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the ashes
of time travel

Michael Swanwick
Bones of the Earth
Eos
2002
$25.95
352pp
ISBN 0 380 97836 9

Here is another slippery fish from Michael Swanwick, who specializes in them.

He is a genus-shifter. Everything he has ever written — and increasingly his novels from Stations of the Tide on — slides out of reach whenever you think you've got it in your sights: just when you finally work out what kind of SF or fantasy novel you're reading, just when you begin to understand why what's happening how to whom, the floor caves in and your mind falls through. All of Swanwick's recent work — his space opera, his menarche empowerment fantasy (The Iron Dragon's Daughter), his Faustian Pact Rake's Progress (Jack Faust) — read like slices into the minds eyes, cuts that open us.

Bones of the Earth, at first glance, is perfect Swanwick. It is a time travel story, a category of the fantastic that could be defined as a story in which the floor of the real world caves in. It is a tale which (like most time travel novels) exposes the savagery of sex between humans, the cod-godling manipulativeness of the bureacracies which operate the time machines, the cavitated bad-fruit texture of reality when its guts open. Bones should have been perfect romp Swanwick; in the event — though he pulls off an ending of quite extraordinary felicity — I think the romp very nearly went sour on its author. Or should have.

The problem lies in time travel as a category of tale. Time travel is, to begin with, arcane: the mature time travel story (from 1950 or so), like mature space opera (from 1980 or later), could be described as an example of Deep Science Fiction, SF one needs other SF to understand. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.) So the time travel story lies at the heart of SF.

But arcaneness, which flatters those who can unlock the door, is not the final real problem Swanwick had to solve. What he, and any modern SF writer, has to deal with is the fact that time travel is not good SF to begin with; because the time travel story, being about nothing but change, is a ringer at the heart of genre. This needs a bit of explanation.

Let us go back (very quickly) to the beginnings of SF, circa 1765–1820 or so, dates which roughly frame the long historical moment when the Modern Age was born, when Time began to vibrate like infrasound (see below) under the feet of the humans of Europe, engulfing them (they are us), for the first time in human history, into a world scored by Time, a world where Time scores a passage from the past day into a next day which is different (not a day which returns to or cannot again achieve the Past, but a day which seems utterly next). Suddenly, during this half century, the Past manifests itself in the form of Ruins; suddenly the present is irradiated by Futurity. It is here, where Time has begun to keep the score, that SF begins. The origins of SF lie not in the contemplation of Space, but in the complex interaction between Ruins and Futurity. It is only now — as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) demonstrates — that SF begins to smell like SF. When SF begins to smell anxious.

The vital thing here, though, is that SF does something with that anxiety, that SF stories help readers tolerate and even surf a world (it is our world) that has cavitated. (Reality is the holes which fill the Albert Hall.) Ever since 1850 or earlier, SF stories have fed our imaginations, and soothed our souls, and allayed our hominid anxieties, with dreams of managed change. Sf says we can ride the change.

Time travel SF, on the other hand, being about nothing but change, offers no such solace. It tells us that the nausea we have felt for 200 years is all she wrote. That there is no home at the end of our time travel through these centuries. That ultimately there is no story. A deep dull anxiety afflicts the reader of the time travel tale, a pocked attenuation of the eye of imagination. One might call it reality fatigue. Time travel SF is, one might say, these days, all too much like living.

Bones of the Earth almost falls into the trap of despair, or desperateness. Though it is told with concision and high intelligence, the story seems deadly familiar. A palæontologist is shown the head of a dinosaur that had been alive a few hours before. Sworn to secrecy, he is inducted into a mysterious programme — run by a cynical bureaucracy--devoted to the intensive study of the Cretaceous Period, concentrating on the Maastrichtian Age 65,000,000 years ago, when an extinction event — 21st century speculation focuses today on the Chicxulub impactor, a meteorite hit that profoundly shocked the world — killed off the dinosaurs. But doubles of various characters from differing time-lines (or from differing points on the same time-line) begin to macerate the storyline, signals of reality-threatening slurs or anomalies in are reiterated, and a certain deep dull anxiety (see above) begins to grey the world. Swanwick seems to have trapped himself in the kind of story you cannot cut with a knife, because it has already deconstructed the ladders of telling.

But slowly, inchworm, something begins to happen. The storyline itself simplifies radically into two streams. The first is more of the same depressive stuff. In the far future, versions of some of the main protagonists prepare to beg the non-human donors of time travel science not to shut down the whole enterprise of time travel and the sciences based upon it; whether or not they succeed will depend on whether an incomprehensible far-future species can "forgive," for incomprehensible reasons, the creation of a deeply dangerous time-line anomaly back in the 21st century. But, far more interestingly, in the second stream of story, we are shown the lives of a scientific team trapped in the Maastrichtan Age, where something quite remarkable happens, which saves the book.

Throughout Bones of the Earth, Swanwick has allowed his characters moments to expound elatedly on the miracles of life in previous eras; we have read a great deal about dinosaurs, some real, some apparently made up by the author. It has been fun; it certainly pulled this reader through some fairly deep dull coils of cavitating. But now, with the trapped crew, the novel shifts into a more intense gear, an elated discourse on the process of learning about the world as the team begins to explore its terrain, glorying in the intense overwhelming fecundity of life, anatomizing the nature of things.

One of the team members arrives at a genuinely fascinating explanation for the extinction event. It has already been determined in the novel that predator dinosaurs farm and "ranch" their prey, singing infrasound commands that lead their ultimate prey to green pastures. What if — one of the team speculates — dinosaur migration is similarly controlled by the song of the Earth, the song of tectonic plates shifting in the crust of the planet? And what if the impact of the Chicxulub meteor had been so great as to detune the song of the Earth for a decade or a century, deafening the dinosaurs so they could not migrate? And so they starved?

Bones of the Earth is saved in the end because — after the nausea of interminable change it flirts with, the disintegrating rails it does not seem to wish to parse — it fastens itself to a love of the world, a deep unselfish love of learning the world. The last pages of the tale — an intensely sexed liebestod whose worldly gaiety rewrites our understanding of two of the three protagonists — only intensifies the relief. Out of the ashes of time travel, its tangles and attenuations mercifully forgotten, Swanwick has created, by the skin of his teeth, something positive.

It was a close call, perhaps.

But Bones of the Earth reaches harbour.


 


John Clute is the pre-eminent critic of science-fiction and fantasy, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and writer of more flinty, terrain-gobbling reviews than the normal mind can encompass.

His newest collection of reviews and essays, Scores: Reviews 1993 - 2003, which includes some written for The Infinite Matrix, is now available. It can be ordered from Amazon, and from Old Earth Books.

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