Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick (2002)

BonesOfTheEarth1Cover blurb

Paleontologist Richard Leyster has achieved professional nirvana: a position with the Smithsonian Museum plus a groundbreaking dinosaur fossil site he can research, publish on, and learn from for years to come. There is nothing that could lure him away – until a disturbingly secretive stranger named Griffin enters Leyster’s office with an ice cooler and a job offer. In the cooler is the head of a freshly killed Stegosaurus.

Griffin has been entrusted with an extraordinary gift, an impossible technology on loan to humanity from unknown beings for an undisclosed purpose. Time travel has become a reality millions of years before it rationally could be. With it, Richard Leyster and his colleagues can make their most cherished fantasy come true. They can study the dinosaurs up close, in their own time and milieu.

Now, suddenly, individual lives can turn back on themselves. People can meet, shake hands, and converse with their younger versions at various crossroads in time. One wrong word, a single misguided act, could be disastrous to the project and to the world. But Griffin must make sure everything that is supposed to happen does happen – no matter who is destined to be hurt… or die.

And then there’s Dr. Gertrude Salley – passionate, fearless, and brutally ambitious – a genius rebel in the tight community of “bone men” and women. Alternately both Leyster’s and Griffin’s chief rival, trusted colleague, despised nemesis, and inscrutable lover at various junctures throughout time, Salley is relentlessly driven to screw with the working mechanisms of natural law, audaciously trespassing in forbidden areas, pushing paradox to the edge no matter what the consequences may be. And, when they concern the largest, most savage creatures that ever lived, the consequences may be terrifying indeed.

My thoughts

Few dinosaur novels came out with as much promotion as Bones of the Earth received when it was released in 2002 (the Jurassic Park novels being an obvious exception). Michael Swanwick already had won the Hugo award in 2000 for his short story, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” which was something of early incarnation of Bones of the Earth. The publisher, Eos (a division of HarperCollins), heavily advertised the book though its web site, even allowing web users to e-mail a series of dinosaur-themed short stories to friends and family.

Bones of the Earth lived up to the hype. It’s easily one of the best dinosaur novels ever written. The story focuses on three protagonists: paleontologist Richard Leyster; his occasional lover Gertrude Salley, a woman who doesn’t like playing by the rules; and Griffin, Gertrude’s occasional lover and the man in charge of enforcing the rules. A mysterious race of beings has given humanity the gift of time travel, but there are complications. It turns out changing the past isn’t so hard. Griffin’s job is to ensure that history stays history or the gift will be taken away. That’s not so easy, especially when creationist terrorists are determined to prove themselves right at all costs, and when Gertrude has plans of her own.

To give away more would be spoiling the fun of the novel. Bones of the Earth takes a little time to get going. It’s not until about halfway through the book that a story starts to materialize. But it’s a wonderful story, filled with believable characters and intriguing speculation about dinosaur ecology. The prose is a little lazy – sometimes the book reads more like a movie script than a novel. Yet that’s the only shortcoming I can come up with about this excellent work.


  • The cover art for “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, 1999) features the author with his wife.


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