Michael Swanwick,
Bones of the Earth
(Eos/Harper Collins, 2002)

Michael Swanwick has long had a soft spot in his literary heart for dinosaurs, but his passion has only rarely risen to the surface. Plesiosaurs made a playful but brief appearance in his sophomore novel Vacuum Flowers. More recently his story "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" gave readers a taste of things to come as he experimented with some of the concepts and characters which appear in his latest book. And now we have Bones of the Earth, a dynamic time-travel novel that allows the author to truly flex his Mesozoic muscles.

The basic premise behind Bones of the Earth is that an advanced race, the Unchanging, has bestowed the gift of time travel on humanity. Or rather, they've bestowed this gift on one favored segment of the population, paleontologists. At the center of the story we find the trio of Dr. Richard Leyster, the staid Smithsonian scientist; Dr. Gertrude Salley, the impulsive, controversial enfant terrible of dinosaur research; and Griffin, the enigmatic government official who ensures the rules imposed by the Unchanging are followed. They each move forward and backward in time, crossing paths with older and younger versions of their fellow scientists. Griffin even stages a demonstration in which he interacts with himself, thus proving that time travel has a built in elasticity that prevents the destruction of the present by minor alterations of the past.

And yet the plot of Bones of the Earth balances precariously on the avoidance of irreconcilable paradox. Certain changes to the past are allowed because they've always been part of the timeline. Other changes cannot be permitted and Griffin and his team will stop at nothing to ensure that all is as it has always been. It's an extremely tangled and bureaucratic web within which our intrepid bone hunters must function, one for which I could not at times perceive a coherent design. But the book barrels along and I was swept up in the adventure.

Naturally things go amiss, and Leyster and a team of young researchers become stranded in the late Cretaceous. No replacement batteries for the flashlights, no replacement shoes when they wear out. No replacement people for the casualties. But these are scientists and their insatiable curiosity means that the research continues, as much for their sanity as for posterity should they eventually be rescued. And Swanwick has great fun postulating saurian behavior and communication while the team is trapped in prehistory.

It's in Swanwick's postulating of human behavior that my problems with Bones of the Earth lie, and virtually all of them have to do with sex. At times I found the sex gratuitous, at times it simply felt out of character. In each case I found the sex vaguely out of step with the rest of the book. It's unfortunate because to simply eliminate the sex entirely would have left these passionate characters wanting. What was needed, I feel, was more feeling and less physical description.

On the whole Bones of the Earth is a fast-paced and engaging adventure that treads rather familiar time-travel territory. The characters are strong but somewhat predictable. It's a book I enjoyed but likely won't feel the need to re-read in the future. It's quite good but I'm convinced Swanwick has the potential to produce even better fiction than we find here.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 21 December 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.