Literary Techniques

De Camp has been writing adventure stories for seventy years, and his is a sure hand at constructing a tale that will capture one's interest and that will entertain. Typically, his stories do not take themselves seriously; they are leavened with humor. In "The Satanic Illusion," Rivers's witty asides, made in his Australian dialect, usually focus on observations of human nature and remind one that the story is meant more to be fun than a serious social commentary.

The structure of the story is that of the quest. A goal is stated early in the story, and then like Odysseus, the characters travel from place to place—in this case time to time—and have adventures related to the exotic locales they discover. This is a comfortable format, familiar to most readers, in which the important aspect of "The Satanic Illusion," the interplay among characters may be emphasized without the plot being a distraction.

Ideas for Group Discussions

One quality all of de Camp's Reginald Rivers stories have in common is fun. Unless lacking a sense of humor, most discussion group members will be glad to have read the stories simply because they offered adventures in well-drawn exotic locales involving some of the more popular animals of prehistoric eras. The social concern about evolutionism versus creationism is a hot topic and is likely to remain so for many years, perhaps generations, to come. A discussion leader might best begin by reminding group members that "The Satanic Illusion" is in part about being open-minded and that a discussion that is open-minded about the central social issue of the story would be in keeping with the spirit of the story. After that, one tack to take would be to invite comment on how open-minded de Camp seems to be in creating his narrative. How fair is it? What, if anything, is missing in order to create a balanced view? Aside from the social issues, other avenues for generating good discussions are: The different ecosystems; the animals; the interaction of human beings with wildlife that has never experienced human beings.

1. De Camp mentions several different kinds of animals in "The Satanic Illusion." How well has de Camp described the animals? How much of his description of their behavior is from his imagination and how much from what science has found? Are his animals plausible?

2. If discussion group members are feeling particularly industrious they might research ahead of time the different geological eras the story's characters visit. What kinds of life existed in North America in the eras mentioned? What were their ecosystems like? Does de Camp make these ecosystems come to life?

3. How representative is Zahn of Christian fundamentalism? How representative of it is Hubert?

4. Should Rivers take a more active role in advocating his view in favor of evolution? If so, how? If not, why not?

5. Is what happens to Zahn satisfying? Should he suffer? Is what happens to him in keeping with human nature, even if it does not satisfy one's hopes for justice?

6. What is Rivers's responsibility in Hubert's death? Did he do what he should? What is Hubert's own measure of responsibility for his fate?

7. Should Rivers be willing to take more people on expeditions to study the development of life? Is he correct in his view that such safaris would be "to settle theological arguments"?

8. "The Satanic Illusion" has a quest structure. Is the goal of the quest reached? Does it matter?

9. What aspect of the story seems most important to de Camp, the characters, the social issues, or the adventures? How does he develop his focus?

10. Rivers is very concerned about being able to shoot animals. Is his concern justified? How much of the concern comes from his own attitudes toward wildlife and how much is based on the behavior of the animals?

Social Concerns

In "The Satanic Illusion," L. Sprague de Camp focuses on the conflict between believers in creationism and believers in evolution. Reginald Rivers, his partner Chandra Aiyar, and many other hunters using a time machine to travel to prehistoric eras have been bringing to the present a great deal of evidence supporting evolution as the explanation why animals and plants have achieved their present forms. This has disturbed supporters of creationism, some of whom have picketed the offices of Rivers and Aiyar: "The signs they carried denounced the Raja— that is, my partner Chandra Aiyar—and me as murderers and emissaries of Satan. I was never quite clear as to whether one of us was supposed to be Old Nick himself, and the other an assistant imp."

Rivers made the mistake of saying in a speech to the West Side YMCA that he, as the Reverend Gilmore Zahn puts it, "wished you could take some of those foolish Fundamentalists back on one of your safaris, so they could see how the world really was in prehistoric times." Zahn, a charismatic preacher, and his associate Reverend Paul Hubert, take up Rivers's challenge. The narrative takes them and Rivers to several geological eras to witness different animals, most of which have become extinct by the present day. The conflict of the story is one of explanations. Zahn maintains that the time travel machine is not hopping back millions of years but only thousands and that the animals may be explained as creations created in a brief time, as he interprets Genesis to say. Rivers maintains that only evolution, probably by means of natural selection, can account for the variety of different species found in each era. Central to the playing out of the conflict between creationist and evolutionist is Hubert, at first hostile to Rivers, but a keen observer who begins to doubt creationism as his mind wrestles with ambiguous evidence.

Literary Precedents

Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World (1912; see separate entry) set the standard for adventures like "The Satanic Illusion." In The Lost World, Professor George Edward Challenger, narrator Edward Dunn Malone, and a gathering of misfits seek out a great plateau in South America where ancient life, particularly dinosaurs, may persist long after its extinction elsewhere. On the plateau, evolution is seen playing itself out, and every observation is based on the belief that evolutionary theory is true. Conan Doyle had in mind more than high adventure when he wrote The Lost World; the novel is a parody of a popular form of fiction called "boys' books." These were fantastic adventures that were supposed to show boys the important traits of manliness. Conan Doyle's novel is humorous and has fun with all sorts of supposedly manly activities, and the men in the narrative seem more like overgrown boys than truly mature adults. De Camp's Reginald Rivers stories in general share with Conan Doyle's dinosaur adventure a satirical attitude toward high adventure, with people usually proving to be contrary figures whose foolishness is more often funny than serious.

Other adventures among dinosaurs tend to share in common with "The Satanic Illusion" an interest in evolution. In The Lost World, events are portrayed as not only supporting evolution but a violent brand of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. More advanced animal species destroy less advanced ones. In another influential book, The Land That Time Forgot (1924; c. 1918; see separate entry), a gathering of three novellas, Edgar Rice Burroughs creates a world of ancient life that is perpetually living out evolution, with life forms constantly evolving into higher life forms, with modern human beings at the end of the evolutionary chain. Burroughs has serious purposes in mind beyond illustrating how evolution might work in an entertaining series of adventures; he is an advocate for the benefits of natural selection over human beings manipulating their own evolution—making his book contemporary in its concerns. The Galus are the human beings who have resulted from their land's constant evolutionary production; opposed to them are the Wieroos, who practice eugenics. They have wings and can fly, a seeming advantage over human beings, but they are hideous and morally debased and unable to procreate with one another. In Burroughs's world, Rivers would find much of interest, and he would probably find the characters just as foolish and contrary as he does in his own adventures.

Related Titles

The first Reginald Rivers short story "A Gun for Dinosaur" was published in 1956, in response, de Camp says, to gross scientific inaccuracies he had seen in fiction about adventures among dinosaurs. He wanted to write a story that was scientifically plausible, in which the era into which his characters ventured was rendered as accurately as scientific knowledge would permit. "A Gun for Dinosaur" became one of the most popular of science fiction short stories, anthologized often. When asked by Robert Silverberg to contribute a dinosaur story to an anthology Silverberg was editing, de Camp revived Reginald Rivers and in the 1990s wrote several new stories of his adventures. These stories have in common adventures in carefully depicted ancient eras in North America, wayward clients who seem more trouble than they are worth, and Rivers's engaging sense of humor. Evolution as a topic does not dominate most of them; de Camp is more concerned about the interplay among characters in an exotic and dangerous environment. Each has in common Rivers's encyclopedic knowledge of prehistoric wildlife, and entrancing depictions of long-extinct animals and their behavior.