I have great respect for Michael Swanwick’s writing. His short story collection “Tales of Old Earth” is one of my favorite collections, and stories in it such as “Scherzo With Tyrannosaur”, “Wild Minds”, and “Radiant Doors” are among the best science fiction stories ever written.
Though I have read many of his short stories, this is the first novel of his I have attempted. It happened by chance; I found it at a bargain bin outside a bookstore. My first thought was “Michael Swanwick? In a bargain bin? Time travel? Dinosaurs? How can I say no?”
The truth is, when Swanwick writes a short story there is so much packed into it you feel he could have made it into a novel. That it is bristling with ideas makes its impact at short length so much the stronger. I don’t know what I expected at novel length – much the same only more of it I suppose – but for me this book didn’t really get going until it was about 150 pages in. From there until the end I found it an absorbing read. The beginning I found a bit slow and rambling, setting up characters but never really coming together. Part of the problem was that one of the plot elements, that as a reaction to time travel proving evolution a cult of Christian fundamentalists would arise to commit reactionary violent mayhem, I found a bit silly. I just couldn’t buy that. Fiction always involves a willing suspension of disbelief. The best fiction makes you suspend your disbelief without even realizing you are doing it, but with this premise I had to consciously make a decision to let it pass because I wanted to read on, hoping for better things. Fortunately, after those first 150 pages that plot point is left in the dust, so to speak, and the novel gets into some genuine excitement and interest as an expedition is lost in the Mesozoic era surrounded by huge dangerous beasts. Swanwick plays a lot of games with time travel paradox too, and that’s fun, though he has done it more effectively in his shorter works.
In the end he takes us into the far future and introduces us to the beings that invented and introduced time travel to the human race. The conclusion left me vaguely dissatisfied, the same way I felt dissatisfied with the conclusion of the “Matrix” trilogy. It just wasn’t the way I wanted to see things go, not the way I would have done it. It would have been cool if the humans could have somehow fought the inevitable, somehow prevailed against all odds. That’s how I would have wanted to do it anyway. I should have known better. Even in his short fiction Swanwick is often deeply pessimistic, and I can’t fault him for that. I have found the same to be true with my own work. Often against my early predilections, a story cries out for a tragic ending because…well, just because the story takes over and that’s the way it ends.
I have read both “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” by Michael Crichton recently and feel the temptation to compare them with “Bones of the Earth”, but I am going to resist the urge. They are very different works. One thing is sure, though: “Bones of the Earth” would be much more difficult to film, with its large cast of characters and more complex plot.
In my criticism of various aspects of the novel I do not mean to suggest that it is not entertaining. It is a good book, a fun read. The fact that I expected more does not diminish from its obvious virtues. Once it gets moving it is a fast-paced enjoyable novel. Time travel? Dinosaurs? Multi-award winning author? How can you go wrong?
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