Utley, Steven. The 400-Million-Year Itch: Silurian Tales, Vol. 1.

Greenwood, Western Australia: Ticonderoga Publications, 2012.

Steve, who died recently at a shockingly young age, was one of the best of the handful of first-rate science fiction authors whom Texas produced in the 1970s and ’80s, and whom hardly anyone except their avid fans has ever heard of. I take that back: Most of the leading literary lights of science fiction themselves had a very high regard for Mr. Utley’s work. They recognized quality when they saw it.

He could write about anything, too; give him a topic and he’d come up with an interesting and original take on it. And one of his favorite playgrounds within the field was time travel.

Well, everyone enjoys time travel because there are so many possibilities, but only Steve would decide to stake a claim to a period in prehistory before even modern-type plant life existed, much less land animals. Why mess around with dinosaurs and sabertooths when you can have slime and trilobites? And how you get there is via a wormhole, not a machine, which means you can’t choose your target. You’re stuck in the Age of Mud, take it or leave it. And the nineteen stories in this volume — which had to go to Australia to find a publisher, for crying out loud — are only the first installment. The rest of the Silurian Tales are in Vol. 2: Invisible Kingdoms.

“All of Creation” is about the earliest hint that something has happened to spacetime, as a high school science teacher and his old friend, a marine biologist, stroll on a Gulf Coast beach and stumble across several hundred recently alive trilobites along the surf line. How the hell did those get there? But it’s not just the fact that it’s happened, it’s the realization that the paradigms are about to shift. “The Woman Under the World” tells of an early accident in traveling to the past and what happens to the facets of the traveler that didn’t quite make it. More of a portrait of a situation than a story and probably the weakest piece here, relatively speaking. “Walking in Circles” is a lovely little mood-setter about one of the first sample-gathering teams pottering about happily in the slime and ooze. “Beyond the Sea,” on the other hand, is about decision-making and the necessity of explaining oneself to those who have their own plans for you — always difficult, especially when it’s your parents, and they want you to be a classical musician rather than a geologist. “The Gift Horse” is another not-quite-story, just a few pages of an interview with a noted physicist trying to explain that it isn’t really “time travel” but travel to an alternate Earth in the nearly infinite multiverse (because time travel is impossible) — so how do you know that what you discover there is the same as what existed in our own “real” past? And does it matter?

“Promised Land” is one of my favorites in this volume. Consider a famous paleobiologist dying of cancer, more or less satisfied with his life and his career, just waiting patiently for The End. And then, on the television in his hospital room, the announcement is made of the discovery of actual time travel! His colleagues are fighting to queue up for access to the past. And he’s not going. Can you imagine the bitterness, the rage? But maybe he’ll get there anyway, one way or another. Damn, this is good writing.

Of course, it isn’t only excited scientists going off to the Paleozoic. As time passes and the project expands, they also come to require a support staff — in this case, the U.S. Navy, who transport an entire ship through “the Hole” to provide official structure. And that means a crew of professional sailors who couldn’t care less about millipedes and moss. “The Age of Mud and Slime” follows three bluejackets on liberty, sprawled on a bluff up in the highlands overlooking the research station’s Quonset huts (known as “Stinktown”), trying hard to consume enough 3.2 beer to acquire a buzz and kicking around the whole “butterfly effect” question.

Possibly the best story in this volume is “The Wind Over the World,” a deeply affecting piece about Bonnie Leveritt, a young grad student making her first journey into the distant past as part of a field team, and her five-minute acquaintance with Ed Morris, an accountant going back to talk to people about budgets. (Yeah, any big project needs bean-counters.) Bonnie’s nervous and Ed, a middle-aged guy in a clichéd “Jungle Jim suit,” gives her a little pep talk as they wait, trying to sooth her nerves and offering to go first. But Bonnie wants to get it over with and he smiles and says “Go ahead.” And she makes it, though the jump through the worm hole leaves her kind of shaky. But something goes wrong somewhere and Ed never comes out the other side. He’s the project’s first casualty and they don’t even know where — or when — he is. It takes Bonnie some time to come to terms with all this; if Ed had gone first, it would have been her who was lost in transition. But she’s resourceful and reflective and she finally finds a way.

Then there’s a mini-trilogy of stories, each of them following immediately after the one before in its action and all featuring the same group of characters, but with a different POV each time. You’ve got Helen Wheeler, the non-sexy soil scientist and amateur painter, who, in “Cloud by Van Gogh,” tries to explain to Gabbert, the saturnine astronomer, why art and science go together. And in “Half a Loaf,” there’s Chaplain Madiel of the Navy, who joins Wheeler at Gabbert’s satellite-watching party (it’s the first successful prehistoric launch) and who gets into a convoluted discussion with Ovington, the meteorologist, regarding the place of revealed religion in a time almost before the Creation. And with different lengths to the day and the year, you don’t even know when Sunday is. That theme continues in “Chaos and the Gods” as the party winds down (“now that Gab’s insulted everybody at least once”), with the addition of creation myths in the mythologies of various cultures, as well as the fundamental nature of God, or the gods. Some very thoughtful (and poetic) commentary in this one.

And then, for a change of pace, there’s “The Tortoise Grows Elate,” which investigates the group dynamics of assembling a field team that will be working in isolation for months in such a way that none of its members will murder any of the others. Can Tamiko (“By the way, I’m a dyke”) hook up with her old buddy, the rather dorky and very ugly (but also nice and easy-going) SeePee? Will their boss, The Wasp Woman, find her own partner? This one is hilarious in a slyly droll way, the sort of story that might be read out loud at a con. (It might also have been titled “Love Among the Eurypterids.”) “Foodstuff” considers the question of a few people staying behind in the Paleozoic and living off the land as hunter-gatherers, without even chordates or proper plants, much less technology. Putting aside why they might want to attempt such a thing, or whether they ethically should, would it be physically possible to do it? Oh, and fishing, for sport as well as research. “Chain of Life” focuses on the personal problems of a young volcanologist with a biologist girlfriend and the macho boss (he lives to “peek down Vulcan’s chimney”) who expects him to casually take unnecessary chances the girlfriend doesn’t approve of. It’s all about relationships, both between people and rocks and people and other people. And babies.

Now several decades have passed since the wormhole appeared and it’s even more difficult to qualify for a research team in the Paleozoic, there’s so much competition. The slightest career mistake — like a gig as innocent-bystander assistant to an expert who is professionally crucified for faking his research — and you’ll have no chance at all. Then you might end up as a mere technician at the present-day end of the jump station, managing toilet paper deliveries, because that’s as close as you’ll ever get. And that’s the lesson learned in “Exile,” a rather sad little story. “The End in Eden” is about the entrance of sin into the Garden in the form of crime — and not even of passion but for cold-blooded financial gain. There’s a lot of anger among the characters in this one, and for good reason.

“Lost Places in the Earth” is also a different sort of story, about the sometimes nefarious practices of senior academics when it comes to young, attractive, female grad students. The worm hole is only tangential to this one, actually, though it has some interesting things to say about maps and cartography. “A Silurian Tale” considers the problems of readjustment to the 21st century after a year spent in the peace and quiet of the Silurian Era. Is the presence of intrusive advertising balanced out by the equal presence of green grass and flowers and trees? And then you have to explain to your young niece why you didn’t see any dinosaurs.

And finally, in “The 400-Million-Year Itch,” one of the pioneering scientists in the Paleozoic is being interviewed years later and she has a hard time getting the young reporter to understand that the Silurian was not at all an exciting place. And people are still people, regardless of when they are in time, and Great Men are still Great Men, even when they turn out to be somewhat ordinary, and occasionally annoying.

These stories were published over a period of nearly two decades, so it’s a different experience to sit down and read them all straight through, one after another. Steve’s generally quiet and reflective writing style, however, makes it an easy mission. And you’ll soon find yourself sinking into the stories and the setting and joining the scientists and the Navy men and the civilian staff in their far distant past. Needless to say, I will be acquiring Vol. 2 of the Silurian Tales at the first opportunity and I expect to be revisiting all these stories every couple of years. This is a much longer review than I usually indulge in, but some writers simply deserve all the publicity they can get.

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