The plot of Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Campbell and Locus awards in 2002 and 2003, makes you feel like taking a deep breath before trying to describe it. Elevator pitch: palaeontologists are offered the opportunity to travel back in time to study dinosaurs. After a ‘deep creationist’ plants a bomb in their ‘time beacon’, a small working party of researchers are trapped in the late Cretaceous period, with no way home. Longer version: there’s so much more going on. To give a sense of it, the book kicks off with one of the main characters, palaeontologist Richard Leyster, attending a conference in Virginia, having just been offered the opportunity to use time travel in his research. However, the conference is taking place ten years in Leyster’s future, and the research he hasn’t carried out yet has already made him a legend. ‘Oh! You’re Richard Leyster! Oh, my goodness. I want to tell you that your book was so… Oh, right. It wouldn’t be out yet,’ gushes a fellow speaker. As the conference continues, things just get weirder. Leyster attends a talk by another significant character, Gertrude Salley, who is from ‘about thirty-forty years forward’ and is not allowed to reveal any information that hasn’t already been discovered in the present time. Unsurprisingly, Leyster and Salley end up sleeping together. Afterwards, Leyster is accosted by Griffin, who is orchestrating the entire project: he tells Leyster he is a ‘fucking idiot’ because Salley will, in the future, write a paper that is ‘the single most virulent refutation of your book ever printed.‘ The book, remember, that Leyster has not yet written.
If this kind of thing puts you off, Bones of the Earth is probably not for you. It flits between time periods in both the twenty-first century and in the Mesozoic era. It head-hops with equal abandon. Griffin, Leyster and Salley are the three central protagonists, but dozens of minor characters get a look-in. This weakens the novel, in my opinion; with such a crowded and complicated narrative, it could do with a strong emotional anchor provided by a single protagonist to guide us through. Instead, we end up flipping from Leyster’s research in the Cretaceous period to Griffin’s scheming in the 2040s to Salley’s grandstanding in the 2030s, and it’s very hard to keep up. About halfway through, after the creationist plot comes to fruition, we spend a lot more time with the stranded research group, and this helps to centre Bones of the Earth – until its final chapters, when it spins off on further adventures far into the Earth’s future. It’s too much to cram into a novel that’s barely more than 300 pages long. I rarely say this, but it could have been twice the length without feeling laboured.
I would have been happier to go with the flow of this novel if the time travel in it made any sense at all. It seems to me that there are basically two ways to handle time travel consistently in fiction: either accept that your characters are travelling back in the past of an identical parallel world, rather than the past of their own world, or allow them to travel back in their own past, while accepting the seemingly unbelievable truth that they will not be able to change anything that they haven’t already changed. (In other words, they’ll know that they can’t kill their own grandfathers, however hard they try.) David Lewis’s very famous metaphysical essay ‘The Paradoxes of Time Travel’ explains this second version in greater depth. Unfortunately, Swanwick goes for neither. His characters explain that they can change their own past, but they are not allowed to, because of the terrible consequences that would result. This quickly becomes very confusing, as it’s clear that the characters are allowed to interact with their own past in specified circumstances (they spend some time leaving notes for past selves), as long as they know they’ve already done it and the way in which they did it. While this does stack up, it’s hard to avoid asking how they could possibly guard against all the potential paradoxes that might happen, and how they always know exactly what to do in their own pasts. This version of time travel does turn out to be plot-important, but I couldn’t help feeling it was an extra complication the story simply didn’t need.
Having said all this: The Bones of the Earth is an exhilarating novel. Swanwick may have chucked far too many ideas at it, but this results in some wonderful set-pieces. His handling of the dinosaur scenes is brilliant, and made me wish that he had simplified the time travel apparatus considerably (the novel originally emerged from a short story called ‘Scherzo with Tyrannosaur’, which focused more closely on the dinosaurs themselves). There’s surely enough material for a novel in the vision of a future in which expensive corporate dinners are held in an underwater bubble in the Tethys Sea, full of ‘swarms of ammonites… jewelllike teleosts… giant strands of seaweed’ and rudist clams that dominated the Cretaceous oceans before most corals existed? Or in the description of Hilltop research station, celebrating the sheer difference of the Earth millions of years ago, where ‘shallow seas so moderated the climate that even the poles were free of ice’ and ‘herds of triceratops speckle the flowered plains… their frills were all as bright as butterflies, dominated by two black-rimmed orange circles, like great eyes.’ Swanwick also has enormous fun playing with debates about why the dinosaurs went extinct so suddenly after the Chicxulub asteroid impact. He seems to have invented his own novel hypothesis about species communicating through infrasonic vibrations (like elephants and crocodiles do) which were silenced by the earth ringing after the impact of the asteroid (this is also a thing that happens) meaning that migration and co-operation patterns were messed up, causing eventual extinction. This is obviously not true, but I’m definitely up for some quasi-scientific hypothesising in time travel novels, and this twist, for me, alongside the ‘stranded in Tyrannosaurus rex times’ bit of the plot, could easily have carried the novel.
Would I recommend Bones of the Earth? For all of its faults, it’s competently and intelligently written, Hancock has a gift for explaining complex things clearly, and at least part of it is a time-travelling adventure with dinosaurs. For the kid in me that spent so many happy hours in the Smithsonian, the answer has to be yes.