Montana, 1876. Othniel Charles Marsh, one of the two top paleontologists in the world, is in the state’s Judith River fossil beds, doing what he does best: digging up the bones of dinosaurs. Montana is a big state, but Marsh can’t rest easy. Edward Drinker Cope, his biggest rival, and the other top paleontologist in the world, is also in the area, and there simply aren’t enough bones for both of them, leading them to play dirty tricks. And time itself is against them: the fierce snows of winter are on the way and, rumor has it, so is Sitting Bull, fresh from his triumph at Little Big Horn.
Another complication: two foreign scientists are also competing for the bones. One says he’s from Sweden, the other says he’s from Iceland. One of them enlists Cope to help him, while the other befriends Marsh.
Marsh and Cope don’t want the fossils to leave the country, so they decide to bury the hatchet and work together to outwit the visitors. This turns out to be harder than they thought. The foreign scientists possess amazing technology, but that’s because they are much more foreign than they claimed. They don’t just want to take the bones out of the country—they’re fighting over who will get to take them clean off the planet…
Despite the front cover, which is otherwise pretty good, Sitting Bull is not coming to the rescue. Balderdash.
This was still an enjoyable book to read. It was a long one, coming out to about 300 paperback pages, and I can say it could have done without, oh, a hundred of them, but I’m gonna go ahead and say I had a good time reading this, even though I procrastinated like a doofus this week and had to read it all in one big swallow, which was hard.
Alternate history books come in three varieties:
- The Confederacy wins the American Civil War
- The Nazis win WWII
- People who were enemies in real life have to work together
Harry Turtledove is usually able to mix those three together into a decent little combo, but this book isn’t by Harry Turtledove. It’s by Brett Davis, who hasn’t written much in the vein of science fiction. In fact, from what I can tell, his SF credentials consist entirely of this book and its sequel. He’s also written two fantasy books and is primarily a journalist. I learned all this from the SFE.
For those of you who don’t know about the real life Bone Wars, I highly recommend you read up on them. They are both an awesome and depressing time in the history of our nation and of science itself. Wikipedia’s writeup can get you started, and The Dollop has a good rundown in podcast format if you’re so inclined. In fact, just listen to all of The Dollop episodes. Dave and Gareth do a great job. I love them.
As quick as I can, though, here’s my own summary: O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope were the two best paleontologists of their day, namely the last few decades of the 19th century. Instead of working together and bringing us lots of rad dinosaur skeletons and knowledge, they were instead rivals and did lots of nasty things to one another in an effort to destroy credibility and scholarship.
And that sets the stage for this book. I have a hard time deciding whether this is an alt-history novel or a secret history, because we never get to see the outcome of what goes on in this plot beyond a sort of “We’ll be baaaack” bit that I hope I’ll remember to get to later. Then again, we also never see anybody go, “And let us never speak of this again,” either. I guess I’ll have to dig up the sequel (haha).
The book starts off roughly the way history did. Marsh and Cope are conducting digs in Montana and getting on each other’s nerves, sending spies back and forth and so on. We learn that these two characters, much as they were in actual history, aren’t good guys. Great scientists, yes, but decent human beings? Not really. Marsh is a fussy old biddy who’d much rather be back in his lab than out in the field (I sympathized with him more), while Cope is attempting to find and name as many fossils as possible while not being rigorous about it.
We see most of the story from their eyes, but there are other members of their expeditions we meet, most notably Alice “Al” Stillson, our Sweet Polly Oliver who joined up so she could write real books about the West instead of penny dreadfuls with no authenticity. She keeps her sex hidden for most of the story, only breaking character to fall in love with a Sioux named Sitting Lizard (are sitting animals a Sioux thing?). She’s one of the better lady characters I’ve read about, which is nice. She’s never once a damsel in distress and has about as much depth as anyone else, which isn’t much. I had a hard time getting into the heads of these characters, except possibly the paleontologists, but I’m willing to admit that it may be my failing more than the author’s.
Cope and Marsh end up learning about another scientist in the area who is having a lot more success at finding fossils than they are, which isn’t saying much because they’re coming up with jack. They figure that this mysterious figure is getting all the bones ahead of them. They’re right. He also seems to have some high technology on his hands. His tent is huge, saucer-shaped, and made of metal. He has what people start calling a “ghost wall” around his digsite. Something’s very definitely up.
I feel like this book would have been better if not for the cover. Either side of it. I mean, it’s obvious once we learn about an impenetrable and invisible wall surrounding a flying saucer that we’re dealing with aliens, but it didn’t have to be that way, and if the back of the book hadn’t said so, I’d’ve enjoyed tossing ideas with myself. Maybe they aren’t aliens. Maybe they’re time travelers from the future, come to get fossils before 19th century jerks could destroy them.
That could be a pretty good story.
On the other hand, I have to admit a certain affection for stories where aliens land in our past and our ancestors have to deal with them. I’ll say up front that Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade is a book I enjoyed very much. I’ve come to some conclusions about what makes them work as well as they do (when they do).
Suppose a hypothetical narrative about a modern-day person who meets an alien spaceship. They’re walking toward it and there’s blinking lights. Maybe they see a robot. And perhaps they’re repelled by some mysterious force.
As a fellow modern-day person, and specifically one that consumes a great deal of science fiction, I have some expectations. I expect a person to recognize an alien spaceship, a robot, and a forcefield, or, at the very least, to consider them possibilities when confronted with the extremely strange. Perhaps this is an excess of genre savvy on my part, but when a modern human is completely confused by a walking animatronic electric man, I get a little annoyed and start to feel like my hero is a dunderhead. I mean, come on, everybody’s seen at least a little science fiction.
Now place that person and that spaceship in the context of, oh, the Wild West, or the Renaissance, or The Ming Dynasty. Whatever. It becomes a lot more easy for me, the reader, to associate myself with this person encountering something bonkers and having no idea how to deal with it or process it. It makes the sufficiently advanced technology seem a little more like magic.
I guess the upshot of this is that we’re living in an age where the alien is no longer all that alien, unless of course the author is good enough to make something that is genuinely alien, in which case, good job, author.
Another upshot of this also occurs to me: If you don’t have any kind of original aliens or tech, then setting it in the past can help you be lazy and cover that up. Double-edged sword, I guess.
So it turns out that there are not one but two aliens, claiming to be a Swede and an Icelander, and they enlist Cope and Marsh to help foil the other. There are also Sioux and Crow hanging around, generally being menacing, especially once Sitting Bull gets in on the action. Little Bighorn is in the very recent past and he’s not a happy feller.
It doesn’t take very long for Marsh to see through the aliens’ stories. He speculates that they may well not be of this Earth, so he joins up with Cope to stop them. Their reasoning is mainly that the bones are in America and so they’re not letting any aliens, extraterrestrial or not, take them away.
And so, with their pals from the First Peoples, they force their way past the ghost wall and onto the “Swedish” ship (the “Icelander” has his submerged in the river) and lots of hijinks start to ensue. They find lots of crazy tech. “Swenson” shows up and gives us a little exposition on behalf of the aliens. He says some stuff about how evolution on Earth was fiddled with by his ancestors and that’s why he needs to study the fossils. He also captures our heroes for a while but they get loose, especially once an actual dinosaur shows up and Marsh rides around on it.
Actually the dinosaur turns out to be a hologram and it disappears. “Swenson” states that humans are so annoying that he’s leaving the planet, which I think means we won. He says they’ll be back, though. Or maybe the other one says that later. I forget.
The other alien, “Grieg,” gives chase in his own spaceship, which causes “Swenson” to drop some of the bones overboard for some reason. He visits Marsh at the end of the book and talks about how their two species are at war, at which point Marsh points out his own theory, that “Swenson’s” people actually created “Grieg’s” out of dinosaurs. “Grieg” refuses to answer and he leaves, too.
And that’s the story.
I don’t mean to sound like there wasn’t a lot going on. The pages of this book were well filled with stuff happening, but the skeleton (haha) of the plot does seem a little bare when I put it down like this. In truth, all of the secondary characters had their own B plots (and C plots and D plots and so on) that I skipped over for brevity’s sake. None of them stole the show from the plight of our dinosaur hunters, but they were pretty good. We had our Sweet Polly Oliver character. We had our Sioux who grew up back East and went to Yale (he and Alice fall in love, and then he dies). And we had an army guy, a scout for Cope’s expedition, who was dealing with survivor’s guilt after he broke ranks and fled at Little Big Horn. They were all decent characters.
If I have to complain about anything, it’s that sometimes the book felt a little padded. It could have used some better pacing and sometimes the characters sort of blended together. Again, this may stem from the fact that I was speed-reading this one and got a little impatient. I think it stands, but you’re welcome to disagree with me.
If you can find a copy, I say give this one a read.