The Quintaglio Trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1992-1994, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993) and Foreigner (1994)

Funny animals, dinosaurs.

Funny in the sense that they can lend themselves to a multitude of interpretation; their image in the popular psyche includes things from Barney to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. You can have’em fluffy or bloodthirsty; there’s room for everything in-between. Even intelligent dinosaurs.

With the Quintaglio Trilogy, Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer sets out with big ambitions. He set sout to explore no less than the path to our modern Western scientific mindset by telling us a three-volume story about an alien race (said Quintaglios) gradually discovering the truths of the universe. In the few hundred pages composing the trilogy, they (we) will go from Galileo to space-flight. It’s a lot of stuff, but Sawyer manages it well.

The first book of the trilogy, Far-Seer, is simultaneously the most interesting and the most ludicrous book of the cycle. The narrative structure is familiar; a young protagonist goes on a voyage of discovery that will change him. (The rest of the world will follow) It’s a fine coming-of-age story. Some parts are breathlessly exciting. Unfortunately, this volume doesn’t unfold as much as it is unwrapped by the author. Like most Sawyer novels (although this one is worse than most), Far-Seer relies a lot on suspicious plotting and awfully convenient coincidences. Earthquakes, sudden deaths and leaps of logic happen when they are the most needed.

The other books are less classically definable, but also rely less of Amazing Authorial Plot Tricks. If the first volume is about Galileo, Fossil Hunter is about Darwin and Foreigner is about Freud. You’ll have to supply the ability to believe that all of this happens in less than a century. With protagonists mostly related to one another.

But reading the Quintaglio trilogy only for the story is a bit unfair. For one thing, the characterization is adequate and the style is the usually limpid prose that Sawyer has used with great success in his other novels. Like the author’s other novels, the Quintaglio books are readable in a single sitting, although you might want to make them last a bit further. Scientific details are exceedingly well-researched, which brings us to the biggest virtue of the Quintaglio trilogy: World-building.

The most amazing thing about the Quintaglio trilogy is the way everything holds well together. The world has an impact on the biology, which has an impact on the psychology, which has an impact on individuals… A lot of subtle and unsubtle details show us how the Quintaglio differ from us and how we can emphasize with them. (My favorite is an insult: “Eat Roots!” Pretty offensive statement for a carnivore…!) Despite dealing with beings closely related to our dinosaurs, Sawyer makes them as sympathetic and likable as human characters.

Careful readers of Sawyer’s work won’t be surprised to find that his usual themes of religion and marital problems find their way into the fabric of the Quintaglio trilogy. A concordance of the Quintaglio world is included at the end of the third volume. Very useful material, but contains spoilers so don’t peek ahead. The illustrations by Tom Kidd (Vol.1) and Bob Eggleton (Vol.2-3) are okay. This trilogy cries out for an omnibus edition.

A final comment; the third book’s emphasis on Freud might not go down well with a few readers overly unconvinced by Old Sigmund’s theories. It would be a mistake, however, to assume a one-to-one analogy with our human theories; the Quintaglio way of life is suitably different from ours, and we get the drift that Freud would have been vastly more successful (or at least, accurate) there than here. (In a bizarre coincidence, I read Foreigner while my elective psychology class was studying Freud. Talk about synchronicity!)

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