Bones of the Earth
(HarperCollins Eos, 352 pages, hardcover, March 2002, ISBN: 0380978369.
HarperTorch, $7.50, 400 pages, mass market paperback, March 2003, ISBN:
are books I read for review and books I read for research or simply
to educate myself, and then there are the books I read purely for pleasure.
I tend to accumulate unread books in the latter category, because work
commitments tend to take priority and, anyway, I do enjoy books in the
first three categories, too. So those books I buy, or which are given
to me by people who know what I'll probably like, often get neglected.
I've had my copy of Bones of the Earth for far too long, sitting
on one of those stacks of books awaiting my attention. This is one of
the ones I planned to read for pleasure -- a new year treat for myself
-- so why the review?
Well, simply because we don't have a review of this fine novel at infinity
plus and we should. This is an intelligent, playful, sophisticated book,
one that manages that tricky challenge of making the reader want to
stop and think and at the same time to turn the page, turn the page.
In 2010, Smithsonian paleontologist Richard Leyster is offered a new
post. The offer would have to be quite something to tempt him away from
both his current position and the analysis of the find of his lifetime.
The offer is quite something. It's not giving too much away to
tell you that this is a time travel story, and Leyster is offered the
chance to go back and encounter real dinosaurs.
It takes a lot to get me excited about a time travel story these days.
They can be fun, they can be clever, but it's a trope that has so thoroughly
been done that I don't exactly anticipate the next great time
travel story... But in Bones of the Earth Swanwick does a brilliant
job of showing the ways in which the complex layerings of time travel
become everyday for those involved, and yet still conveying those mind-boggling
complexities. Early on, at a conference of paleontologists gathered
from a span of a century or so, there's a smart and playful demonstration
of time loops and paradoxes. Throughout, time travel is portrayed as
day-to-day, with jumps of a few tens of millions of years just part
of the job ... and then the rug's pulled from under your feet again.
Underlying events is a superb exposition of the fine balance between
"the lively play of free will [and] the iron shackles of determinism"
-- by learning of events, whenever they might chronologically occur,
you are turning what might be into the past ... your past.
This is more than just a clever time travel tale, though. Above all,
it's a loving tribute to science and the scientific process -- from
the vivid descriptions of the ecology of the Mesozoic, through the work
and discussions of the various characters, to the underlying, passionate
belief in the importance of asking questions of nature, of trying to
understand. Science isn't about white coats and test-tubes, it's about
curiosity, mistakes, big egos, personality clashes, obsession, maverick
thinking, rivalries. It's about being human. Just as this novel of time
travel and dinosaurs is, too.
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