Hugosauriad 4.1: Bones of the Earth and Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is a prolific author with a long record of involvement with the Hugo Awards including multiple wins and far too many nominations for me to count on his ISFDB page. Given that and his equally prolific contribution to the annals of dinosaur-related fiction it was inevitable that this project would cross paths with his career. His dinosaur related stories include Triceratops Summer, 3 am at the Mesozoic Bar and Five British Dinosaurs. However, the intersection of Swanwick’s Hugos and his dinosaurs is best exemplified by Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (Winner Best Short Story 2000) and The Bones of the Earth (Finalist Best Novel 2003).

The two stories are closely connected. The novel takes some of the plot threads and setting of the short story to create a longer and more involved novel. The core scene of the short story (an expensive dinner for wealthy future visitors time-travelling back to the Cretaceous) also appears in the novel but transplanted from a view of terrestrial dinosaurs (including the eponymous tyrannosaur) to an underwater dome with a view of aquatic reptiles.

Both stories are of the species of time-travel story that I refer to as time-wimey/jeremey-bearimy i.e. stories in which there are causally connected events but due to interconnecting timelines the connections of events do not follow a strict temporal order for all concerned. Indeed some events (or even people) may be products of a bootstrap paradox.

Scherzo…certainly gives a taste of the style of Bones of the Earth but the novel is a far more complex book with deeper characterisation. The novel follows the convoluted relationship between palaeontologists Richard Leyster and Gretrude Salley who become embroiled in an initially secret time-travel project. Hinted at in the Scherzo… behind the time-travel technology are other beings with their own mysterious agenda and it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that they are from even further from the future.

A side-plot about creationist terrorism leads to a tragedy where a party of scientists are trapped in the Cretaceous after an explosion. What is unclear until this event happens is how the ripples of this event have impacted earlier events in the story. While Leyster is more central to the main narrative of the book, it is Salley who is the more complex of the two. Unfortunately, as intriguing as she is as a character, her far more complex timeline leads to a more fractured and contradictory portrait of a person. Piecing together her actions, motivations and behaviour is something that can only be done by the end of the novel and even then it requires some explanations from herself to a different timeline of herself. Like River Song in Doctor Who, the complex chains of causality in her life lead to a non-linear character which in turn makes it difficult to follow the character development.

Of the stories I’ve looked at in this project, Bones of the Earth has the most naturalistic dinosaurs. They don’t drive the action as either monsters, agents of revenge or as avatars of human character flaws but rather just are. Aside from an unfortunate stegosaurus whose head ends up in an ice-box, the dinosaurs are dinosaurs in there natural state and in their right time and place. Even the tourism (the rich and powerful getting the chance to enjoy fine dining while watching vistas of prehistoric creatures — a feature of Scherzo… as well) is presented as carefully managed to prevent any impact on the dinosaurs themselves.

The section that deals with the stranded party of scientists is partly a story of survival in a dangerous environment but it is also one about discovery. The palaeontologists must struggle to live in the prehistoric past but they don’t stop learning and theorising about the dinosaurs. In the process they make audacious discoveries and develop a new theory as to why the non-avian dinosaurs died out after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

Dinosaurs for dinosaurs sake is not a gratuitous role in Bones of the Earth. That we as humans might chose them and the Mesozoic over other time periods as the focus of study if given the opportunity for time travel but limited options not only makes sense but informs the mystery and motivation of the others who have granted humanity this opportunity. The symbolism of dinosaurs here is that of purity of inquiry, that our interest and excitement around dinosaurs is an aesthetic choice rather than a pragmatic one. We seek to learn about dinosaurs because we like dinosaurs and from that premise the events of Bones of the Earth unfold through its own looping causal chains.

Next time: we meet Richard Chwedyk’s saurs in “Brontë’s Egg”

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4 thoughts on “Hugosauriad 4.1: Bones of the Earth and Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick

  1. I loved both the story and the novel. The opening sequence in the novel as Leyster faces the impossible (a fresh dinosaur skull) and deals with it by carefully dissecting it while taking copious notes and losing himself in the task so thoroughly that hours go by before he realizes he hasn’t eaten or slept is one of my favorite descriptions of the passion of science.

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    1. Yes, it’s very compelling. I think it also helps show how effective Swanwick is as a short story writer and how to use that in a novel. It’s a clever scene and does a lot with the character in a short space.

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  2. For no reason that I can fathom I’ve never read Bones of the Earth, as I was both a big fan of Swanwick in those days (that was really when he was at his peak, IMO) and someone who firmly believes you can never have enough great dinosaur SF.

    The short story has always stayed linked in my mind with Walter Jon Williams’ Dinosaurs: they’re both just brilliant stories that deliver a sharp twist of the knife to the reader at the end.

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