Dinoverse series by Scott Ciencin – Fred Patten’s book review.
by Patch O'Furr
Dinoverse: I Was a Teenage T. Rex, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, March 2000, paperback 0-679-88843-8 $4.99 (177 [+ 8] pages).
Dinoverse: The Teens Time Forgot, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, March 2000, paperback 0-679-88844-6 $4.99 (179 [+ 3] pages).
Dinoverse: Raptor Without a Cause, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, May 2000, paperback 0-679-88845-4 $4.99 (180 [+ 12] pages).
Dinoverse: Please Don’t Eat the Teacher!, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, July 2000, paperback 0-679-88846-2 $4.99 (194 [+ 12] pages).
Dinoverse: Beverly Hills Brontosaurus, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, September 2000, paperback 0-375-80595-8 $4.99 (173 [+ 11] pages).
Dinoverse: Dinosaurs Ate My Homework, by Scott Ciencin. Illustrated by Mike Fredericks.
NYC, Random House, November 2000, paperback 0-375-80596-6 $4.99 (192 [+ 8] pages).
If there is an expert in writing s-f Young Adult novels featuring dinosaurs, it is Scott Ciencin. He has written seven authorized Dinotopia novels, four authorized Godzilla novels, and four authorized Jurassic Park novels. (Not to mention a slew of Batman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, The Elven Ways, Forgotten Realms, Kim Possible, Star Trek, Transformers, Zorro, and other authorized Young Adult series novels.) But there is one series that is all his own creation: Dinoverse.
Dinoverse began with a “real novel” in March 1999. It was an $18.00 standalone hardcover, illustrated by Mike Fredericks. It got favorable reviews in the book and library trade as an imaginatively humorous sugar-coated paleontology lesson for upper preadolescents and younger teenagers. A year later, spread out over 2000, it was followed up by six Dinoverse Young Adult paperbacks, all written by Ciencin and illustrated by Fredericks. These were a continuation of Dinoverse’s light but serious paleontology lessons, but presented under more humorous titles and covers (all by Adrian Chesterman) like Raptor Without a Cause and Please Don’t Eat the Teacher!; evolving into the teenagers facing an interdimensional invasion by sapient dinosaurs. An independent novel followed by its own “authorized follow-ups”. That’s imagination!
Dinoverse starts at Wetherford, Montana’s Wetherford Junior High, where eighth-grader Bertram Phillips is preparing for its science fair. Bertram, a stereotypically socially awkward, shy, plump, thick-gasses-wearing, picked-on brainy geek, is introduced alongside several classmates, notably Mike Peterefsky, a friendly football star who is Bertram’s best friend and protector; Candayce Chambers, the beautiful but cruel prom queen who makes cutting put-downs of other girls to her clique; and Janine Farehouse, a plain girl who is the school’s most notorious attention-getting troublemaker.
Bertram’s science fair project is an impressive-looking “M.I.N.D. Machine”:
“Bertram’s M.I.N.D. Machine, his Memory INterpretor Device, was a fabulous contraption. It stretched ten feet across, was eight feet high, and went back six feet. Dozens of computer screens were imbedded in its mishmashed mess of a face. Cables as thick as a man’s arm and corrugated metal sleeves connected one mechanism to another.” (pgs. 7-8)
Bertram considers his M.I.N.D. Machine a big, flashy “magic trick” that looks awesome with all of its blinking lights, but does not do anything. For good luck, he puts his genuine small T. rex bone keepsake from his paleontologist father inside it.
The M.I.N.D. Machine is supposed to show what its electrode-connected wearer is thinking of. Bertram is demonstrating it while his classmates and science teacher Robert London look on, when the machine goes out of control just as Bertram is thinking of his absent father at the T. rex site:
“A blinding light filled his vision and an explosion roared in his ears. Bertram was shocked to see tendrils of white flame reaching from his hands. One struck Candayce, another Janine, while a third and final bolt of rippling energy raced toward the window, where Bertram had seen Mike, and shattered it.” (p. 13)
The next thing that Bertram knows, his mind is in South Dakota 67 million years in the past, in the body of an Ankylosaurus fighting off a Tyrannosaurus rex. The host body is operating on instinct, but Bertram’s mind can override those instincts. Bertram escapes from that T. rex but almost immediately encounters an even bigger one – inhabited by his friend Mike’s mind. They can “talk” by telepathy.
“Mike felt a sudden rumbling inside him. A low growl came from his stomach. He was hungry. Without thinking, he took a step toward the writhing hot lunch before him and opened his gigantic, razor-lined maw.
“Mike!” Bertram screamed.
Mike stopped and got ahold of himself. ‘Sorry. Instinct.’
‘Uh-huh. Right. No problem,’ said the Ankylosaurus, but he was visibly trembling.” (pgs. 24-25)
Mike is both horrified to be in a T. rex’s body, and relieved to have escaped from Wetherford Junior High’s other football players who have been pressuring him to really hurt a weak teammate to get him off the team. Candyce is mortified to become a Leptoceratops:
“She looked down at her thighs and nearly gagged. What had happened to her? Her thighs were enormous! And she had a pot belly! And her chest was flat! Not to mention scaly. She had wrinkles and rings and lines and dents! And she was naked!” (p. 36)
And Janine is a Quetzalcoatlus, which she thinks at first is a Pterodactyl but Bertram, who is an expert on dinosaurs because of his paleontologist father, corrects her. The four teen-controlled dinosaurs have just come together and are wondering what to do next when they are mind-contacted by Mr. London, not from the science fair but from sixty years in the future. He has spent his life trying to contact the teen’s minds in the past. (Their 20th-century bodies are in lifelong comas.) Mr. London’s cut-off message is that they have ten to twelve days to find the hilltop that he shows them, where “the Standing Stones” are, to get back home.
Most of Dinoverse is their adventures trekking toward the hilltop. Three of them meet other dinos of their species who want to accompany them: a female Ankylosaurus (“Beanie”) who becomes Bertram’s jealous mate; a male Quetzalcoatlus whom Janine names Loki who appoints himself her protector; and Moriarty, another T. rex who sees Mike as a rival and becomes an insane enemy. Candyce tries to fashion clothing for herself out of big leaves, and becomes such an odd sight that other Leptoceratopses adopt her as a herd leader. Bertram is reminded the hard way that Ankylosauruses (Ankylosaurii?) are herbivores, and just like large 20th century herbivores, they fart really noisy, stinky farts a lot. Because of their 20th century social problems, Bertram and Janine seriously consider giving up the future and remaining as dinosaurs.
Most of the adventure is written as a series of cliffhangers. A chapter will focus upon one character until he or she gets into a desperate situation, then switch to another character.
The four do all return to the 20th century. Eight months later, they have all become socially more secure and successful. But, in a brief epilogue, Mr. London has been experimenting with the M.I.N.D. Machine in the school’s basement for months:
“Tendrils of light burst up from the floor. They struck two students ahead of him, a boy and a girl he hardly knew. They shouted, then sank to the floor. Others screamed.
Bertram ran from the classroom, rocketed down the stairs, one flight after another.
Somehow, he already knew.
The journey was over. But the adventure had just begun.” (pgs. 281-282)
There are six pages of an illustrated dinosaur glossary and references following the story. Mike Fredericks has done two dozen line drawings of dinos; over half illustrating scenes from the story and eight of particular types of dinosaurs.
The ending seems to promise a sequel. But what came a year later was an apparent paperback reprint with a new subtitle: I Was a Teenage T. Rex.
This was in fact the first book of the new series, reusing Chesterman’s Dinoverse cover. I Was a Teenage T. Rex and The Teens Time Forgot divided Dinoverse between them, with the division between Chapters 17 and 18 of Dinoverse. Since a 282-page story does not divide into a 177-page book and a 179-page book, even though the paperbacks have smaller pages and much larger type, the two new versions are rewritten and padded; but the plots are the same.
With Dinoverse #3, Raptor Without a Cause, Ciencin began the new story. Mr. London’s fiddling with the M.I.N.D. Machine reactivates it, and he and three new students are sent into mid-Cretaceous-era dinosaur bodies. Will Reilly, one of Wetherford Junior High’s movers and shakers – he has just lost an election for Class President and is trying to think of new ideas to regain the limelight – becomes a Deinonychus. The omega member of a pack of Deinonychii, in fact.
Where before it was Mr. London’s mind from the future that contacts them, now it is Bertram Phillips; and what he tells them is not reassuring:
“‘Things are happening here,’ Bertram said. ‘Things I can’t even begin to explain. People are CHANGING. The whole world is becoming something so weird I can’t describe it.’” (p. 34)
The previous M.I.N.D. Machine malfunction only affected the lives of four students. The new one will change the past and wipe out the present (or turn it into an unrecognizable timeline), unless Will can “fix” it.
“‘According to the M.I.N.D. Machine, it’s going to happen right where you are now, in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma, in three days’ time. But I don’t know exactly WHAT’S going to happen. It’s something big. Something that’ll change everything. There are others back there with you. They’re stranded in Texas. I’m using the machine to set up a tracking system, so they can find you and help you.’” (p. 35)
Patience McCray, Wetherford’s star basketball player, is an Acrocanthosaurus, which looks roughly like a Tyrannosaurus. Mr. London has become a lizardlike Hypsilophodon. His instincts as a tiny prey animal are to run and hide from everything. Zane McInerney, the school fall guy/clown, is now a brontosaurus – with a tagalong bronto baby brother.
Will alone, and Patience, Mr. London, and Zane (with Runt) have adventures singly and together as they use their human intelligence with their dinosaur instincts to find the “amber key” and bring it to where the “something big” is due to happen. Raptor Without a Cause ends on a cliffhanger.
Dinoverse #4, Please Don’t Eat the Teacher!, completes the two-part middle adventure of the series. But it begins with a Prologue telling that, while Will’s, Patience’s, Zane’s, and Mr. London’s minds have been sent into dinosaur bodies 112 million years ago, five other Wetherford Junior High students have transformed into dinosaurs in the present and are apparently trying to eat Bertram Phillips.
Bob London stops letting his Hypsilophodon instincts make him terrified of all the bigger dinosaurs; but first he has to rejoin Patience and Zane, after he becomes the leader of four other “Hippies” fleeing from carnivorous Microvenators. Will, a Deinonychus, has to fight a rival Deinonychus he names Hook who keeps trying to kill him; then teach Hook to accept him as a brother. At one point Will fashions a torch to referee a fight between Hook and a Tenontosaurus. Zane, a brontosaurus (actually a Pleurocoelus, “brontosaur” being its popular name around Texas where it is the state dinosaur – Dinoverse is sugar-coated education, remember; it looked like the more popular Apatosaurus “brontosaur” that lived much earlier and farther north), and Patience are sidetracked by having to fetch Runt who wanders off. After Mr. London, Patience & Zane, and Will are all reunited and march off to find “Ground Zero”, Patience is horrified to find herself falling in love with another Acrocanthosarus whom she names G.K. (for Green Knight). Ground Zero turns out to be a hilly area riddled with fissures and the odor of natural gas escaping. They sense that they are supposed to keep the past from changing by saving one particular dinosaur from being killed in the coming natural gas explosion – but which?
The climax to Please Don’t Eat the Teacher! comes much earlier than the reader will expect. When Bob London, Will, Patience, and Zane return to Wetherford Junior High, they are not just improved emotionally by their learning experiences. They are slightly modified for the better physically as well. Will brings back a dinosaur’s mind to share his body. And Wetherford Junior High is suddenly beset with dinosaurs; either dinos from the past or students changing into dinos:
“Farther down the hall, bearing to the left, he [Bertram] saw a pair of Nanotyrannus chasing a young, blond, female student. The ceiling splintered directly above them and an Ankylosaurus fell through, pinning the smaller dinosaurs in place.
The screaming girl escaped.” (pgs. 187-188)
In Dinoverse #5, Beverly Hills Brontosaurus, set in Beverly Hills, California 150 million years ago – on the California coast, with active volcanoes — a lot was different, and the plot went off into both alternate-universe awesomeness and pure silliness.
Aaron Aimes, a new transfer student, is introduced, and much is seen from his viewpoint. The M.I.N.D. Machine isn’t just a pile of electronics in the basement. It and all the Dinoverse stories are fiction that Bertram Phillips writes. Bertram has become a school celebrity by getting his fantasy stories (they think) about them sold to professional magazines. Thirty students are sent into dino bodies, and since they’ve all read Bertram’s stories, they know instantly what’s happened – and most of them are cool with it. The dinosaurs don’t just hesitantly communicate mentally, they have regular conversations with each other. Bertram, now a Dilophosaurus (so is Aaron), is dismayed by the new events:
“The machine sat mashed into the ground, its shiny aluminum sides dented, its struts cracked, and all but two of its monitors shattered. Cables dangled from its ten-foot-long frame while bent or broken circuit boards drooped from its six-foot-high surface. A busted-up leather chair sat in its center, along with a keyboard dangling from one twisted arm.
‘The first problem is that it’s here when it should have stayed in our time,’ Bertram said. ‘The second is that it’s busted, and there are no replacement parts back here and no power supply to tap into even if we could fix it.” (p. 63)
“Bertram looked at the dozen dinosaurs who had come running to see the fight. He counted a pair of Syntarsus, a Scutellosaurus, some scurrying Compsognathus, a duck-billed Maiasaura, a Pachychalosaurus, a Heterodontosaurus, a Corythosaurus, a Diplodocus, and a Spinosaurus beyond the tiny brontosaur and the spike-tails. But that combination of dinosaurs just couldn’t be! Not in one region and one period. Circling overhead, some colorfully feathered Archaeopteryx and bucket-mouthed pterosaurs squawked.” (p. 66)
Claire DeLacey – “Crystal Claire”, a soft blonde whose parents have pushed her into becoming a child actress starring in dainty and sweet roles – is tired of everybody treating her as though she is going to shatter. When she becomes a giant scissor-jawed predator “that hadn’t yet been named” (Carcharodontosaurus), she claims to be Holly Cronk, the toughest girl in school.
J.D. “Judgment Day” Harms, the school bully and a genuine juvenile delinquent, is delighted to become a huge Apatosaurus. So what if it is a plant-eater? He figures that his new body is bulky enough to really push people around:
“‘Come on,’ J.D. said [to two Stegosaurii]. His tone was as light as he could manage. ‘We’re all plant eaters. So I know you’re not gonna eat me. What else can you do to me?’
Splotchy laughed as he advanced on J.D. ‘Come on, Fred. Let’s show him.’” (p. 49)
Meanwhile, back in Wetherford Junior High, Will Reilly is confronting a dinosaur who isn’t exactly one:
“What was looking his way wasn’t a dinosaur. Not exactly.
‘I say, are you lost?’ the figure asked.
Will stared at the strange being who had spoken. It had a saurian snout, green and pink scales, tiny teeth, and an almost-human-looking skull. It wore a red robe adorned with an elegant black pattern, and black cushioned sandals protected the soles of its feet.
‘Should I send for someone?’ the maybe-kinda-sorta dinosaur said. ‘Do you need help?’” (p. 71)
Will isn’t really in Wetherford Junior High’s dimension any more. He is in a parallel universe in which the dinosaurs won out over the mammals and evolved to develop intelligence and create a civilization. He flees through a city of robed saurians who consider him just a really deformed dino. Finally he meets a scientist who has an equivalent of the M.I.N.D. Machine:
“A lone saurian stood near the machine. It wore a white robe with silver and blue trim. It had a long neck and a curling tail. Its brow was furrowed, and it looked deep in thought.” (p. 82)
The dino scientist, whose name is Jae’Dee Harms, explains that the machine was recently found in strata 150 million years old and is still operating. It senses that Will’s body shares a dinosaur’s mind:
“The scientist’s leathery lips pulled back in a soft smile. ‘You are the logical choice to be the walker between our worlds. You are more than human. There is another spirit within you. A saurian spirit.’” (p. 83)
Will’s mental connection with Bertram in the past tells him and the other students in dino bodies that they are at a key point in time. Something that they will do will determine whether the future evolves to become a human reality or a Dinoverse:
“‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Bertram. There’s no easy way of doing it, and I wish I didn’t have to. But you have to fix things. You have to get the machine working again, and you have to set everything back the way it was. There isn’t a lot of time, either. In two days the volcano with the jagged peak is going to blow. You have to get everyone out of the valley before that happens. You have to get the machine to safety, too. And you have to make things right.’” (p. 85)
Bertram convinces them that the only way to succeed is for all of them to work together. But J.D. Harms sneers at the idea of cooperating. He likes being a lone, big dinosaur – and if that dooms all the others to remain trapped in dino bodies, and the future to become a Dinoverse, tough for them!
The dino teens get laid back. Party! While each of the key cast — Bertram, Claire, J.D., and Aaron – have chapters showing their personal development, the others chill out with a beach party. Dino surfers! The last part of the novel concentrates upon the four main characters as Bertram leads the other twenty-nine dino/students in carrying the M.I.N.D. Machine to safely; Claire and Aaron go after four of the group who have gotten separated; and J.D. plots to sabotage everyone. Cliffhanger!
Dinoverse #6, Dinosaurs Ate My Homework, ties everything up. J.D. has humiliated Bertram, taken over as the new leader of the dino/students, and apparently marooned them all 150 million years ago where he can become their dictator. But now he has to figure out what to do about problems, in addition to fighting off a challenge to his leadership from Reggie Firth (Pachycephalosaurus), and wondering about the enigmatic support he gets from Melissa (Massospondylus). A volcanic eruption perils everyone. J.D. poses as everyone’s benefactor while discrediting Aaron. Suddenly, about halfway through the novel, Aaron is pulled through a dimensional doorway back to Wetherford Junior High while still in his Dilophosaurus body:
“He turned around and saw a swirling black space behind him. The vortex was a door. He’d found a door between the past and the present! Only – he was still a dinosaur!
A switch was thrown and blinding light filled the gym. Aaron saw that he wasn’t alone. Dozens of dinosaurs stood about him, circling him warily. Others sat on the bleachers, looking on with gnashing teeth and clicking claws as a trio of raptors approached.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ the first raptor said. ‘And that door behind you can’t be allowed to exist. Not if we’re going to get what we want.’” (p. 118)
The dinosaurs awaiting Aaron are from a third timeline, manipulating the dimensions to make sure that their reality becomes dominant and that the realities of mammals, the Dinoverse, and a myriad of others fade away. In the dinosaur age, J.D. is confronted by Jae’Dee. Everything rushes to a dazzling and confusing, but satisfactory, conclusion.
When a novel/series begins with four young teenagers becoming talking dinosaurs millions of years in the past, and keeps building for six volumes, it has to end spectacularly. The sugar-coated paleontology is often briefly overwhelmed by silliness, such as the dinosaurian food fight in the school’s cafeteria in Dinosaurs Ate My Homework; but on the whole, the we’re dinosaurs; what do we do now? light adventure is pleasant reading.
– by Fred Patten