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Literature: West of Eden

West of Eden is a 1984 science fiction novel by Harry Harrison, followed by two sequels: Winter in Eden and Return to Eden.

Set in an Alternate History where dinosaurs never went extinct (outside of North America, where modern mammals and eventually humans evolved), the story centers around the conflict between humans and the Yilanè, a race of intelligent amphibious reptiles. The main character, Kerrick, is a human who was raised by Yilanè from childhood after his tribe was wiped out by them, but eventually flees and returns to his people, where he must reacquaint himself with a life he no longer remembers and deal with the suspicions and fears his strange ways cause, while the fallout from his escape reverberates throughout the Yilanè city and influences the fate of its leader.

In Winter in Eden, Kerrick and his lover Armun travel into the frigid northlands and meet the playful, promiscuous Paramutan people, while the cultural and military shifts resulting from the previous book's events continue amongst the Yilanè, threatening to completely destabilize their ways of life.

Return to Eden revolves around the tensions between the humans and Yilanè reaching a boiling point, as Kerrick and his people confront his former captor, now dangerously deranged and bent on the destruction of him and all his kind.


This book series contains examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: The Daughters of Life are fundamentally opposed to harming any life form that might be intelligent enough to understand life and death. When Vaintè manipulates some of them into becoming foot soldiers in her hunt for Kerrick, they seize up and die after killing humans in the same way that a regular Yilanè would when exiled from the city.
  • Alternate Prehistory: The K-T extinction event never occurred; the dinosaurs are still around, and intelligent mosasaurs rule most of the world, with mammals abundant only in North America.
  • Alternative Number System: Played with. Yilanè numbers are in base 10, but since they only have 8 fingers in total (two fingers and two opposable thumbs per hand) their counting skips from 7 directly to 10.
  • Badass Boast: The scientist Ambalasei thinks rather highly of herself:
    "Fat gilded-beetle to be crushed! Decayed worm from the lowest dungpit! Before you stands Ambalasei highest of the high, eistaaTranslation  of science, intelligence of the world, possessor of infinite powers. I should sentence you to death for your ill-speaking. I consider that now."
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Intelligent mosasaurs that reproduce like seahorses. Their bio-engineered tools are even more bizarre: living dart guns, microscopes that are actually highly modified frogs, squid and icthyosaur vehicles...
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Yilanè's Bizarre Alien Biology leads to them having a strange moral compass. For example, lying is impossible (and the concept never even occurs to them until Vaintè learns about it from Kerrick), and they are absolutely loyal to their communities to the point of dying upon exile; exiles who don't seize up and die are completely insane by Yilanè standards.
  • Call A Dinosaur A Smeerp: Nearly all the dinosaurs depicted are referred to by their Yilanè names ("epetruk" for T. rex, "nenitesk" for Triceratops and so on.)
  • Cavemen: Co-existing with dinosaurs, but there's an in-story reason for this.
  • Death by Childbirth: Male Yilanè have a hard time coming out of the torpid state they enter when carrying eggs, and it's rare that a male will survive a third trip to the birthing beaches.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Some editions of the book carry a brief index of Yilanè bio-technology, as well as brief sections on Tanu and Paramutan culture.
  • Fantastic Caste System: A Yilanè's status is largely determined by how well the language is mastered. Fargi (Yilanè who are still in the learning process) are second-class citizens and used as servants by those with a better grasp of the language.
  • Fantastic Racism: Humans and Yilanè are not on speaking terms.
  • Fictionary: Yilanè, Tanu, Sasku and Paramutan glossaries are included alongside the aforementioned Encyclopedia Exposita.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: Explored. The majority of Yilanè just see massacring ustuzou (humans) as pest control, and most humans return the favor. Vaintè at first considers useful ustuzou like Kerrick to be worth keeping around as tools (and later becomes psychotically obsessed with their destruction), but the Daughters of Life recognize ustuzou as sapient beings worthy of life and respect. Kerrick (after rejoining the humans) rejects the position that Yilanè are Always Chaotic Evil, and draws a demarcation between Yilanè who are killing humans and Yilanè who humanity can coexist with.
  • Interspecies Sex: "Romance" isn't the right word for it, but we don't have a simple trope for interspecies rape.
  • Kill It with Fire: In the climax of West of Eden, Kerrick and some of the other hunters burn Alpèasak to the ground, killing the vast majority of the Yilanè on their continent.
  • Koan: Sherlock Holmes' saying about the truth being what's left when the impossible is eliminated is invoked almost word for word in Vaintè's thoughts as she tries to process the lie Kerrick told which led to his first escape attempt, or rather, the very concept of being able to say something and it not be the truth.
  • Lady Land: Yilanè culture is ruled by the females; they control politics, science, and the military, and have free access to the entire city. Males are artisans, poets and brood mares, kept isolated in a particular part of the city and only interacting with females when breeding or on the birthing beaches.
  • Language Of Truth: The nature of Yilanè language and thought processes makes them incapable of lying...until Vaintè discovers the concept after seeing Kerrick do it.
  • Lizard Folk: The Yilanè, human-sized bipedal mosasaurs directly descended from Tylosaurus.
  • Living Ship: Yilanè sail the seas using genetically modified icthyosaurs with a compartment in their dorsal fin. They also have modified squid as smaller boats.
  • Living Weapon: ...specifically a genetically modified lizard that shoots poisoned darts.
  • Mr. Seahorse: Yilanè reproduce in a similar manner to, you guessed it, seahorses.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Hardwired into Yilanè biology. If a Yilanè is exiled from its city, the mental shock triggers an out-of-control variant of a hibernative state that quickly kills the exile. Some Yilanè, however, are loyal to something other than their city, and their shutdown reflex will occur in response to different stimuli. This is how the first Daughter of Life was able to survive and spread her teachings. The Yilanè are not quite sure how to cope with this.
  • My Species Doth Protest Too Much: Enge, and the other Daughters Of Life. They believe that anything that has enough intelligence to understand the concepts of life and death is deserving of the chance to grow and thrive. This philosophy runs extremely counter to the normal, utilitarian-minded Yilanè mindset, and as a result the Daughters are seen as subversive lunatics, shunned at best and outright persecuted at worst. Vaintè frequently has them used as cannon fodder in her hunt for Kerrick; Enge only survives similar treatment because she and Vaintè were broodmates and she has certain skills that Vaintè finds useful.
  • Organic Technology: Everything used in Yilanè society is a product of genetic engineering. Even the ancient Yilanè began by hunting using living crabs instead of stone tools, though one Yilanè scientist suggests that early on, the Yilanè did indeed use "artefacts."
  • Outside Context Problem: The Yilanè have evolved a society with no knowledge of fire, as they have engineered living things to account for everything that fire could do for them. Kerrick, after realizing this, leads a group of Tanu and Sasku men to Alpèasak and burns the city.
  • The Proud Elite: Many Yilanè that have achieved high status are arrogant and love to lord their knowledge and rank over those below them.
  • Punctuation Shaker: Translated Yilanè speech uses four particular symbols to noted specific sounds: ' (a glottal stop), < (tock), and ! which is both (click) and a lip smack.
  • Really Gets Around: The Paramutan are as frisky as bonobos.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Although mammals ("ustuzou") are equally abhorrent to the Yilanè.
  • Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility: "Soft" to "completely implausible," depending whether you see the "the meteor missed Earth" premise as an Alien Space Bats element or not.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Yilanè are somewhat humanoid in shape, but quite different in physiology and psychology. The main conflict of the trilogy stems from them and humans being mutually repulsed by their differences.
  • Starfish Language: The Yilanè speak in concepts rather than actual words, and the language itself is a complicated combination of spoken sounds, postures, gestures with the hands, jaw, and tail, and color signals, described in West of Eden as having thousands of separate pieces and 125 billion combinations. Many Yilané never even get the hang of it and are basically ignored by the rest of the community, and Ysel, the girl that was captured with Kerrick, doesn't pay attention to the language lessons they're given and is killed when she completely botches her attempt to talk and unwittingly insults Vaintè. Kerrick, lacking a tail, can't accurately make certain movements, but he can fake it well enough to get by, and Enge teaches him a version of the language used for low-light communication which helps even more.
  • Stock Dinosaurs: Quite a few (complete with Yilanè names), but the Yilanè themselves are mosasaurs, not dinosaurs.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: The knives Kerrick and his father wear are made of "skymetal."
  • Translation Convention: A given, as the English language doesn't actually exist in the setting. The Yilanè have no written language, and any such translation of their speech is a particular challenge, which is acknowledged in the appendices in West of Eden. "Fish of great size abound. Desire to catch/eat. Will small/soft go with us?", for example
  • Would Hurt a Child: This goes both ways. Humans killing a Yilanè male and newborns is what incenses the Yilanè into their extermination efforts. When Kerrick's tribe is slaughtered, Vaintè's examination of a still-living infant human ends with her throwing it against a boulder in revulsion after it screams and pisses down her arm.


The Turing OptionCreator/Harry HarrisonThe Hammer And The Cross
WardayAlternate History LiteratureThe Whale Has Wings
WeaveworldLiterature of the 1980sWestmark

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