Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Fossil Hunter" by Robert J. Sawyer (Science Fiction, some spoilers)

This is an early Sawyer novel, originally published in the early nineties. It is the second book of the Quintaglio Ascension, a trilogy of books. These stories take place on an alien world inhabited by a race of intelligent dinosaurs, descended from dinosaurs from Earth.

The novel follows Toroca, son of Afsan. Afsan was the central figure in the first novel, "Far-Seer," and is also an important character in this novel. Toroca is a geologist who has made some fascinating finds in the fossil record. He also embarks on a journey that takes him to places no Quintaglio has seen before, and he finds forms of life previously unobserved.

While this is happening, Afsan must cope with the deaths of two of his children, who are found violently murdered. This is a very unique situation for two reasons. All of Afsan's children were allowed to live, which is unusual. Normally bloodpriests kill all but one hatchling from each clutch of eight eggs. Secondly, murder outside of territorial challenges is very uncommon in Quintaglio society.

But it turns out that Afsan isn't the only person whose children escaped the culling. His friend, Emperor Dybo, has living siblings. The scandal that erupts when this is exposed results in a call for a new culling, but something appropriate for adult Quintaglios, rather than the usual bloodpriest.

These three plotlines - Toroca's discoveries and the theories he develops, Afsan's investigation of the murders, and Dybo facing the culling, are all interwoven in ways that support the main theme. It's all about evolution, but more than one kind. There's natural selection, of course, but the story also grapples with the issue of deliberately guided evolution, when a society tries to steer its own direction. The ethics of this raise huge issues, difficult to contemplate. The novel shows some of the positive and negative things about the Quintaglios' particular methods of selection, but also shows why they may need to change.

The book also has some comments on other issues. Like, there's a paragraph at the end of a chapter that talks about how a leader has to do the right thing, and not just have brains and brawn. There is a lot of truth in this. Some societies throughout human history have had some of the greatest intellects and power, through superior technology. Sadly, some such societies have also been some of the most brutal and inhumane. We all marvel at ancient Roman engineering - yet this was a society that practiced crucifixion and decimation. Or consider World War II. The Nazis had technology nobody else had, because they had the engineering prowess to develop it. But what did they use it for?

Or, near the end of the book, Afsan's son Toroca is to be appointed by the emperor to a special position, which Afsan and Dybo know Toroca probably won't want. And there's a comment about how that makes him particularly qualified for the job. There's a lot of truth in that, too. Some jobs, especially those involved in serving the public, are sometimes sought by those who only want power and prestige for themselves. Those who wouldn't want such a job as much, may well be better choices, because they will try to do the job properly for the common good, not personal gain.

This book also has some nice, small touches that reflect the larger themes, like Toroca's relationship with a colleague that he hopes will become more than professional. But this proves difficult because her feelings about herself, and being different. Toroca, however, is different himself, and has come to understand the evolutionary value of genetic variability.

Obviously, genetic variability would be severely restricted by the culling. See, all the main ideas in the novel tie together so neatly, and that's one thing I always like about Sawyer.

So, once again, I read a Sawyer novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended!