Saturday, November 28, 2009

Silurian Tales

"Here about the beach I wander,
Nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science,
And the long results of time."
- Alfred Tennyson

The Silurian Period of the Paleozoic Era featured coral reefs in shallow seas, and abundant life - jawless fish, sea scorpions, nautiloid cephalopods, trilobites and other creatures - inhabited the oceans. Plants - mostly mosses - were just emerging onto dry land. What would it be like if we could travel back to that time?

Steven Utley has written a series of time travel stories featuring scientists exploring the Silurian era. As he explained in an interview:
The stories in Silurian Tales span 25 to 40 years in the lives of a number of recurring characters, scientists and other visitors to mid-Paleozoic time, who are trying to do the work that is important to them while coping — or failing to cope — with isolation, boredom, privation, their own and one another’s shortcomings, and the implications of so-called time travel in accordance with the many-universes hypothesis advanced by quantum physicists. It is, in short, a book of stories about folks trying to be happy.
Over the years Utley has read extensively to provide background for his stories:
The last time Utley calculated the number of books and magazine articles he’s consulted for the series, it was over a hundred. "Including the Atlas of the Prehistoric World, Wildlife of Gondwana, John G. Maisey’s Discovering Fossil Fishes, works by David Attenborough, John McPhee, books about plate tectonics and oceanography, back numbers of National Geographic," Utley said. "I got off into astronomy and quantum physics, too. Everything became grist for the mill. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy proved useful in writing some of the stories, so, too, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and throughout you’ll catch me paying homage, consciously or otherwise, to all sorts of authors besides Wharton — Jane Austen, Edmond Hamilton, H. P. Lovecraft, Conrad, Borges, Proust. Zane Grey, of all people: his description of a canyon in Riders of the Purple Sage or Heritage of the Desert somehow informs my sense of a Paleozoic landscape. [...]

While an anthology is supposedly in the works, it doesn't appear to have been published yet. Fortunately, several of Utley's Silurian tales are free to read online:
Image: Asaphus species (Trilobite) from the Ordovician-age strata near St. Petersburg, Russia.

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