THE DECHRONIZATION OF SAM MAGRUDER by George Gaylord Simpson; introduction by Arthur C. Clarke, afterword by Stephen Jay Gould (St. Martin's Press: $23; 134 pp). Every kid has imagined it. Suppose you could travel back to the time of the dinosaurs. Suppose you landed in a swamp in the late Cretaceous era, 80 million years ago, stark naked, without a gun or any other supplies. Which would prevail--your big brain and puny body or the little brains and fearsome killing apparatus of such predators as Tyrannosaurus rex?
George Gaylord Simpson, one of the world's most eminent paleontologists, imagined just such a situation in this novella, which was found among his papers after he died in 1984. No longer a kid, Simpson had bigger lizards to fry than comic-strip violence. Using a framework borrowed from H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine"--characters called the Universal Historian, the Ethnologist, the Pragmatist and the Common Man discussing the near-miraculous recovery of stone slabs on which Magruder chiseled his story--he turns an adventure story into a philosophical inquiry. The point isn't so much that Magruder survives for a number of years. Rather, given his total aloneness, the unlikelihood of his ever communicating with another human being again, why should he bother? Should he try to play God and tweak the future, as most heroes of time-travel stories do? Simpson's answers to these questions are thoughtful and engaging.