Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds

by Thomas Halliday

Hardcover, 2022

Call number

560 HAL

Collection

Publication

Random House (2022), 416 pages

Description

Mining the most recent paleontological advances, a paleobiologist recreates sixteen extinct worlds, rendered with a novelist's eye for detail and drama, showing up close the intricate relationships of these ancient worlds.

User reviews

LibraryThing member OpheliaAutumn
Fascinating descent into the last eon. This book gives a sense of perspective and awe and wonder for the ancient history or Earth, cycles, and shows how we can learn from past extinctions to think about the consequences of human-induced climate change, including why we need to reduce consumption
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and change our mindset to avoid the worst.
Each chapter is a prehistoric slice of life snippet from ancient life forms, going deeper back in time each time. Some explanations and comparisons along the way really make the writing shine. Sometimes, naming something removes it from our direct experience. Here, the author is quite intentional in trying to make us "feel" these beings and their interactions, their environment and their fate, while still giving a lot of scientific insights and food for thought.
The amount of knowledge and work in this book is staggeringly impressive - maybe even dense at times, but always fascinating.
That said, as an animal lover, I rose my eyebrows at the mention that cattle breeding can be "mutually beneficial" and at the lack of direct mention about the impact of the meat industry / factory farming, apart from the fact that most mammals and birds on Earth are now human beings, and species bred to exploit.
I wish there were more illustrations, in fact, I even wish it was some sort of a graphic novel as even though the descriptions were mostly good, I still found myself googling every living being I didn't know to look at pics of fossils and their artistic renditions.
Overall, it was a great book and I recommend it.
I want to thank netgalley and Penguin Press UK for providing me with an ARC book for free in exchange for a fair review.
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LibraryThing member Elizabeth80
A steep learning curve to remember the Table of Eras. Loved the rhetoric T. Halliday employed; it danced and sang through the various eras. His Epilogue was somewhat daunting, but he was so positive about the possibilities that we could use.
LibraryThing member Big_Bang_Gorilla
The enthusiastic blurbers and reviewers who assured me that this book was a vital entry point for the common man into the world of paleontology gave me too much credit. The book's engaging premise is to begin at a chronological point of 25,000 B.P. and work backward to the Pre-Cambrian at intervals
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of a score or two million years, describing the flora, fauna, and geology of the period at a particular geography. To say that the book makes extreme vocabulary demands is far too kind, and too often he uses his chosen site in time as a springboard to describe in painful detail some arcana concerning worm physiology, plant reproductive structures, and the like. Arcana such as this may be recreational reading for some, and God bless them, but I came to dread my nightly reading hour, unfamiliar territory for me. Yes, he defines his jargon at times, but too often he defines it in terms of something else I've never heard of, leaving me to look up two or three words, not just one. I made my way in life as a map librarian, so I could hang with his geological terminology to some extent, but his herbarium and menagerie were far beyond reach of anybody lacking a graduate degree in biology.

Yet the book does have his occasional merits and charms. It would be unusual for me not to abort a book which sends me to the dictionary multiple times per page, "nevertheless she persisted". The last third of the book did seem to move along more smoothly to me, perhaps because we were submerged mostly and dealing with oceanic teeny-tinies, though my background in oceanography and microbiology is at least as rickety as my botany and zoology education. His epilogue on the effects of the global heating catastrophe is much more informative than anything I've ever read. Still, the tedium of this three weeks' read will be my main memory, and tedium isn't over yet I'm looking at a list of around 250 words I must look up, and I have my doubts that very many of them will be in the collegiate dictionary. I hope Pandora's Guided By Voices channel is ready for two or three hours worth of background entertainment.
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LibraryThing member TheoSmit
Brilliant. Enormously interesting and the single best argument pro time travel.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Such a wonderful romp through the history of life on Earth. My only wish was for more images, but I understand the limitations of all that. Even without them, a real delight of a book.
LibraryThing member markm2315
The author is a paleobiologist at the University of Birmingham. This book comprises 16 chapters. Each describes a place and time based on a particular corresponding modern place with fossil findings from that time. The first chapter describes Northern Plain, Alaska in the Pleistocene epoch, 20,000
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years ago, and the last chapter describes the Ediacara Hills, Australia in the Ediacaran period, 550 million years ago. What is so extraordinary, is that these descriptions include the geography, geology, plant life, animal life, earth and water chemistry, and even the appearance of the moon and stars at that time. Halliday describes the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of the organisms that we know of, and includes the fascinating details of how we know these things, and how these organisms relate to modern plants and animals. There are many books about these things, but I've never read them described all together so that a simulation of time travel is achieved. The overall effect is mind-opening and sometimes almost numinous.
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LibraryThing member CarltonC
Full of fascinating and revelatory stories for this reader, such as:
By the Miocene, the epoch from 23 to 5 million years before the present, sloths will reach their zenith, with some ground sloths even slowly adapting to a marine lifestyle off the coast of Peru, using high nostrils, dense bones and
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a beaver-like tail to live somewhat like hippopotamuses, walking along the sea floor to find seaweed.
It’s just so weirdly wonderful and the book is full of these snippets, skilfully woven into the grander narrative taking us back through time in giant temporal leaps.

I read criticism for the lack of illustrations, one per chapter (each geological epoch or period), with the other named extinct animals and plants usually only described and perhaps compared to a similar modern species, but illustrations can only be an educated artistic interpretation, so this leaves visualisation to the author’s description and our imagination, which I found sufficient. For example, from the chapter about South America 32 million years ago, during the Oligocene:
A few Santiagorothia are among the mixed herd, too; they are lithe, hare-like creatures, with long bodies and limbs. They eat the low vegetation cautiously and with eyes alert, constantly on the lookout for borhyaenids: pouched predators and relatives of marsupials with hyena-like crushing jaws and grooved, ever-growing canines.

There is also one global map per chapter, and again I found this sufficient.

But the further back in time the narrative travels, the less understandable the environment becomes, despite Halliday’s brilliant descriptions of a few animals, plants and environments that can be increasingly tentatively described from the surviving fossil record. I therefore found the later chapters more difficult to grasp, as everything becomes more uncertain and more difficult to imagine.

If this subject intrigues you, I highly recommend this book.
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Awards

Books Are My Bag Readers Award (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2022)
James Cropper Wainwright Prize (Shortlist — 2022)
Waterstones Book of the Year (Shortlist — 2022)
Foyles Book of the Year (Winner — Non-Fiction — 2022)

Pages

416

ISBN

0593132882 / 9780593132883
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