Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, by George G. Simpson

The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, by George Gaylord Simpson. St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. 136 pp. 0-312015514-X.

... in which a scientist from the future accidentally slips in time and ends up in the Cretaceous.

Every now and then, one reads a book that makes the reader simultaneously feel very smart and somewhat stupid. This book is one of those. Written by one of the most celebrated paleontologists to ever live, this novel has an impressive scientific pedigree that's apparent just from reading the author's name on the cover. In addition, the book has an introduction by Arthur C. Clarke (!!!), and an afterword by Stephen Jay Gould (!!!!!!!!!). I don't think you could cram much more nerd/intellectual street cred into a book of this length. So, just by reading a book with these three names on the cover, one automatically feels smart.

The book is really a story within a story. The "outer" story, if you will, involves a group of scholars in the very far distant future. These scholars have no names, and are instead given titles like the Universal Historian, the Pragmatist, the Ethnologist, the Common Man, etc. These scholars are sitting around discussing the curious discovery of stone tablets from the Cretaceous. These stone tablets were engraved with the writings of a man who "slipped" back in time from the year 2162 to 80 MYA. The story within the story, or the "inner" story, is of course the text of these stone tablets.

The scientist who "slipped" is called Sam Magruder, and he was a chronologist, ie, an expert in the study of time. At the time of his accident, he was attempting to differentiate between the concept of linear time vs time-as-a-particle. The Universal Historian describes his studies as the "two time universes. One has motion but is without time dimensions or growth. The other is motionless but has a single dimension and grows steadily in one direction within that dimension" (11). This is where the "this book makes me feel dumb" part comes in, because I had to reread the two pages explaining the time universes multiple times before I really understood it. If you have a good understanding of physics, you might understand it this way: the time-motion universe is akin to the Eulerian description of motion in physics, and the motionless time universe is somewhat more like the Lagrangian description of motion. Sort of. Lagrangian and Eulerian descriptions of motion explained here.

Anyway, so Sam Magruder accidentally finds himself slipping from his lab to a swamp in the Cretaceous. Of course, the time slip only affected Sam himself, and not his clothes, so he not only has to find a way to eat and avoid being eaten, he has to clothe himself and generally keep himself healthy. He knows that there is no way for him to return to his original timeline, so in the interest of science, he records his life in the Cretaceous on stone slabs and hopes that at some point in the future, they will be discovered.

One of the more interesting aspects in the story is how Dr. Simpson's history as a paleontologist really shines through. It is clear that the story is being written by someone who really knows dinosaurs, and knows their anatomy. For the most part, Sam's story reads as a sort of scientific narrative: these are the dinosaurs I have seen, this is what they look like, this is how I avoided being eaten by them. However, in the second-to-last chapter, Sam finds himself pondering some small rodent-like mammals and contemplates himself playing God by selectively breeding them and hopefully speeding up the evolutionary processes that would eventually lead to modern-day mammals. This leads to what is probably the best little bit of text in the whole book:

I have a fair smattering of genetics and of practical animal breeding, learned in citizenship school before I specialized as a chronologist. I toyed long with the idea of selectively breeding the little mammals. I knew their tremendous possibilities, and I have no doubt that I could have speeded up their evolution, perhaps by some millions of years. But for what good? They have the spark, themselves. They are going to make it. Their descendants will be men, and they'll get there under their own power. Interference from one of those same descendants, even as a boost along the way, is not necessary. It would, in fact, be sacrilege. What is holy in mankind is that mankind, through this little beast, and so many others, has created itself. p 102.

The biggest drawback to the book is not really Dr. Simpson's fault. The book was found in his notes by his daughter, who was going through his notes after her father's death. The majority of the story was probably written in the 70s, but between Dr. Simpson's death in 1984 and the time of the book's publication, a lot changed in the field of paleontology. For example, Sam describes the dinosaurs as being incontrovertibly exothermic, ie cold-blooded, when the modern-day general consensus is that dinosaurs were probably at least partially endothermic. There are a few other spots where his knowledge is a little dated, particularly in the nomenclature for certain dinosaurs, but none that really take away from the plot.

The previously mentioned introduction and afterword by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Jay Gould are really integral to the reading of this book. Clarke does a remarkable job writing the introduction, making it a discussion of time travel in fiction and reality. Dr. Gould, who was one of the world's most celebrated paleontologists and evolutionary biologists in his own right, wrote a remarkable afterword, discussing the roles of fiction in science, and the dinosaurs, evolutionary theory, and philosophy seen in the book.

Definitely a recommended read, particularly for anyone with an interest in time travel stories, evolution and dinosaurs, or just good old-fashioned science fiction.

5/5 stars.

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