July 1, 2013

The Theory of Evil(ution): a review of Matt Kaplan's "The Science of Monsters"

The Science of Monsters
244 pages
ISBN (TPB) 9781472101150

When I was a little kid, I didn't care where monsters came from. Monsters were scary, and that was all the science I needed to know. As I grew up though, their origins and real-world history added something to the mystique, giving me a better appreciation of these great beasts. With Matt Kaplan's The Science of Monsters, many of those monsters from mythology, folklore, and urban legend are highlighted, offering readers at least a glimpse at where these monsters originated and what characteristics are based on real-world evidence that bolstered their stature on the world stage.

Doled out in ten sections, pretty much every archetype imaginable is covered. Giant monsters like the fabled Calydonian wild boar kick things off, essentially sparking the whole monster mythology it seems with accounts of sightings dating back thousands of years. Then the book delves into the creatures that were more amalgamations of existing creatures, such as the Sphinx and Chimera. Dragons, succubi, gorgons, vampires, extra-terrestrials, all have their time in the spotlight, and each is viewed through the lens of history. And that's where the book took me a little by surprise.

I had assumed was going to be a scientific approach to qualifying how each of these monsters might actually come to exist in the real world. Instead, what Kaplan does is seek out the origins and historical context of each creature. By studying fossil records, regional cultures, and societal quirks of the time, Kaplan offers a logical deconstruction for many of the world's most famous monsters. A fair number of artifacts and paintings are shown as well, highlighting the imaginative ways different regions saw these monsters in their many splendid forms.

Beyond that, he also takes opportunity to look at the more modern myths and fictional staples, like robots run amok and alien invasions. Odd ones out in the grand scheme of things, but Kaplan does offer some insight on humanity's suspicion towards the unknown and how it can spawn those fantastical embodiments of the other. The one chapter that felt out of place though, and this is just my humble opinion, pertained to dinosaurs and the Crichtonian idea of resurrecting them in present day. Unlike every other monster in this book, dinosaurs are--or were, I should say--very real. The only real connection they seem to have, to my way of thinking, is their fossils provoking fear and wild stories by those of centuries past about what kinds of creatures they belonged to. Still, they're big, they're bad, and Jurassic Park kicked ass.

I'm a guy whose three basic food groups in genre are monsters, ghosts, and robots. So, should it come as any surprise that I loved this book? The creation of these myths, their connections to each other, and their evolution over the centuries were all laid out in devouring fashion. If you're curious about the history of monsters, this is a pretty darned good place to start.

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