Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday
I’m going to say something I don’t think I’ve ever said in my reviews of non-fiction works. One of the best things about Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds (2022) is the lack of science in Thomas Halliday’s science book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds. Let me ‘splain.
What I mean by “lack of science” is a near-absence of the oft-used popular science go-tos, such as: “In fill-in-the-date, researcher X found that …” or, “A recent study published in fill-in-the-date revealed that …” Now, given that this is a popular science book, and Halliday himself is a scientist (a paleontologist), clearly there is science here. And up-to-date science as well, with a slew of citations from 2019 and 2020 and even some from 2021. But the science, like the layers of deep time Halliday gives us tours of, lies hidden, acting as a foundation, an accretion of detail that Halliday synthesizes into a wonderfully evocative picture of ancient times. Halliday is less concerned with explaining how or why (how a particular fossil formed, why a particular creature was nocturnal) and much more focused on building a portrait of a specific time and place.
Sixteen such times and places, to be precise, moving backward through the ages from Northern Plain, Alaska in the Pleistocene to Seymour Island, Antarctica in the Eocene to Moradi, Niger in the Permian and finally the Ediacara Hills, Australia 550 million years ago during the Ediacaran. It’s a relatively unusual ordering for these types of books, which typically move in chronological order from ancient to modern times. What I like about Halliday’s choice here is that it has two results: one is that it makes it more difficult to fall into the trap of seeing evolution over time as “progressing” toward a goal and secondly, and related, that it takes the focus off of that goal being us — humans, sitting pretty at the apex of all that evolving over time.
Somewhat similarly, besides (mostly) ignoring humans or our earliest ancestors, Halliday also broadens the focus beyond the animal world, which is, again, typically where these books cast their eye (if they bother to go beyond the ever-charismatic dinosaurs). Here, Halliday is not interested in just the neat creatures, though they’re here as well; he’s equally fascinated by the plants, the geology, the climate, the shifting oceans and continents. And that fascination is quickly shared by the reader. And so we learn about the gigantic glass sponge reefs from 200 million years ago, “the largest biological structures ever to have existed.” About the “greatest waterfall ever to have graced the Earth … nearly a mile high … raising the eastern Mediterranean by a metre every two and a half hours.” About giant penguins tall as a person, gigantic grasshoppers (well, grasshopper relatives) with a 10-inch wingspan, early root systems that create soil and draw carbon dioxide out of the air, 10-foot fungi, microbial mats, and more.
Even better is that we learn about them intertwined with their environments. Because Otherlands is less a book about creatures or even plants and more a book about ecological systems, about the niches these living beings exist in, co-exist in, and how they are influenced by each other, by the rising or falling of the seas, by the shifts of tectonic plates, the changing of atmospheric makeup. I’ve never read a book that so fully recreates an entire ecology and gives as whole a sense of what life, all life, was like in particular places at particular time.
All of this is conveyed in clear, accessible prose that, at times, especially at the ends of chapters, takes poetic flight, as when he writes of how “willows write worldess calligraphy on the wind with flourished ink-brush catkins,” of “ancient limestone crags [turned] into a land of dwarves and giants,” of how “wakeful under the stars, thunderbird and lightning beast crackle over the newly frosted ground,” of “root and hypha … interlocked as dancers’ fingers.”
My sole complaint about the book is its vivid detail and poetic language cried out for much more liberal use of illustration. The drawings here are wonderful; I just wanted more. But really, that’s it as far as issues.
Otherlands is a popular science book that uses the science for greater purpose than simply recounting the science and an informative synthesis of facts woven together with threads of poetry that creates the best sense I’ve yet come across of what our world, or at last pockets of it, were like across its grand vista of time. Highly recommended.
Thomas Halliday is a palaeobiologist and evolutionary biologist from Edinburgh. He has held research positions at University College London and the University of Birmingham, and has been part of palaeontological field crews in Argentina and India. ‘Otherlands’ is his first book, and is a transporting and immersive exploration of past life. He also occasionally appears on TV and radio, whether as a quiz contestant, backing singer, or in a more scientific role.