Guest Post: God’s Teeth! A Review of David Quammen’s Monster of God, by J. Comer

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the  Mind: Quammen, David: 9780393326093: Amazon.com: Books

Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld includes a conversation which alludes to SF world-making in a mildly funny way. Louis Wu’s shipmate Teela Brown objects to the idea that the makers of the Ringworld would bring only “safe” animals to their artificial world; she asks “What if the Ringworld Engineers [who built the huge Ring] liked tigers?”

In Monster of God, the science writer David Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo, travels through five landscapes seeking the last large predators and comes to what he calls a “science fiction ending”. 

Most readers of Cirsova don’t come here for the science, and some will question the review of a zoology book on this site.  Nevertheless, worldbuilding for fantasy, gaming, and SF authors usually includes descriptions of animal life, as well as the role played by predators in myth, art, and the story itself. 

Good world-makers, such as Hal Clement, craft all from top to bottom; some more careless authors simply throw a slew of carnivorous beasts at their heroes without wondering who eats whom. On Earth, the top predators which have survived the end of the Ice Age are central both to ecology (as keystone species) and to myth (as gods, as beings created by God, or as the enemies of gods or heroes).

The four ‘monsters’ of the title are lions in India, crocodiles in Australia, bears in Romania, and Siberian tigers. In each case we look both at the beasts and at the humans who have to deal with them: avoiding them, fighting them, hunting them, worshipping them.

The book reflects on the past as well as the future: like the makers of the Ringworld, we are building a habitat which is more and more artificial.  In our future, will we like tigers? Will we like them enough to give them enough space to live freely in the wild? And will we like them enough to tolerate them occasionally killing us?             

What can we make of this sojourn through lions, and tigers, and bears (and crocodiles!)?  On one level, the travel story is light reading, like a Bill Bryson story with more science asides.  The careful reader will note that the science is a very readable introduction to topics like trophic collapses and keystone predators (this section could make a whole fantasy campaign in a setting such as Nicholas Eames’ or Lois McMaster Bujold’s worlds, where losing one species, even a mightily nasty one, causes all heck to break loose).  On another, the SF writer could see here a reply to Niven’s question.  Well, what if they liked grizzly bears? Heinlein’s dragon-infested forest in Glory Road is an example of a good use of these concepts; there are many others. 

The book is a lesson, an enjoyable one, in how to use animals such as Burroughs’ banths or the “grezzen” in Buettner’s novels.  The thoughtful author or GM will profit from reading it.  Recommended.