Paleontologist Richard Leyster works for the Smithsonian. It’s his dream job, so naturally he scoffs when a strange man named Harry Griffin offers him a new job whose description and benefits are vague. But when Griffin leaves an Igloo cooler containing the head of a real dinosaur on Leyster’s desk, Leyster is definitely intrigued. A couple of years later, when Griffin finally contacts him again, Leyster is ready to sign on to Griffin’s crazy project. He and a team of scientists are sent back to the Mesozoic era to study, up close and personal, the animals that, previously, had only been known by their bones. When a Christian fundamentalist terror group disrupts the project, things get very dangerous for Leyster and his colleagues. There are also concerns about the whole time-travel technology. How does it work? Where did it come from? What is the government hiding?
Bones of the Earth gleefully revels in paleontology and paradoxes. Readers will go to science conferences, watch grad students do field work, and listen to lengthy discussions about the classification of dinosaurs, the evolution of fringe ecological niches, and the event that caused dinosaur extinction. Some of this gets a little dry. There’s an entire chapter called “Peer Review” in which several scientists work together to write up a paper that, due to being stuck in the Mesozoic era, they know will never be published. (Even though this went on too long, I loved this idea!) But it’s not all stuffy science, because this is Michael Swanwick, so there’s also a paleontologist orgy — probably the first one ever.
Most people, if they had the chance to move around in time, would be tempted to use this ability to profit financially — get the lottery numbers from the newspaper, find out who won a horse race and go back and bet on it… But not a paleontologist. Swanwick speculates that they’d prefer prestige over money (and I think he’s right about that). Thus, Dr. Gertrude Salley, who’s both a hero and a villain in this story, gleans facts instead of dollars during her time travels. Later, when Salley creates a time paradox and is forced to meet herself, she’s chagrined to learn that she’s not much fun to be around. Swanwick also takes us to the far distant future and speculates about the future of the human species. Humanity’s prospects are grim, but we’re left with a deep admiration for the human mind, its insatiable curiosity, and the science that allows us to fulfill our desire to understand our world.
I’ll mention, since I’ve seen some negative reviews of Bones of the Earth, that some readers have accused the book of being anti-Christian because the terrorists are creationists. I am both a Christian and a scientist and I did not feel that the book was anti-Christian. Yes, there is a villain who identifies as a Christian creationist, but two of the small group of paleontologists are also specifically identified as practicing Christians. A Christian who refuses to consider the possibility that creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive probably won’t like this book. For everyone else, it’s fine.
Bones of the Earth, originally published in 2002, is an expansion of Michael Swanwick’s 1999 short story “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” which was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2000. Bones of the Earth was nominated for a Nebula, Hugo, Campbell, and Locus Award. Kevin Pariseau narrates Audible Frontier’s version which has recently been released. He was a great choice for this book. During my life I’ve listened to hundreds of scientists talking about their research. There’s a certain reserved enthusiasm and eagerness they display and Mr. Pariseau has this down perfectly — he would fit right in at any scientific conference.