(For a better genre view of West of Eden, see MPorcius’ quality take here.)
Extreme alternate history, West of Eden (1984) is a version of Earth wherein the dinosaurs never went extinct and evolved in parallel to humanity. I normally do not point to wikipedia, but in the case of this novel it does a great job summarizing the setting and how it’s different from what we know.
Featuring sentient dinosaurs (called yilane) evolved to a bio/steampunk-ish level of technology, they are set against a version of humanity not yet graduated from the stone age. Having evolved on separate continents, the opening of West of Eden features the first meeting of the two species. Not going well to say the least, a cycle of violence takes hold in the aftermath that threatens to make one side or the other extinct. Caught in the middle is Kerrick. A child at the outset, his hunting party is slaughtered by the yilane and he is taken captive. Treated like a dog, he nevertheless learns their language and becomes a part of their society as he grows up. But he never fully accepts his situation. Harboring dreams of escape and vengeance, Kerrick gets what he wants, but whether or not he’s satisfied is another question.
Superficially genre, the imaginings of West of Eden will either turn the reader on or off. Sentient dinosaur anthropoids the litmus test, if the idea causes no eyelashes to bat, the text can be appreciated, as below the surface Harrison has imbued his alternate history Earth with many pervasive and interesting ideas. From primitive survival to xenophobia, the effects of technology on a species and inter-species relations to paganism, discrimination, and imperialism, it’s clear Harrison is telling a story more concerned with the interplay of ideas than the wars and battles and other trappings of mainstream science fiction that are so easily, and often appealingly available to the eye.
First of a trilogy, West of Eden is difficult to dig deeper into without knowledge of the later books. “West” a subtle misdirect toward “Opposite”, the book features cyclical violence, geno/xenocide, and builds an Earth radically different than that we are familiar with—an Earth steeped in primitive violence. More than just a hero’s tale (which the novel quite easily could have been but thankfully isn’t), Harrison adds subtle undercurrents and hints that the next volumes in the trilogy will turn out to be much more social than individual, more peaceful than violent.
And lastly, West of Eden bears similarity to Harrison’s good friend Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia, of which Helliconia Spring is likewise the opening, inter-species, planet-spanning opening volume. Published at almost exactly the same time, it would be surprising to me if the two did not challenge each other or make some behind-the-scenes agreement to write lengthy stories addressing what they saw as some of the biggest issues and concepts underpinning the survival of the species. Both featuring internal and external clashes of culture, primitive versions of mankind, and radically different scenarios to how or where human life evolved, the two series deserve to be read not only in comparison, but as to how they complement one another.