Them Bones

Howard Waldrop was added to my checklist for used-book searches after I picked up his collection Going Home Again on a whim a year or two ago. It's hard to really describe those stories-- the collection is linked in my mind with Bradley Denton's One Day Closer to Death, (another book nobody has read), in that both contain carefully crafted and lovingly detailed stories which live on the fringes of the usual SF territory. The stories in Going Home Again probably come closest to fitting in the alternate history subgenre, but its a weirdly mundane sort of alternate history. Thomas Wolfe rides a dirigible and lsitens to Fats Waller in a world with no WWII, Charles Dickens reads an alternate Christmas Carol, and the Keystone Kops chase horror-movie monsters.

Them Bones is one of his very few novels, and is a somewhat more conventional type of SF story. The plot is spread over three strands, one involving a team of archeologists in Huey Long's Louisiana who have stumbled onto a shocking discovery in a fifteenth-century burial mound, and the other two following the lives of a group of people who have fled an apocalyptic future through a time machine, hoping to find a way to prevent the all-out war which destroys civilization in 2003 (whoops!), or at least a better life in the past. While they were trying to arrive at the same time and place where the archeologists are working, they overshot badly on the time side of things, and one of their advance scounts has ended up in another world altogether.

It's clear from the very start that there's a connection between the mislaid group of future refugees and the dig in Louisiana (so the above isn't really a spoiler), which removes a lot of the suspense from their story (which is told in memos and diary entries from the military officers on the mission). The interplay between the two is still interesting to watch, and deftly handled.

Sadly, that same interplay leaves the third plot strand, that following the advance scout Madison Yazoo Leake and his adventures in an alternate fifteenth-century North America, feeling a little left out. Which is odd, as it's probably the strongest of the three stories, and has clearly had the most effort put into it. The past society is well drawn, and the interactions between Leake and the people he meets are fascinating and moving.

Unfortunately, the Leake story never intersects the other two. The end result is rather like two very, very good novellas were spliced together in some "South Park" style genetic experiment, leaving the reader holding a pot-bellied elephant of a hybrid novel. Had the plots been separated into different works, the result would've been two excellent stories; as it is, it's only one pretty good novel.

Still, there are wonderful bits here. The description of the archeological team at work is very convincing (though I don't know what real archeology looks like, it feels true to the way the research I know is done). The alternate world Leake ends up in sounds fascinating (though we're allowed only tantalizing glimpses of the world outside the Mississipian mound-building culture). There's even a terrific Mormon joke buried in there.

As alluded to at the start, this book also takes a tremendously pessimistic view of human nature. Both of the distant-past plots unfold with a depressing sort of inevitability. Though the story and prose are compulsively readable, this isn't cheerful and uplifting material.

On the whole, I think I like his short fiction better. Most of the flaws here seem to be the result of working on a larger canvas, and overreaching a bit. Still, it's worth checking this out for the sake of the worldbuilding, which is terrific.

Last modified: 13 June, 2001