Bones of the Earth
by Michael Swanwick
Harper Torch, 2003 , ISBN 0-380-81289-4
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Paleontologist Richard Leyster is hard at work in his office at the Smithsonian when a stranger walks in, makes him an incomprehensible offer, and leaves him a gift--a cooler containing the head of a recently-dead stegosaurus.
Naturally, Leyster accepts the offer, once his mysterious visitor gets back in touch with him.
Beings from the far future have given humans the secret of time travel, but on very strict conditions. If humans do anything, a nything at all, to tamper with causality, they will lose time travel, and lose it before they gained it, so that no knowledge gained from time travel will remain. This opens up vast and incredible opportunities for research in prehistory, in exchange for the researchers living with almost police state conditions. And while researchers occupy themselves with the mysteries of the Mesozoic, those riding herd on them have to wonder about the motives and identity of the gift-givers, as well as anything that mig ht cause the gift to be withdrawn.
There's a fundamentalist-crazies subplot, which has been criticized on entirely correct grounds that it's unnecessary and a distraction from the real story here. However, I think I have an idea what Swanwick intended by it, because many of the people involved in the time travel project also express some variety of religious belief. The point he's making is that both the fundamentalist religious and the fundamentalist atheists, who both insist that religious belief cannot coexist with scientific rationality, are wrong. They coexist all the time; fundamentalist Biblical literalism is only a vocal and energetic minority. Unfortunately, I think Swanwick does not handle this quite successfully, being simultaneously too heavy-handed with the crazies, and too subtle with the believers amongst the scientists and security forces. It does wind up being merely a distraction from the main, very thoughtful story about humans, time travel, the beings that gave it to them, and fate. Fortunately, it's a minor one.