Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner, by Robert J. Sawyer – Book reviews by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Here’s one for the scalies! Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer. Originally written for Quentin Long’s Anthro Magazine.
Far-Seer, by Robert J. Sawyer. Map by Dave Dow.
NYC, Ace Books, June 1992, paperback 0-441-22551-9 $4.99 ([6 +] 257 [+ 1] pages).
Fossil Hunter, by Robert J. Sawyer. Map by Dave Dow.
NYC, Ace Books, May 1993, paperback 0-441-24884-5 $4.99 ([6 +] 290 [+ 1] pages).
Foreigner, by Robert J. Sawyer. Map by Dave Dow.
NYC, Ace Books, March 1994, paperback 0-441-00017-7 $4.99 ([8 +] 285 [+ 1] pages).
Science fiction novels about talking dinosaurs are rare. Robert J. Sawyer’s Quintaglio Ascension trilogy is unique in making the dinosaurs the intelligent evolved descendants of Earth’s tyrannosaurs on an extra-solar planet where they have created their own civilization, which is about to end if they do not discover space flight soon and leave their doomed world.
Unlike other series that consist of a popular original novel followed by its sequels, Sawyer planned his Quintaglio novels as a series from the start. They may be considered as a single novel in three parts, then.
The Quintaglio Ascension was very popular. Far-Seer and Fossil Hunter won the HOMer Award in 1992 and 1993, on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Forum on the CompuServe Information Service. All three were agreed in s-f discussion groups as deserving further awards, and Far-Seer was reprinted in hard covers by the Science Fiction Book Club. The Canadian Sawyer was invited as a Guest of Honor at ConFurence 8 in 1997 because of them (one of the themes of ConFurence 8 was “Reptiles”), and all three were reissued by Tor Books in 2004-’05.
Far-Seer (cover by Tom Kidd) begins with Afsan, the apprentice astrologer under Master Tak-Saleed to Her Luminance Empress Len-Lands, glumly reviewing his experience since he arrived at court. Clearly “astrologer” means “astronomer” as far as Afsan is concerned. The young Afsan had been enthusiastic to learn new facts about his world’s moons and the Face of God from the famous Tak-Saleed, and has been disappointed to find that the latter is an astrologer in fact, ignoring the studying for new information in favor of memorizing the Holy Writ of Tak-Saleed’s predecessors. Just as clearly, Far-Seer is a parable about the experience of Galileo Galilei during the Renaissance. Tak-Saleed even dismisses a far-seer, an early telescope:
“‘I have no use for your toys.’ That was Saleed’s voice, deep, sharp, like a hunter’s polished claws. […] ‘I am an obedient servant of my God,’ replied Saleed, and Afsan could picture the old astrologer raising his wrinkled muzzle haughtily. ‘I don’t need the likes of you to accomplish my work.’” (page 10)
Far-Seer not only depicts Afsan’s world, it depicts the Quintagios and their civilization.
“Quintaglios continue to increase in body size until death, although the rate did slow as time went on. The stranger was about the same size as Saleed – double Afsan’s mass – so Afsan judged him to be approximately the same age as the old astrologer. His green hide, though, showed none of the age mottling Saleed’s did.” (pages 10-11)
“He walked to the mock river and tested the ankle-deep water with his toes. As usual, it was uncomfortably cold, although he had heard tell that when the Empress was to walk here it was heated. Afsan stepped into the channel of water and leaned forward, his torso parallel to the floor, his tail swinging up to balance his weight. He’d never been good at this, and he had to splay his legs slightly to make it work, but it was considered disrespectful to drag one’s tail in the holy water.” (p. 15)
“Yenalb clicked his teeth together a few times to show the remark was meant as a jest.” (p. 17)
“Most people enjoyed killing their own food now and the, Afsan knew, finding it invigorating and cathartic. Some made careers of hunting – Afsan had heard it said that those who might otherwise be too violent for living peacefully with others were often assigned that vocation. But to forego the Ritual Hunt, one of the prime rites of passage, was to never know the camaraderie of the pack, and, therefore, to never really be considered a part of society.” (p. 23)
“Afsan remembered the story of the Galadoreter, blown far out into the River by a storm, unable to land for dekadays. With no way to release the territorial instinct, the crew had fought until everyone aboard had died in a crazed territorial battle. The ship, its decks littered with rotting Quintaglio carcasses half eaten by wingfingers, had blown back to shore near the mining town of Parnood.” (p. 58)
To jump ahead, Afsan’s world is ultimately revealed to be a moon of a gas giant planet that the Quintaglios call the Face of God. The dinosaurs – not just the tyrannosaurs who evolved into the Quintaglios, but many other species – were brought from Earth to this world 65 million years ago by unknown aliens. The aliens performed genetic modifications on the tyrannosaurs to ensure that they would evolve into intelligence while the other dinosaurs would remain prey beasts. But the Quintaglio’s moon is ultimately unstable. The many small earthquakes that Afsan considers normal are a sign of tidal forces that will increase and tear the moon apart.
To survive, the Quintagios must achieve three goals. Far-Seer’s is to end their cultural stasis and start the dinosaurs’ technological advance that will lead to space flight so they can leave their world. That is Afsan’s fate. Fossil Hunter’s is to show the Quintaglios that life has not been created recently by God but is the result of eons of evolution. This is the task of Toroca, Afsan’s son. Foreigner’s is to show the Quintaglio that they are driven not by rational thought but by primitive instinct, and to end the carnosaurs’ instinctual territorial violence and create the social cooperation that will make the evacuation of the moon possible. Mokleb accomplishes this.
Afsan feels useless as Tak-Saleed’s assistant, but being stationed in the palace, even in the basement, has put him in a position to meet and become friends with Prince Dybo, who shares his contempt for learning by memorizing the teachings of the past. Victory in a Ritual Hunt, where Afsan personally kills a thunderbeast [apparently an apatosaur] with his bare claws and teeth, make him a hero. But it is during his traditional pilgrimage tour, together with Prince Dybo aboard the Dasheter, from Capital City at one end of his world’s single continent to the other, that Afsan sees so much through Captain Var-Keenir’s far-seer that he works out the true astronomical relations of his world’s solar system, including its coming doom in about twenty generations. Afsan’s insistence on publicizing what he has found out flies in the face of the Quintaglios’ established religion. Like Galileo, Afsan is ordered to recant. Unlike Galileo, he refuses. The result is tragedy for Afsan personally, and an action-paced climax with everything from riots to building-shattering earthquakes and volcanoes erupting.
Fossil Hunter (cover by Bob Eggleton) begins with a great line: “One of them was going to die.” (p. 3) It takes place a generation after Far-Seer. Emperor Dy-Dybo has officially recognized Sal-Afsan as his advisor. He has made Afsan’s wife Wab-Novato the leader of the exodus project, and his son Kee-Toroca the leader of the Geological Survey of Land to identify what the Quintaglios have got to evacuate with. Toroca, the protagonist, has just made a startling but apparently irrelevant geological discovery: the rock strata of Land contains what he calls the Bookmark layer, of white calcium that stands out from the volcanic rock below it or the sedimentary rock above it. There are no fossils of any kind below the Bookmark layer, and plenty of fossils above. Toroca deduces from this that all life on their world was suddenly introduced at the time of the Bookmark layer; and that this must be the result of intelligent design. (The reader knows that this is so because of inserts into the novel of the “musings” of The Watcher, who brought all life from Earth, called the Crucible, to their moon eons ago.) Meanwhile, the new governor of Edz’toolar province, Dy-Rodlox, plots to overthrow Dy-Dybo and make himself the new emperor of the Quintaglios. Since he is contemptuous of the need to flee into space, this would mean the end of the exodus project. The challenge for rule among the Quintaglios is a physical battle to the death between the tyrannosaurs: Rodlox “lean and muscular, and sharp of mind” versus Dybo “Fat, dull-witted, lazy.” (p. 53)
Fossil Hunter divides into two stories told in alternating chapters: Toroca and his “love interest”, Wab-Babnol, sailing on the Dasheter to the uninhabited frozen southern continent, to explore its geological content; and Dybo and Afsan preparing for the combat with Rodlox before popular controversy over Rodlox’s claim that Dybo is a false ruler undermines the Quintaglio social order entirely. Toroca makes unexpected discoveries about evolution. When Afsan’s children start being murdered – an unthinkable crime among the Quintaglios – Afsan becomes a reptilian blind detective, with his friend Pal-Cadool as his assistant, to find both the murderer and the motive.
Foreigner (cover also by Bob Eggleton) generally got the best reviews of the three. It is set shortly after Fossil Hunter, still featuring Afsan, Novato, Toroca, and their associates; and is told in alternating scenes. Afsan in Capital City is seriously injured, and as his body regenerates, his eyes grow back; but his sight does not come back with them, and he begins to be disturbed by nighttime panic attacks. Novato, working on the exodus project, also has moments of subconscious panic. Toroca and Captain Var-Keenir in the Dasheter, exploring the world for materials to help in the exodus, discover new islands inhabited by intelligent dinosaurs who are not Quintaglios:
“And yet, at the same time, the – the other didn’t look like a Quintaglio at all. The leathery hides of Quintaglios are predominantly green, shaded with yellow and brown, and, in the very old, mottled with black. But this being was almost completely yellow, with gray highlights. And its eyes, rather than being the black of Quintaglio orbs, were pale yellow with gold irises and clearly visible pupils. The earholes […]” (pgs. 17-18)
Keenir is immediately driven to kill the stranger, for no reason that he can explain.
When Afsan complains that the panic attacks are keeping him from sleeping, Dybo recommends that he try the talking cure.
“‘The talking cure is all the rage, so they tell me. A savant named – oh, I can never remember names. Moklub, Mokleb, something like that. Anyway, she’s worked out this system in which people simply talk about their problems and, poof!, they go away.’
Afsan sounded dubious. ‘Uh-huh.’” (p. 22)
Nav-Mokleb has worked out a primitive psychoanalytic process that soothes her patients by reawakening forgotten memories. Afsan’s physician suspects that his inability to see despite his perfectly regenerated eyes is due to hysterical blindness, and also refers him to Mokleb. As the novel progresses, Afsan and Mokleb go through the traditional emotional highs and lows of psychiatrist-patient relationships; Novato makes startling discoveries that mean the violent reversal of all that she has ever known about her world’s existence; and Toroca and Keenir must decide whether to tell the new dinosaurs about the Quintaglios if bringing the two cultures into contact will mean a war of extinction of one or the other, and an end to any hope of evacuating their world before its breakup. Sawyer writes some excellent battle scenes, just before Mokleb’s discoveries about Afsan’s and Toroca’s subconsciouses are extrapolated into facts that change basic Quintaglio culture, just in time to make the exodus possible.
Some reviewers felt that the psychoanalysis that Mokleb invents, and a few Quintaglio proverbs, duplicate too closely those of our world. But on the whole, the three novels of the Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy are very unique and well-thought-out. These three “talking tyrannosaur” novels are rewarding reading for any anthro fan.
– by Fred Patten