The Dechronization of Sam Magruder by George Gaylord Simpson (1996)

DechronizationCover blurb

“I cling to being Sam Magruder. I want to reassure myself that I am I. That this is the same being who is to be born eighty million years from now and registered as Samuel TM12SC48 Magruder…”

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is one of the stranger works of fiction that has appeared in recent years. Its author, George Gaylord Simpson, was widely regarded as the greatest paleontologist of the twentieth century. He died in 1984, but the manuscript of this intriguing novella about a twenty-second-century scientist was not found by his daughter until 10 years after his death.

Did Simpson want this time-travel story eventually to be published? Was Sam Magruder Simpson’s alter ego, the scientist of his imagination who was able to observe the dinosaurs the way they really were?

No one will ever be sure of these answers, but what we do know is that Sam Magruder, a fortyish research chronologist, vanished on February 30, 2162, as he was working on the problem of quantum theory. Thrown back eighty million years to the prehistoric Jurassic era, Magruder, endowed with the intelligence of a modern man, discovers that he is the only human being in a valley filled with dinosaurs. Magruder, inventive and resourceful, keeps a stone-slab diary and struggles mightily to survive by feeding on lizards and scrambled turtle eggs, even as menacing tyrannosaurs try to gnaw off his limbs.

Filled with magnificent descriptions of dinosaurs as they were just before the great floods, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is not only a classic story told in the tradition of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but a philosophical work that astutely examines the reality of modern existence against the backdrop of our prehistoric past.

My thoughts

The story behind The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is nearly as strange as the tale itself. George Gaylord Simpson, one of the most renowned paleontologists of the previous century, died in 1984. He wasn’t known as a fiction writer, but his daughter stumbled across this manuscript 10 years after his death. Apparently, it was never meant for publication.

The novella begins with a philosophical discussion between some friends whose real names are never given. The “Universal Historian” asks his buddies to try to picture a situation where a person knows he will live out the rest of his life without ever seeing another human again. This proves more difficult than it sounds. A castaway on a deserted island, for example, can always dream of rescue. A prisoner locked up in solitary confinement can always dream of escape. The historian then relates the story of one Sam Magruder, a man transported back in time to the Cretaceous period through a laboratory accident, and whose tale is known only because he wrote it down on stone tablets buried in what one day became a major fossil site. Thanks to a complicated theory of time, Magruder knows there’s no chance of rescue – from his perspective, the future hasn’t happened yet. He will spend the rest of his life alone.

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder is, more than anything, a rewrite of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, except this time the hero is sent back in time by accident instead of moving forward by his own will. The central philosophical argument is an intriguing one, and at times the work reads like a Greek dialogue from Philosophy 101.

A cover blurb by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss calls it the “best time-travel” story since The Time Machine. That’s hardly the case. It comes off as a little old-fashioned and Magruder’s psychology is never plumbed in any great detail given his predicament. Still, it’s a pretty good story – it will have you thinking after it’s over – although the hardcover price of $17.95 was way too much for a book just over 100 pages. You’ll probably find it in the bargain section of your local bookstore now.

Trivia

  • Sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke provides the book’s introduction, while paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote an afterword.
  • Simpson, while a legend in his field, was an old-fashioned paleontologist. The dinosaurs in his novel are not only cold-blooded, they’re downright sluggish. He didn’t think much of emerging theories concerning warm-blooded dinosaurs, and has his hero pretty much say so at one point.
  • The cover blurb contains the strange claim, “(The novel is) filled with magnificent descriptions of dinosaurs as they were just before the great floods…” I have no idea where this comes from, but it sounds very creationist to me (Noah’s flood). Gould couldn’t have been happy about that.

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