Bones of the Earth (2002) by Michael Swanwick

bonesoftheearth1After 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.

*shoulders sag*


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.

bonesoftheearth2Having 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.

19 thoughts on “Bones of the Earth (2002) by Michael Swanwick

  1. So what you’re saying is this novel needed a little more meat on its bones, eh? Eh? I’ll see myself out.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Tammy says:

    Thanks for some snarkiness, at the end of my really long day:-) I’ll give this one a pass, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think Swanwick probably has better stuff out there, but this is the one to skip. Looking at some old reviews now and it looks like he just wanted to play with dinosaurs.


  3. Rabindranauth says:

    Haha, this may be the first time I’ve bumped across a dinosaur book that didn’t at least sound a little fun. Incidentally, I don’t get why authors complain so much about bills when it’s so easy to write Harlequin porn under a pseudonym. I guess that track doesn’t pay that well?

    Incidentally, the only two books by Swanwick that keeps crossing mt radar are The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and Stations of the Tide, so will be interesting to see what you think of that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      This is my second dinosaur/time travel book, and I hate the other one, too (Ilium, Simmons). It sounds like fun, but it reads like a contrived bore. I’ve been promised that both Simmons and Swanwick have better books out there.


  4. Widdershins says:

    OK, I suppose a stegosaurus head could fit into a cooler … I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jesse says:

    “A one-handed read” – I’m rolling in my seat! You cheeky lass!!

    I’m a bit surprised by Bones of the Earth. I’ve not read a Swanwick tale yet that wasn’t attempting story at more than one level. What you describe is ground-floor, only. I believe you, it’s just that The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and its companion piece The Dragons of Babel are as radical a way to subvert standard fantasy texts as there is – and be wholly original along with. Stations of the Tide is a good piece of surreal sf that was in the post-human room before Charles Stross strode in and took over. And while the Darger and Surplus stories are not my cup of tea, one can certainly appreciate Swanwick’s absurdist snipings at the genre at large.

    Do read Jack Faust next, please. 🙂 I’ve not read it, but am very curious what he can do with that classic story given how he has successfully subverted other classic stories in the past. (If it turns out to be more mainstream crap, I suppose I’ll have to pay some penance… Perhaps a marathon run of Robert J. Sawyer, Anne McCaffrey, or H.P. Lovecraft, or The Wheel of Time from beginning to end…)


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That’s a fair trade, though I don’t think Swanwick will come up on my TBR for at least another 18 months. I’ll let you know when it’s time to start your lame mainstream SF marathon. 😉

      I was surprised, too, just bcause the commentary I’ve seen about him suggested more. Looking at other reviews, it appears that the “bones” are a metaphor for the time travelers who populate the story. *shrugs* I don’t think the characters did anything to earn that metaphor.

      No, I think this was just Swanwick’s chance to play with dinosaurs and he did so with gusto. It resulted in a lame tale of characters doing things and OhNoParadox!OhWell. It drips with liberal sentiments and anti-religious rhetoric (the Creationists are the bad guys)– stuff I should love– but it just comes off as cheap cliche. Maybe it was more exciting in 2002.


  6. Hahahahahahahahaha. Thanks for saying interesting things about books while making my laugh my ass off, as usual. I had the same thoughts about the title, and the same sagging shoulders once the true subject matter was revealed.

    But The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel sound really cool from what people have been saying here, and the things you’re saying he’s known for all sound like things I would really enjoy. So. I will attempt not to let your thoughts on this book keep me away from his work for the rest of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] I finally posted my quick, dissatisfied review of Michael Swanwick’s dino-time travel effort, Bones of the Earth (2002), a disinterested commercial effort that could use a little more flesh. (…stole that line […]


  8. It sounds like he took a couple Crichton books and smooshed them together.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. If this book is half as funny as your review, it might well be worth a read. 😉


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