History inside-out: Howard Waldrop’s Them Bones

Howard Waldrop is known for his imaginative and quirky short stories, Them Bones is his only solo novel. It’s also original and quirky and weird, and I love it to bits and always have. There’s an overall frame story about people in the dying post-nuclear horror of 2002 trying to go back in time to change the past that led to their future, but the real story is in three strands. There’s the story of Yazoo, the advance scout who winds up in an alternate world, and there’s the story of Bonnie and her group of soldiers who end up in the thirteenth century, and there’s the story of Bessie and the archaeologists in 1929 who find something quite impossible when excavating a mound-builder mound. These three strands alternate and interweave, so by the end of the book the reader knows everything without necessarily having been told everything. What makes this book so masterful is Waldrop’s knowledge of history and masterful interweaving of stories to make them more than the sum of their parts.

This is a book I tend to remember as lighter than it is. Actually it’s full of whistling past the graveyard—all the worlds in it are ending. The future world is hardly sketched in, it’s assumed to be the default world the reader knows—Them Bones was written in 1984, when we were still waking up from nightmares of nuclear destruction. Its future can go with Varley’s “Air Raid” which also uses time travel to try to save humanity.

The worlds of the past are seen in much greater detail, particularly the Mound Builder culture in the alternate world in which Yazoo finds a home. Waldrop makes the details of daily life in that world seem very real. It also does a lot with our assumptions about pre-Columbian America and timelessness—this is an alternate history that’s part of a complex changing dynamic culture that has traditions and innovations. It too is ending, with the introduction of plagues and wars—though why they have come now and not thirty years before when the traders first visited isn’t clear. There’s a lovely passage where the Greek-speaking Islamic traders give Yazoo an update on history on their side of the Atlantic—no Alexander, Carthage beat Rome, no Christianity, science has continued to advance slowly but surely. Waldrop’s well aware that his average reader will be far better historically educated about this kind of thing than about the American cultures Yazoo has found and he’s teasing us with this. It’s the mound-builder culture we see in detail and that really comes to life here.

The world of 1929 archaeology is also seen in fascinating detail—shellacking the anomalous horse bones—Bessie the female archaeologist and her male colleagues are working against time as the rains come to flood their site and wash away all their evidence. The story of the excavation interlocks with Bonnie’s diary and the duty rosters of the camp—we’re hearing what happened to the Americans in the past both from their own notes and from Bessie’s excavations. What we don’t know is whether this 1929 is part of our world, or part of the world they came from, or whether these are the same. It reads like our 1929, and there’s nothing to indicate that their 2002 wasn’t supposed to be our 2002, but they could both be slightly different worlds. Certainly time travel doesn’t work the way they think it does—they were aiming for the 1940s. Maybe the future is easy to change, and maybe your own past is impossible to reach. The set of quotations used to start the book and as chapter headings strongly suggest the latter. Bonnie and her soldiers are lightly sketched, seen more in shadow than in substance, though the throw-away bit about the Book of Mormon is amazing.

A normal book about modern Americans thrown into the past would be like Island in the Sea of Time or 1632, and comparing those to Them Bones really highlights some things. Firstly, those are books about success, about Americans winning, whereas this very much is about people setting off to change the past and finding themselves swallowed up in it. Secondly, they’re books about modern Americans interacting with Europeans in the past, while this really isn’t. There is an Aztec interlude in ISOT, but it’s an interlude to the main plot. In Them Bones, the Arab traders are an interlude in the important interactions with the Americans of the past.

Them Bones was published as one of Terry Carr’s Ace Science Fiction specials, and it starts with a heartening little introduction which says how science fiction is in the doldrums and needs originality and shaking up. It’s always cheering to read things like that from thirty years ago and note that the genre is still here and people are still saying things like that today.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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