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Bones of the Earth

by Michael Swanwick

(HarperCollins Eos, 352 pages, hardcover, March 2002, ISBN: 0380978369. HarperTorch, $7.50, 400 pages, mass market paperback, March 2003, ISBN: 0380812894.)

Review by Keith Brooke

cover scanThere 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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