“Tell them Death is God now; he is alive, he is walking.”

Them Bones — Howard Waldrop
Series Three, book 4

Them-Bones

All things being equal, I’d love to have reviewed Them Bones as a Tuesday Rediscovery but as far as I can tell 1984’s Them Bones not only isn’t available in ebook form, it’s not available in any form. This is a great shame.

But first, a short bit of exposition on the Ace Science Fiction Specials. The first set of Ace Science Fiction Specials, edited by Terry Carr and published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was very well received; as Wikipedia points out, four of the six novels nominated for the Nebula in 1970 were from the series. The second set, published in the mid-1970s and not edited by Carr, did not achieve the same level of success. Beginning in 1984 and running until 1990, the third set of Specials saw a return to the form of the first series. Carr’s personal involvement in the Ace Science Fiction Specials was cut short by his untimely death in 1987 but while the novels published under his successor Damon Knight did not prove succssful as previous third set Ace Science Fiction Specials, a number of the authors selected by Carr himself, authors like William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson, are still considered major figures in SF to this day. Them Bones was the fourth novel published in the third set of Ace Science Fiction Specials.

Howard Waldrop is better known for his ingenious, meticulously thought-out short stories than for his novels. In part this may be because he has written about eighty short works in the last two generations, attracting too many nominations to list here, while he has only written two novels and the first one was an oddity, not at all what people think of when they think “Howard Waldrop”. This novel is much closer to what one might expect from a Waldrop story. It is also undeservedly obscure.

The story begins with an archaeological dig in 1929 Louisiana, one racing to recover artifacts from a set of pre-Columbian mounds before the whole region vanishes under the artificial flood-waters of the Suckatoncha Bayou Relief Project. The mounds are thought to date from the 13th century, which makes the discovery of the skeleton of a horse – extinct in the Americans from perhaps 7,600 BP to 1540 – difficult to explain, although not half as baffling as the bullet hole in the horse’s skull or the modern bullet cartridge that also turns up in the dig. Either accidental intrusion or deliberate fraud would explain what the archaeologists found but as it turns out the truth is much stranger.

Over the course of about six weeks in 2002, humans explored the full range of their destructive potential, leaving the Earth a dying ruin. The Project has an experimental one-way time portal generator and in the hope of changing history enough to prevent the apocalypse they send a team of 147 men and women into the past. Their target date is less than a century before WWIII. The time portal generator is of dubious reliability so that’s not where they end up.

Point man Madison Yazoo Leake isn’t sure when he is but he is pretty sure from where the Mississippi isn’t that it is well over three centuries before 2002. He’s right and he’s wrong; the portal’s range is a lot farther than anyone suspected, although Yazoo begins to get an inkling of just how badly the plan has gone awry when the local Mississippians turn out to speak Greek, a language they picked up from traders originating in a Eurasia where the Library at Alexandria never burned.

Happily, the *Mississippians of this time-line are an amiable, laid-back bunch and Leake has little trouble finding a niche and a new best friend for himself. If Leake had come through a few hundred miles to the west, he would be dealing with the Huastica, who are real jerks of the ‘catch you and cut your heart out’ variety.

The other 146 members of the time expedition seem to be almost as lucky as Leake, although they aren’t cast into an alternate dimension but their (and our) past, just before the Coles Creek culture suddenly declined. Alas, the timing is not a coincidence. The up-timers brought with them modern diseases to which the locals have no resistance and shortly after contact is made, the locals begin dying in droves. The down-timers are not dummies and they make the connection between the arrival of the up-timers and the sudden epidemic. Unable to save themselves, the locals decide to make sure the intruders pay for their transgression.

Over in Leake’s time-line, Leake is no plague rat but sadly, that won’t matter. All the signs point to apocalypse in his time-line as well and although the causes are somewhat different, the outcome seems likely to be very similar.

Generally SF authors who deal with the Americas seem to see the natives as unfortunate impediments to progress, a prelude to the important stuff. Waldrop treats the pre-Columbian cultures with more respect than that and certainly more focus on the details of their culture.

I strongly suspect Waldrop was influenced by William Hardy McNeill’s 1976 Plagues and Peoples when he wrote this. Contact between previously isolated cultures often produces plague in its wake and when one of them has been isolated for as long the Americans were and has such a small disease pool, the epidemiological results of contact will be one-sided and horrific. We get two examples of that in this work and while the post-WWIII disease environment is almost certainly much worse than the one in the alternate world’s Eurasia, the effect on the natives is still apocalyptic.

The book is also influenced by the zeitgeist of the 1980s – a large fraction of the third Ace Science Fiction Specials involve nuclear apocalypses of one kind or another - and the author’s curious conviction that annihilating most life on Earth in some sense reflects poorly on the people responsible. The book is often funny but there’s always a hint of despair. The refugees from post-WWIII likely had no say in the war that destroyed their world but they played their role in making it possible. As representatives of a world that chose to annihilate itself they seem cursed, their appearance a harbinger of Armageddon.

Something I missed the first few times I read this is the significance of Colonel Spaulding’s religion or why a Mormon in Pre-Columbian America would be so interested in a set of maps leading from Louisiana to upstate New York. I would put good odds that Spaulding ended up in what is now Wayne County, New York. This is why it’s worth the time to reread older books.

The introduction by Terry Carr is a bit more cane-shaky and Get Off My Lawnish towards elements he felt were reducing SF to its lowest common denominator than I remembered, which is not saying much because I did not remember that this had a Terry Carr introduction at all. Carr castigates TV shows like Star Trek1, but he is also unhappy with the effect he believes popular movies like Close Encounters, Star Wars and ET had on the field. He promises a more ambitious approach from the Specials and looking back on the Specials I think on the whole Carr delivered on that promise.

This book seems to be out of print but Waldrop has a number of short story collections. Although it does not seem to have been updated in a long time, his website may be a good place to start looking. Waldrop may not be a household name but he should be and while you probably won’t be able to find a copy of Them Bones, his collections are worth your time and money. 


  1. Trek is often credited with helping to bring a lot of women to the field, and I notice that while the first Specials series had women like Russ, Le Guin and Elgin, the third set has but one woman and her book was published after Carr died.

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