Everybody loves a dinosaur ... the beasties have been hot literary properties for over 150 years. Quick quiz: which 1852 novel opens by mentioning 'a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill'? Answer: Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

In 1864 Jules Verne had dinosaurs lurking underground (Journey to the Centre of the Earth). In 1912 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger found them thriving in The Lost World, a remote South American plateau. Nowadays they're big in movies and theme parks, as witness Jurassic Park by Michael Spielberg and Steven Crichton – and there's always the world-famous Carnosaur by a Starburst columnist whose name escapes me.

Dinosaurs have waddled riot in countless SF stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan met and biffed practically everything during his interminable saga – including, of course, a lost herd of dinosaurs; the Burroughs Pellucidar series is also thick with them. They lurk in darkest Africa in the rightly forgotten The Night Shapes by James Blish, and on a distant world in Anne McCaffrey's stupefyingly tedious Dinosaur Planet (blame the alien zoo-keepers).

1950s SF saw many time-travelling dinosaur safaris that usually came to sticky ends. L.Sprague de Camp's title said it all: 'A Gun for Dinosaur'. In Ray Bradbury's notorious 'A Sound of Thunder' our man shoots his Tyrannosaurus rex but also ruins the future he came from by accidentally squashing a butterfly. The brontosaur-hunter of Brian Aldiss's 'Poor Little Warrior!' discovers too late that when you kill something that huge, its parasites disembark and are quite big and nasty enough to regard hunters as convenience food.

What use are dinosaurs? They can be good buddies, eventually: see Barry Longyear's 'Enemy Mine'. A tyrannosaur has a bit part among the biological spaceship defences in George R.R.Martin's Tuf Voyaging – like a outsize rottweiler with built-in telepathic controls. The hero of Philip E.High's mind-numbing Speaking of Dinosaurs is a genius who after one look at a diplodocus skeleton realizes that dinosaurs are so amateurishly built, they can only be the early work of insidious alien experimenters who control Earth! These aliens respond by setting a carnivorous allosaurus on him, but without luck.

Few authors tried to make the terrible lizards cute, but Piers Anthony had a go in his tale of interstellar dentistry Prostho Plus, with a chatty duck-billed trachodon called (wait for it) Trach – whom the hero brilliantly cures of bad breath. Meanwhile in Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles, a fearsome tyrannosaur opens its monstrous jaws and roars: 'Hello. My name is Emie and I am six years old' ... this being an alternate Earth where dinosaurs rule but are civilized and nice.

But SF's most highly evolved saurians must be the Yilanè of Harry Harrison's West of Eden trilogy. Their mastery of biotechnology doesn't help against a few primitive humans, alas, since although they can grow whole organic cities they have neglected to invent both fireproof walls and fire extinguishers. Dinosaurs, who can figure 'em?