When I was kid, one of my favorite Saturday morning shows was Land of the Lost, which was about a family that was transported back in time to the age of dinosaurs. I didn't know it at the time, but my future science-fiction–loving self would have marveled at the fact that some of the show's episodes were written by science-fiction writers, including David Gerrold (who was also an un-credited show creator), Theodore Sturgeon, D.C. Fontana (who worked on the original Star Trek), Ben Bova, and Larry Niven. I loved seeing the magnificent beasts, poorly animated as they were, and it was a wonderful adventure for a wide-eyed kid.
Dinosaurs are still relatively popular in pop culture. Just look at the film Jurassic World from earlier this year and this month's release of The Good Dinosaur. In the former, dinosaurs are genetically engineered to populate a cutting-edge theme park (despite the horrific accidents that happened in the previous three films—don't get me started); in the latter, a dinosaur befriends a human boy. The premise of The Good Dinosaur ignores the fact that, time travel notwithstanding, humans and dinosaurs never co-existed. That's an inconvenient truth as far as fiction is usually concerned. But science fiction has also used dinosaurs to push fiction in interesting directions as well.
Lost World Stories
In the beginning, science fiction that included dinosaurs landed mostly in the realm of so-called Lost World stories, in which a previously uncharted part of our world was found to have wondrous creatures. (Now we know them to have Starbucks.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) is the prime example and gives the subgenre its name. It's about an expedition to a South American plateau where prehistoric creatures like dinosaurs still roam. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series, beginning with At the Earth's Core (1914), also included dinosaurs and flying reptiles near the center of the Earth. Burroughs used dinosaurs again in
The Land That Time Forgot (1918), although this time he included some biological and evolutionary underpinnings for the existence of the dinosaurs and their prehistoric pals on the fictional island of Caprona. The Wizard of Lemuria (1965) by Lin Carter, the first of the Thongor series of books set on the lost continent of Lemuria where prehistoric creatures survived the extinction event that wiped out their brethren, is a sword and sorcery tale with a hybrid reptilian/humanoid race descended from dinosaurs.
As the geography of the world became less of a mystery, authors needed a new way to bring dinosaurs into the picture. Time travel is a convenient plot device used to bring human protagonists and dinosaurs together. But it's a tricky trope, too, since it gives rise to the possibility of changing the future. Ray Bradbury explored this idea in his famous 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder." (Let's pretend the awful 2005 film adaptation doesn't exist, okay?) In Clifford D. Simak's Mastodonia (1978), an alien visitor opens up a gateway through time in which mankind sees new resources to plunder for profit. Orion in the Dying Time by Ben Bova (1990) puts its time-traveling protagonist at the end of the Cretaceous Period to save the Creators from the satanic reptilian leader of the saurians. Dinosaurs and a Dirigible by David Drake (2014) is a collection of linked stories about big game hunters who travel to the past for sport, and what bigger game than dinosaurs? Meanwhile, in Robert J. Sawyer's End of an Era (1994), scientists travel back in time to the late Mesozoic in order to learn the real reason dinosaurs became extinct. (Spoiler: it's too much Starbucks.) In an untraditional sort of time travel, the boundaries between past and present dissolve in James David's Thunder trilogy. Across the novels (1995's Footprints of Thunder, 2006's Thunder of Time, and 2012's Dinosaur Thunder), chunks of the prehistoric past displace present day locations, so you end up with dinosaurs roaming the now-dangerous streets of populated cities.
Dinosaurs, But Not As We Know Them
In 1995's Raptor Red, real-life paleontologist Robert T. Bakker (who worked as a consultant on the Jurassic Park film) dramatizes the life of its heroine protagonist, a Raptor dinosaur roaming the Earth of 120 million years ago. He based the story on his scientifically supported theories of dinosaur life. But most times, science fiction takes liberties with evolutionary history, either that of humans or of dinosaurs themselves.
Stephen Baxter's audacious Evolution (2002), for example, includes a race of sapient dinosaurs as it traces the epic 565 million–year evolution of the human race. In the alternate history of Brian Falkner's Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo (2015), dinosaurs never became extinct and Napoleon uses them to fight the Battle of Waterloo. The alternate history in Harry Harrison's West of Eden (1984) also supposes that dinosaurs did not become extinct, and that they lived long enough to come into contact with primitive humans. In Robert J Sawyer's Quintaglio Ascension sequence (comprised of 1992's Far-Seer, 1993's Fossil Hunter, and 1994's Foreigner), the evolution of the dinosaurs was drastically changed when aliens transported them to another world before their Earthly demise. Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear (1998) takes place in an alternate history in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World was not fiction, but fact. Here, after a dinosaur-themed circus closes down, an expedition is undertaken to return the creatures back into the wild.
Speaking of theme parks, the one story just about everyone can name (thanks to the 1993 Steven Spielberg adaptation) is Jurassic Park by Michel Crichton (1990), which revolves around the ill-conceived idea of a theme park specializing in genetically grown dinosaurs. Mayhem continues in Crichton's sequel The Lost World, the title an obvious nod to Doyle's classic. That's not the only place we see dinosaurs where we didn't expect to see them. The steampunk Wild West of The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick holds up the "weird" part of its Weird Western subgenre label by posing dinosaurs as a threat to the heroic exploits of Doc Holliday, Theodore Roosevelt, Cole Younger, and Buffalo Bill Cody. And finally, in The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán (2015), different factions of humanity wage war on the backs of dinosaurs.