The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, by Mike Resnick, is part of his WEIRD WEST series, featuring Theodore Roosevelt in an American frontier where colonial westward expansion was delayed for many decades by native magic. I read this book because I remember Resnick as being a writer with interesting ideas; “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge,” was good, and Kirinyaga was thought-provoking. With The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, I was disappointed. I felt like I was in an overloaded, underpowered cargo plane that was lumbering down the runway, gathering speed but never getting airborne.
The “doctor” of the title is Doc Holliday, famous gunfighter and gambler, who is coughing away the last days of his life in a tuberculosis sanitarium. He is visited by the Apache shaman Geronimo (Geronimo is not a war chief in this reality). Geronimo needs his help, and he restores Holliday’s health, partially, just enough so that Holiday will help him. Geronimo needs Holliday and Roosevelt to go into Wyoming territory and persuade two rival paleontologists, Marsh and Cope, from digging for dinosaur fossils. The two are about to desecrate a Cheyenne burial ground. Geronimo fears that the powerful Cheyenne shamans will study the fossils and bring to life the creatures they once were. Once corporeal, the dinosaurs will cover the west, jeopardizing Apache territory as well.
In Resnick’s Weird West, powerful native magic held the colonials at the Mississippi River for decades, until Roosevelt and Geronimo negotiated a treaty allowing for western expansion. Why Geronimo would do this, given our history with treaties (basically, we ignore them) I don’t know, because I haven’t read the previous books. This means, though, that Geronimo is not the best person to approach the Cheyenne himself. Why a white politician and a dying white killer are better choices escapes me, but that’s the Apache shaman’s plan and Holliday grudgingly agrees. After conveniently discovering Theodore Roosevelt in a nearby town, and even more conveniently discovering that he has brought along two good friends, Thomas Alva Edison and Edward Buntline (Edward Carroll Judson), Holliday leads them off into the mountains of Wyoming to stop dinosaurs from coming to life.
Marsh and Cope were real people and their real feud, nicknamed The Bone Wars, was fascinating and sad for both of them. Resnick shows us each man’s camp and shares discoveries of prodigious femurs and skulls. They are interesting, but I can’t be blamed for wanting the dinosaurs to show up. This part of the book is achingly slow; Roosevelt rides on to Marsh’s camp, allegedly to try to talk March into moving to Colorado to dig. Holliday hangs out with Cope, grousing that he hates mornings, complaining that his whiskey flask is empty and going to refill it; occasionally outdrawing some foolish man who tries to rob or shoot him, and reminding us all several times that the famous shootout did not take place at the OK Corral, but behind it. He makes no effort to persuade Cope, and it appears that Roosevelt makes no effort to talk Marsh into moving, either. Eventually, dinosaurs do show up, but they tend to come on stage one at a time, primarily so Roosevelt and Holliday can be amazed at their size. In one thrilling passage, Roosevelt lassos a brontosaur and leads it down to the river, and in the best scene in the book, Holliday shoots a T-Rex in the eye and kills it. Edison, meanwhile, invents a steam-punkish weapon that is the most realistic thing in the book. It will kill a dinosaur, but it only fires for about twenty minutes and then has to recharge overnight, much like fancy electrical doo-dads everywhere.
The solution is clever, but fell flat because Holliday and Roosevelt didn’t have to work on it. After loafing around the two professors’ camps for weeks, complaining and debating alternate history, they go off and create the solution. I wondered why they hadn’t just done that in the first place.
Roosevelt is a well-drawn caricature: smart, erudite, canny, political, and high-energy. Holliday is probably historically accurate as curmudgeon who is slowly drowning from the inside. Marsh and Cope are depicted in broad strokes. Edison is a plot mechanism more than anything. Most seriously, the tension never ratchets up. This episodic plot holds the pace to a leisurely amble.
You are wondering why I haven’t discussed the women characters who interact with our principles in this book. There is Kate Elder, the madam who is Holliday’s on-again, off-again squeeze, who we hear about; there is a prostitute who talks to Holliday at a saloon; there is a woman caregiver at the sanitarium. Those are the women characters. Elder apparently runs a brothel of mechanical prostitutes, or as men in the book call them, “metal chippies.” “Chippy” was slang for prostitute, but still, “metal chippy” doesn’t conjure up a sense of a fun-loving, complaint, good-time girl to me… it’s more like, “Ow.”
The book is dotted with simple black and white illustration by Andrew Bosley, which adds some interest. It’s clear that Resnick really enjoys writing his version of Roosevelt, and the dinosaurs, when they show up, are cool. Still, there really wasn’t enough here for me. I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t enjoy it much either. I’d say, pass on The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, and find an anthology that has “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” in it instead.