BONES OF THE EARTH
by Michael Swanwick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 2000, Michael Swanwick won the Hugo Award for the short story "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur," a time-travel paradox story of a fund-raising ball during the Cretaceous period. In Bones of the Earth, he takes the basic premise and expands it to novel length. Although the setting of "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" remains in Bones of the Earth, the events which occur at the Cretaceous ball are completely different, with different characters.
Bones of the Earth follows two rival paleontologists, Richard Leyster and G.C. Salley and the enigmatic Griffin. Griffin, who reports to a character referred to only as "The Old Man," is handling a top secret project which is allowing paleontologists to go back to any time during the Mesozoic Era and conduct first hand research. Although paleontology plays a large role in the novel, Swanwick seems to be more concerned with cause-and-effect, paradoxes, and predeterminism.
Griffin, and most of the people running the time travel program, are firmly of the opinion that because events happened in a certain way, there is no possible way to change the future. He must deal with scientists, such as Leyster, who challenge this declaration but, in the end, allow Griffin to guide them. Salley, however, is congenitally rebellious and tries to break out of Griffin's predetermined world at every chance. Kept secret for several years, Salley is the one who breaks ranks to announce that time travel is possible by presenting a baby allosaur as evidence. Throughout the novel, and time, Salley follows her own ambition, always turning right when told to turn left.
Much of the novel concerns Leyster's abandonment in the Maastrichtian Age with a band of graduate students following the destruction by sabotage of their time beacon. Swanwick mixes a scientific story with a survival tale as he studies the dynamics of the group which includes geologists, paleontologists and even a marketer. This portion of the novel also, eventually, allows a more in depth examination of predeterminism since Salley's natural contrariness had a major effect on the outcome of the sabotage.
The characters in Bones of the Earth are entirely likeable, even the "most arrogant and self-centered and. . . and manipulative" Salley. Although Leyster appears as Swanwick's everyman, he must share the stage with people of differing, but equally valid, views on the same issues. His corps of graduate students in the Maastrichtian teach him as much, if not more, than he teaches them, from the spear-making Tamara to the house-building Jamal. When characters are killed, their deaths inspire a sense of loss among the reader. The only character who doesn't quite fit into the novel is Molly Gerhard, ostensibly Leyster's niece. She has a definite role to play, but appears out of thin air to do so.
The driving force behind Bones of the Earth is the inscrutable Griffin. While some authors would maintain his character as a complete enigma, Swanwick reveals more and more about him as the novel progresses, without ever actually spelling out his story. In the end, the reader has more knowledge of Griffin's history without actually knowing who he is or how he found himself in the position as head of the project.
Bones of the Earth is a philosophical novel which contains its fair share of politics and action, making it a book which will appeal to readers across the spectrum. Swanwick demonstrates a firm knowledge of the different divisions of the Mesozoic Era and the dinosaurs which inhabited them as well as the scientific process which is used to establish what knowledge we have. The liberties he takes with dinosaurs appears to be based on the current theories and the holes in the fossil record.
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