Michael Swanwick, “Bones of the Earth” (2002)

Imagine that you are a paleontologist who has just made the greatest discovery of his career, something that you promise yourself to study for years and years – the first footprint site that unambiguously documents an episode of predation – and a man enters your studio. telling you to have a job for you. Would you laugh in his face? Richard Leyster certainly does, especially when it is specified that this work will be subjected to strict censorship and there is a real risk of violent death. Yet the man is confident that you will accept the job and, when you mention your search, he seems to know it better than you do. Absurd? The man greets you by leaving you a business card and a cooler. What would you do? Others would have trashed it, Leyster gives in to curiosity. He opens it. Inside, immersed in the ice, the head of a Stegosaurus.

Photo taken at the “Enrico Caffi” Civic Museum of Natural Sciences of Bergamo on the occasion of the exhibition “Dinosaurs in flesh and bones”

Thus begins Bones of the Earth (2002) by Michael Swanwick, a well-known author in the field of fantasy and science fiction with works such as Tomorrow the world will change (1991, Urania) and The dragons of iron and fire (1993, Urania Millemondi). The novel in question is based on the previous short story, winner of the Hugo Prize for its category in 2000, Joke with the Tyrannosaurus (The Hugo Awards 1999-2001, Editrice Nord) and presents an interesting vision of time travel. The strong point is certainly the meticulous research behind it: all three main protagonists are paleontologists, who represent different facets of the profession of scientist: the careful and meticulous expert, the avid and superficial researcher and who of the paleontologist has, with some regrets, just the name, now carrying out an administrative function. A comparison with Crichton’s work is a must and, where Jurassic Park is predominantly a novel about the risks of uncontrolled genetic engineering (so much so that the park could host, who knows, copies of monsters from popular films without the result changing much), Bones of the Earth is a novel on paleontology. Those interested in the subject can only appreciate the attention that Swanwick has placed in exquisitely technical issues hardly known to the general public – including: the important role of rudists, the hypotheses of the BANDiti, the debate between lumpers and splitters, the sterile discussion about who is the greatest among the theropods. The author goes so far as to put in the mouth of one of the characters a hypothesis on the mass extinction of K / T which, although not verifiable, has its own logic more than other hypotheses proposed in scientific literature over the years. . Conversely, the theme of time travel has not been treated with the same precision and upon careful reading it is possible to come across a couple of slips (nothing that compromises the reading, however). A sore point is the reduced length of the book (the Urania edition has 265 pages), personally I believe that it was possible to insert more contents perhaps not essential to the direct understanding of the novel, but that they deepened the setting, because some of the scenarios created by Swanwick are extremely evocative. I particularly liked the stance against the follies of creationism and blind faith.

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