Bones of the Earth is an expansion of Swanwick's Hugo-winning 1999 Asimov's short story "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur." I have to say I found it a disappointment, mainly due to how close Swanwick comes to realizing his story's ambitions, only to fall short of grabbing the proverbial cigar. There are some terrific — I mean terrific — ideas here. Swanwick unfortunately does them injustice by using them in the service of a clumsily structured narrative peopled with inadequately developed characters. I can imagine how difficult it must be to write a novel spanning half a billion years of time, featuring divergent timelines to boot, and have it all come out free of confusion. The thing this thinking person's Jurassic Park had me thinking about most is how much better it could have been.
The story opens in 2010, as paleontologist Richard Leyster is visited in his office by an enigmatic fellow named Griffin, who deposits the actual head of a stegosaurus on Leyster's desk and promises him there's more where that came from. Thus we are quickly propelled through the novel's excellent opening chapters, as Griffin announces to the scientific community at large that time travel is now a reality — thanks to the advanced technology of a distant future race known eerily as the Unchanging — and paleontologists now have the opportunity to hop back hundreds of millions of years and study prehistoric life in the field. Leyster wonders out loud why it is that paleontologists — often referred to in patronizing ways by other scientists as the "stamp collectors" of science — are the ones being given this unique opportunity, but his colleagues dismiss his questions in their enthusiasm. Swanwick himself keeps the answer to that mystery close to his vest as well, to good dramatic effect. But then I couldn't help wondering why Griffin never got it into his head to go back and introduce time travel to Louis Leakey or even Charles Darwin! Perhaps an SF adventure starring actual historical figures was a bigger bite than Swanwick wanted to chew, but if I were a time-traveling scientist, I'm gonna hitch a ride on the H.M.S. Beagle!
Swanwick does some neat things with the sticky problem of time paradoxes, none of which I will give away here. But the book's problems begin when Swanwick cannot seem to choose a source of conflict for the story. First, we are introduced to an ambitious and predatory young scientist from the near-future, Gertrude Salley, whom we are led to believe will be Leyster's nemesis; Leyster is warned she will write scathing refutations of his work, and near the novel's opening she's even shown trying to create a time paradox — against which the Unchanging have placed draconian rules — in order to sabotage Leyster. But in no time at all, Swanwick pushes Salley to the back burner, and introduces a group of hardline creationist terrorists (!) hell-bent on sabotaging all prehistoric excursions.
But once Swanwick's "creation terrorists" manage to pull off the act of terror that spins the story on its new course, they vanish utterly from the book, taking its biggest sense of conflict with them. Then Swanwick, in a calculating move that feels like it was urged upon him by his editors (even if it wasn't), goes out of his way to make sure his readers don't think he's unfairly characterizing all Christians as bomb-throwing fundamentalist lunatics. Their first victim, we are assured in big letters, is a scientist who's Christian herself.
From this point on the book follows two story threads: a team led by Leyster, stranded in the Cretaceous by the creationists' terrorism, and Griffin and his cohorts journeying 250 million years into the future to meet with the Unchanging in the hopes that certain actions of Salley's won't cause humanity to be deprived of time travel once and for all.
The Cretaceous story is all right; although it's pretty much a hard-SF variant on Land of the Lost, we at least care about these folks. With Griffin and Salley, there just aren't any solid characters there to care about, and their story is weak, weak, weak, making the book lose serious steam well before its climax. Though Griffin's and Salley's actions are even more pivotal to the story than Leyster's, as people they have no depth; we don't get what drives them and torments them the way we get a sense of Leyster's burning passion for science (even though the book features both young and old versions of them in the same scenes). Salley in particular seems as though Swanwick just couldn't figure out what the hell to do with her. Introduced as a potential arch-enemy of Leyster's, Swanwick changes his mind about that quickly. As the story progresses, her presence in it dissipates. When Salley finally does reveal what has motivated her decisions throughout the book, I defy any reader not to roll your eyes and shout "You mean that's it?"
In the end, the novel is a frustrating exercise in almosts. It would have succeeded with flying colors, had Swanwick simply put a little more meat on its Bones.