The Challenge Of Writing About Dinosaurs And Spaceships

Spaceships are cool.

As are dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs on a spaceship are very cool, as Doctor Who showed us this past year.

However, coolness is not enough to make a good story.  Otherwise, every shiny blockbuster of the summer would be amazing.

The two main challenges to writing about dinosaurs and spaceship are: 1. despite their sheer awesomeness, dinosaurs and spaceships are objects without inherent personality, and 2. as scientists explore the universe and history, more questions are answered.  So, how are these overcome?

1. Dinosaurs and Spaceships and Personality

A spaceship zooming past could be exciting, or it could be a chunk of metal flowing past.  A dinosaur approaching can be terrifying, funny, or it could be a slobbering mess of computer generated pixels with no presence.  The dinosaurs and spaceships we remember have a presence and personality.

In the Doctor Who episode mentioned above, the triceratops is like a dog and a pony combined into one.  In Jurassic Park, some of the dinosaurs are dog-like, while the T-rex and raptors are treated as monsters.  In a good Star Trek show or film, the Enterprise is as much a character as the actors.  The Original Series is often a love story between Kirk and the Enterprise.

A prime example of the challenge of portraying spaceships is in comparing the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy to the Original Trilogy.

In the Prequel Trilogy, spaceships are mainly ‘cool’, shiny, and sleek, with a ‘gee whiz!’ factor.  My favorite space-battle/chase scene is actually in Attack of the Clones, when Jango Fett’s ship launches seismic bombs that go ‘shiwim…. Bwonnnnng’ and make everything explode.  However, it is only because the seismic bombs are cool, and fun to use in the Gamecube game Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike (not a great game, by the way, but that is another story).

Contrast this super-shininess to the Millennium Falcon.

The Millennium Falcon has a personality and mind of its own, reminding us of our own clunker cars.  It is the vehicle you love and are attached to, even though it breaks all the time.  Han Solo would not be half as cool without the Millennium Falcon as his true love.  It speaks to his character, and is an integral part of the story.

Even beyond the Falcon, all ships in the Original Trilogy have a touch of personality.  The Rebel fighters are beat up, scarred, and showing their age.  A high-pitched squeal introduces the TIE fighters, warning of their dangerous presence.  The Imperial Star Destroyers loom across the screen, overpowering the Rebel forces by their sheer size.  In all three movies, each ship has a purpose, a presence, and a personality.

2. Knowledge: The Double-Bladed Sword

Space exploration and paleontology are both awesome, and contribute to humanity’s growing understanding of the universe and of Earth itself.

However, with each bit of information, we risk of a small piece of wonder being whisked away.

In the pulp sci-fi stories of the 1950’s, no terrestrial probes had penetrated, or scanned via radar, the atmosphere of Venus to get an image of the surface. Dinosaurs, jungles, and endless wonders could be believable there.  Living on the molten-hot surface was possible.  Spaceships could be any shape and size.

However, science has demoted Pluto from being a planet (no wonder Hades was so upset in Disney’s Hercules).  Science has discovered Dinosaurs probably had feathers, and were more birdlike than we imagined.  A tyrannosaurus rex should not be fluffy.

There are still vast mysteries and undiscovered wonders in the universe.  For example, dark matter makes up a large portion of the universe, but remains a grand mystery.  However, in taking apart and analyzing the LEGO blocks of the universe, we may be losing sight of the super-shiny castle of wonder.

As a writer, my job is to restore the wonder and excitement to spaceships and dinosaurs and the universe itself.  Do I go far out, and ignore scientific knowledge, or do I work within the known universe to find the shades of mystery and build stories on that foundation?  How do I write about dinosaurs and spaceships in a way which maintains their coolness?


How about you?  What is your favorite dinosaur or spaceship?  How do you work science into your writing?  If you were to have a pet dinosaur, which would you pick?  If you could go for a ride in a spaceship, which one would you go in?  Is there anything as cool as dinosaurs or spaceships?


Here are a couple posts that inspired this post:

If Earth Had Rings Like Saturn from Kosher Samurai

I Heart Dinosaurs from Rarasaur

Just for fun, here’s the trailer for The LEGO Movie:

And, a bit of what happens at Nerd Night (a monthly party of awesome)


30 thoughts on “The Challenge Of Writing About Dinosaurs And Spaceships

  1. The Star Wars Prequels did have a couple of merits. (Not many.) The Jango Fett/Obi Wan chase through the asteroid belt was one of them. (I also thought General Grievous was pretty sweet, but there are those who disagree of course.) If I was to choose a spacecraft to ride in: The Millennium Falcon for sure. I like Dinosaurs too. Great post!

    • If Grievous and Darth Maul could have been used for multiple films, and given a longer story arc, they could have been awesome. Instead, both characters get a ” Look! A cool character design… oh, now they are dead” treatment. A sad waste of coolness.

  2. The trick is to find a good story that is already written and add spaceships and dinosaurs to it. Shakespeare’s always a crowd-pleaser, so how about A Midsummer’s Nights Dream–with Spaceships And Dinosaurs! Somebody call Andrew Lloyd Webber, I think we’ve got a winner here!

    “If we shadows have offended, think on this and all is mended–freakin’ dinosaurs on a freakin’ spaceship!”

  3. I like the sentient spaceships in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels myself, especially “Excession.” And James Blish had intelligent dinosaur-like creatures on the planet Lithia in his novel “A Case of Conscience,” probably the only sci-fi novel featuring a Jesuit priest, extra-terrestrial life, Manichean theology, and a Norwegian Pope.

  4. I’m kinda wondering if the girl in the Lego movie is Harper Row. It would make no sense, but hey…

    Also, pity about Rogue Squadron 3; the earlier ones were so shiny. I’m hoping it gets a solid reboot from EA.

    • There are some good moments in the game, but Rogue Leader (#2) is the best. The best part of Rogue Squadron 3, actually, is the ability to play Rogue Squadron 2 in two-player mode.

        • I think I was in middle school when the first game came out. It was part of a package deal with the N64 – which my siblings and I spent months saving up to buy. I then played it a bajillion times, to the point where I memorized how many TIE fighters there were in each level.
          My favorite Star Wars games are the flight simulator games, and I’ve played most of them far too many times. Did I mention I like spaceships?

  5. Hmm. I never thought about a favorite dinosaur. Probably the T-Rex. I crocheted one of those for a baby shower a year ago. Very fun to do. I like Anakin’s ship, the one he usually piloted in The Clone Wars animated series. It’s sleek. Sorry. I don’t know the name of it.

    • Anakin’s ship would be a Jedi Starfighter, which is a better designed ship than most of the prequels. Part of the appeal of the ship is it resembles A-Wing from the rebel forces in Return of the Jedi, and it looks like a real spaceship.

  6. You touch on one of the under-appreciated aspects of Star Wars (I refuse to call it Episode 6) which is the set dressing and props. Everything on the Death Star was hard and clean and shiny. Everything on Tattooine was rounded, dusty and way-worn. Likewise the ships were either bright white and angular, or pale gray and more circular. These things created the characters of Empire and Rebels, just as much as what Luke and Vader did.

    But… Anything with a bite the size of T-Rex would be terrifying, whether feathered or scaly. Have you seen the reconstruction of Gastornis and some of the terror birds? Yikes!

    • The fancy film term for ‘set-dressing and props’ is mise-en-scene. Use that in your next conversation about film, and all your friends will be impressed.
      One of the things many sci-fi films are missing is a sense of use, a sense that this isn’t a brand new space built for the film, but instead is something people live in every day.

  7. The only spaceship I know is the USS Enterprise, so I’m going to have to go with that one! As for dinosaurs, can’t really say I’m a fan. Also, that LEGO movie looks absolutely fantastic. Can’t wait to watch it. 😀

  8. I know it’s not a “spaceship,” but when I saw Star Wars during it’s original theatrical run, I reeeally wanted a landspeeder.

    I still want a landspeeder. I would use it to drive my pet stegosaurus to the vet.

  9. My favorite dinosaur is the Spinosaurus. My kids like the T-Rex and Velociprators, but I love the brutish Spino ’cause in Jurassic Park III it won a fight against a T-Rex. That, in itself, is cool! It’s also a fast predator.

    As for a dinosaur as a pet, I’m thinking a Galimipus. I think that’s how it’s written. They flock like birds but are fast runners. Love them!

  10. It’s funny you write this because I always say, “You hear me, baby? Hold together!” when I’m driving my 13 year old car. It definitely has moments of failed transmission when all I can think is, “@##i&$&(@!!!” and I’m reminded of Han Solo’s constant failed hyperdrive in ESB.

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