Bones of the Earth, Michael Swanwick

EOS, 2002, 335 pages, C$39.50 hc, ISBN 0-380-97836-9

Michael Swanwick is a wonderful writer for many reasons, but one of them is that he never seems to write the same book twice. He bounces between various sub-genres of SF and fantasy, changing styles and approaches as the story warrants it. The only constant that his fans can expect is fine prose and ambitious literary themes: otherwise, it’s a new experience every time.

Since Swanwick’s reputation is one of a literary SF writer, he surprised more than one reader with Bones of the Earth, a classic SF novel deeply set in the most honored traditions of the genre: time-travel, dinosaurs, secret government projects, cognitive breakthroughs… and eventually something else. Something stranger, yet even more familiar for SF fans.

This classic feel even extends to the prose, which is easily some of the most accessible writing than Swanwick has ever produced: From the very first pages, as a scientist is given a fresh dinosaur head, we’re absolutely hooked forward. The novel merrily skips ahead to a paleontologists’ conference that also doubles as a convention for a few decades’ worth of time-traveling scientists. A mysterious yet showy military officer keeps a tight lid on the event and its potential paradoxes, but that doesn’t prevent our hero from getting glimpses of the future and where it may lead.

Few books I’ve read in a while have the sheer narrative hooks that Bones of the Earth so cleverly unsheathes in its first hundred pages. It’s a good thing that I was reading it on a plane rather than on my morning commute, because I would have hated to stop mid-way through.

Even then, much of the energy disappears during the third quarter of the novel, as characters are stranded in the past with tenuous hopes of rescue. The action shifts to a more classical adventure/survival mode, but the plot stops dead until the rescue and the return to the novel’s more exhilarating issues. (Writers should take note: Stranding characters nowhere and making them wait for rescue does exactly the same thing to a novel, especially when it’s obvious that the novel has bigger issues on its mind.)

It all comes back together for a finale that picks up the classic tools and tropes of classic SF, all the way to a more or less triumphant resolution. There’s romance, there a Big Idea, there’s a round of applause: old-fashioned SF, written up to fine contemporary prose standards. The impression is further bolstered by a lot of well-researched material about paleontology here, as Swanwick transforms himself in a quasi-hard-SF writer in order to create the illusion of a credible novel.

As a reviewer who has had… issues with Swanwick’s material before, it’s this transformation to an old-school SF style that has me most interested in Bones of the Earth: it strikes me that Swanwick’s work always tackles myth to a degree or another. It may be the case that he set out to write a classic SF novel and derived his approach from a deconstruction (formal or otherwise) of everything that SF fans love about classic examples of the genre: The ever-dizzying revelations, the straightforward narration, the abundance of scientific details, the paradoxes and logical games of SF situations… Bones of the Earth may be, in its own straight-faced way, as deliberate a take on a sub-genre as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

But these critical games aside, this is a fascinating novel that earned its Hugo Awards nomination back in 2003. The first hundred pages is one of the most compelling opening act I’ve read in a while (ah, that ball trick…) and the willingness of the author to play the classic SF game is as gripping as it’s amusing. I’m still not sure how the same author can write all of those very different novels, but that’s Swanwick’s calling card, and the advantage in that approach is that there’s at least one novel for everyone in his growing bibliography.

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