[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Are the Quintaglios Too Clever?

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

My Quintaglio trilogy (Far-Seer, Ace, June 1992; Fossil Hunter, Ace, May 1993; and Foreigner, Ace, March 1994) deals with the intellectual coming of age of a race of intelligent dinosaurs. Most readers have embraced the books warmly, which is quite satisfying for me. But a few seem upset that the Quintaglios make progress faster than humans did, going, for instance, in a single generation from Galileo to Darwin.

To me, this reaction has been a bit of an eye-opener. John W. Campbell used to say to his writers, "Give me something that thinks as well as a human being but not like a human being." Some people seem to be genuinely offended by the prospect of something that — migod! — thinks better than a human being.

I always find it funny when people say, gee, we've got one example of an intelligent species, and from that one data point, we can now extrapolate and define the parameters of all possible intelligent species in the universe. That's going way beyond the available data, in my book (pun intended).

There's no doubt that the Quintaglios cover intellectual ground faster than humans do, and this results in a telescoping of events — which, of course is one of the reasons why the first book in the series is called "Far-Seer," the Quintaglio term for telescope. I make no apologies for this: science fiction gives us a suite of literary tools that allow us to do things that couldn't be done in mainstream fiction. Part of the fun of positing the Quintaglios was to be able to discuss the whole Age of Enlightenment as a drama involving a handful of characters and only a few years of time. I chose science fiction as the genre, and the metaphor of alien life as a narrative tool, to magnify and personalize events, highlighting effects that otherwise would get lost in the vast shuffle of history.

Another criticism a few readers have had of the Quintaglio books is the mistaken belief that agriculture is a prerequisite for civilization, and, therefore, no purely carnivorous species could ever develop intelligence.

That's poppycock, of course. Indeed, some anthropologists today are questioning whether agriculture was the catalyst for human civilization, let alone being a universal requirement for any civilization. Rather, according to these thinkers, our civilization developed as an outgrowth of pack hunting.

Let's look at the evolution of the Quintaglios, who (as established in the second volume, Fossil Hunter, trace their ancestry back to Earth and are derived directly from Nanotyrannus, a dwarf form of tyrannosaur).

The Quintaglio novels are set within a million years of the present day (I know exactly when they're set, but that's not something I care to reveal just now). Now, some paleontologists would argue that the most intelligent dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous (65 million years ago) had intelligence comparable to small primates that emerged, oh, say 15 million years ago. That means dinosaurs, in essence, had a fifty million year jump on mammals. It also means that the biological order containing the Quintaglios (theropods) have had fifty million years longer than our order (primates) did to reach a level of civilization comparable to our own.

So, could a territorial, predator-based civilization arise as quickly as a human, agriculture-based one did? Possibly not. Could it eventually arise, with fifty million more years of time to do it in than we took, especially if the animals involved were more intelligent than humans, and already required cooperative pack-hunting as part of their day-to-day lives. Sure, why not?

In Fossil Hunter, when The Watcher observes that the ratio of brain-body size was increasing on a simple curve through geological time, he's in fact saying something that was first observed by Dr. Dale A. Russell, Chief of the Paleobiology Division at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa (and one of the top dinosaurian paleontologists in the world, as well as a consultant to NASA on possibilities for extraterrestrial life).

You can plot this on a graph, and you will indeed find that brains were getting bigger, and thus animals were getting more intelligent without civilization having yet arisen. (Russell, in fact, predicts that if life on Earth survives another 900 million years, average brain/body ratio of the most intelligent creatures on the planet will be six times greater than it is now.)

Big brains are the cause of civilization, not the effect. The Quintaglios just needed to wait until they were sufficiently intelligent to overcome the problems posed by their territoriality before their civilization could arise. Since overcoming that is a problem humans didn't face, it makes perfect sense that their civilization did not emerge until they were in fact more intelligent than human beings are.

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Characterization and Aliens
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