpool Daily Post, January 3, 1976.

Australian Giant Monitor

Sunday, February 15, 2009

AUSTRALIAN GIANT MONITOR seen in 1979 by herpetologist Frank Gordon in the Wattagan Mountains, New South Wales. (William M. Rebsamen/Fortean Picture Library)

Unknown LIZARD of Australia.

Variant names: Burrunjor (in Northern Territory), Mungoon-galli, Murra murri (in the Blue Mountains), Whowie (in Riverina).

Physical description: Length, 20–30 feet or more.

Behavior: Attacks cattle.

Distribution: Northern New South Wales; Arnhem Land, Northern Territory; Cape York, Queensland.

Significant sightings: In 1975, a group of bushwalkers found large tracks and tail marks at the edge of the Wallangambe Wilderness in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

On December 27, 1975, a farmer near Cessnock, New South Wales, saw a bulky, 30-foot monitor lizard moving through scrub brush. It was mottled gray in color, with dark stripes along the back and tail, and stood 3 feet off the ground.

In early 1979, herpetologist Frank Gordon was driving his Land Rover in the Wattagan Mountains in New South Wales south of Canberra when he saw a reptile 27–30 feet long by the side of the road. It rose up and ran away on all four legs into the neighboring woods.

In July 1979, cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy was called to a freshly plowed field by a farmer. Across the field were thirty or so tracks that seemed to have been made by an enormous lizard. While most of the tracks had been ruined by rain, Gilroy was able to make a plaster cast of one that had been preserved.

Possible explanations:

(1) The Perentie (Varanus giganteus), Australia’s largest lizard, grows to 8 feet long; some individuals might attain 10 feet. It is cream-colored, with dark-brown speckles, and it occurs from western Queensland to the coast of Western Australia.

(2) Surviving Megalania prisca, a 15- to 21- foot lizard that lived in central Australia in the Pliocene and Pleistocene (2 million–20,000 years ago). At 1,300 pounds, it weighed ten times as much as the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) and was probably an active predator and scavenger. Its teeth were nearly 1 inch long. At least some specimens had a sagittal crest.

Sources: Rex Gilroy, “Cessnock’s Fantastic 30 Ft. Lizard Monsters,” Strange Phenomena and Psychic Australian, March 1979; Rex Gilroy, “Australia’s Lizard Monsters,” Fortean Times, no. 37 (Spring 1982): 32–33; Rex Gilroy, “Giant Lizards of the Australian Bush,” Australasian Ufologist 4, no. 4 (2000): 17–20.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) is a Bostonian volcanologist whose 13-year-old nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson), is supposed to spend ten days with him. Trevor has forgotten that Sean is coming until he receives several messages from Sean's mother. When Sean's mother drops him off, she leaves Trevor with a box of items that belonged to Max, Trevor's brother and Sean's father, who disappeared 10 years before. Sean suddenly takes interest in what Trevor has to say after he tells him about his father, whom he never really had a chance to know. Trevor discovers in the box Max's old baseball glove, a yo-yo, and the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Inside the book Trevor finds notes written by his late brother. Trevor goes to his laboratory to find out more about the notes. There he realizes that he must go to Iceland to investigate for himself.

He intends to have Sean flown back to Canada but relents at Sean's protest and brings Sean along for the adventure. They start by looking for another volcanologist and find his daughter Hanna (portrayed by Anita Briem), the scientist having died years earlier. It turns out that he and Trevor's brother Max were Vernians, a small group who believe the works of Jules Verne to be fact. Hannah offers to help them climb up to the Stag Mountain which has suddenly started sending data again. While hiking the mountain, a lightning storm forces the three into a cave that collapses, leaving them trapped. The group then explores the cave looking for an exit, and they find it is an abandoned mine which was closed after an accident that killed 81 people. They then venture deep into the mine until they reach the end of the tunnels and enter to the bottom of a volcanic tube which is full of precious gems. As they are admiring the gems they realize the floor they're standing on is actually muscovite, a very thin rock formation. Due to their weight, the muscovite breaks and the group falls (for about 2 minutes) thousands of miles through the volcanic tube to the center of the earth, surviving only because the volcanic tube eventually turns into something like a "water slide" which drops them into a lake. There they find that the center of the earth is actually another world but in the same planet, "a world within our world", and they set to explore the place.

Along the way, they find evidence that someone was there 100 years previous. Trevor remarks that the instruments found are Lindenbrook's (a character from the book), hinting that his views of the events of the book being real are changing. They find some of Max's (Trevor's brother and Sean's father) things as well. While Trevor and Sean are going through what they've found, Hannah wanders off and unfortunately discovers Max's body. They bury him on the beach of the underground ocean. Trevor reads a letter to Sean found in Max's journal; they say their goodbyes and embrace.

Trevor figures that they must find a geyser that can send them to the surface, which is located on the other side of the underground ocean, or otherwise the temperature will raise up to 200 degrees, making it impossible to survive. They must reach the geyser in 48 hours or all of the water to create the geyser will have evaporated. They also figure that they must get out before the temperature rises past 135 degrees, which is the limit that the human body can withstand. They begin by crossing the underground ocean, and then the two adults become separated from Sean. Sean's guide is now a little bird who has been present since the trio entered the Center, and it takes him towards the river. After he goes through a path of floating magnetic rocks, he encounters a Tyrannosaurus and Trevor - who desperately is searching for him - finds him. The beast pursues him until he discovers that the ground beneath them is muscovite, the same type as earlier. The Tyrannosaurus falls through the muscovite, creates a massive hole and dies in the process. When they arrive at the geyser, it is all dried up. But they find water on the other side of a wall.

Trevor uses a flare to ignite the magnesium in the wall and causes a geyser to shoot them through Mount Vesuvius in Italy. When they destroy the vineyard of an Italian man, Sean gives him a diamond which he found earlier. Trevor sees that he has many more in his backpack, and he uses them to fund his brother's laboratory. Throughout the adventure, Hannah and Trevor gradually become close and even share a kiss. The film ends on the final day of Sean's visit with Trevor (and now Hannah). As he is leaving their new home, which was purchased with some of the diamonds Sean took from the cave, Trevor hands Sean a copy of the book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius L. Donnelly, suggesting they could maybe hang out during Sean's Christmas break, alluding to a possible sequel