Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo

Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo
by Dr. Karl Shuker, with Forewords by Bob Rickard and David Sutton
CFZ Press, 2010. 390pp.

Dr. Karl Shuker's latest book is a compilation of his regular columns in Fortean Times magazine, with some updates and "bonus features" thrown in. I've had it for a week and have read it twice through.
Hundreds of entries in this fascinating book cover everything from surviving thylacines to new lizards to alleged pterodactyl-type creatures. But the animals themselves are not the whole of the book. Shuker's interests in folklore, culture, and art lead him down many interesting pathways. He looks at everything from an unknown bird shown in a Gauguin painting to the mix of exotic feathers, fakes, and the occasional palm frond that have been passed off as feathers from the wings of angels.
Some items that could be updated have not been: the weird horizontal-tailed fish from California was a mystery I solved a long time ago by talking to a state fishery biologist who identified it as a bizarrely mutated channel catfish.
I would be more skeptical than Karl at times. I would have great trouble being open-minded about the man who saw a sauropod dinosaur step across a fence - in New Mexico! Shuker, ever even-handed, posts it without editorializing and asks readers for further information.
Shuker shows the complexity involved in tracking down, or even defining, animals mentioned in local reports: Indonesia's orang bati is variously reported to be a bat, a flying human(!) and a small, primitive semihuman tribe.
Karl's collection, like all good cryptobooks, leaves us with some solutions and some more mysteries. We now know a famous sketch of a lake monster in Russia was just support for a tall tale. We wonder what became of animals once presumed to exist, such as Washington's eagle, a giant bird shot and described by Audubon himself but hardly reported since.
Shuker provides references with each entry and an index (a bit sparse) at the end. The book sometimes leaves you wanting more, but it will not disappoint you. It's very well worth your money.

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