After a rash of Michael Swanwick’s name appearing everywhere in my usual online haunts, and seeing his name associated with every author I categorize as being cerebral, artistic, and innovative, it’s about time for one of his books to queue up on my TBR.
Bones of the Earth. Now that’s a pretty name. Visualizing rickety scaffolds in the mantel of the earth. Imagining Earth’s remnants floating in empty space. Pre book blurb, the possibilities are sensawendless.
*scans the first few pages*
Dinosaurs. It’s about dinosaurs.
So you mean, like, literal bones of the earth?
*scans some more*
Dinos with time travel.
When a strange man named Griffin approaches Richard Leyster about a new job, Leyster is poised to turn him down, sufficiently happy with his prestigious appointment as a paleontologist at the Smithsonian. But Griffin makes vague promises of unbelievable research opportunities and seems certain that Leyster will accept the offer. Then Griffin leaves a mysterious cooler on Leyster’s desk. The cooler contains a Stegosaurus head. A fresh Stegosaurus head. Leyster’s life is about to change forever.
If there’s nothing more contrived sounding than a book about time travel and dinosaurs, at least Swanwick offers some potentially literary and risqué details to enrich this obvious cart-before-the-horse, contract-before-the-book type tale: morally gray characters, scandalous group sex, and controversial theoretical postulations. People have said good things about this author, so he is definitely going to rescue this. He is definitely going to rescue this. He is definitely—
But either Swanwick’s heart just wasn’t in it, or the publisher angled for a dumbed down book. Unlikeable characters? Great! Let’s explore humanity through depictions of complicated people… or, okay, let’s just make them comically unlikeable. Whatevs. Controversial theoretical postulations? Awesome! Share with us the latest groundbreaking theories about dinosaurs and time travel… or, you could just throw out some crazy bullshit about patriarchal ranching practices of T-Rex and his prey. Scandalous group sex? Excellent! At least make this a one-handed read… oh, well, no… it’s mostly sit-com cutaways of dorky people initiating sex. Not hot.
There’s something just shallow about it. More vivid is the scene where the cigar-chomping publisher spouts off marketable tropes while the writer scribbles notes: Dinosaurs! Time travel! Sex! Male/female protagonist sexual tension disrupted by a career-related misunderstanding! Abortion! But don’t really have an abortion because we want to attract middle American readers! Science!
Your average paint-by-numbers, science-based-ish commercial book. Written for the blurb alone.
Having recently given a mildly satisfied review to another commercial feeling, narratively bland novel, also designed for the grocery store shelves, I feel justified in saying that Bones of the Earth doesn’t meet the standards of commercial, mainstream fiction. Yes, I realize writers gotta pay the bills, too, but it can be done better, and anyway, that drags us into a discussion on the responsibility of the arts within a capitalist system, and we’re really just here to talk about spaceships. Or dinos. Whichever.
But don’t discount Swanwick yet! I’m not done with him! I’ve got the highly acclaimed Station of the Tide (1991) and Jack Faust (1997) on my TBR. Authors and critics I love happen to love Swanwick, so I think I picked a bad oogenerus.