No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, August 22, 2009

#61: The Bones of the Earth -- Michael Swanwick

The air is richer and the greens are greener and at night there are so many stars in the sky that it's terrifying. The Mesozoic swarms with life. You can't appreciate how thinned-out and impoverished our time is until you go back. Rain forests are nothing ... With my own eyes, I have seen a plesiosaur give birth. This hand stroked her living neck as she lay quivering in the shallows afterward. (p. 41)

The Bones of Time is that rare thing, a time-travel novel in which the time-travel makes (a certain amount of) sense. It's also a tightly-written, well-paced and, at times, richly comedic story, with a cast of credible characters -- not all likeable, but all deftly portrayed and carefully observed. (Swanwick's eye for the tells of body language is enviable. He pins down the silent tics that give away an individual's hopes and fears.) Also, there are dinosaurs. Yay!

It's a pacy adventure novel with a lot of twists, some clever ideas and a prose style that's occasionally poetic but never too purple. There's always a question to be answered: who's the Old Man? Why won't Griffin look at his watch? Is there really a Creationist mole working on the programme? Who are the Unchanging? And about this time-travel paradox thing ...

But there's also a lot of depth here. What does it mean to be human? What's the defining characteristic of the human race? How much does an individual change over time? Does belief really justify the means? Does it trump evidence?

Swanwick's affection for and awareness of the genre in which he's writing is evident: there are references to Jurassic Park, to 'A Sound of Thunder', to 'All You Zombies' and One Million Years BC and a lot of other mass-market dinosaur extravaganzas. Step on as many butterflies as you like: the present is safe. (p. 29) He's good on the ephemera of time-travel, too: Can you imagine wearing such hideous clothes? And yet they didn't seem so bad at the time. (p. 21)

I like the subtle differences of Swanwick's near future, and the vast scope of time covered by the novel. Travel in time -- not a human invention, and not subject to the laws of physics as currently understood -- is not limited to the past, though excursions into the future are made only under exceptional circumstances. And yes, there is a kind of paradoxical twist, one that I found wholly surprising and rather sad.

There's an intriguing palaeontological theory mooted by a member of the expedition: that Tyrannosaurus Rex 'farmed' herbivores, using ultrasonics, and that the *clang* of asteroid impact, setting Earth's crust ringing for many years, screwed up the system. I'd love to know more about that.

I picked this up (on recommendation, following a request for a novel where modern humans and dinosaurs coexist) expecting a cheerful, sciency romp. I did get it, but what impressed me most was the depth of the book, the memorability of the characters, the complex pacing that Swanwick does without apparent effort.

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