Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied

Look -- you know I love fake non-fiction, right? The kind of books that seem to have come from a world somewhat similar to our own, but substantially changed?

Well, for years I've been saying that Pamela Wharton Blanpied's Dragons: The Modern Infestation was one of the best of that small category, along with Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail. But I only read Dragons once, a good twenty years ago. What if I remembered it wrong?

So I got a new copy and read it again. And, of course, I was right all along: Dragons: The Modern Infestation is wonderful. It's also sneakier and smarter than I remembered, which implies I might have missed half of the fun the first time around.

Dragons, in the world where it belongs, is a serious academic book, full of citations and references to the peer-reviewed literature. It's set in a world where dragons began reappearing perhaps two generations ago -- seventy or eighty years or so. Their numbers are increasing, and they are unstoppable apex predators: deeply intelligent and cunning, huge, strong, flexible, flying fire-breathing creatures possessed of a nearly supernatural "mime" ability that makes adult dragons essentially impossible to target or kill. They can and do push mankind entirely aside to protect the places they want, and caused a years-long reign of terror in Europe when one dragon was wounded by a human attack.

(I should note that "two generations ago" is from the publication of this second edition of Dragons, and that it's set in what I estimate is an alternate near-future. Satellite imagery has been used for several multi-year Dragon Censuses, making the emergence of dragons pretty clearly in the second half of the twentieth century and the "now" of this book published in 1980/1996 somewhere in the 2020s or 30s.)

Blanpied clearly has a complicated backstory for this world in her head, and it comes out in parts during Modern Infestation, as we learn about dragons themselves and the few plucky researchers who have contributed to our slight knowledge of them. She smartly avoids real-world politics entirely, which makes this nearly forty-year-old book entirely fresh: all of the nations of the world are in the same boat dealing with dragons, and so their individual squabbles don't matter to this discipline.

Modern Infestation is so-named because there was a Pre-Medieval Infestation, and Blanpied's fictional researchers, though mostly anatomists and linguists and behaviorists, do have some interest in the history of that previous burst of draconic activity. But this book is concerned with what can be known about modern dragons, and so is based primarily upon the fieldwork of a small number of (named and characterized) researchers. So it opens with a chapter outlining the history of the Modern Infestation generally, hitting the major events. The second chapter, the bulk of the book, covers Anatomical and Behavioral Characteristics, including sketches of draconic anatomy and official-looking charts of draconic locations. (Some of those graphics are printed less than wonderfully in the current edition, which seems to be print-on-demand. It's all comprehensible, but it could be crisper and darker.) The third chapter contains excerpts from the papers of several foundational dragon experts, including some notes from (rare, and usually unsatisfying) conversations with dragons.

Dragons: The Modern Infestation is smart and deep and the best possible kind of quirky, a book like no other. It's a short book, but not a quick read -- Blanpied packs a lot into her sentences, and writes with tongue deeply in cheek at all times. There are immediate meanings, the implied history of this world, deeper satires of academic life and the foibles of humanity in general, plus silly pictures that have circles and arrows pointing to places where a dragon is lurking unseen.

This is a funny book, a thoughtful book, and a wonderful book. I know of nothing else like it at all. Blanpied, for all I can tell, wrote just this one book, but she did her job perfectly -- so why continue after that?

No comments:

Post a Comment