Science fiction, if nothing else, gives writers a great deal of latitude in being far-fetched. But it is all too possible to abuse the privilege. The first of many of Robert Sawyer's novels to deal with his love of all things prehistoric, End of an Era asks far too much of your suspension of disbelief before going all out and declaring war on your intelligence. It's capably written in that bestseller style with which Sawyer seems to have such a facility. But it also provides abundant pointers as to why so many hard SF readers simply cannot stand Sawyer.
Essentially the story is this: time travel has been invented, through a process that Sawyer does not bother to explain because it isn't necessary to set up the narrative. So, like the "quantum computer" in Hominids that creates a rift between alternate universes (that you can literally crawl through like a manhole), Sawyer's time machine is the kind of "indistinguishable from magic" superscience you'd more likely equate with Sci-Fi Channel TV movies than hard SF novels. Michael Swanwick's similarly themed Bones of the Earth, despite its shortcomings in other departments, at the very least tackled the time travel elements of the story in a much more stimulating and convincing way.
Anyway, two paleontologists go on the first mission back to the late Cretaceous to gather evidence firsthand for what caused the ultimate extinction of the dinosaurs. Brandon "Brandy" Thackeray does not accept the asteroid theory; he is accompanied on the voyage by his cocksure Jamaican pal Klicks (we don't get his real name). Sawyer goes to great lengths to underscore the differences in Brandy's and Klicks' personalities in bold crayon. Brandy is wimpy, indecisive, wracked with guilt over his father's impending death. Klicks is gregarious, smug, overconfident, and banging Brandy's ex-wife. I had a hard time figuring out why these men were even on speaking terms, much less travelling in time together.
Once in the Cretaceous, they find that all the nearby dinosaurs are possessed by symbiotic blobs of intelligent, telepathic Martian goo.
For those of you who haven't already clicked away to another review by now, I suppose it should be said that there are more absurd concepts floating around the genre than that. With End of an Era, however, it's the execution where most of the faults lie. No matter how convincingly Sawyer goes about trying to explain everything afterwards, it remains that the initial scene in which a dinosaur yells "Wait up!" to one of our heroes is one of the biggest unintentional-comedy moments in SF. There is also the simple suspension of disbelief factor. Unless the planet is overrun, isn't it awfully convenient that our time travellers plopped down right in the spot where these Martians have landed to undertake their explorations?
Klicks insists that they must take one of the Martian blobs — called a Het — back into the future with them, because they happen to know that the Het face extinction as surely as the dinosaurs do; Mars is in our time a dead world, after all. Thus it becomes a matter of saving an entire sentient species. Brandy, as with anything else, cannot make up his mind. Thus the second problem with End of an Era I found crippling: a thoroughly unlikable protagonist.
Having a protagonist plagued by doubts and a crisis of confidence is a good thing, such as it goes, but one needs a strong character arc to take place so that reader sympathies are assured. So how does Sawyer have Brandy deal with his weaknesses? He prays.
Your acceptance of this scene will no doubt have much to do with where you stand on religion. As I've confidently said many times, I'm squarely in the non-religious camp. But it isn't solely that the book is depicting a character engaging in a religious activity that annoys me. It's that the scene fails to do what I'm pretty sure Sawyer wants it to do, and that's make me more sympathetic to Brandy. I imagine a religious reader would think that Brandy's asking God for help with all of his problems — and it's a laundry list, I can tell you — is a sign of strength. I see it as just the opposite. By caving in and asking an invisible deity to help take his burdens away, Brandy is essentially surrendering once and for all to his own ineffectuality. His character arc has come and he has failed. He has capitulated utterly to his inner wimp. I suppose religious readers may take offense that that's my opinion, and I apologize, but that is simply the nonreligious viewpoint. To anyone but the devout, prayer is a way believers convince themselves they are doing something about a real problem when they can't do anything real. Give me a character who picks himself up by his bootstraps and fights for himself, his loved ones, and his world any day before you give me someone who drops to his knees in pleading despair — especially when the intellectual justification for the act amounts to little more than a variant of Pascal's Wager.
Sawyer himself seems to take an agnostic view on the notion of gods and the efficacy of prayer, which makes the scene even more offensive, as it now comes across as pandering. In any event, the upshot of it all is that, from that scene forward, I knew I could never like this protagonist, and I no longer cared about his story — even if I had found the whole Martian blobs thing to be handled believably in the first place. Would that this novel had indeed signalled the end of an era with regards to Sawyer's writing career. Then SF would never have had to suffer the indignity of the Hugo going to a book like Hominids. Anyone have a time machine handy?