Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick 
List Price: $25.95 
Hardcover - 352 pages (February 19, 2002)
Eos (Trade); ISBN: 0380978369Review by Ernest Lilley
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Read Chapter One: Predation Event

Also - Harper Collins Special Feature: Read Michael Swanwick's Short Story "Riding the Gigantasaur" online

Michael Swanwick's Website: 

"Once again Michael Swanwick takes a genre and turns it on its proverbial ear. Bones of the Earth is Jurassic Park set amid the paradox of time travel and complicated by the intrigue between evolutionists and creationists. In the way only Swanwick can do, the novel is simultaneously funny, intelligent, thrilling, challenging, and heartbreaking. I dare anyone to read the first chapter and not keep reading all the way through to the last shocking page."

-James Rollins, New York Times best-selling author of Subterranean Deep Fathom and Amazonia.

I ran into Michael Swanwick in Boston last month, and he told me that when he showed the finished copy of Bones of the Earth to the paleontologists he'd consulted in its writing, the pained reaction was the same every time. Evidentially, the dinosaur foot shown on the cover has a reversed bone in it, which drives them crazy. Swanwick didn't draw the cover, and authors rarely have much say there, so that's hardly his fault. What he did draw was a terrific picture of what it's like to have the rational and scientific world turned upside down in a heartbeat, and what he's produced is a T-Rex of a dinosaur novel.

Reading Bones of the Earth, I couldn't help but put Sam O'Neil into the lead character's role. Cast in as the somewhat stunned paleontologist in Speilberg's Jurassic Park, he perfectly captured the range of shock, rapture, ecstasy and regret that was needed for the job then, and though this is a very different story, it has that feel...the this is too good to be true feel that presages disaster. 

If O'Neil isn't available for the movie, which I'd love to watch, my only other choice for the lead happens to be a brilliant guy I know with a bushy beard and darkly thoughtful visage, the guy who actually wrote this terrific time travel novel: Michael Swanwick.

Putting the author through the sieve of filming his book in the helpless person of the star would no doubt cause him as much pleasure/pain as he visited on the story's main character
, with wonderful things spinning out of his control around him. Richard Leyster is a young, bright, recently minted Ph.D. in Paleontology, with his own Smithsonian lab, replete with government grants, and hot on the trail of a wonderful dinosaur discovery laid down in fossilized mud millions of years old.

When the man in the expensive suit comes to call on him and offer him a job, Leyster patiently explains that he can't imagine anything that would induce him to walk away from this pinnacle of paleontological success.

But in the way of these things, the very rational and grounded scientist doesn't count on what Griffith leaves him in the cooler he brought with him. It is, as a movie once pointed out, an offer he can't the form of a fresh
Stegosaurus head, impossibly sitting in the middle of his office in the early 21st century.

What follows is a dino story with some real teeth written by one of the best storytellers ever to sit around the fire and draw the tribe into his fantasy. Though the words "time travel novel," generally make me cringe, Michael Swanwick is a writer that sets me at ease regardless of his subject. I know the journey alone will be worth taking, no matter how uncertain I am of the destination.

Someone in the very far future has handed mankind time travel technology on a platter, with a few restrictions, mostly about not messing up causality by doing the usual stuff, seducing your grandmother, cheating the stock market, telling yourself the title of the book you’re about to write.

If we cheat on the rules, they take the toy away, going back to before they made it in the first place and never stopping in to say hi.

Sometimes I cringe at the notion of "character driven SF." Sometimes it's so bloody character driven that the SF is not only unnecessary, it's in the way. Fortunately, Swanwick is that rare individual that can meld humanity and technology together in stories that are intriguing, surprising, wonderful and terrible...all at once.

Richard Leyster gets what he wants, to dance with dinosaurs, metaphorically, and it's an especially fitting gift for him, because underneath it all he's really a paleo-behaviorist, even if Swanwick doesn't actually come out and say it. So he gets to look at the answers to the questions that he's always wondered about, especially the relationship between predator and prey in the late Mesozoic.

Which means he's cheated out of the quest he's prepared himself for all his life, and the price is to be given an unbelievable wealth of knowledge. But he loses more than that in the course of the story.

Gertrude Salley is a researcher from a bit further down the time stream, and she's a bit too flamboyant, too eager, too radical for the research communities taste. "I'm just a dino girl." she quips when she unveils a baby allosaur she's smuggled from the past for the TV audience. Maybe so, but there's something about her that ties Richard to her, whether as friend, lover or enemy it's hard to know, because the orderly progression of time gets pretty muddled by the government organization that keeps the scientists from trying to mess up causality, and hence have the plug pulled on the whole operation. 

Everybody is a puppet of what has already happened and the fact that down the time stream it's already been accounted for, provided for, and guarded against.

Leyster gets stranded in the past when a Creationist bomb goes off and destroys the transmitter they rode into the Mesozoic, and if things look grim for our hero and the party he's stranded with, it provides a fascinating opportunity for the author to show us speculation about dinosaur (and human) behavior.

Ultimately there comes a showdown with the owners of the time travel technology, and even though I always hate the way temporal story lines play out, Swanwick makes it so intriguing that I gladly forgive the whiplash these things always cause.

This is a great story, and I'd really like to see it get some serious Hugo consideration in the coming year. In the meantime, I'd like to see as many people enjoy it as possible. Buy it, and take it somewhere nice to read it...maybe in the park.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu                                                                          sa03.16.02