Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons and Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters

I yelled a bit at Kaplan’s book even as I enjoyed it; Brennan’s I read over the course of a single night and at 6am I was demanding a sequel. This may be why I’m clearly playing favourites in this weekend’s column. Or I’m just trolling. Have some dragons.

(I had to put my copy of Kaplan’s book face-down and take a bad picture because no one had put that wraparound image on the internet. People who treat their books better than I do, please try not to be too scandalised)

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In one of those strange and delightful coincidences where completely unexpected books find themselves in dialogue with one another, this week I read two books (both published in 2013) with oddly similar covers; a popular science book and a fantasy novel. Both featured dragons, intact in the front, but further back with scales and skin missing to show their musculature and bone structure. The first was Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the second was Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters.

Brennan’s book is set in a fantasy world where dragons are real. Isabella (she has not yet become “Lady Trent” when this book ends) lives in her world’s equivalent of Regency England, where gender and class roles are clearly defined and where her sole responsibilities are to concern herself with ladylike pursuits and eventually marry a suitable husband. But Isabella has a fascination for dragons that will not go away- whether she’s pickling tiny dragons in vinegar, dressing up as a boy to join in a hunt, or choosing a husband on the strength of his library.

Because part of what makes A Natural History of Dragons so good is Isabella’s singleminded love of her subject. This is a love story in which the object of the affections is science; families and lovers are nice, but they’re not really that necessary. If Isabella has to be calculating, or manipulative, to get her way, it makes sense.

Brennan frames this story in such a way that the novel’s primary voice is the elderly Isabella, recounting the adventures of her younger self. As a result the text is frequently self-reflexive, with Lady Trent often correcting Isabella’s assumptions, both social and scientific. The rapid progress of scientific study in the nineteenth century and the exhilaration which could come with it are always clear here, even if this is not our nineteenth century (Lady Trent’s preface is written in the year 5658 of her world) and dragons cannot be our scientific specimens.

That sense of discovery and absorption in its possibilities also categorises Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters. Kaplan, living in a sadly dragonless world, takes for his subject human beings instead; specifically, our tendency to create monsters and the possible reasons that our historical monsters have taken the forms that they do. Kaplan is a science journalist who studied palaeontology; it’s not surprising that that is the discipline to which he turns for many of his answers. Fossils (of animals eating other animals, of dinosaurs, of incidents preserved in tar pits) come up frequently, as do things like shifting tectonic plates, the accumulation of methane in burial mounds, and the shape of an elephant’s skull. Much of this is fascinating.

In his acknowledgements Kaplan adds the caveat that he is not a classics scholar, and it’s true that in areas that don’t concern his particular areas of expertise the book is weak. There seems to be an impulse to find a single direct, material explanation for every legendary creature, and while this results in some wonderful aha! moments, it also sometimes rests on some very weak premises. There’s also a moment in which the author seems to think it wonderful that dragons (which within the book are defined as reptilian beasts that sometimes breathe fire) across the world are never depicted with fur. Well, no—because taxonomists of monstrousness wouldn’t call them dragons.

And I wonder if it’s this, as much as any difference in genre (fiction/nonfiction, fantasy/popular science) that really marks out the divide between these two dragon-bearing books. Brennan’s ostensible author-narrator is constantly self-correcting, examining and critiquing the problems with her own methods even as we read of her conclusions. Kaplan (as we all do, perhaps) tries to remake the world in order that it fit the narratives of his own area of expertise. The Science of Monsters may have a stronger basis in reality, but what if A Natural History of Dragons is the more rigourous academic work?

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3 Responses to “Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons and Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters

  1. I think part of what I loved about Brennan’s book was its love of scholarship and discovery. In a very real sense, it is a fantasy of science, full of that (in the best sense) academic questioning-of-assumptions – even when Younger!Isabella or Narrator!Isabella don’t question some assumptions, I get the sense the text does.

    • I agree with all of this, and it kept reminding me of how much I love the nineteenth century. That sense of discovery is often hard for me to appreciate in fiction because so much of it is so thoroughly bound up in colonialism, so I have to mock it (it is so eminently worthy of mock) instead. Brennan’s book never allows that, and never lets itself off.

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