I’m not an impulsive book buyer. Instead, I have a list which grows and grows on my phone, five books added for every one or two read. I picked up Otherlands by Thomas Halliday in the Swiss equivalent of a W.H. Smith, stuck for 8 hours in Geneva airport with little to do but drink extortionate beer and watch the flitting of city names on the departure boards. Otherlands is like its own departure board, only that its destinations are separated not only by distance but also by time.
The book is non-fiction, but read a page and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a novel. Halliday takes you on a time-travelling safari, starting in the present and carrying you across the past on a magic carpet ride put into reverse. He allows for plenty of allotted stops along the way, as the world gets less and less familiar to what we know today.
Using words alone he re-animates creatures, plants and fungus that have since turned to dust, telling stories of their daily struggles to find food, attract a mate, provide for their children, and avoid being eaten. With a tap of his pen Halliday brings these fossils back to life, and along the way teaches us valuable lessons about our own world and its fragile foothold against the endless march of time.
The blur of facts and fiction is done so seamlessly, but our writer is always careful not to mix the two. This is a book of acrobatic balance, leaning into story where the truth allows, and admitting to its readers where things are too murky to paint something clear. As with all palaeontology, the study of fossils, the further back Halliday takes us with his guiding hand the less artifacts he has to play with. As the life forms become more alien on our travels into deep time, even the words he can use to describe them begin to dwindle.
These stone imprints he relies on are remarkable in themselves; all we know of what came before is stamped into rock, buried under rivers of mud, and pressed under sediment. At the scale of this book oceans become sloshing, moveable puddles while continents sail back and forth – cracking, splitting, and crashing into each other at speed as they bob on the lava below. Above ground and in the seas, life either adapts or dies in its ever-changing surrounds.
As Halliday notes in his book, it’s an irony that all we know about life in the distant past is defined by the evidence of death. We visit the frosty tundra of the last ice age and a hothouse earth of many epochs ago, and see that little connects these places except for the persistence of life. When thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of years, humanity seems impossibly small and unimportant, and our future is far from guaranteed.
The book leaves you thinking: what will we place behind in the rocks that will one day come to define us? Will it be the billions of chicken bones from the birds we raise to eat? The trillions upon trillions of micro-plastics that we have peppered the tallest mountains and deepest trenches with? All that we know today will someday be swallowed up by the earth. The other lands that Halliday takes you to in this whistle-stop tour are certainly strange, yet when looking at the Earth’s history from afar you are left believing that it is us who are the odd ones out.
Words by Charlie Forbes