Friday, August 28, 2015
Prehistoric Predators (Switek & Csotonyi) Is a Banal, Color-by-the-Numbers Cash Grab
Sorry, not going to mince any words here.
When a new paleo-art book aimed at younger audience comes down the pike I often check it out - especially when significant names are attached to it. I have in the past found books written for this age group more daring, audacious, visually inspiring, and willing to go out on a limb than the books written for a more adult or technically minded audience. And really, that's the way it should be. The young mind is generally more flexible and open to new interpretation than us olds. But such a book is not what I found in Prehistoric Predators. A book that, in my estimation, rests on its laurels relying on the name brand recognition of free lance science writer Brian Switek and paleo-artist Julius Csotonyi.
You might not like what I am going to say because it might strike you as a bit "personal" but too bad - this whole trend of "we always got to keep it nice and polite in the sciences" is something that really irks me. When the stakes are high, when personal and professional reputations are at risk, that is the fire that stokes the creative furnace of art, science, and literature and creates the highest level of work. We shouldn't give people a pass just because they achieved stuff in the past.
In the spirit of transparency I should be forthcoming regarding my opinions of these people.
I am admittedly biased against Csotonyi. I am no big fan of digital photogrammetry and to tell you the truth I wish it would just go away. If you don't have the time, patience, or effort to render plants, landscapes etc. etc, then maybe step aside for other artists that do. All in all digital photogrammetry is the performance enhancing drug of paleoart, except, unlike in athletes, it doesn't even merit superior results. I feel digital photogrammetry lacks believability, composition, and soul. Yes, soul. When the artists physical hand meets medium an imitable transfer of their personal touch is made. Even computer aided illustration has this to a point. Digital photogrammetry is as dead as dead can be creatively, spiritually, and artistically in my opinion. That being said, Julius' capacity with this medium is generally better than most. But it his skill in actual drawing and painting that sets him apart. Even his quick gesture sketches are far superior to most painted imagery. I do own, and for the most part enjoy, his art book. And when he really sits down and paints the whole scene he is pretty much without equal and arguably deserved of the title of leading paleo-artist. But I have to knock off some points for being one of the biggest practitioners of always plopping your dinosaur (or other beastie) down on a vacant plain or simply conveniently framed on a bare patch of soil. This in my estimation is the biggest meme in paleoart and commits a real disservice in terms of portraying how animals actually interact with their environment in the real world. And he is overly conservative in his depictions - never taking a risk or going out on a limb. I am fully convinced that if he was a preeminent paleo-artist of the 80's & 90's that he would have been drawing scaly, featherless theropods.
And as for Brian Switek I am honestly a little biased against him too. Many would consider him an exceptional writer and, for a science writer, I will concede that he is above average in portraying accurate science communication. However I find his writing a little too "vanilla" for my personal liking. And, while my tastes are a little left of center, this could also be a function of his having to write to a larger, lay audience. But it certainly seems from his comments section that noted paleontologists and dedicated paleo-nuts frequent his blog posts. Speaking of his comments section it really irks me that he seems to never respond to questions, queries, or criticisms in his comments section often times directly asked of him - this just doesn't sit well with me. In having put yourself up as someone with some instructional capacity you should at least have the courtesy to respond to people who have taken the time to read your post and type a response. I mean the internet is really just one big competition for content viewing so why be so - how else can I interpret this non-action - condescending? There are a lot of people that would love to have the platform that he enjoys - nat geo contributor the seemingly go-to-guy for popular dino writing - I just don't get the feeling that he recognizes his privilege. And yeah, if you sense a little jealousy on my part you are very astute. I am an imperfect person in an imperfect world. But that does not negate these critiques. Cuz I'm just gonna put it all out there, in three years of my blogging here at antediluvian salad Brian (or Csotonyi) has never once commented upon, shared, or promoted, a single post of mine. There's that.
As I alluded to in the beginning of this post dinosaur - or other science based books - aimed towards children can be challenging, intellectually stimulating, and actually fairly deep. It's a myth that kids don't like to read - just look at the astonishing success of Harry Potter and other series - in fact an argument can be leveled that children are more dedicated and voracious readers than most adults. But you can't talk down to them or placate them as just children... which is exactly what this book does in the text. In fact the sheer triteness and lack of descriptive, exciting vocabulary in the text is really disappointing. It's rehashed and boring. Anyone armed with a few wikipedia pages and with no extensive knowledge of "prehistoric predators" could have wrote this book. The fictional vignettes are under-utilized and uninspired at best. When I was young lad I was reading The Dinosaur Heresies and Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. I might have been a little ahead of the curve but there is nothing in those books that is not explainable to kids - especially kids today with the internet at hand. There are a couple of throwaway lines that could have been taken further. For instance Switek mentions that no one knows what horns, bumps, and ridges on the tops of theropods head were for (don't worry I got that one). And he posits Masiakasaurus as a fish eater - when there is no real evidence for that, it's just always kind of been - what's the word - assumed. Long story short the text offers less information for a paleo-hungry kid than a wikipedia page (which they can all access anyways).
The choice of what animals get covered and what animals don't creates a weird hodge-podge effect. Why not take this more stimulating and still teachable angle to children: compare and contrast diaspid versus anapsid predatory technique over geologic time? That would have made for a more cogent and interesting book and potentially of use to children and lay adults. The book could have also contrasted the differing physiologies and respiratory systems of these two groups - especially with regards to monitor lizards/crocs showing signs of advanced respiratory tactics. Again kids could get this stuff if you don't overwhelm them with jargon and use interesting graphics and diagrams. If I was a kid I would feel this book is insulting my intelligence. Where are the monitor lizards, terrestrial crocs (or any crocs for that matter?), mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, giant eagles, teratornithids? The only discernible pattern is that the animals chosen were critters that Csotonyi had images of lying around already for the most part. So yeah, I'm not a fan of the organization.
And now on to the art. With a few exceptions almost all of the Csotonyi art is lifted directly from his already published book, "The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi", which again speaks to an obvious quick cash grab. Look - why should they presuppose that dedicated paleo-kids don't already own that volume? There is nothing in that admittedly awesome book that relegates it strictly to adults except for the arbitrary placement in the adult science section of Barnes & Nobles. If I was a kid I would feel ripped off - "I already freaking have all this imagery!!" However I am assuming that this book is aimed at dedicated paleo-kids. Perhaps it is not. The book is probably aimed at the more wider children's audience. You know the kids that are infatuated with dinosaurs for like a month but "grow out of it" - and then just want to play video games and shoot stuff? Yeah them. Because of this it will probably make a killing financially. But, at least in my mind, that doesn't excuse the less than stellar treatment of this young audience as a group hungry for exciting and revelatory new information in a way that they could digest. Instead the kids are given RAWR and big toothy things - which I am sure that they will enjoy - but I just think a big opportunity was missed here.
However there are a couple of new Csotonyi pieces that are worth mentioning... barely. What I remember - cuz I didn't buy a copy but read it in the store looking like some creepy big bearded dude in the children's section - is underwhelming. There was a rather insipid fight scene between an Ekrixinatosaurus and a Giganotosaurus. Kudos for picking a rather obscure abelisaurid but compositionally the piece is just kind of bleh... lacking any kind of atmosphere... Csotonyi is capable of just so much more. There was a very cliched "fight" scene between a T-rex and a Triceratops where they are just kind of staring at each other like junior high boys in their first real "fight". Boring. And then the kicker, the one piece where Csotonyi could have saved himself, a Spinosaurus rendering. But here again it looks rushed and just kind of typical. The spinosaurus has, what do you know, a giant saw-toothed fish Onchopristis in it's clutches - never seen that before. And it's standing upright like a good ol' well behaved bipedal theropod should - despite all the evidence to the contrary. Somehow presupposing an animal that we never had - a bipedal spinosaurus - is more parsimonious than the one we do have which is screaming out I'm not really any sort of a biped the way you imagine me to be?? Furthermore Csotonyi, in taking this overly cautious approach (which is actually the more radical one) takes complete liberty in depicting several Deltadromeus as hypercarnivorous theropods. Keep in mind that this is an animal that we have no head for and is most likely somewhat of a hipster ornithomimid - that is it was an ornithomimid before it was cool to be an ornithomimid. And the scene is plopped down in a gulf coast/Louisiana bayou style swamp full of giant swamp cypress trees. I have never heard any reference to giant swamp cypress type trees in the Kem Kem/ Cenomanian North Africa. But if Csotonyy did his homework he could have utilized the infinitely more interesting mangrove fern Weichselia reticulata as well as halophytic cheirolepidiacean conifers. Long story short there is nothing in this rendering that you could have seen in a spinosaur rendering from 10 years ago - except the swayback sail.
As the title states of this post states I can only interpret this book as a quick crash grab. We should not be too surprised by this - after all these two gentlemen are hot off the heels of working - in a limited fashion albeit - on that movie. The thing is, I really don't have a problem with that. You got to put food on the table, make rent, I'm all for that actually. But let's call it what it is. The title of the book, the theme at hand, the obvious marketability to young readers - most likely boys - of big toothy critters that go RAWR - it's a quick buck. This book is not going to move the science forward, it's not going to challenge current dogma or pose new questions, and I don't consider it really acting as any kind of spark to young minds. It's a placeholder regarding current thought - which also implies there is going to be some dogma attached to it because dogma is part and parcel to any crop of leading paleontologists. And just because you put feathers on your theropods doesn't make you edgy at this point.
So if you have child in your life that might like dinosaurs a better pick would be A Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Gee & Rey). Or, before he went AWOL with digital what-ever-you-call-it, David Peters' A Gallery of Dinosaurs and Other Early Reptiles.
Yeah...... I SAID IT. Peters' book > Switek & Csotonyi's book.
P.S. My tone might be angry or overly aggressive but at the end of the day I feel these two have grown a little... complacent. They need a kick in the butt. There are many hungry artists and writers out there. A book full of deviantart renderings would have been way more compelling in my estimation. My ultimate goal is to get these two to step their game up - show a little more effort and respect for your audience, even if they are kids.
*update several hours later. Upon reflection and introspection this post is more about me and what I am going through right now than Switek or Csotonyi. I happen to have a lot of chemical imbalance going on in my brain right now, anger & bitterness, and uncertain future. This has helped me work through some of this. I am going to leave the post as it is because I believe in documenting what I get right and wrong here. And sometimes this blog is more than a documentation of my thoughts and ideas but also a kind of therapy and getting raw to the world. If Csotonyi or Switek read this know that you were simply caught in the crossfire of the war inside my head. I mean you no ill will. I actually greatly appreciate and acknowledge your contributions to the field of paleontology.
And the book is not that bad either, especially compared to other dino kids books out there. Other mitigating factors play into how the book comes out that are out of the control of both the author and artist. So, if you don't already have Csotonyi's book it is actually a worthwhile investment. And I concede I quite like some of the newer atmospheric pieces as well. Prehistoic Predators at Amazon.