cover image Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

Thomas Halliday. Random House, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-13288-3

Evolutionary biologist Halliday takes an energizing spin through Earth’s past in his magnificent debut. Calling this “a naturalist’s travel book,” Halliday takes readers from the dry flatlands of Pleistocene Alaska, where “short willows write wordless calligraphy on the wind with flourished ink-brush catkins,” to the Ediacaran skies, more than 500 million years ago, when even the stars were different. Along the way, he introduces myriad strange organisms: there’s an enormous goose from Miocene-era Italy; Cretaceous China’s winged reptile; the squidlike Tully Monster of the Carboniferous seas; and the wormy Hallucigenia found in Cambrian water. Halliday concludes in the present, cautioning that “there is no corner of the Earth where [humans] have not touched the way of life of its inhabitants in some way” but also asserting that humanity can “find the routes that avert disaster” in the future. The prose is stunning, and the author packs the narrative with geological, meteorological, and biological insights, turning dry history into something fascinating; for instance, the glass sponge reefs of the Jurassic period are “the largest biological structures ever to have existed,” “three times the length of the Great Barrier Reef.” This show-stopping work deserves wide readership. (Feb.)