Otherlands is a non-fiction work by Thomas Halliday, describing the worlds we have left behind us, according to the fossil and geological record. I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley, for which I am very grateful. And it helps me on my way in my ten-year Non-Fiction Adventure!


Otherlands: Journeys in Earth’s Extinct Ecosystems

by Thomas Halliday

Sapiens for natural history: a stirring, eye-opening journey into deep time, from the Ice Age to the first appearance of microbial life 550 million years ago, by a brilliant young paleobiologist.

The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.

This book is an exploration of the Earth as it used to exist, the changes that have occurred during its history, and the ways that life has found to adapt-or not. It takes us from the savannahs of Pliocene Kenya to watch a python chase a group of australopithecines into an acacia tree; to a cliff overlooking the salt pans of the empty basin of what will be the Mediterranean Sea just as water from the Miocene Atlantic Ocean spills in; into the tropical forests of Eocene Antarctica; and under the shallow pools of Ediacaran Australia, where we glimpse the first microbial life.

Otherlands also offers us a vast perspective on the current state of the planet. The thought that something as vast as the Great Barrier Reef, for example, with all its vibrant diversity, might one day soon be gone sounds improbable. But the fossil record shows us that this sort of wholesale change is not only possible but has repeatedly happened throughout Earth history.

Even as he operates on this broad canvas, Halliday brings us up close to the intricate relationships that defined these lost worlds. In novelistic prose that belies the breadth of his research, he illustrates how ecosystems are formed; how species die out and are replaced; and how species migrate, adapt, and collaborate. It is a breathtaking achievement: a surprisingly emotional narrative about the persistence of life, the fragility of seemingly permanent ecosystems, and the scope of deep time, all of which have something to tell us about our current crisis.(goodreads)

My Review

For anyone with a passing interest in fossils, or in earth’s history, or in possible alien lifeforms, Otherlands is a must-read.

I can’t think of another book which really sets out the flora and fauna of a past era (or possibly epoch), in an ecosystem way. How does every lifeform depend on each other? What are the predator-prey relationships? Why are certain adaptations made, given the other life around, the climate conditions, and the genetic pathways…

To undertake this sort of detailed analysis for one specific time period would probably provide a doctoral thesis. To do it for several–sixteen–site/age combinations, is remarkable.

And then make it not only readable, but beautifully descriptive, creating an illusion of the world he is describing in breathtaking detail.

I highlighted several passages that make imagery a cliched word. The way the Atlantic poured through the Pillars of Hercules to create the western proto-Mediterranean was breath-taking… but the consequential waterfall, miles high, as the Sicilian ridge was breached so it formed the eastern Med… That was awe-inspiring.

Some of the writing is clunky, and occasionally strays into academic style (much like Stephen Hawking, so Dr Halliday is in good company). Occasionally I found the gist of his argument contradictory. He also has a habit of shifting to a different time and place to compare or contrast with the chapter in question, which confused me. But this can be forgiven. You catch on eventually (possibly faster than with Stephen Hawking).

And for readers concerned about the percent left to read in an ebook, around 25% is devoted to references, further reading, and appendices.

If you would like to know more about the world we live in (and what might happen when we leave it) read Otherlands.

Book Review | Otherlands by Thomas Halliday @TJDHalliday 'not only readable, but beautifully descriptive, creating … the world in breathtaking detail' #ecosystems #fossils #Otherlands #netgalley Share on X

P.s. During a lecture on bats (the mammal), someone recommended After Man by Dougal Dixon. Best described as ‘alternative evolution without man messing things up.’ It looks fabulous. Want!

Book Review | Otherlands by Thomas Halliday @TJDHalliday
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2 thoughts on “Book Review | Otherlands by Thomas Halliday @TJDHalliday

  • 22 April, 2022 at 11:07 am

    I keep circling back to this post. I think it’s the book cover that has me intrigued, my curiosity peaked.

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