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Book Review: The Great Zoo of China

By (February 8, 2015) No Comment

The Great Zoo of Chinathe great china zoo cover

by Matthew Reilly

Gallery Books, 2015

A secret wilderness-park (in which roam giant saurian creatures unlike any known to the modern world) invites a handful of outsiders – including a plucky pair of Americans and an officious bureaucrat – to get an advance-peak and lend the park some credibility, but then things go horribly wrong and all the humans involved suddenly find themselves at the bottom of the food chain! You know this book, you read it twenty-five years ago, and you loved the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie with that wacky Jeff Goldblum.

Doctor Grant, my dear Doctor Sadler, welcome to … The Great Zoo of China?

Your disorientation is understandable, but this is not, in fact, Jurassic Park, and those aren’t dinosaurs loitering around in Guangdong province – they’re dragons, see, because everbody has boring old genetically-reconstructed dinosaurs; I hired some just last week for my kid’s bar mitzvah (they ate the Irish caterers, so it was win-win). No, as Matthew Reilly emphasizes in his (using the term very guardedly) new novel The Great Zoo of China, China needs something really special, something unique to itself with which to bedazzle the outside world of hated capitalists.

In short, China needs real, live dragons, because, as we’re told early on in the book, everybody associates China with three things: pandas, a very long wall, and, apparently, dragons. So for forty years, the monolithic Communist government of China has been constructing a gigantic artificial valley in complete secrecy, and their scientists have been working to populate that valley with dragons. And as The Great Zoo of China opens, the Chinese government is at last ready to unveil the place and invite the scrutiny (and tourism) of the West.

So naturally, they select a very, very small group of Westerners in order to shepherd them to the hidden valley, because that makes so much more sense than, say, putting a thirty-minute brochure video on YouTube. The small group consists of CJ Cameron (she’s “a petite five foot six, with piercing amber eyes and shoulder-length blond hair … fit, athletic, and pretty in a sporty kind of way”), who’s a reptile-specialist on assignment from National Geographic, her goofy, fun-guy brother Hamish (“four years younger than CJ and a towering six foot three inches tall … he lived large, partied hard, drank a bit too much and was always getting into trouble”), smarmy Kirk Syme, the U.S. Ambassador to China, and Seymour Wolfe, “a big-bellied man of about fifty with a carefully trimmed gray beard that had clearly been grown in an attempt to conceal his wobbly jowls, the jowls of a man who had enjoyed many long lunches.” Wolfe, we’re told, isn’t just a columnist at the Times, he was “the columnist, the paper’s most well-known and influential op-ed writer … the man who informed America about the world.”

As such a description makes abundantly clear, Wolfe is in the story mainly to disgorge enormous amounts of exposition. “China is the future,” he says a few dozen times, “and the rest of the world had better get used to it.” The place is a sprawling bonanza of potential (unless you’re part of the enslaved 95%, but they don’t merit more than a mention or two in the book), as Wolfe is forever telling everybody:

“Make no mistake, people, with its natural wonders and its industrial centers, southern China is a commercial juggernaut, the engine room of the entire country. The two megacities of this area, Guangzhou and Dongguan, are home to sixty million people, But fly a short way inland and the cities vanish and you essentially travel back in time to landscapes like this. Out here, you’ll find only small communities of rice farmers.”

The group no sooner arrives at the outskirts of the “zoo” than their Chinese hosts – a row of identically attractive stewardesses, some party bigwigs, the charming-but-don’t-be-fooled Colonel Bao, and the zoo’s officials – go straight into Jurassic Park mode: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Welcome to the most incredible place on Earth.”

What follows is 400 pages of wretchedly lazy prose (“You haven’t seen anything yet,” “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and so on to the point where you’re virtually certain Reilly is having an elaborate joke at his readers’ expense) about a place “as distinctive as Disneyland.”

There’s not a single detail of The Great Zoo of China that can’t be accurately predicted from the minute our little cast of characters disembarks at the dragon theme-park. And the foremost aid to making those predictions is, as already hinted, Jurassic Park, which this so shamelessly copies, substituting “China” for “InGen” and “dragons” for “dinosaurs.” The main difference between Jurassic Park and The Great Zoo of China, in fact, is that Jurassic Park is part of The Great Zoo of China, but not vice versa. If Reilly’s book didn’t exist in a world where Jurassic Park had already happened, the Chinese in his book would have no reason to skip right past cloning dinosaurs (the fossils of many hundreds of bizzare and fascinating types of which have been uncovered in their country) and go straight to bioengineering mythical creatures. The whole thing is based on a one-upmanship that wouldn’t even exist if not for the book Reilly is ripping off.

It makes for a surreal reading experience, and not in a good way. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was gawd-awful enough as it is; nobody needs a book that actually makes you nostalgic to revisit it.