The Big Idea: David Walton

Author David Walton offers us a glimpse into the past, the far past, in his Big Idea for his newest novel, Living Memory. Can the past be able to shape the future? Walton has thoughts!


Admit it: You wish you could ride a triceratops. As a child, I would have handed over my library card for the chance. Every kid longs to see a brontosaurus at the zoo, or touch a velociraptor’s feathers, or watch a pterosaur the size of the space shuttle soar overhead. 

I’m no longer a child, but I still long to see the world when fifty ton giants shook the ground and predators with teeth like railway spikes downed prey the size of armored tanks. As adults, however, we know that no matter how many Jurassic Park movies we watch, we never will. Those magnificent animals are gone.

But what if we could remember?

I started Living Memory with that childlike dream: Imagine a complex chemical that, when you smelled it, would launch your mind into the experience of a dinosaur from more than sixty-six million years ago.

Wait. Hard stop. Come on, David. Wake up and get a grip. You write hard SF, and this is the stuff of pure magic! How could such a chemical exist?

I once read some writing advice that said if you’re stuck with an idea, just dig yourself in deeper until you find a way out. So here’s another whopper for you: What if just before the Cretaceous asteroid hit, a species of dinosaur evolved with sapient-level intelligence, like us?

Even worse, right? A dinosaur civilization can sound pretty ludicrous—we imagine tyrannosaurs in tuxedos or stegosaurs sitting down for tea. But is a dinosaur civilization really any more ridiculous than a primate one? Is there some rule that dinosaurs couldn’t develop big brains and symbolic language? It’s mammalian prejudice, pure and simple.

Ah, you say, but why is there no evidence of this dinosaur civilization? Where are the cooking pans and pot shards? Where are the jewelry and weapons and building foundations? The answer is that my dinosaurs didn’t have any. Their technology didn’t follow a primate development path; like us, their culture followed their biology. Specifically, my dinosaurs had an exceptional sense of smell. It was their primary form of communication.

As a result, instead of iron and bronze, their technology started with the chemical and shifted into the genetic. And if smell is your primary form of communication, how do you create a written language to pass information to the next generation? Why, you develop a chemical that can use scent to store memories, of course.

Voila! Justification for my dream. But a technology doesn’t make a story. Characters make a story. So:

Meet “Easy Prey”, an aptly named dinosaur who’s at the bottom of every pecking order but discovers something no one else knows: an asteroid on its way toward Earth.

Meet Samira Shannon, the modern day paleontologist who discovers their remains. An Ethiopian orphan adopted by white missionary parents and currently working a dig in Thailand, Samira doesn’t fit in anywhere or have a spot that really feels like home. Despite that, she’s carved out a place for herself, excelled in her profession, and is stubborn enough not to let others push her around instead of doing the right thing.

And meet Kit Chongsuttanamee, a Thai paleontologist who discovers the ancient memory chemical clinging as residue to a very well-preserved fossil. He also discovers that the chemical can do a lot more than give immersive dinosaur shows. That revelation brings the unwanted attention of every national government to their dig site, eager to control the power it can give them.

If you breathed in the last memories my dinosaurs ever stored, you would see the day of the asteroid, when spears of red-hot glass rained down from the sky and whole forests burst into flame, when the ground heaved like ocean waves, and the sky darkened with rubble and smoke as the very air burned, and there was no place to hide.

The story of the dinosaurs is a tragedy. We know how it ends already. But what about our own story?

This was my big idea for Living Memory: a technology millions of years old that can store and replay memories, and the people—on both sides of the sixty-six million year divide—who must choose who they will be when faced with a coming cataclysm. Disasters tend to strip off the veneer of civilization and show people for who they really are. Like the passengers of the Titanic, will they risk themselves to rescue others, or will they trample everyone else to save themselves?

In Living Memory, humanity finds itself on the brink of war and facing an extinction threat every bit as dangerous as the Cretaceous asteroid. To survive, we might just need some help from the distant past.

Living Memory – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | BAM | Audible

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5 Comments on “The Big Idea: David Walton”

  1. This is an interesting premise. I’ve thought about this a bit. I wonder what the end “civilization” might be like. Dinosaurs could develop intelligence, just look at how smart some birds are, with their physically tiny brains. So smartness wouldn’t be the limitation. With their physical size, there isn’t anything to prevent larger brains.

    Unfortunately, these “people” would be severely limited by their bodies. Humans are omnivores, we can eat both meat and plants. Predator dinosaurs were mostly only meat eaters. Grazers ate mostly plants. This would lead to some grazers becoming food for the “superior” meat eaters. So not all dinosaurs are created equal.

    Another problem is dinosaur physiology. Mostly lack of hands. Hands are needed to develop technology. Only a few dinosaur types were in a position to be able to develop hands. For an example, one would not expect a hoofed animal to be able to build a house. Iguanodon had “hands” but the thump would need evolution.

    So it will be interesting to see how David Walton addresses these issues.

  2. Thumb, not thump. ;>)

    As for communication, birds can communicate with sound, so “speaking” isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

    I read a Sci-Fi where one species that used smell, communicated with farts.

  3. @David
    I believe (given the context) I know that reference.

    On the other hand, it could just be herring.

  4. There was a period in the 60’s to early 70’s after the discovery of the KT layer, but before an explanation for the layer was worked out, when the possibility of technically proficient dinosaurs was being considered. The reason being that some of the properties of the KT layer can potentially be explained as the result of a nuclear war.

    There certainly might have been technically proficient dinosaurs, though they probably would be more like Norton’s Trystian’s. 😉

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