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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

To the west, you see the arm of the Kansas Sea that reaches across Missouri and the big swamp around the bayhead where the sauropods live.

To the north is low range that the Raja named the Janpur hills, after the Indian kingdom his forebears once ruled. To the east, the land slopes up to a plateau, good for ceratopsians, while to the south is flat country with more sauropod swamps and lots of ornithopod: duckbill and iguanodont.

This is the view from where the time machine lands people in the Middle Cretaceous epoch. It is an exotic place, filled with shrubs, odd trees, and unfamiliar ground cover instead of grass. Even the climate is exotic, "balmy, like the South Sea Islands, but not so muggy as most Jurassic climates." The animal life features lizards, pterosaurs, crocodiles, and dinosaurs.

The lizards are very quick, very numerous, and beautiful with bright gemlike skin. The pterosaurs flutter about like bats near the swamp shore. Not much is said about the giant crocodiles, except that they can take down some of the dinosaurs that browse by the lake. What everyone wants to see are the dinosaurs which come in several forms, some more deadly than others. The great sauropods travel easily on land and in water; their heads rise from the water every fifteen minutes to breathe. They are normally harmless, but Rivers recalls one using its tail to slice off the head of a man who had shot it. Basically, sauropods, such as the apatosaur, are best left alone, partly because they are very difficult to kill and partly because there is nothing that can be done with their carcasses.

The other dinosaurs are either small enough to be eaten by a hunting party before they rot, or they can be claimed for trophy heads. Courtney James wants a Tyrannosaur skull to show off, proving he killed the most dangerous predator known. Rivers, in his humorous way, explains that Tyrannosaurus rex is overrated; it is a carrion eater. Much more dangerous is the smaller Gorgosaurus, like the Tyrannosaurus a theropod—animals that walk on their hind legs and mostly stalk their food. There are no Tyrannosaurus rex in the Middle Cretaceous, but there are Tyrannosaurus trionyches, a bigger animal with the biggest head of the various Tyrannosaurus species.

Mr. Holtzinger wants to shoot a ceratopsian dinosaur, the best known of which is the Triceratops. He wants to mount the head in his home to show that he has done something exciting and interesting in his otherwise dull, mundane, and unadventurous life. Rivers warns, "You have to think twice about collecting them, because, if you put a two-meter triceratops head into a small living room, there's apt to be no room left for anything else."

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"A Gun for Dinosaur" derives its humor from the contrast between Rivers's casual tone and the suspenseful events he recounts. The story is carefully thought out and told with a slant toward those concerns that would most interest a hunting guide. Rivers, for instance, notes that dinosaur brains are too small to be good targets so he recommends shooting at dinosaur hearts. He is also an analyst of the game animals: "Their weakness is that, having hardly any minds, they have little memories." Thus the best way to escape a dinosaur is to hide behind something; if the beast can neither see nor smell a person he forgets about his prey, even if he or she has just been seen. Out of sight, out of mind is literally true in this case.

One of de Camp's best skills in his long literary career has been the ability to seamlessly blend factual information with his plot lines so that exposition flows naturally out of the action. In "A Gun for Dinosaur," the plot calls for descriptions of ancient life— there is no story without the scientific details that he tosses into Rivers's relaxed narrative. For instance, the phrase "eighty-five million years ago: the Early Upper Cretaceous or the Middle Cretaceous as some American geologists call it" slips easily from Rivers's tongue, and the information is needed so that...

(The entire section is 1,473 words.)