Reviews and analysis - Bones of the Earth

Review by Aaron Bergman
(This review first appeared on Usenet, 03/2002)

Bones of the Earth
Eos Books/HarperCollins (USA), 2002

Michael Swanwick isn't the most prolific of authors, but Jack Faust excepted, his books have been uniformly excellent. Swanwick's books have also often been the sort of book where, after putting it down, one asks, "What the fuck was that?".

Bones of the Earth

While the major themes of the novels have always been clear, just how everything fits together has eluded me in many of his past novels. It is a testament to Swanwick that this state of confusion has not lessened my enjoyment of the novels.

That said, Bones of the Earth is a remarkably straigthforward novel, both in terms of plot and in terms of theme. It might seem to be an oxymoron to have a straightforward plot in a novel about time travel, but everything here is quite comprehensible. The novel begins with a paleontologist being approached by a mysterious person who works for the government and recruits him into a project by handing him the severed head of a stegosaurus. The project is the opportunity to travel back to the Mesazoic and similar eras to study dinosaurs in their native environment. Along the way, we meet creationist terrorists, assorted other characters, a new theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs and one rather dysfunctional woman.

The individual elements of the plot of this novel aren't terribly important, however. There are more than enough pyrotechnics here, but the novel isn't about how time travel changed the world, or even about people interacting with dinosaurs. Instead, one might say that this novel is the thematic antithesis of Jurassic Park. (One almost wonders if the idea for this novel was hatched in the aftermath of this movie. One can't help but notice that parts of this novel would work very well on the screen, although I don't know if the ending would work with the test audiences.)  Jurassic Park was a novel much in the tradition of Shelley, speaking of the dangers of knowledge, of messing with what we don't understand and intimating, perhaps, that there are things we just shouldn't tamper with. It is an all too common theme, especially in science fiction that mixes with the "mainstream". In contrast, Bones of the Earth is all about the joy of scientific discovery. One doesn't worry about stepping on butterflies; one just tramples through the paleolithic learning what one can.

It is not a coincidence that Swanwick has chosen dinosaurs as his object of study. More than just the thematic resonances with Crichton, the study of dinosaurs is a fundamentally useless endeavor. One can make excuses about gaining lessons or understanding extinction, but that is not the reason why anyone enters into paleontology. If Swanwick had chosen physics or biology as his subject, the practical uses for these fields would distract from the main thematic thrust of the novel. As revealed near the end in almost amazingly explicit way for a Swanwick novel, more than just being about science and scientists and in a much more explicit sense than is generic to all literature, this novel is about where one finds meaning in a human life. From an entirely different direction, this theme is also recognizable in The Iron Dragon's Daughter. In an over-simplified summary, that novel is about Jane's search for meaning in a nihilistic world. None of the characters in Bones of the Earth are searching for meaning. Rather, there is one particular action that represents an explicit rejection of the nihilism that can come from the search for objective meaning. Swanwick's answers to the questions of life and humanity won't come as a surprise to any reader, but his skill lies in how he answers them through the recognizably human actions of the characters rather than through the pages of philosophical verbiage that seems so common in SF.

I often wonder, in my liking for Swanwick's early novels, if I confuse obscurity with quality. There is little question of that here. Swanwick has written a remarkably straightforward, almost commercial novel, that nonetheless packs much of the thematic wallop of his previous more difficult works. One can only wish that it were novels like this one, compared to the countless Frankenstein retreads, that could represent science fiction in the popular media.

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