Bones of the Earth - Michael Swanwick

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive ).

Bones of the Earth
Michael Swanwick
Harper Torch Fiction
ISBN: 0380812894 (Amazon link)

I think I just read a classic.

No, really. I think I just read something that I'm going to remember, want to re-read, and recommend for some time to come.

Michael Swanwick is well known for his fiction. This is his 7th novel, and people's expectations are high as his backlist has such well regarded novels as Stations of the Tide, Vacuum Flowers, Jack Faust, and The Iron Dragon's Daughter.

So what do you do when you've got a big SF novel to write? You get out the ideas dice and roll it. Apparently the popular "Spaceships" (these are slightly weighted dice) didn't come up for once, but the old classic "Dinosaurs" did. Still, better to safe than sorry, so apparently our author rolled again and got another hoary old idea, "Time Travel".

Well, I mean, dinosaurs!, how else can you work them into a novel but to use time travel? Besides, it lets you riff off Bradbury's classic short. (Except that in this novel you're free to stomp on any butterflies with impunity as you already stood on the fluttering menaces before you came back to stand on them. Of course.)

At the beginning of the novel, Richard Leyster is a young paleontologist. One day, a man called Griffin arrives with a job offer and the head of a Stegosaurus. A fresh head. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be the script for a TV special, but in Swanwick's hands this is material worthy of attention. For Swanwick has done something else you see, he has written a novel which looks like it's about Dinosaurs and Time-Travel, but which is actually about something much rarer and harder for most people to understand - he's writing about Scientists.

The thing about scientists, both those in the novel, and those who share their world-view and are reading this novel, is that they're not, well, very comfortable with the whole idea of time-travel. In fact, just a few pages into the novel, Leyster also dismisses time-travel.

The problem with time-travel as a story device is that it's capricious - the very thing that makes it useful, the generation of paradoxes, is the thing that makes it difficult to carry off well. Either the fictional world quickly becomes riddled with paradoxes, or the plot can be solved at any point by a character re-appearing to change things armed with foresight.

So, how does Swanwick handle this business? He revels in it. He gleefully gets stuck into paradoxes, and the whole problem with time travel. As soon as Leyster is inducted into the secret by Griffin he's whisked away to a conference of time-travelling palaeontologists - people gleefully run up to get signatures on papers not written yet, and much is made of keeping details from Ahead away from those Behind. Very amusing stuff to read, and very thought-provoking once the initial enjoyment wears off as of course, there must be a way to resolve the paradoxical nature and ensure that the time-lines aren't destroyed. Alas, how that is managed is a spoiler, but I think the author pulls it off with the ending. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it satisfied me. (I'll need a reread to make sure I don't find a flaw with it, but I think it's the only solution which is open.) And no, it's not a Darwinia style cheap stunt. It does however, involve extra-terrestrials, big conspiracies and sinister controlling overlords. Which is all good.

Going back a step, much is made of the ability to have issues resolved by having a character appear from the future and change things. This happens a lot, and isn't restricted to just those crisis points where one is used to seeing TV and film scripts turn to this device. Nope, in this novel, you almost need to take notes at certain points to keep everything straight. That said, I think the 3rd 1/4 of the book suffers a little from an inconsistency - again, on re-read I might disagree. Without spoiling, I think you'll know the section I mean - the characters thus affected discuss the issue and decide they are stuck with their predicament, as if they weren't and rescue was on the way, it'd already be there...

Much as I enjoy time travel novels, I prefer dinosaurs. Doesn't everyone? And boy, oh boy, did Swanwick do his homework well. He shows a decent grasp of the various sciences involved and doesn't shy away from talking about the process of science, not only the high points, but also the years of depressingly detailed work involved in getting even the slightest hint of how these ancient beasts lived. The squabbles of funding, and the achingly careful business of writing and publishing papers is also discussed. As I said before, it's the scientists that this novel is really about. There's a lovely little parable on the last page or two (not a spoiler) about their world-view:

A man is locked in prison for the rest of his life. He has a small window, a bit of sky. One day a bird comes to window with a bit of straw and starts to nest in the window. Griffin is asked what he'd do: would he capture the birds to train? Steal their eggs to eat? Kill them in envy of their freedom? Griffin elects to study them, just to observe them and wonder about how and why they do what they do. He's asked why he should bother if he's never going to leave the cell, and if it's enough to justify living. (Knowing who asks him that question makes it even more poignant.)

This question pops up in a few places in the book, and it's an interesting one. To me anyway. There's a hell of a lot of accomplished info-dumping, the good kind, in evidence here too; much is made of the various periods/epochs/ages and the differences in the critters therein. There's some speculation too, including a nice theory about the predator-prey relationships and the KT event. There's even some humour - Cthuluraptor Imperator, Jabberwokias, and my favourite, the Fubarodon. (No doubt, someone will now tell me that one or more of these is a real organism).

But the stuff I really got a kick out of was the sense of of a real working scientific life - the effort required to put together a T.Rex skeleton, the anatomy that can be implied from a few bones, and the amazing amount that can be derived from a few scratches in mud. This is something not often encountered in fiction, and to be honest, while pop science books are often excellently written now and convey the excitement of discovery, even they shy away from describing some of the more tedious exercises underlying the Big Discoveries. And they almost never discuss why the heck people devote their lives to such seemingly pointless work...

I was less taken by some of the human relationships in the novel, although they are perfectly decent pieces of writing certain character's motivations were opaque to me occasionally. The laughable creationist terrorists, their worldview being laughable and not the actions sadly, exist only as objects of authorial derision, but at least one major plot thread depends on the life choices of a wilful female scientist, and while that plot thread explores the nature of paradox and leads to the climax of the book I still don't really understand why the character acted in that way... Still, it's another reason to re-read, and to be honest, I'm being rather picky. The plotting overall is very tightly written considering the nature of the central device, and most of the characters are fully fleshed people adequate to their roles. A striking achievement.

In short, this reviewer (living in the Cenozoic era, Quaternary period, Holocene epoch, Modern age) suggests that this novel is a significant addition to the SF literature on time travel, and recommends it very highly. (Especially to grown adults who're still little boys having a Conversion Moment in front of a dinosaur skeleton in a museum...)

A Google has just showed that there are no hits for Cthuluraptor but that this novel is based on a short. I've not seen it, but it seems Scherzo with Tyrannosaur may be well known.

Posted: Sat - March 15, 2003 at 01:55 AM