"Monster-Rama of the Lost Death World
... and Why Things Don't Really Work That Way"
Jordan S. Bassior
If you're a fan of classic science fiction ... written or visual ... you've read or seen this scene before. The Hero and his friends -- maybe a Plucky Sidekick, a Brilliant Scientist, and a True Love ... step out from their spaceship or mechanical mole or dimensional portal. They look upon a world never before gazed upon by modern men. They gasp in awe ...
... and then in fear! For a monster attacks! Before they can deal with this threat, a second monster attacks the first one! And then a third the second one! Emphasizing the utter strangeness and terror of this bizarre land, a ruthless and savage struggle for survival takes place before their very eyes, with creatures acting out an insanely-vicious chain of predation right before their very eyes.
I am not entirely certain just when this trope originated. I don't recall the wildlife being quite so frantic in Tarzan of the Apes or A Princess of Mars, so I don't think it's from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It can be seen in some relatively early science fiction, such as this classic bit from E. E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928):
The scene, so quiet a few moments before, was instantly changed. The trees, the swamp, and the air seemed filled with monsters so hideous as to stagger the imagination. Winged lizards of prodigious size hurtled through the air, plunging to death against the armored hull. Indescribable flying monsters, with feathers like birds, but with the fangs of tigers, attacked viciously. Dorothy screamed and started back as a scorpion-like thing with a body ten feet in length leaped at the window in front of her, its terrible sting spraying the glass with venom. As it fell to the ground, a huge spider—if an eight-legged creature with spines instead of hair, many-faceted eyes, and a bloated, globular body weighing hundreds of pounds, may be called a spider—leaped upon it and, mighty mandibles against poisonous sting, the furious battle raged. Several twelve-foot cockroaches climbed nimbly across the fallen timber of the morass and began feeding voraciously upon the body of the dead dinosaur, only to be driven away by another animal, which all three men recognized instantly as that king of all prehistoric creatures, the saber-toothed tiger. This newcomer, a tawny beast towering fifteen feet high at the shoulder, had a mouth disproportionate even to his great size—a mouth armed with four great tiger-teeth more than three feet in length. He had barely begun his meal, however, when he was challenged by another nightmare, a something apparently half-way between a dinosaur and a crocodile. At the first note the tiger charged. Clawing, striking, rending each other with their terrible teeth, a veritable avalanche of bloodthirsty rage, the combatants stormed up and down the little island. But the fighters were rudely interrupted, and the earthly visitors discovered that in this primitive world it was not only animal life that was dangerous.(from Chapter XI: "Through Space Into the Carboniferous")
The great tree standing on the farther edge of the island suddenly bent over, lashing out like a snake and grasping both. It transfixed them with the terrible thorns, which were now seen to be armed with needlepoints and to possess barbs like fish-hooks. It ripped at them with the long branches, which were veritable spears. The broad leaves, armed with revolting sucking disks, closed about the two animals, while the long, slender twigs, each of which was now seen to have an eye at its extremity, waved about, watching each movement of the captives from a safe distance.
If the struggle between the two animals had been awful, this was Titanic. The air was torn by the roars of the reptile, the screams of the great cat, and the shrieks of the tree. The very ground rocked with the ferocity of the conflict. There could be but one result—soon the tree, having absorbed the two gladiators, resumed its upright position in all its beauty.
and, a bit less known, a scene from one of the stories I've reprinted here: Charles Willard Diffin's Dark Moon (1931):
A man it seemed at first, when Harkness saw the figure leap outward from the cliff. A second one followed. They landed on all fours upon a rock that jutted outward toward the trees.
The impact would have killed a human, but these creatures stood upright to face the concealment from which they had sprung. One was covered with matted, brown hair. Its arms were long, and its fists pounded upon a barrel-like chest, while it growled hoarsely. The other ape-thing, naked and hairless, did the same. They were both uttering those sounds, that at times seemed almost like grunted words, when the end came.
A swishing of leather wings!—a swooping, darting rush of a huge body!—and one of the ape-men, as Harkness had mentally termed them, was struggling in the clutch of talons that gripped him fast.
The giant bat-shape that had seized him reached for the other, too. A talon ripped at the naked face, but the ape-man dodged and vanished among the rocks.
With pounding wings, the bat swept off in lumbering flight, but with its burden it seemed heavy, and failed to rise. The trees were close, and their waving tentacles drew back, then shot out to splash about the intruder. The talons released their hold, and the huge leather wings flapped frantically; but too late. Both captor and captive were wrapped in an embrace of iridescent arms and held struggling in mid-air, while the unmoving watchers below stood in horror before this drama of life and death.
Then a red bud opened. It was enormous, and its flowery beauty made more revolting the spectacle of the living food that was thrust within its maw.
The bud closed. Its petals were like lips.... And Diane, in white-faced horror, was clinging to the protecting arm of Chet Bullard beside her. Chet, too, had paled beneath his tan. But Walter Harkness, though white of face, was staring not at the crimson bud, shut tightly about its living food, but upward toward the broken, rocky face of the cliff.
The flying thing, the unnamed horror of the air, had come silently from on high. None of them had seen it until it struck, and he was sure that the ape-men had been taken unaware. Then what had frightened them? What other horror had driven them in screaming terror to that fearful spring out into the open where they must have known danger awaited?
Did a rock move? he wondered. Was the splotch of color—that mottling of crimson and copper and gray—a part of the metallic mass? He rubbed his smarting eyes—and when he looked again the color was gone. But he had a conviction that eyes, sinister and deadly, had been staring into his, that a living mass had withdrawn softly into a shadowed cave, and that the menace that had threatened the ape-men was directed now toward them.
Was this the reason for the silence? Was this valley, so peaceful in its sunlit stillness, a place of death, from which all living things kept clear? Had the ape-men been drawn there through curiosity at seeing their ship float down?
And the quiet beauty of the valley—it might be as horrible a mockery as the blazing splendor of those things ahead—those beautiful and horrible eaters of flesh! His voice was unsteady as he turned toward the others.
"Let's call this off," he said: "there is something up there. We'll go back to the ship and get up in the air again. We'll find a healthier place to land."
(from Chapter VI, "Trapped")
In both stories there is a chain of predation at least three deep: something tries to attack or confront the heroes, when something else attacks the first attackers, and then something else attacks the second attackers. And in each story, this serves to illustrate the utter lethality of the alien environment, and something about the nature of the life-forms to be found there.
In the real world, if one ventures out into even a rather lush and dangerous environment, such as the Serengetti Plains or the Amazon Jungle, things don't work like this. You may indeed see many interesting life forms, but you won't see them all attacking each other in a madly-accelerated enactment of the food chain, right before your eyes.
Why won't you see this?
To begin with, big animals are rare. Most of the biomass in any given ecosystem is in smaller animals. For every Radelgian Cateagle, there will be dozens of Radelgian Ratpigeons and hundreds more Shrewsparrows. Hmm, maybe you'd better put your DeLameters on maximum aperture ... I hear those Shrewsparrows are nasty. On the real Serengetti, the biomass of termites is greater than the biomass of mammals. Which is impressive, when you consider how big are many of those individual mammals.
Secondly, carnivores are rare. Because energy is lost in each stage of conversion from primary producers (plants, etc.) to herbivores to carnivores, and likewise up the food chain to top predators, biomass higher in the food chain must on the average be vastly outnumbered and supported by biomass lower on the food chain. Returning to the Serengetti, vast herds of wildebeest and other grazers greatly outnumber small groups of carnivores -- and if they didn't, the carnivores would first kill all the herbivores, then starve to death themselves.
Thirdly, while herbivores do spend most of their time grazing or browsing, because of the relatively low per-mass-unit nutrtional value of plant foodstuffs, carnivores do not spend most of their time hunting, because once a carnivore makes a kill, it usually has enough meat to feed it for a while. In fact, because carnivores need to use a lot of energy really fast in order to catch and overpower their prey, many pure carnivores actuallly spend most of their time resting (sleeping, drowsing or simply relaxing) in order to build up their strength for the next hunt. The perfect example of this can be seen in your own house: domestic cats doze around three-quarters of the time. Their bigger cousins, such as lions, behave in a similar fashion.
Fourthly, when a carnivore has successfully made a kill, its main concern is to find a safe place to stash and eat the kill before a stronger carnivore comes along to drive the first carnivore off its kill (such an act is called "hijacking"). If the stronger carnivore does come along, while it may kill the weaker one if it refuses to retreat, the stronger carnivore would usually rather give it the chance to retreat first, since once close-range battle is joined the stronger carnivore might get hurt -- and even if it wins the fight, the injured victor may be so badly hurt that its own survival chances are greatly weakened.
These factors combine to mean that a Monster-Rama is improbable. In fact, an observer in a real-life wild environment would only occasionally witness a carnivore actually make a kill or even attempted kill; though if he knew what to look for he would sometimes see carnivores feeding on a kill, and regularly happen upon evidence of kills in the form of bones, etc. If he did see a carnivore make a kill, it is very unlikely that he would then see another carnivore kill or even seriously wound the first carnivore, though he might see a hijacking attempt unfold.
Given this, why was the Monster-Rama so popular? Why did writers of the Interwar Era employ the device, and why did readers find it reasonable?
III. Why Monster-Rama?
The science-fiction and fantasy writers were informed by travel and hunting narratives, and the writers of these non-fiction narratives even when being honest would of course only mention the interesting things that they did or witnessed. And even if the non-fiction writers were honest enough to mention days of slogging through forests or swamps without sighting anything interesting, or poetic enough to describe some true natural wonders such as vast herds on the plains, with no violence immediately in the offing, among the events which would stick in the minds of the readers would of course be violence: a lion making a kill or attacking the party, two elephants fighting, and so on.
What's more, the science fiction and fantasy writers wanted to thrill their own readers, and to do it within the constraints of a short story or short novel (The Skylark of Space, the longer of the two works I cited, is under 90,000 words, and the scene on the primitive planet is just one chapter of a book which covers a lot of territory, both figuratively and literally). They also wanted to give the readers a sense of the fantastic worlds they had created. The quickest way to thrill the readers while demonstrating your imaginary critters is to have them attack the protagonists, or each other. This is what E. E. "Doc" Smith and Charles W. Diffin each did in those two scenes (and in the case of The Dark Moon, Diffin revealed a couple of points very important to the rest of the story, and set up a situation utterly vital to the plot).
This may be a crude sort of way of creating excitement, but it works. In fact, it wasn't until I started both analyzing the speculative fiction writing of the Interwar Era and seriously studying evolutionary biology that I realized what rung false about those scenes. And I still enjoyed reading them, even after I knew why things wouldn't really work that way.
Also, before modern science fiction writers feel too superior to the pioneers like "Doc" Smith over this issue, reflect that today an author like John Wright or David Weber can write a whole novel, pretty much to whatever length is necessary to tell the story (or plan it out as a series in advance if it would be longer than a publisher is willing to put out in a single volume) and expect to find a market for that sort of thing. Today, science fiction is established as a genre suitable for the novel or story-arc-driven novel series form. This was not the case when E. E. "Doc" Smith began writing: unless you were both very good and very fortunate, as was Edgar Rice Burroughs, you did not have the freedom to write at such length (and with all that, Burroughs' novels are short and his series somewhat disconnected by modern standards).
Non-fiction is guilty of exactly the same artificially-amplified excitement. Consider the classic Natural History illustration: the one that shows a particular time or place, such as the Late Cretaceous or the modern Serengetti. You will almost always see a huge assemblage of animals, and many of them will be interacting in some exciting way: if there isn't a carnivore actually attacking its prey (think of all of the Tyrannosaur-vs.-Triceratops duels) there will be two carnivores clashing over a recent kill, or two bulls fighting over the females. The reason, of course, is the same as in the case of the fiction writers: the illustrator wishes to informatively display as many animals characteristic of the ecosystem that he can cram onto his canvas, and he wants them to be doing something interesting so that the viewer's attention is rivetted. It's the same motive, and with the same effect: it tends to present a Nature even redder in tooth and claw than it is for real -- or would be, on some far-off alien planet.
The state of the art in the genre has improved, however. In the Golden and Silver Ages of science fiction, writers like Hal Clement and Poul Anderson showed science fiction how an alien ecosystem could be presented in a story, and presented both as beautiful and as interesting, without the need for constant tag-team predatory violence. (And of course, this hardly precludes the occasional predatory violence, for that is a very real part of Nature!)
Still I love the old Monster-Ramas. They may have been hokey -- but damn, they were fun. :)