Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hunting Dragons

From the Unpublished Memoir of a Dragon Hunter

I have spent my academic career on an errand of folly. Some might call it a quest but many might, and far too many have done, call it a colossal waste of time. And yet, through my journey, which always has sought the truth, I have had the opportunity to travel to many places and see many things. Just never what I sought in the first place.

This was no surprise: finding what I sought would have been earth-shaking.

To put matters simply, I long have wondered why dragons exist in legend and mythology world wide, with reports of actual sightings, even battles, as late as the Fifteenth Century, and yet no physical evidence of their presence exists. At all. Not one skeleton, even a skull, or an egg or a horde of gold in the base of a mountain can be attributed to such a beast. Are they legend only? Myth? Or are they some sort of creature driven to extinction by men so utterly that even their bones are gone?

Every question begat more questions. It seemed to me that perhaps dragons were some sort of prehistoric memory lodged in the human collective consciousness from a time long, long ago. After all, every one of us is fascinated by dinosaurs even though those magnificent creatures died out millions of years before humans appeared on the planet. Yet there were mammals around during the Age of the Dinosaur -- has memory followed evolution? If so, are dragons part of that memory?

Still, the only dinosaurs to appear in actual human existence came from fiction, like “King Kong,” “The Lost World,” “One Million BC” or “Jurassic Park.” one can argue that the same can be said for dragons, but this would be inaccurate. Among Western civilizations, stories exist of recent encounters, and in the East dragons are an accepted part of current mythology -- clearly a unique interpretation of the animal’s existence.

Then it occurred to me: Dragons fly. It seems a universal constant. The Chinese claim that a dragon has to turn 4,000 years old before it gets its wings, but that does not prevent it from flying much earlier in its life. Western dragons almost always have wings already. And yet, dragons are massively, frighteningly large. Given the rules of aerodynamics, a creature that large would need incredible musculature and extremely long wings to act, essentially, as acrobatically as a hawk one hundredth its size.

Unless -- and here is the revelation -- a dragon has no bones. even with considerable size, an animal unencumbered by the weight of a skeleton made of heavy material would require considerably less strength to achieve the same graceful flight. I imagine a skull of calcium but a skeleton of cartilage -- much like a shark.

One other component adds to my revised picture of dragons: fire. Many dragons are purported to breathe fire. Perhaps all can. If that ability exists, and how it might remains a mystery (like purring in cats), then the probability is that a dragon’s body, or a goodly percentage of it, acts like a bellows and hot air balloon. Imagine if you can a shark flying a dirigible with total maneuverability, and a dragon comes closer to being an acceptable reality.

Still, why have we found no trace? Do dragons self destruct upon death? Or are their skulls so similar to those of other creatures that they have gone misidentified? Forget horns and think more of alligators -- who, on land, have been mistaken for dragons (see Saint George and the) -- or giant pythons -- who have been mistaken for sea serpents in the water.. It works in reverse: when Greeks uncovered the skull of a dinosaur, they looked at the thing from the wrong angle and invented the only explanation they could come up with -- a Cyclops. Truth be told, we are still revising our understanding of, and visual imagery of dinosaurs to this day, as new evidence emerges.

Perhaps a dragon lies somewhere in the Alps or Caucasus Mountains awaiting discovery.

Of course, we believe in God without any evidential proof beyond what human beings have written, invented, or done themselves. Why not dragons?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pirate Latitudes, a Review

The great thing about dead writers, especially modern dead writers, is that their work lives after them. That is, previously unknown manuscripts surface in their estates and get published. Sometimes, the resultant book self-evidently demonstrates why the author kept it hidden while alive (but didn’t have the heart to throw it out -- we writers are in love with our own words). Other times, the book turns out to be as good as any in his oeuvre.

Robert Ludlum has made a second career as a dead writer, with several Bourne stories coming out based on his character and/or notes. Kurt Vonnegut’s estate has released some very classy stuff, including a new book soon to be published, “While Mortals Sleep”
(slated to be in stores December 25, 2011, four and a half years after his passing),. And Michael Crichton, who passed away in 2008, left behind the completed manuscript to a gem among ripping good yarns called “Pirate Latitudes.”

Unlike “Prey,” the last book Crichton published before his untimely death, which felt disjointed and too busy to be effective, “Pirate Latitudes” is a tightly told, linear story with a strong, straightforward focus. It is not great literature, nor does it pretend to be. It is an adventure story told in real time, without the aid of scientific input or twists and turns, about one man in particular and the other people who inhabit his very specific world.

Set in the Caribbean of 1665, the story follows the exploits of English Captain Charles Hunter and his handpicked crew of sixty men and one woman, who are privateers(not pirates) on a mission to capture a treasure laden Spanish Galleon out from under the noses of a well armed garrison on a difficult island and, as it turns out, a Man of War commanded by Hunter’s sworn enemy Gazalla.

The delight is in seeing the adventure unfold, step by step, in a logical linear progression. These are rough men and women, used to rough ways, and Crichton makes no apologies to our modern sensibilities in portraying life and death in the Pirate Latitudes. Hunter and his crew face danger after danger -- from the Spanish, the weather, natives of the region, even a Kraken. But the greatest danger comes from his own government and a self-righteous bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur.

Hunter is a ruthless leader, cunning strategist, and at the same time a charming and charismatic personality, very popular with the ladies. Every secondary character is drawn carefully as well, though each in turn serves mostly to amplify Hunter’s determination and talents. The result is a genuine page turner locked in a real world fifty years before the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd or Ann Bonny and Mary Read -- a Pirates of the Caribbean based on true stories and feeling genuine from first to last. To touch that world, to feel that time and place with all its hardness and terror, and yet survive the experience, Crichton presents us an exciting, fulfilling read.

One can only hope there are other pieces in the dead man’s chest.