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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

Otherlands A World in the Making

Popular Science
By: Thomas Halliday(Author), Beth Zaiken(Illustrator)
385 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
Read our Q&A with Thomas Halliday. A breath-taking up close encounter with worlds that are normally unimaginably distant.
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  • Otherlands ISBN: 9780141991146 Paperback Feb 2023 In stock
    £8.50 £10.99
  • Otherlands ISBN: 9780241405741 Hardback Feb 2022 Availability uncertain: order now to get this when available
Selected version: £19.99
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About this book

Read our interview with Thomas Halliday. 

From a dazzling young palaeontologist and prodigiously talented writer comes the Earth as we've never seen it before

What would it be like to experience the ancient landscapes of the past as we experience the reality of nature today? To actually visit the Jurassic or Cambrian worlds, to wander among their spectacular flora and fauna, to witness their continental shifts? In Otherlands, the multi-talented palaeontologist Thomas Halliday gives us a breath-taking up close encounter with worlds that are normally unimaginably distant.

Journeying backwards in time from the most recent Ice Age to the dawn of complex life itself, and across all seven continents, Halliday immerses us in sixteen lost ecosystems, each one rendered with a novelist's eye for detail and drama. Every description – whether the colour of a beetle's shell, the shambling rhythm of pterosaurs in flight or the lingering smell of sulphur in the air – is grounded in fact. We visit the birthplace of humanity on the shores of the great lake Lonyumun, in Pliocene-era Kenya; in the Miocene, we hear the crashing of the highest waterfall the world has ever known as it fills the evaporated Mediterranean Sea; we encounter forests of giant fungus nine metres tall in Devonian-era Scotland; and we gaze at the light of a full and enormous moon in the Ediacaran sky, when life hasn't yet reached land.

To read Otherlands is to time travel, to see the last 550 million years not as an endless expanse of unfathomable time, but as a series of worlds, simultaneously fantastical and familiar.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A spine-tingling debut
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 Mar 2022 Written for Hardback

    Our planet has been many different worlds over its 4.5-billion-year history. Imagining what they were like is hard – with our limited lifespan, deep time eludes us by its very nature. Otherlands, the debut of Scottish palaeontologist Thomas Halliday, presents you with a series of past worlds. Though this is a non-fiction book thoroughly grounded in fact, it is the quality of the narrative that stands out. Beyond imaginative metaphors to describe extinct lifeforms, some of his reflections on deep time, taxonomy, and evolution are simply spine-tingling.

    The 16 chapters in Otherlands, each accompanied by a gorgeous illustration from Beth Zaiken, step back in time by millions or even tens of millions of years to visit a place on Earth and describe its ecosystems and organisms. Halliday includes well-known sites such as end-Cretaceous Hell Creek (66 million years ago, or mya) or Lagerstätten such as the Cambrian Chengjiang biota in China (520 mya). Far more interesting are the little-known eras and places such as the Italian promontory of Gargano during the Miocene Messinian Salinity Crisis (5.3 mya), the sweltering warmth of Seymour Island in Antarctica during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (41 mya), or the underwater life around the Silurian Yaman-Kasy vent in Russia (435 mya).

    Stylistically, Otherlands is a narrative non-fiction book. What that means is that, though everything is grounded in fact, Halliday does not get lost in the details. Where competing hypotheses exist he picks one and runs with it, rather than detailing the academic debates and different schools of thought. It is a stylistic choice that I can get behind given the quality of the writing that follows.

    Because make no mistake, Halliday knows how to craft captivating prose. He won the Hugh Miller Writing Competition in 2018 and the John C. Marsden Medal from the Linnean Society for the best doctoral thesis in biology in 2016. Reading Otherlands, it is easy to see why. I do not know what they feed Scottish palaeontologists, but I was reminded of Elsa Panciroli's Beasts Before Us. Let me back up my enthusiasm with some quotes that can only touch on a fraction of what is on offer.

    There are the obvious imaginative metaphors to describe animals. The Triassic gliding reptile Sharovipteryx mirabilis (225 mya) is imagined looking rather inelegant once landed "with its membrane retracting and limbs thrown all directions like a collapsing deckchair" (p. 159), while the Ediacaran sedentary animal Dorothy's Rope (550 mya) resembles upright towers "composed of bulges like knotted rope, as if Gaudi had designed an industrial town" (p. 277). Other descriptions are more poetic. Basilosaurids, the first fully aquatic whale ancestors in the Eocene (41 mya), have yet to evolve the melon organ. They "can listen to the music of the oceans, but they have not yet learned to sing" (p. 86).

    Particularly powerful are his reflections on deep time. A recurrent theme in this book is that of impermanence: "gatherings of species in time and space may give the illusion of stability, but these communities can only last as long as the conditions that help to create them persist" (p. 18). Some ecosystems never return. The long-lived Jurassic crinoid colonies (155 mya) that made a home on floating logs blown into the sea during storms disappeared when the evolution of shipworms made "this way of life impossible, something that can and will never be replicated in quite the same way again; wood just doesn't float for as long as it used to" (p. 151). And while the world feels old in our day, it is easy to forget the world was already old in the deep past. The mountains of the Triassic (225 mya) "are built from the deep sea", within which can be seen "the coils and shapes of the long-extinct creatures of the Carboniferous seas, well over 100 million years old even now" (p. 158).

    What made my hair stand on end were Halliday's reflections on phylogenetics, the evolutionary relationships between animals. I love how he drowns scientific concepts in poetic language. Take the Paleocene Baioconodon (66 mya). Beyond one of the earliest placental mammals, we do not really know what it was. "Their anatomy is too non-committal, too similar to and yet too distinct from too many living orders to be placed with confidence. [...] They are an unspecialized, Platonic placental, a lump of living clay from which all others are stretched, pinched and pulled into shape" (p. 105). We cannot even describe its young as kits or calves: "it does not yet make sense to talk of cattle or dogs, of monkeys or horses. None of these groups exist yet [...] names lose tangibility in the depths of the past, and our language has no description for the young of common ancestors" (p. 104). You start to see why Halliday wrote his way backwards from the present. He makes a similar observation about the Ediacaran biota. Alien to us, "they are aberrant only from a modern perspective" (p. 282). Our confusion is partially because "we are trying to define them the only way we can: on the basis of those few survivors to have found paths to the present", while the dead-end branches "by the simple fact of having not survived, forfeit a common name" (p. 283).

    Similarly spine-tingling are his explanations of evolutionary processes. Species names are artificial designations for a continuous phenomenon. The way palaeontologists deal with this can be compared to rivers. Just as a river can split and its two branches be called by two names from that point in space forward, so can a species that spatially separates be called by two names from that point in time forward. And why did so many higher taxa appear during the Cambrian explosion? One idea is that, once in place, fundamentals cannot be changed easily: "evolution today can only be played within the constraints set by the past". Another idea is that "there is nothing intrinsically impossible about a new body plan developing today, were it not for the existence of others". Gould wrote of filling the ecological barrel and Halliday puts it thus: "establishing the basic roles within an ecosystem is like adding large rocks into a barrel [...] evolutionary processes [...] adding in finer and finer divisions of ecological processes, pebbles and sand falling into the barrel between the gaps left by the larger stones, structures built on other structures" (p. 258). Not only does this ring true, but it is also truly beautiful language.

    Otherlands is an exceptional debut that can be savoured like a fine wine. I found myself reciting passages to anyone within earshot. Beyond a fascinating tour of extinct lifeforms, Halliday's carefully crafted yet poetic descriptions of scientific concepts are a masterclass in spellbinding science communication.
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Thomas Halliday is an Early Career Fellow funded by the Leverhulme Trust at the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Birmingham, and a Scientific Associate of the School of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum in London. His PhD won the Linnaean Society Medal for the best thesis in the biological sciences in the UK.

Popular Science
By: Thomas Halliday(Author), Beth Zaiken(Illustrator)
385 pages, b/w illustrations, b/w maps
Publisher: Penguin Books
Read our Q&A with Thomas Halliday. A breath-taking up close encounter with worlds that are normally unimaginably distant.
Media reviews

– Foyles non-fiction book of the year
– A Sunday Times top ten bestseller
– The Wainwright Prize for nature writing - highly commended
– Longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction

"This book takes us through the natural history of previous forms of life in the most beguiling way. It makes you think about the past differently and it certainly makes you think about the future differently. This is a monumental work and I suspect it will be a very important book for future generations"
– Ray Mears, Chair of the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing

"The word "original" is really overworked. But Thomas Halliday has produced a book the like of which I have never come across"
– Jeremy Paxman

"An extraordinary history of our almost-alien Earth [...] Epically cinematic [...] The writing is so palpably alive. A book of almost unimaginable riches. It is a book that will make its own solid and lasting contribution. It could well be the best I read in 2022 – and I know it's only January"
– James McConnachie, Sunday Times

"A poet among palaeontologists"
– David P. Barash, Wall Street Journal

"A mesmerising journey into those vast stretches of Earth's pre-history that lie behind us, on such a scale that you experience a kind of temporal vertigo just thinking about it [...] [Halliday is] a brilliant writer, his lyrical style vividly conjuring myriad lost worlds [...] It's obviously a bit of a gamble choosing one's Book of the Year in March – but there's a very good chance already that mine will be Otherlands. Stunning"
– Christopher Hart, Mail on Sunday

"An impressive, tightly packed, long view of the natural world. In cinematic terms, this book would be a blockbuster [...] Riveting scientific reading; a remarkable achievement of imagination grounded in fact"
– NJ McGarrigle, Irish Times

"An immersive world tour of prehistoric life [...] Halliday never loses sight of the bigger picture, nimbly marshalling a huge array of insights thrown up by recent research. Each chapter gives not only a vivid snapshot of an ecosystem in action but also insights into geology, climate science, evolution and biochemistry [...] Mind-blowing"
– Neville Hawcock, Financial Times

"A sweeping, lyrical biography of Earth – the geology, the biology, the extinctions and the ever-shifting ecology that defines our living planet"
– Adam Rutherford, BBC Radio 4 Start the Week

"Superb [...] [An] epic, near-hallucinatory natural history of the living earth [...] Dazzling"
– Simon Ings, Telegraph

"Remarkable [...] Ingenious [...] A work of immense imagination [...] rooted firmly in the actual science"
– Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

"A fascinating journey through Earth's history [...] [Halliday] is appropriately lavish in his depiction of the variety and resilience of life, without compromising on scientific accuracy [...] To read Otherlands is to marvel not only at these unfamiliar lands and creatures, but also that we have the science to bring them to life in such vivid detail"
– Gege Li, New Scientist

"Riveting [...] An intense and imaginative reading of fossils as runes that tell us about our own times, and possible future. Halliday is a Time Lord at heart, eager to lead us back to, say, the Permian or Oligocene epochs and unpack their lessons for 21st Century humanity. For all its scholarship, this is a very readable book, full of literary reference and accessible metaphor. Otherlands is also a wise manual for adaptive change rather than a prophecy of inevitable doom"
– Matthew D'Ancona, Tortoise

"Thomas Halliday offers a 550m-year tour of the incredible diversity of life that has existed on our planet [...] Halliday's trick is to tell his story in reverse. The first hominids exit early; the continents merge and drift and merge again; the sounds of the cretaceous forest fall silent as we pass beyond the evolution of birdsong. Life retreats from land to ocean, and the first eyes give way to the sightless world of the Ediacaran, an alien realm of crawling beings"
– David Farrier, Prospect

"A brilliant series of reconstructions of life in the deep past, richly imagined from the fine details of the fossil record [...] A real achievement [...] Reading Halliday's book is as near to the experience of visiting these ancient worlds as you are likely to get"
– Jon Turney, Arts Desk

"Writing with gusto and bravado [...] Halliday has honed a unique voice [...] Otherlands is a verbal feast. You feel like you are there on the Mammoth Steppe, some 20,000 years ago, as frigid winds blow off the glacial front [...] Along the way, we learn astounding facts"
– Steve Brusatte, Scientific American

"Vivid [...] An intricate analysis of our planet's interconnected past, it is impossible to come away from Otherlands without awe for what may lie ahead"
– Amancai Biraben, Independent

"Halliday takes us on a journey into deep time in this epic book, showing us Earth as it used to be and the worlds that were here before ours"
– 'The Hottest Books of the Year Ahead', Independent

"This is a piece of nature writing that covers millions of years, from the very start of evolution, while capturing the almost unthinkable ways geography has shifted and changed over time. Epic in scope and executed with charming enthusiasm, Otherlands looks set to be a big talking point for fans of non-fiction in 2022" 
– 'The 15 New Novels And Non-Fiction Books To Read In 2022', Mr Porter

"Palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday embraces a yet more epic timescale in Otherlands: A World in the Making, touring the many living worlds that preceded ours, from the mammoth steppe in glaciated Alaska to the lush rainforests of Eocene Antarctica. If you have ever wondered what sound a pterosaur's wings made in flight, this is the book for you"
– 'The best science books coming your way in 2022', New Scientist

"Full of wonder and fascination, exquisitely written, this is time travel of spectacular dimensions – a journey into our planet's evolution and the world in which we live. A compellingly important read"
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding

"The best book on the history of life on Earth I have ever read"
– Tom Holland, author of Dominion

"Thomas Halliday's debut is a kaleidoscopic and evocative journey into deep time. He takes quiet fossil records and complex scientific research and brings them alive – riotous, full-coloured and three-dimensional. You'll find yourself next to giant two-metre penguins in a forested Antarctica 41 million years ago or hearing singing icebergs in South Africa some 444 million years ago. Maybe most importantly, Otherlands is a timely reminder of our planet's impermanence and what we can learn from the past"
– Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature

"Deep time is very hard to capture – even to imagine – and yet Thomas Halliday has done so in this fascinating volume. He wears his grasp of vast scientific learning lightly; this is as close to time travel as you are likely to get"
– Bill McKibben, author of Falter

"An absolutely gripping adventure story, exploring back through the changing vistas of our own planet's past. Earth has been many different worlds over its planetary history, and Thomas Halliday is the perfect tour guide to these past landscapes, and the extraordinary creatures that inhabited them. Otherlands is science writing at its very finest"
– Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins

"Otherlands is one of those rare books that's both deeply informative and daringly imaginative. It will change the way you look at the history of life, and perhaps also its future"
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

"This stunning biography of our venerable Earth, detailing her many ages and moods, is an essential travel guide to the changing landscapes of our living world. As we hurtle into the Anthropocene, blindly at the helm of this inconstant planet, Halliday gives us our bearings within the panorama of deep time. Aeons buckle under his pen: the world before us made vivid; the paradox of our permanence and impermanence visceral. Wonderful"
– Gaia Vince, author of Transcendence

"Stirring, surprising and beautifully written, Otherlands offers glimpses of times so different to our own they feel like parallel worlds. In its lyricism and the intimate attention it pays to nonhuman life, Thomas Halliday's book recalls Rachel Carson's Under the Sea Wind, and marks the arrival of an exciting new voice"
– Cal Flynn, author of Islands of Abandonment

– Andrew Robinson, Nature

"This study of our prehistoric earth is "beyond cinematic", James McConnachie says. "It could well be the best book I read in 2022"
– Robbie Millen and Andrew Holgate, Books of the Year, Sunday Times

"It's phenomenally difficult for human brains to grasp deep time. Even thousands of years seem unfathomable, with all human existence before the invention of writing deemed 'prehistory', a time we know very little about. Thomas Halliday's book Otherlands helps to ease our self-centred minds into these depths. Moving backwards in time, starting with the thawing plains of the Pleistocene (2.58 million – 12,000 years ago) and ending up in the marine world of the Ediacaran (635-541 mya), he devotes one chapter to each of the intervening epochs or periods and, like a thrilling nature documentary, presents a snapshot of life at that time. It's an immersive experience, told in the present tense, of these bizarre 'otherlands', populated by creatures and greenery unlike any on Earth today"
– Books of the Year, Geographical

"Each chapter of this literary time machine takes us further back in prehistory, telling vivid stories about ancient creatures and their alien ecologies, ending 550 million years ago"
– The Telegraph Cultural Desk, Books of the Year, Telegraph

"The largest-known asteroid impact on Earth is the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but that is a mere pit stop on Thomas Halliday's evocative journey into planetary history in Otherlands. Each chapter of this literary time machine takes us further back into the deep past, telling vivid stories about ancient creatures and their alien ecologies, until at last we arrive 550 million years ago in the desert of what is now Australia, where no plant life yet covers the land. Halliday notes the urgency of reducing carbon emissions in the present to protect our settled patterns of life, but adds: "The idea of a pristine Earth, unaffected by human biology and culture, is impossible." It's an epic lesson in the impermanence of all things"
– Steven Poole, Books of the Year, Telegraph

"The world on which we live is "undoubtedly a human planet", Thomas Halliday writes in this extraordinary debut. But "it has not always been, and perhaps will not always be". Humanity has dominated the Earth for a tiny fraction of its history. And that History is vast. We tend to lump all dinosaurs, for example, into one period in the distant past. But more time passed between the last Diplodocus and the first Tyrannosaurus than has passed between the last Tyrannosaurus and the present day. A mind-boggling fact. This is a glorious, mesmerising guide to the past 500 million years bought to life by this young palaeobiologist's rich and cinematic writing"
– Ben Spencer, Books of the Year, Sunday Times

"A book that I really want to read but haven't yet bought – so I hope it goes into my Christmas stocking – is Otherlands: A World in the Making by Thomas Halliday. It sounds so amazing – a history of the world before history, before people. He's trying to write the history of the organisms and the plants and the creatures and everything else as the world grows from protozoic slime or whatever we emerged from. It sounds like an absolutely incredible effort of imagination. I think that Christmas presents should be books you can curl up with and get engrossed in and transported by – and Otherlands sounds like exactly that"
– Michael Wood, Books of the Year, BBC History Magazine

"But, of course, not all history is human history, Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday, casts its readers further and further back, past the mammoths, past the dinosaurs, back to an alien world of shifting rock and weird plants. It is a marvel"
– Books of the Year, Prospect

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