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Dragon Teeth and Becoming a Man

Michael Crichton is a central influence on my own work. I loved stories (and movies in particular) from a very young age. But it was when I saw Jurassic Park in theaters at the age of 12 that my journey to becoming a storyteller began in earnest. Seeing the movie led to reading the book (which, side note, I first read in Portuguese while living in Brazil). A good friend encouraged me to read the book, so I bought a copy and fell in love with science fiction novels and began dreaming of writing my own. I wish I could call up that friend today and tell him what an awesome influence his suggestion had on me. Sadly, he was killed in a car accident on a Brazilian highway some years back.

While my tastes have evolved (I still love the Jurassic Park movie, but it's films like The Tree of Life and Gattaca and Children of Men that are my favorites these days and I would not consider Crichton the best author I've read) I do still enjoy reading Crichton's work. I find it incredibly unfortunate that he passed away at such a young age. I had looked forward to decades more of Crichton books, TV shows, and maybe even movies (he did direct the film HBO's Westworld is based on).

So it was with great excitement that I preordered my copy of Dragon Teeth. Here's a manuscript he penned decades ago, but it still feels uniquely fresh and captivating. Detailing the story of rival fossil hunters in the very early days of paleontology, the book blends fiction and history. It's not intended to be a factual historical retelling of events and I don't gather that Crichton wanted to do that based on the editor's notes and the way he wrote the book ('cuz, you know, I mean, it is a novel).

It is an engaging story that seems to get the atmosphere right for both the East Coast world of academia and the wild west in 1876. And while the main character is fictitious, several real historical figures appear in the book. Much of what they do and say is not factually based (though some details are borrowed from actual events). But the ultimate appeal of Dragon Teeth's approach is that it definitely feels like all of this could have happened, which is what has always been so great about Crichton's work even when we're reading about cloning dinosaurs, time travel, or communicating with an alien sphere at the bottom of the ocean).

For me, the real heart of the book is the journey of the main character, William Johnson. He begins much like other Crichton characters from the world of academia, a bit snotty and full of himself. But unlike some of the other protagonists of his other novels, Johnson experiences a significant amount of personal growth and maturation in the span of a few months. This is the story of a young man who is really still an irresponsible boy learning to become an adult. His character arc is quite significant.

As such, Dragon Teeth proves to be a rather meaningful story. Johnson undergoes a major transformation from entitled college kid to becoming a man capable of surviving the lawless madness of Deadwood. All the while, he's determined to protect the fossils he's ended up with in hopes that at some point he can return them to the paleontologist he'd been working for before catastrophe struck and separated him from his group. It's a motivation few around him (and maybe he himself) can really wrap their heads around. What does science matter on the American frontier where the rule of law is nearly nonexistent and a war is being waged by the white man on the native inhabitants of the land? Why put your life on the line for some old bones?

In many ways, the plot of Dragon Teeth is not all that unique. It fits in pretty well with The Hero's Journey structure. But that shouldn't be a big surprise and in no way does this detract from the fascinating specifics of what Johnson learns and endures. What I find particularly appealing about Johnson is that he's very much an oddball, a bit of a stranger in a strange land. He's a wealthy East Coast college kid who has been coasting through life. But now he's thrust into a world of brute force, cunning adversaries, and the constant need to carefully plan for his own survival. What I love about Johnson's journey is that he doesn't lose himself in the process, he discovers what he's really capable of.

I mean, isn't that what we all hope for in our own navigation of catastrophes? And we will encounter catastrophes. The journey, the process, the ordeal is raw and challenging beyond what Johnson could have previously imagined. But isn't that how we often feel in the middle of a major life crisis? This is what I connect with and find some worthwhile in Dragon Teeth.

I'm not sure why Crichton never chose to publish Dragon Teeth decades ago when he first wrote it. It seems he drafted it before Jurassic Park, in fact. But whatever his reasons, I am glad that it is out now. Having read several of his books, Dragon Teeth stands out to me as one of the more memorable novels because of Johnson's arc. It's not a perfect book, but it is consistently engaging and filled with Crichton's little moments of foreshadowing that make you stay up and read another chapter. And in the end, the journey feels well worth it.

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