Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: 'Them Bones' by Howard Waldrop


4  / 5 Stars


‘Them Bones’ was among the first of the ‘new’ iteration of Ace Science Fiction Specials that saw print in 1984 (others being ‘Neuromancer’ by Gibson, ‘The Wild Shore’ by Robinson, ‘Green Eyes’ by Shepard, and ‘Palimpsests’ by Scholz and Harcourt). The cover art for ‘Them Bones’ (225 pp.) is by Marvin Mattleson.
The novel's overarching plot deals with time travel; specifically, the US in 2003 seeks to change the course of history and avoid the wars and destruction that have turned the nation into a radiation-soaked wasteland. By sending a force of scientists and soldiers back into early 20th century America, the hope is to alter the timeline so as to prevent the advent of armageddon.
Subsumed within this plot are three main storylines. One concerns the adventures of Madison Yazoo Leake, a time traveler who is sent into the past….but too far into the past, as it turns out. Leake winds up in what at first glance seems to be Louisiana, at the time before the Europeans colonized North America. But the mound-building Indian tribe that adopts him is clearly not lodged in the same timeline of Leake’s future, for there are Arabs sailing the Mississippi and woolly mammoths roaming the countryside.
Another storyline deals with the detachment of 147 troops and scientists sent through the time portal to rendezvous with Leake. Something has gone wrong and they have missed the target time and place; to make things worse, the local Indian population soon turns decidedly unfriendly.
A third storyline deals with a team of archeologists, who in 1929 are excavating mounds in Louisiana, in territory alongside the Mississippi river. When a laborer discovers a horse skull displaying what appears to be a rifle bullet wound, the excavation team realizes that they may find artifacts within the mounds unlike anything before encountered in a pre-Columbian dig….
‘Them Bones’ is a well-written SF adventure novel. Waldrop uses a clean, fast-moving narrative prose style and short chapters to keep his three intersecting storylines untangled and coherent. The Madison Leake story thread is the major one of the novel and features plenty of dry humor; in the last fifth of the book, it involves an exciting chase sequence that Mel Gibson may have ripped off for his 2006 film ‘Apocalypto’.
‘Them Bones’ continues to be one of the best entries in Terry Carr’s Ace SF Specials from the mid-80s.

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