on July 13, 2004
I became interested in this book after seeing it on the "other books that might interest you" portion of Amazon's web site. As an avid follower of science fiction, particularly hard sci-fi, I was naturally intrigued by the plot. I'll start with the positive elements of this book.
First, the concept of time travel is a tough premise to work with, for any writer. And, for a newbie, Swanwick pulls this portion of the book off quite well. He intrigues the reader by showing possible paradoxes, causality infractions and plain and simple "fun" with temporal mechanics. The science behind this marvel is for the most part unexplained throughout the book - which is something most hard core sci-fi fans will continusouly thirst for.
Second, although I'm not a dino-guy when it comes to my fiction (unless you're talking about Jules Verne), Swanwick does a great job of tapping into the reader's inner-child (you know, the one who was fascinated by dinos as a kid). This makes the story more fun, and provides a few genuinely entertaining moments throughout the book.
Now for the negative.
What is with this author's fascination over the "F" word? I will never understand why writers feel the need to use this modern "uber-cool" gutter-mouth vernacular. It doesn't make the story seem any more "real" to me. I mean, we're dealing with live dinosaurs and time travel, it's not like the gratuitous use of this word will make me relate to the characters in a more meaningful way.
Then there are unnecessary sex scenes. Swanwick, on more than one occasion, goes from technobabble to cheesy romance novel in the space of a few, poorly written paragraphs. C'mon. We don't want this kind of junk messing up good sci-fi. If I want to read about group orgies, I'll buy an adult magazine. Please keep my sci-fi clean.
Overall, this book has a lot of wasted potential. This book could have been a great force to get kids interested in modern paleontology, but instead goes for cheap ratings among the sexually frustrated crowd. It's a good concept gone bad with inadequate writing experience and horrible language. I will not refer this book to any of my friends.
on June 25, 2004
You could describe "Bones of the Earth" as "Jurassic Park" for the serious science-fiction reader. Michael Swanwick gives the reader not only a well-researched look at dinosaurs (mixed with plenty of pure speculation) but also a trippy story about time-travel and paradoxes. I've never encountered a time-travel story where the author is so free and fast with overlapping timelines and crisscrossing eras. The characters time hop so fast and frequently that the novel covers a period from the Triassic to eras billions of years in the future. Plus you get some juicy confusion such as characters meeting older versions of themselves, or celebrations where people from the future can ask famous authors to sign books they haven't written yet!
The time-travel method itself never receives close attention; Swanwick presents it, and then lets the story go along its bizarre, non-chronological way. In the mid-21st century, the government suddenly makes known its mastery of time-travel, and lets scientists from all times travel to stations placed throughout the Mesozoic to study dinosaurs. But where did time-travel come from, and why is it being used only for research purposes? These questions bother some of the scientists, and one in particular wants to shake up the time-travel scene in ways that could be dangerous. Meanwhile, fundamentalist groups plan terror strikes to stop the time-traveling project, and a large group of scientists finds itself possibly stranded forever in a rough part of the Cretaceous. Where is the way out of this confusing tangle of time streams...and who ultimately pulls the strings?
"Bones of the Earth" reads quickly, even with its cornucopia of overlapping stories and time periods. Swanwick holds it together with his fine eye for character, detail, and excitement. Each chapter offers tantalizing encounters with ancient creatures, new mysteries of the past, or weird experiences with the paradoxes of time travel. It's a romp, no doubt about it, and you'll have as much fun as Swanwick does with the possibilities.
Dinosaur fans (adult ones at least, due to some sexual content) will love this, and the hard-science reader will also find much to embrace. But there are enough energy and excellent characterizations to appeal to wide spectrum of readers. Think of as "Jurassic Park" with half the calories, twice the brains.
on April 21, 2004
The start of BotE is great, but don't be fooled. The novel soon loses focus, and by the time I was finished, I was hoping that there was some way that I could send Swanwick into the Mesozoic.
Do yourself a favor, and read something, anything, else.
on February 17, 2004
A good time travel novel - particularly one involving dinosaurs - is quite rare and it was a real treat to read "Bones of the Earth." Time travel can be a hard subject to tackle successfully, and so much in the popular media about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals is wrong; it is wonderful to see a science fiction author do a good job with both.
The novel begins with a scene where the protagonist, paleontologist Dr. Richard Leyster, is working in his office at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Into his office comes a stranger by the name of Griffin, bearing with him an intriguing proposal; he is to set aside his duties at what essentially is his dream job (or so he thought) and work for him on a top secret project, a project Griffin cannot reveal any information at the time about and any information Leyster uncovers working for them cannot be published. Leyster at first of course refuses. Griffin leaves Leyster's office, having placed an Igloo cooler on his desk. After Griffin left, Leyster opens it and is astounded by what he finds; the head of a very freshly killed stegosaur. After verifying that it was real Leyster does make contact again with Griffin and agrees to work on his project.
The project is indeed a most impressive one, with Griffin apparently the chief administrator for am ambitious effort to study the Mesozoic from the earliest Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous, shortly before whatever event ended the reign of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and the various prehistoric marine reptile species. The organization manages a number of stations throughout the Mesozoic and undertakes extensive studies of the fauna of the era, uncovering a wealth of information and many new species.
Unfortunately a lot of mystery surrounds both time travel and the organization that Leyster is now working for. Both the origin of time travel and the very nature of how it works are closely guarded secrets. Leyster cannot openly publish his research, and indeed the very existence of time travel and that people have seen living dinosaurs must remain a secret from the public (though we find later that in the future it does become public knowledge and Leyster and others are free to publish their findings at that point).
Even more mysteriously there are many rules and regulations regarding time travel. Much effort is made to prevent paradoxes from forming, as apparently one can change the past to a degree, causing immense problems in the future. Griffin and his associates work hard to prevent such paradoxes from forming, a difficult task considering that researchers are recruited from the future to work on the project, working alongside with what are to them often legends, aware of books that the people of Leyster's time haven't even written yet. Sometimes there are teams where some of the researches weren't even born yet in the current time frame of the oldest members of a particular team, having come from that far into the future. There are even occasions when future versions of present day people meet and even work together, though Griffin and his subordinates keep a very tight rein on this.
There are a number of other interesting characters in the book, including notably Dr. Getrude Salley, a rather complicated individual that who while clearly loving paleontology also has a regrettable history of doing some reprehensible things to advance her research and get into the limelight. Leyster and her we find have a very complex history together, one that stretches through time and space. There is also the Old Man, an enigmatic character (whose identity is revealed later in the book), a strange, shadowy man who knows everything about the project and has ultimate authority, coming and going on whims and on projects that no one, not even Griffin, understands.
A lot happens in the book. I think the best section was when an expedition led by Leyster becomes stranded in the late Cretaceous, with Leyster and his team of graduate students having to survive in the hostile wilderness. Even while fighting for their lives and struggling to come up with some of the most basic necessities of life they still remain scientists at heart and make some amazing discoveries.
The end of the book and the ultimate origin of time travel I found to be quite surprising, though I am not sure I entirely liked it; I am still digesting it.
Although I am no scientist, I am an enthusiastic amateur and I found for the most part the science in the book was pretty good. He posits the existence of several species that we do not know from the fossil record, including a basal spinosaur that was popularly called a "fisher" (and subject to nest parasitism by an allosaur, an interesting though unsupported theory), _Geistosaurus_ (a mute hadrosaur, hadrosaurs being the famous "duck-billed" dinosaurs that are now believed by many to have been quite vocal animals), and several interesting late Cretaceous forms such as the marsh hopper (a small, vaguely raccoon-like animal that lived along river banks) and tree-divers (hand-sized crocodile relatives that had membranes that stretched between their limbs, enabling them to glide). Also included were a few I thought he did make up at first until I researched them, such as _Stygivenator_ (a highly derived late Cretaceous tyrannosaurid species, smaller than most tyrannosaurs). One problem I had though was with Swanwick depicting some dinosaurs that were not feathered as adults possessing young covered in down (such as the allosaur in the story). By my understanding of such things this is not possible, as the type of body covering a species has as a juvenile will be the same it has as an adult, and that while there were feathered dinosaurs there were no dinosaurs that were feathered while young and not feathered when mature.
An interesting book, I recommend it.
on January 25, 2004
Dinosaurs seem to hold an almost unnatural fascination for a great many people, from children thrill-frightened by T. Rex to paleontologists who devote their lives to determining the real facts about these former rulers of the Earth. And it is just such a determined researcher who is offered a life-time dream: the ability to go back in time and actually see the objects of his study in action. But there are a few strings attached to the offer: time travel is a secret, and he can't divulge any of his findings to the world at large, nor can he, by either action or word, be the cause of a time-wrecking paradox.
A good premise for a novel, and Swanwick does a good job of developing both the situation and his major characters. Thematically, Swanwick looks at the reasons people work beyond that of merely surviving, and the lengths some people will go to, including murder, due to their obsessions with some form of 'belief' system (in this case, the major players are the Creationists and federal bureaucrats). It is the conflict between belief systems that leads to the major story action, leaving a party of scientists stranded in the far past and forced to learn how to survive in this environment without most of today's technological marvels, while another group works to rescue the party by working into the very far future - which has its own surprises.
But there are a few problems here. For anyone other than a paleontologist who is highly familiar with the various classes and species of dinosaurs, a lot of the description of these animals will seem to be couched in almost impenetrable scientific terms (quick, off the top of your head, what's a 'hadrosaur'?). Then too, the long period when the existence of time travel was supposedly kept secret, even though there are literally hundreds of people who are engaging in it, stretched my 'suspension of disbelief' quotient. The use of cell phones in the distant past also bothered me - how is such a network initiated and controlled without all the infrastructure of wireless systems? Close attention must be paid to the various time-line trip directions and actions, else the conclusion of the book will make little sense - and time-altering paradoxes are known for creating mind- warping headaches.
In the end, though, the above problems are comparatively minor when compared to the strength of his characters and the multiple ideas, such as a new theory about both the social organization of dinosaurs and the reasons for their extinction, that Swanwick presents. A thinking man's book, written in a field replete with mass-market blockbusters most of which don't even know what science is. It's nice to able to read something that doesn't insult your intelligence and still tells an engaging story. It's easy to see why this book was nominated for the 2003 Hugo Award, and in fact I think this book is better than the book that won, Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids (though not as good as another nominee, China Mieville's The Scar).
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on November 18, 2003
I bought this book based on Amazon's recommendation and was greatly disappointed. The first 50 pages are great then the book falls apart from there.
We have a paleonologist presented first-hand with the opportunity to study live dinosaurs via time-travel. We have interesting descriptions of time-travel possibilities and a mysterious "older woman" from the future that wants to have a romantic liaison with the paleontologist. Then I don't know what happened to the story. It seemed like there were too many boring characters introduced and I found myself not being able to remember who each of them was.
The book is compared to Jurassic Park. Other than the live dinosaur angle, I don't know how to compare them as that had a far superior story that I enjoyed through and through.
on October 10, 2003
Not up to the literary standards of "Iron Dragon's Daughter." Was really excited after reading the latter to discover a newish book by Swanwick with what I consider interesting subject matter. Reads more like a sloppy Michael Crichton without the suspense. Poorly plotted and full of inconsistencies, without a single character that I could care about.
on September 16, 2003
I think one either praises this book to the high heavens or one condemns it. I'm in the latter category. Despite the excellent quality of the writing--which made this book a quick read--the plot is all a jumble. At first it's a story about dinosaur hunters. Then it becomes a political/religious thriller involving sabotage by conservative religious terrorists (a subplot that is very quickly abandoned as if Swanwick didn't want to go there). Then it becomes a typical time-travel paradox novel with aliens in the future testing human beings "in the field".
The problem here is that a group gets stranded in the early Triassic and rather than face the ugly fact that they'll be stranded there forever, they set about to "do science". Meanwhile in the future, a rescue effort takes its time being mounted. And even though the future people literally have all the time in the world to rescue the stranded group, Swanwick stretches the novel out unbearably with unrealiztic characterization and wasted SF tropes. Then the conclusion is one of these: this is what happens to character A; this is what happens to character B; and so on.
Swanwick is a fantastic writer but this isn't one of his best efforts. I did like the Bird People though, particularly their noncommunicative arrogance.
on August 31, 2003
Some reviewers have enjoyed the chapters of this book dealing with dinosaurs, but not the book as a whole. I have to say that felt very differently reading it myself. In fact, there were times when I felt that the book was a bit more about biology than I would like, and not enough about time travel. Be that as it may, I can honestly say that I enjoyed Swanwick's weaving together of these two subjects.
There are definitely some points in the book where the nonlinear flow of events is a bit disorienting, but this quickly passes and only makes the time-travel aspect of the story more interesting. In fact, without these twists and turns, Bones of the Earth would have been just a story about biologists studying exotic wildlife - perhaps worth reading, but perhaps not.
Finally, I simply do not buy the complaints about this story's ending (which I will not describe here). It's not as if it invalidates the time and effort the reader invests in Bones. Rather, I think that Swanwick has taken a legitimate approach to illustrating the consequences of using (and misusing) time travel.
Bones of the Earth is fun and interesting. Give it a try!
on July 27, 2003
My title is not meant to slight the many positive elements of the novel. To me, it was a work on two levels. On one level, I found it to be a first-rate tale about dinosaurs told from an amusing perspective (paleontologists and the titanic tiffs of academia). I do not presume to be even an amateur paleontologist, but many of the details within the novel struck me as intriguing, revealing a familiarity with some of the latest theories about "thunder lizards". Interspersed through this is a broader view of the whole evolution/creation debate, and it isn't difficult to see where Swanick stands on THAT. His ideas of how access to the prehistoric past might affect that debate were also very thought-provoking, even if his villains (as other reviewers pointed out) were caricatures.
On another level, this is a time-travel novel and it is here where the novel suffers. Time travel is one of the thorniest areas in science fiction, and Swanick does to a good job of addressing some of the paradoxes inherent within it that have hamstrung many a lesser writer. When it comes to the actual DEVELOPMENT of time travel, though, after explaining the perceived impossibility (according to our contemporary science) of such a capability, he resorts to a "deus ex machina" by having more advanced beings simply gift the technology to humans. His explanation for why they do this is actually pretty interesting, but at the end these beings decide to go back and UNDO THEIR GIFT. It left me with a sense of futility, wondering why I bothered to read about a chain of events that the author himself simply decided to have never happen. It seemed like a colossal cop-out, especially after the exciting events of the earlier chapters.