Regular readers will know that my new book, The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (A & C Black in UK; UCP in US), was released over the last few weeks. By all accounts, it’s currently selling well and the reviews that have appeared so far have all been outstandingly positive [example]. Things are looking good. But I work hard, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve received the news that a second book I completed at about the same time is also now out. Today I received my copy, so can at last talk about it.
Titled Prehistoric here in the UK (and Prehistoric Life in North America), the book is an enormous, sumptuously illustrated, 512-page encyclopedia, published by Dorling Kindersley. It basically charts the entire history of life, starting with the formation of the planet and ending up with the evolution of modern humans. The bulk of Prehistoric is devoted to the fossils of the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, and, yes, that means plants and invertebrates as well as dinosaurs and big mammals. It looks awesome; a lot of people will want it for Christmas. And don’t be put off by the fact that there’s a freakin’ FISH on the cover. A non-tetrapod, oh the shame…
As is usual for big DK encyclopedias, this was a multi-authored effort with a team of something like 24 authors, 12 consultants and a substantial number of artists, designers, editors and so on. I tackled dinosaurs and Mesozoic mammals, but didn’t do all of them; Roger Benson, Steve Brusatte, Dave Hone and Xu Xing are on the authorship too, so may have done some of the dinosaurs that I didn’t, and I think Dave also did pterosaurs. Roger did Palaeozoic synapsids. Jason Anderson, Jenny Clack and Andrew Milner (the British one) dealt with Palaeozoic and Mesozoic non-amniotes and other creatures, and Don Prothero did Cenozoic mammals. Other authors produced the many spreads on plants and invertebrates, the section openers, and the introductory spreads.
Perhaps the most satisfying and impressive section is Fiona Coward’s ‘The Rise of Humans’, and I suppose I say this because it looks comprehensive and includes brilliant diagrams. Just about every hominin gets coverage. I mean, there’s even reference to Homo georgicus and H. sapiens idaltu [Neanderthal spread below, from DK site].
As you might guess from a book subtitled ‘The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth’, the book is a visual feast, with numerous gorgeous photos of fossils as well as a huge number of CG reconstructions. My favourite features are the ‘visual tours’ where close-up annotated photos provide detailed information on the skeleton of a particular dinosaur [yeah, sorry: dinosaur. Nothing like this for mammals or other non-dinosaurian animals. One is shown above, © DK]. Some of the art is really good: favourite pics of mine include an Effigia group crossing a stream, a Quetzalcoatlus doing the trademark baby sauropod thing (homage to Witton), and a garish red-spotted Dimetrodon. I worked hard with Andrew Kerr, Peter Minister and Francisco Gascó to produce reasonably accurate dinosaurs: time was a constraint, as it always is when doing books like this, and various errors (such as pronated hands on theropods, an absence of dermal spikes on one or two diplodocoids, and the usual overly-broad beaks on ceratopsians) made it through for this reason. In cases, errors also made it through because I didn’t get to see the final version of the art and someone else then gave it the green light (terrible terrible terrible Archaeopteryx on p. 264, I’m looking at you. Consultant concerned: j’accuse). Some of the art is really not so good, but I’ll refrain from discussing it – or the individuals who produced it – here. For previous discussions of the problem I’m referring to – we’ll call it the Pixel-shack Experience – go here, and hopefully this will now make a bit more sense.
Anyway, it’s good to see Prehistoric in print at last, and I hope people like it. Just remember that I’m not responsible for the really bad bits. Congrats to co-authors and the art and editorial team – when and where is the party?
Oh yeah: sorry, slight hiatus in the toads toads toads schedule.