Controlled By The Pull Of Another

Far-Seer — Robert J. Sawyer
Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy, book 1


Many science fiction writers (Canadians in particular, because Canada) are not especially outgoing and thus not inclined to actively promote themselves (one reason why I try do that for them.. With one noteworthy exception: a former Waterloo resident and past Edna-Staebler-Writer-in-Residence [1] named Robert J. Sawyer, who, if he ever suffered from this common debility, managed to overcome it. As a result, his online bio is sufficiently voluminous that I find myself paralyzed by choice. What, if anything, to quote? So I will just link to the ten-thousand-word Sawyer version. Enjoy!

1992’s Far-Seer is the first volume in Robert J. Sawyer’s Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy.

The dinosaurs may have perished on Earth, but their descendants live on, on the habitable moon of a distant gas giant [2]. The intelligent carnosaurs known as Quintaglios have no inkling of their past. Indeed, their grasp of the present is shaky. As far as they are concerned, they live on a vast island floating down a vaster river. They do not know that their world is a sphere or that the body their religion worships is the greater world around which theirs orbits.

Apprentice astrologer Afsan will change all that.

Every Quintaglio is expected to complete two quests. The first is a hunt, celebrating their predatory roots. Those who survive the hunt are to go on a pilgrimage to the distant location where the Face of God, venerated by the one true religion, can be seen.

Afsan’s great hunting skills are balanced by his excessive bravery, which means that the outcome of any hunt is a toss-up between success and injury or sudden death. Afsan survives this hunt and now must go on pilgrimage.

Thanks to the captain of the ship who conveys him, Afsan is armed with a device no previous astrologer has had: a far-seer or telescope. He is already aware that there are moons and wanderers in the sky, though he has never seen them through a telescope, only with the naked eye. Imagine his surprise when he finally sees the Face of God, moons, and wanderers in unimaginable detail.

Afsan is shocked to discover that his people’s model of the world is wildly incorrect. The planets are other worlds. The Face of God is a giant planet, of which his world is merely the closest moon. If the ship kept sailing, it would not vanish down an endless river. It would find its way home to the opposite coast of the land from which it set out.

Afsan is not the first astrologer to realize this. What his predecessors realized (and what Afsan is slow to grasp) is that the religious authorities are not going to take kindly to the demotion of Face of God to mere planet. Nor will the Imperial family welcome revelations proving that the prophet who founded their line, whose beliefs are the basis of their rule, was mistaken about the nature of the world.

What Afsan knows (that his predecessors did not) is why it is so important that people understand the nature of their world. They do not just live on the moon of a gas giant; they live on the doomed moon of a giant planet.


The novel’s events are taking place at a historical crux. The Quintaglios learn the true nature of their world just at the point that it is menaced by tidal destruction [2]—but early enough that they have a prayer of escaping, a period that accounts for less than one percent of one percent of the time dinosaurs have been on their adopted world. If we look around our own solar system, we do see doomed moons (Triton for one, Phobos for another) … but most species rise and fall before their moon, or their planet, will meet its nasty end. The Quintaglios have the bad luck to live when destruction is close at hand.

If we can extract any moral from this, is that it is unwise to be a character in an SF or even an adventure novel, because novels require conflict and nothing says conflict like the imminent end of the world.

Afsan manages to cram discoveries and conclusions that took humans years into what appears to be a few weeks. This is not because the book is by modern standards comparatively brief; I can point to shorter books that cover decades or centuries. It’s just that SF usually underestimates the time it takes to go from inspiration to result. If Edison had been an SF character, he would have invented the light bulb within a week of imagining it.

The answer to impending doom is another revered SF trope: all of life’s problems, from TEOTWAWKI to adolescent yearnings, from political oppression to a desire for a career in applied math, can be solved by the application of interplanetary travel.

My memory of this Sawyer series is that each book is inspired by the life of a different Great Thinker in recent Western history. I’m fairly sure that Afsan’s inspiration is Galileo (with a big scoop of Kepler). Not the quarrelsome historical Galileo, but the sympathetic prophet of legend and stereotype. Both versions of Galileo run afoul of Those Darn Priests Who Only Want to Suppress the Truth, but it’s the historical sort of Galileo who makes things much worse by publishing a book that might well have been called Who Are You Going to Believe? Me or Pope Simpleton? The historical Galileo is not a good model for a sympathetic protagonist. It’s hard to get readers to accept a fictional character who does things that actual people have done [3].

This version of Galileo is not only kindly and wise, but also a dinosaur. Sawyer does manage to sketch dinosaur characters who are not just humans in rubber suits. They have their own natures and customs. Naturally I wondered just how the society we are shown could have evolved from roaming obligate carnivores. Herding > periodic trade meets > settled mercantile/manufacturing class > cities? Perhaps. But the Quintaglios’ large size and restricted diet will cap their population at a smaller figure than might be obtained by omnivores or vegetarians. Perhaps this is another plot-related reason for individual dinoscientists to be better at expedited inspiration > result [4]: there will not be that many dinoscientists, so they had better be sharp and fast.

Readers familiar with school versions of Galileo will know the general shape of the story. Bear in mind the historical Galileo never had to tackle the implications of existential threats. And that just because a book is in a series does not mean the protagonist of one will live long enough to figure into the next.

Far-Seer is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Feel free to comment here. Standard make-fun-of-James-for-forgetting-to-come-back-and-add-the-link rules apply.

Please send corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.

1: I hate asking questions when I know that the person I am asking will give me the Look but in this case, I really don’t know what the residence part of being a writer-in-residence entails. What I do know:

In 1996, Kitchener Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence program was established by acclaimed author and library advocate, Edna Staebler. Her generous endowment is intended to provide local writers with the expertise needed to develop their craft, as well as encouragement to “keep at it.”

Past Writers-in-Residence at KPL have included:

Kelley Armstrong
Joy Fielding
Kenneth Oppel
Nino Ricci
Trevor Cole
Elizabeth Ruth
Robert J. Sawyer
Wayson Choy
Lyn Hamilton
Andrew Pyper
Kathy Stinson
John B. Lee
Welwyn Wilton
Katz Betty
Jane Wylie
Jack Batten
Veronica Ross
Janet Lund

1: How this came to be is explained in a later book, as I recall.

2: It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Someone put the dinosaurs on that planet. What I don’t recall is why they picked a world only 65 million years from being destroyed.

3: Did the Darwin analog in the sequel to this novel sit on his results for decades until he was prompted to publish by the threat of a younger man publishing similar results first?

4: People may mock Doctor Dinosaur but note that he, like Afsan, is adept at going from basic idea to application in very little time. The world needs more dinosaur scientists and engineers.

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