Hugosauriad 3.5: Far-seer by Robert J Sawyer – a fore taste of the Cretaceous

In 1992 Robert J Sawyer’s novel of dinosaur astronomy Far-Seer won the Best Science Fiction novel in the HOMer awards (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ay.cgi?22+1992). Ah, you are looking at me blankly. OK, the HOMer awards were an award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Forum on CompuServe. Ah, I see a faint glimmer of recognition. CompuServe? Come on, it wasn’t that long ago. It got bought up by AoL and Netscape?

Our journey has taken us to the 1990s and while the internet (and fannish activities on the internet) predate this decade, the importance and influence of the net was beginning to be felt. Compuserve was, at one point, a predominate internet service provider, with its own easy-to-use eco-system. It’s system of forums was one of the most popular aspects of the system and somehow those forums managed to carry on until 2017, long past the point that Compuserve as a company had any name recognition left.

The explosion of the internet and the World Wide Web through the 1990s would create not just new ways for fans to interact but new kinds of fandom and new ways of consuming media. That very explosion would ironically lead to a rapid decline in relevance for Compuserve but in 1992 with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, Compuserve was one of the biggest players.

Robert J Sawyer presents an interesting challenge for this project in terms of trying to chop it up into Mesozoic periods. His Hugo win for Best Novel was in 2003, a year I’ve arbitrarily put into the Cretaceous. To add to the confusion of a changing culture, his winning novel Hominids was published in serial form in Analog Magazine — which is as about as old-school a way to win a Hugo as possible.

Luckily, back in the geological sphere the Jurassic and Cretaceous themselves lack the clarity of a mass extinction to define their mutual boundary. So Sawyer works within the analogy: a harbinger of a future era in an earlier one.

Sawyer was (is…obviously he is still very much around) very online.

“Yes, I was lucky enough – or prescient enough – to be the first science-fiction writer in the world and the first Canadian author of any type to have a website.  I’d been an early adopter of the online world, back when the Internet was only accessible really through university computer-science departments…By 1986, I was heavily involved with CompuServe, an early dial-up online service, so much so that within a few years the command “Go Sawyer” would take you to CompuServe Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature forum…I’d also become one of the sysops – system operators, or administrators and discussion leaders – of CompuServe’s forum devoted to WordStar, the word processing program I used then and still use now. “

https://sf-books.com/2017/02/17/robert-j-sawyer-interview/

Sawyer was not the only online science-fiction writer but it he was an early adopter and also an early template for the online, social-media using, self-marketing author that these is commonplace. By 1998, Sawyer was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America but his time in the role was beset by controversy and he resigned from the position before his term was over.

So it isn’t surprising to see that Far-Seer would win an award given out by a fan community (the aforementioned Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Forum on CompuServe) in which he was active (so active that as he notes above the command “Go Sawyer” would take you to the forum). How much impact did that have on wider fandom? Well Far-Seer was not a Hugo Award finalist but it was on the post-award long list. That raises a different question of course: did it deserve to be a finalist?

I think, the simple answer is no. It is not a great novel but it also not a work that looks out of place for a non-finalist nominee. Indeed, it is very much the epitome of a science-fiction novel that is a big bucket of flaws but which is nevertheless quite enjoyable and easy to like.

Afsan is an apprentice astrologer for the royal court and is also a dinosaur, one of a whole society of dinosaurs called Quintaglios. The setting is on a small continent with a kind of medieval/renaissance period civilisation of Quintaglios. They have a complex religion, a monarchy and system of astrology whose role is to provide advice to the monarch.

Afsan’s future is changed utterly when he begins two key rights of passage for a young Quintaglios. Firstly he must complete a ritual hunt (something he does with surprising effect) and secondly he must complete a voyage to see the face of god.

It is on this second trip that he gets an opportunity to use a far-seer i.e. a telescope — a newly invented device for his society. His knowledge of astronomy and his excellent reasoning powers lead him to a whole set of dramatic conclusions. Firstly he realises that planets and moons are worlds, then that worlds are spherical and in some kind of complex set of orbits around the sun. However, it is his final realisation that is most shattering: the face of god is simply that of another planet — a vast planet about which Afsan’s world is orbitting.

The actual setting for Far-Seer (revealed in quick succession by Afsan’s deductions) is an Earth-like moon orbiting a gas giant. The moon present one face to the planet, hence why the gas giant is only visible at sea and requires a voyage to witness it. How the dinosaurs got there and why is not dealt with in this first novel in a series.

Along with being a prodigy and a dino-Gallileo (indeed a remarkably rapid Gallileo who gets by without a dino-Copernicus and is on his way to being a dino-Kepler), Afsan is also caught up in a chosen-one style prophecy among a supressed cult. The cult is an older Quintaglios religion that was supplanted by worship of the face of god and which is eager to re-establish itself.

The revelations and deductions are simplistic and heavily signalled in advance. Afsan paradoxically gets to be a kind of rationalist hero and also a fantasy-trope style chosen one foretold by prophecy. Yet, the setting and unconventional hero creates something that feels both clever and original: a kind of classic fantasy story but for rationalists and atheists.

It would have made a good book for older children except for some of the extreme violence, torture and a significant sex scene. Of course we’ll be encountering more dino-sex in the next section of this project but Far-seer can justifiable be listed in the annals of award nominated dino-erotica.

Award worthy? It isn’t a book I’d vote for in the Hugo Awards. The characters lack depth and the story is very predictable despite the novel setting. Yet is is very readable and I have to say I did enjoy how Sawyer conveys Afsan’s excitement about his discoveries.

Far-seer also presents us with yet another entry in our examples of dinosaurs symbolically connected with atheism and revolution. In Afsan’s case he rejects his previous conception of god and is the catalyst for a multi-fold revolution (as in a revolution of ideas, a social revolution, a political revolution and an actual violent revolt).

Connecting dinosaurs with atheism makes sense in retrospect but it is not something I initially expected to see so often in dinosaur fiction. That dinosaurs work symbolically as a marker for concepts of evolution and change maybe why we keep encountering questions about both god and sudden change. Having said that creationists often accept the existence of dinosaurs and regard them as creatures that died in the flood.

The revolution aspect is stranger to me. I can see how our modern shift in understanding of the extinction of the dinosaurs is associated with catastrophic change. Earlier conceptions of the dinosaurs was of creatures who had been out-evolved and which had been replaced by ‘better’ creatures. Discoveries in the second half of the twentieth century have shifted that perception to one of dinosaurs being a highly successful group of creatures whose extinction was more due to a chance event. Perhaps it is this shift that leads to them being associated with rebellion and change? If so, then it is interesting that our first revolutionary dinosaur in this project is in a Case of Conscience in the 1950s.

Change happens and the nature of that change is not always clear. Compuserve itself faced extinction in a rapidly evolving world. Publishing more generally was already deep into a process of change by the 1990s with changes in information technology. People were already experimenting with formats for electronic books in this same time period. But we aren’t at the end of an era quite yet…

Next time: It’s about time we had a look at the Best Dramatic Presentation category: Jurassic Park!

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28 responses to “Hugosauriad 3.5: Far-seer by Robert J Sawyer – a fore taste of the Cretaceous”

    • Way beyond my knowledge and long before I knew what the SWFA was but as I understand it he sacked a long-term member of staff(?) He was also trying to push through a series of reforms.
      I’ve no idea if he was a valiant reform fighting bitter resistance or somebody who just rubbed lots of people up the wrong way or something in between. However, I believe he’s the only SWFA president to have resigned mid way.

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    • frasersherman: So what was the issue with Sawyer’s SFWA tenure?

      There are some clues here.

      He promoted:
      – accepting non-U.S. English-language publications for SFWA membership qualification
      – allowing e-publications to count toward SFWA membership qualification
      – adding a Nebula category for Best Script
      – adding free life associate membership for members of 30+ years
      – reducing the quorum for by-law changes from 2/3 of voting membership to a simple majority
      – requiring periodic re-qualification for membership
      – eliminating the Nebula juries
      – allowing gaming publications to count toward SFWA membership qualification

      Several of these seem to be pretty obviously the sort of thing which would be contentious. Of all these, it appears that requiring periodic re-qualification for membership was the most hugely contentious. Extrapolating from archived Usenet discussions, it seemed that Sawyer wanted to get rid of the authors who were no longer producing and those who had only just managed to qualify for membership and weren’t likely to get enough sales to requalify, in order to make the organization more “professional”, while also opening the organization up to successful authors of less traditional forms, i.e., gaming and e-pubs.

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      • Thanks JJ, that clarifies it.
        As an associate member whose sales only occasionally hit the “qualifying” market level, I can’t say I’d be thrilled at having to requalify.

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  1. I’ve only read Sawyer’s trilogy that started with Hominids, but I am haunted by one particular bit that has aged as poorly as possible, where a rape survivor is running through a mental list of gentle, trustworthy men and includes Bill Cosby…

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    • Reminds me of reading a nonfiction book written about five years ago. It mentions in passing that Harvey Weinstein was the prime mover behind the “let Roman Polanski return to America” campaign, which did not have the significance at the time that it does now.

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    • Hominids was an abomination; the appalling rape subplot served as rationale for why the main character would be attracted to a relationship with a Neanderthal rather than a Homo Sapiens. The highly-intelligent woman scientist also being heavily-religious was an additional killer for me. I am absolutely sure that the Worldcon being in Canada was contributory to its otherwise-unfathomable Hugo win.

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  2. Hominids’ Hugo win in 2003 is one of the most baffling choices in the past 2000 Hugo Awards, together with Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. Of course, that was in the middle of the early 2000s draught period, when I mostly disliked the Hugo finalists and many winners. And the 2003 best novel ballot was weak, but The Scar by China Mieville would have been a better choice and while I’m no fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s, a win for The Year of Rice and Salt wouldn’t have been baffling either. Bones of the Earth would have been better as well, plus it is a Hugosauriad contender. I have to admit that I’ve never heard of Kiln People by David Brin.

    Regarding Spin in 2006, the Hugo voters reliably picked the most forgettable book from a pretty good ballot. Old Man’s War, A Feast For Crows and Learning the Wolrd would all have been better and while I don’t like Accelerando, it still has held up better than Spin.

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      • Actually, that was my thought, too, when I read that Sawyer had a big online following at a time when that was less common. Ditto for John Scalzi a few years later, who promptly got a Hugo nomination for his debut novel, something which is pretty rare. Of course, Old Man’s War is a good book and one that has held up pretty well, but the fact that Scalzi was a pioneering blogger certainly had something to do with it.

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      • It’s also possibly significant that in 2003 Worldcon was located in Toronto, which guaranteed a lot of Canadian fans showing up… and while the travel industry was still recovering from 9/11, which made a lot of U.S. and other international fans NOT show up. Not saying there was active nationalism involved, but Sawyer is a great talent at self-promotion, and he’d been to a LOT of Canadian conventions, so he was a known figure for a lot of the people local to the Worldcon that year.

        What with 2003 being post-9/11, the same year as the big blackout that hit the eastern parts of North America, as well as the same year that both SARS and the West Nile Virus were seen in Toronto, all combined with the fact that WorldCons outside the U.S. almost never have the attendance of those inside, the 2003 Worldcon was unfortunately also rather poorly attended. It beat the two recent Aussiecons and Nippon 2007, but that’s about it.

        (And, hey, I used to have a CompuServe account myself back in the day. ‘The Day’ meaning you had to find a special local access number to get onto a small network that would let you connect to CompuServe from Canada, because they didn’t have non-U.S. numbers.)

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      • I don’t think there are any shenangigans involved here. Sawyer was nominated and won fairly. I’m simply puzzled why, even if 2003 was a weak year with weak finalists. Though there were several good books that came out in 2002, e.g. Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold, The Praxis by Walter John Williams, Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin, Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris, Summer Knight by Jim Butcher, The Skinner by Neal Asher and that’s just from my own collection.

        Though come to think of it, Canadians tend to nominate/vote for their own countrypeople, which not all non-US WorldCons do, e.g. the Nippon WorldCon had not a single Japanese winner and while Helsinki had two (I think) Finnish finalists, none of them won.

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      • The ‘he wouldn’t have won if the con had been anywhere other than Toronto’ comments started pretty much immediately after the results were announced that year. This included comments by people in Toronto who had known him for over a decade.

        He’s local (Mississauga) and as I noted, self-promotion is something he’s good at: he shows up at pretty much all the nearby cons, and has for years. (The first time I met him was in 1991 when he was Guest of Honour at Wilfcon in Waterloo, Ontario; Wilfcon was never a particularly massive convention.) Basically, even relatively casual fans in the area would know of him. And name recognition affects things like this.

        Me, I tend to think his better work is more in the story bible and script-writing side of things, such as Flash Forward the TV series, Charlie Jade, etc. Places where he can focus on the big ideas he so obviously loves rather than the more workman-like prose.

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        • Sawyer’s novels tend to have a wide variability, from excellent to okay to crap. I thought Rollback, Triggers, Mindscan, and Calculating God were excellent, Quantum Night and Flash Forward were good, The Terminal Experiment and his WWW series were okay, and Hominids and Humans were absolutely execrable. I can’t bring myself to read his dinosaur series, it just sounds awful.

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  3. “I have to admit that I’ve never heard of Kiln People by David Brin.”

    Too long but mostly harmless fluff.

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  4. That said, after 2002’s Kiln People there was a ten year hiatus before Brin’s next book, Emergence, was published. There is a marked difference in the pace at which new Brin books appeared between 1980 – 2002 (13 novels and two collections in 22 years) and 2003 – 2019 (one novel and two collections in 16 years). Bit of a pity for Brin fans but it does leave him more time to show up and shout at people in comments.

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