Monday, August 24, 2009
Bones of the Earth
I love time travel stories. A lot. The past two books I reviewed featured time travel used in unique and interesting ways. The novel I'm about to review, Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick, uses time travel in a classic sense, kind of like Heinlein's "All You Zombies".
A mysterious man comes into a paleontologist's office with a job offer. When the paleontologist refuses, the man leaves a cooler on the desk. Inside is the recently dead head of a dinosaur. It turns out that the man has the technology for real time travel, and he's assembling the best scientists from the present and the future for research in the actual distant past. But of course, there exists contingents of Creationist groups looking to sabotage, and another mysterious female paleontologist from the future looking to expose the whole thing. So begins an epic race through time....
Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Sounds like a rip-roaring adventure? Well... it is and it isn't. If you can sort out the book's extremely complicated chronology, then you would probably have a great time. I was enjoying myself following the scientists through various periods, savoring the resolutions to paradoxes and having a blast, but then it gets even more complicated.
Difficulty in fiction isn't a problem for me. The book I read before Bones of the Earth was Madame Bovary and before that, four novels by J. M. Coetzee. I have no problem with difficulty. However, unnecessary obfuscation for the sake of opacity leaves a poor taste in my mouth.
In most time travel stories, the plot itself unravels in a linear sense, whether or not the chronology is linear. Along with that, and sometimes parallel to that, is a linear viewpoint of one character. Bones of the Earth features neither of those things. There are plenty of vignettes that proceed in a linear fashion, but numerous vignettes side by side seem to have little to do with each other.
The longest and most constant of plot strings in this book is the stroy of the main character stranded in a prehistoric period with a group of research assistants and very little equipment. It's fascinating, but further complicated when it's revealed that the female paleontologist at the centre of the story manipulated this event and changed its outcome due to a paradox that fixed itself.
It's not terribly written, and this review makes the novel seem awful. It's not. Swanwick's prose is excellent, and the characters seem well developed as I could make sense of them. Maybe reading it a second time will ameliorate my experience, but as it stands, Bones of the Earth was acceptable, but nothing praiseworthy.