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End of an Era, Robert J. Sawyer, Ace, 1994, 222 pp.
End of an Era is a relatively short novel, but it makes up in audacity of content for what it lacks in length. Sawyer favours the Big Idea approach to science fiction, and this particular book is probably one of his best in that regard. Of Sawyer's other novels, End of an Era most resembles Starplex. This earlier novel is a little more clean and straightforward; Starplex tried to answer about half a dozen cosmological mysteries, while End of an Era sticks to the question: Where did all the dinosaurs go?
The main idea of End of an Era could be summed up in one brief sentence, but it takes 222 pages to do the idea proper justice. If you think that you know the answer to the disappearance of the dinosaurs, then you are in for a jaw-dropping moment of surprise. Sawyer takes an ongoing scientific controversy and jolts new life into the debate. Sawyer is not seriously contending that his version here is what actually happened, but the narrative is well-written, entertaining, and scientifically informed. A tough balance, but Sawyer pulls it off.
Sawyer uses that old cliché, time travel, to deal definitively with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Thankfully, he does not dwell on the mechanics of travelling through time, as this is clearly not the crux of the story, and I was happy to concede this initial premise because he jumps right into the story -- the time travellers are in the age of the dinosaurs by page 12. Two paleontologists make the trip, Miles Jordan (known as Klicks) and Brandon Thackeray. The two are professional rivals, as well as personal -- Brandon's wife Tess left him for Klicks. It's a classic setup and Sawyer handles both the psychological and adventure elements with aplomb. Klicks and Brandon are rational scientists, and it's fascinating to watch them encounter the unpredictable and the strange. By page 40, they are in the middle of a fight with a group of troödons that are acting as if they are under the control of an intelligent being. What could this mean? And why is Earth's gravity in the era of dinosaurs only half of what it is currently?
Sawyer adds a second layer to the story, this one more related to the time travel aspect. While Klicks and Brandon are in the past, the story is told in the first person from Brandon's point of view and the chapters are labelled "Countdown" with an accompanying number that counts down from 19 to 0. At a few junctures in the book, Sawyer includes a chapter called "Boundary Layer." These chapters are also told from Brandon's point of view, but this is a Brandon who lives in a future where the time machine was never invented. Sawyer combines the two types of chapters cleverly, and the extra story also contributes to our understanding of Brandon.
Brandon Thackeray is a believable character, suffering from all the foibles of a normal human. The breakdown of his marriage with Tess is depicted through Brandon's point of view, and the facts are painful. Sawyer also does a solid job of portraying Brandon's intelligence -- Brandon manages to not only keep his sanity in the face of rather bizarre events, but also to understand these events and triumph over the resulting adversity. The byplay between Brandon and Klicks is likely even more crucial to the success of the book than the characterization of Brandon. When the reader is asked to spend over two hundred pages in the company of the same two people, the two characters better be interesting enough to justify the time involved. The psychological drama is not overplayed, and the intensity of feeling is pitched just right. Sometimes the two men seemed to be acting too rationally, more so than anybody I know would in similar circumstances, but that kind of restraint goes along with the territory: characters in a hard science fiction novel often have to stand unmoved in the face of world-shaking events. But Sawyer does keep the people important as much as the ideas of the book, and that's definitely a tough balance.
End of an Era is an excellent book and one of the best of Sawyer's novels to start with if you haven't read any of his books. It might be overshadowed by some of his more recent efforts, but I enjoyed it just as much.
First posted: May 31, 1999; Last modified: February 11, 2004
Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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