There's no good reason why any self-respecting sci-fi/fantasy aficionado should not have read some Michael Swanwick by now. Here's a man who has won pretty much every genre prize of note -- World Fantasy, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, a couple of Hugos -- and the one he hasn't snagged yet (the Arthur C. Clarke Award) he has been nominated for. In fact, the original inspiration for Bones of the Earth was one of his own Hugo award-winning stories, "Scherzo with Dinosaur." So why isn't his yet a household name among sf/f devotees? Maybe it is -- maybe we've just been to the wrong households.
For the time travel cum dinosaur science fantasy that is Bones of the Earth is simply a fantastic book written by an author working at the height of his craft. Begging comparison with Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which was unsurprisingly a better book than the movies it spawned, Swanwick's evolutionary morality tale comes out a hands-down winner. Full of enough uncontrived touches of reality to make it all seem not only plausible but likely, Bones of the Earth beams forth a ray of hope that all is not lost. Though it may seem there's a recent dearth of titles that will honest-and-for-true keep the most jaded alternative fiction fans up all night, here's the blessed exception. It grips you with the thrill of discovery that is, at the heart, the most wondrous aspect of being human.
It all starts (if, of course, it can be said to have a start) when paleontologist Richard Leyster, in a coveted and fulfilling job researching for the Smithsonian, gets a better offer dumped almost literally in his lap. A mysteriously cool character named Griffin plops a cooler full of freshly-killed Stegosaurus head on Leyster's desk. There's no way the dino-besotted scientist can pass up a chance to see the subject of his studies long before they became just fossil-record puzzles to be solved -- even if he knows that the mechanics required to jump back to the age of the dinosaurs are absolutely eons beyond current human capabilities and technology. Leyster jumps into the ride of a lifetime with nary a backward glance.
That's when things get funky. An archrival in the paleontological world, Gertrude Salley, keeps hopping around in time, bedeviling Leyster at every opportunity -- yet she's all he can think about sometimes, in a less than inimical manner. Griffin and his security team guard every moment of all the time against someone acting against recorded future history, quelling any time-paradoxes before they pop up. But Creationists determined to discredit evolutionary theory have a plan that will put Leyster, Salley, Griffin, and the whole human race in grave danger, ultimately forcing a confrontation with the far-future sapiens who gifted time-travel to the world -- and who can take it back.
Swanwick performs Bones of the Earth beautifully -- so much could have been hamfisted or pedantic or campy. But he pulls off the classic what-if of time-travel with such finely crafted Úlan that readers don't have the opportunity to question the means. Or at least readers won't want to squander the time that would be much better spent immersing themselves in this story. Thrilling, entertaining, instructive, thought-provoking; pick an adjective of literary adulation and it will likely hang quite nicely on Bones of the Earth.