Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bones of the Earth

When I picked up Michael Swanwick's novel Bones of the Earth from the library, my wife asked me what it was about. I said "it's about time travel! and dinosaurs!" To this, her reply was "...And? What's the hook?" She didn't seem to get that time travel and dinosaurs WAS the hook. What else do you need? You have time travel granted to scientists so that they can go back in time to the Mesozoic and see real living and breathing dinosaurs. This, by itself, is a can't-fail set up. Throw in a dash of atheism vs. creationism and you're off and running. Seriously, you can't screw this up.

Somehow, Swanwick screwed it up. Not just a little, but a LOT.

There are a lot of things wrong with this book. There are too many characters that aren't fleshed out well enough to differentiate them from other characters. There's the constant appearing of characters "future selves" in the present to mess with your head. The amazing resistance to the idea of "keep it simple, stupid" just astounded me. An event that could be told in a straight forward manner was always told as if there were sixteen different angles from which to approach it. Sure, there's some cool dinosaur stuff, especially in the last third of the book and for that I'm thankful that I persevered even after the "throw the book across the room" moment that was the orgy.

Yeah, they lost me at the orgy. A Maastrichtian Age orgy - with people, not dinosaurs just in case you were confused, which I was through quite a bit of this book. Plot lines are started and then forgotten, only to be quickly wrapped up as if Swanwick suddenly remembered that he had started an arc way back on page 78 and now here we are 10 pages from the end of the book and it's still unresolved. The characters are not particularly likeable, especially Gertrude Salley, a conniving and ruthless paleontologist who seems to enjoy deliberately messing with the time-space continuum, to the detriment of her fellow scientists. The fact that I could not see her as anything other than Sue Sylvester from Glee made her character simultaneously more disturbing and more comical.

The book is decidedly less-than-kind to religious fundamentalists generally and creationists specifically. A crucial event that would have lent credence to creationists' theories of the origin of the species is dangled in front of us early in the book and then never mentioned again. A plot involving domestic terrorism on the part of the creationists dominates the first half of the novel and forces the events of the second half - including the orgy.

As I mentioned, the dinosaurs they see are pretty cool. Despite its cheesiness, I do love the Jurassic Park trilogy of movies. Again, it's lifelike dinosaurs on the screen, how can you go completely wrong? Maybe it's just me, but hot dinosaur action does not translate as well in the written word as it does in CGI on the movie screen. Still, they posit some interesting theories on dino communication and behavior. Not being a paleontologist, I have no idea if any of it holds any water.

But back to this orgy thing. Stranded in the Maastrichtian Age by the creationist-inspired act of terrorism, the group of scientists and graduate students initially split into two camps. Much infighting and bickering ensues. What brings them back together? Spontaneous group sex. Yep, believe it. I know when I was reading it, I really couldn't believe it. It's not that I'm prudish and can't stand reading sex (far from it) but it seemed so out of place and very much like we were indulging the author's personal fantasies rather than furthering the plot of the book. And if there's any one thing I've learned from reading Heidi's m/m books, the sex always has to further the plot.

I can't really recommend Bones of the Earth- it's probably about a 2 and a half star book. Despite a promising start and a strong premise, the material was wasted and the story really didn't do it for me. I'd say you'd be better off reading Jurassic Park again or, better yet, go watch Jurassic Park 3. It's the best movie in the series because it's the one with the least to lose, had flying dinosaurs and most importantly did not star Jeff Goldblum.

1 comment:

digital_sextant said...

Wow! Sorry to have led you so far astray!

What speaks to my willingness to forgive certain kinds of bad storytelling is the fact that I agree with much of what you said, but still liked the book.

I found the elder-self stuff interesting rather than confusing, and the orgy didn't seem out of place because the author implied group sex was much more common among that generation than his own (or ours). That said, I don't disagree with you about the disjointed plot or storytelling style.