Sunday, March 10, 2002

Review: "Bones of the Earth" by Michael Swanwick

My introduction to Michael Swanwick came with his acclaimed novel "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," which took the conventions of fantasy and turned them on their heads. Now he's back with "Bones of the Earth" (EOS), a book that may do the same thing for the time travel story.

When Richard Leyster gets a job offer from a mysterious visitor, he scoffs at it. He isn't about to leave his prestigious position at the Smithsonian on the sketchy details the man named Griffin gives him. That is, until he opens the cooler the man leaves behind.

In the cooler, he finds the freshly-severed head of a stegosaurus. It's an invitation that he can't refuse.

When Griffin visits him again, Leyster becomes part of a team of paleontologists recruited from different time periods to study dinosaurs in their natural habitat.

When word of the ability to travel through time leaks to the general public, not everyone is happy. Radical religious groups see it as a threat to their beliefs and take steps to stop it - including sabotage from within. One arrogant and manipulative scientist uses the opportunity to further her own ambitions. But she finds an even darker secret waiting at the end of the line, in the form of the beings who gave us the technology.

With "Bones of the Earth," Swanwick offers a story that is part "Jurassic Park" and part Ray Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder." It mingles the wonder and fascination of a visit to the world of dinosaurs, but also explores the consequences of using the technology.

Swanwick tosses out many of the accepted "rules" of time travel that have become standard in science fiction. For example, not only can a person meet himself in the past or future, but as in Griffin's case, an older version of a person can be the younger version's boss.

All of this makes for a tangled web of a plot that twists, turns and sometimes folds back on itself. There's plenty of intrigue, mystery and backstabbing to go around.

Despite the fact that he's weaving a story with multiple time lines and multiple versions of the same characters, Swanwick keeps it easy to follow. The story is satisfyingly complex, but you won't get lost in the different threads.

I was also entertained by the some of the names applied to the newly-discovered dinosaurs. Swanwick works in tributes to other authors, as well as a few jokes. I was particularly fond of Cthulhuraptor.

Swanwick is one of a new breed of fantasy and science fiction writers who have a respect for the authors who came before them, but don't want to follow in their footsteps. With "Bones of the Earth," he continues to blaze his own trail - taking the elements that readers expect and twisting them into things that are a little different, but still engaging.

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