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Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer, TOR, 2002, pp.

Hominids is an excellent stand-alone novel that also serves as the starting point for a planned trilogy called The Neanderthal Parallax from Sawyer. On its own, Hominids is a remarkable novel, filled with inventive ideas, fast-moving prose, and memorable characters. The book also does a wonderful job of setting up the next book; the reader is left wanting more but not in a cheap, cliffhanger kind of way.

A quantum-computing accident in an alternate version of Earth sends a Neanderthal to our world. The Neanderthal is named Ponter Boddit and he is an erudite quantum scientist in for quite a shock when he arrives in our dimension. The main human character turns out to be a York University geneticist named Mary Vaughan; early on in the book, she is brutally attacked and raped on the university campus, and she is more than happy to take a trip to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (where Ponter came through) to get away from the scene of the crime. Two other key human characters are Louise Benoit, a neutrino researcher, and Reuben Montego, the company doctor (for the mining company that own the rest of the mine where the Observatory is situated deep underground). Ponterís story in our world becomes a closely observed tale of the stranger in a strange land; Sawyer writes this aspect of the story much more carefully than most other writers, and he is thorough in anticipating the readerís questions and complaints. Ponterís life in a totally different culture is made much easier by the advanced bio-implant that everyone in his society wears. Itís called a Companion, and it has enough advanced computing power to record all snippets of language around it and help Ponter learn how to speak. A few of the other Companion functions become significant in the story that continues on Ponterís world. More on that in a minute. Sawyer also deals with issues of disease, and in a key sequence, how to prove that Ponter came from an alternate version of Earth. The exchange of knowledge continues mostly uninterrupted by the ongoing media frenzy, and soon Mary and Ponter develop a close bond, despite the recent trauma in Maryís life.

Back in Ponterís world, Ponterís research partner Adikor Huld has to deal with Ponterís sudden disappearance. In the complex web of relationships that constitute Neanderthal society, Adikor is also Ponterís male partner; Ponterís female partner Klast died recently, and Klastís female partner Daklar suddenly accuses Adikor of murdering Ponter, for reasons that only come out later in the story. In any case, Adikor has a difficult job ahead of him. For one thing, everyone in Neanderthal society has to prove that their occupation is useful to society and this has effectively stopped any tradition of lawyering from developing (we find this out in a funny aside from Sawyer). Adikor has to defend himself, while still grieving. Daklar cannot produce a corpse in the murder case, but neither can Adikor. The situation is exacerbated by the surveillance functions of the Neanderthal Companion: the Companion creates a video record of everyoneís life, all the time, which is sent to a secure facility and can only be opened by the person in question. But the Companions could not transmit from deep beneath the ground in the quantum computing facility, so it looks like Adikor took Ponter to the one possible location in Neanderthal society where surveillance was blocked, for nefarious purposes. The story of the investigation is relatively light on plot developments, but Sawyer uses it to maximum effect to throw us headlong in Neanderthal society. Very satisfyingly written.

Sawyer has done an enormous amount of anthropological research for this book, and his information is always conveyed gracefully. Usually we learn about Neanderthals in the course of the story, especially as the human researchers compare what happened in our world with Ponterís story of his societyís past. Sawyer has to make some educated assumptions about certain points of anthropology, and these speculations are usually easy to point out in comparison to the accepted facts (this distinction can sometimes be muddied in this sort of story by a careless writer). Sawyer uses Ponterís current Neanderthal society to assemble a sort of checklist of social issues about our world that could be done much better. For example, the surveillance society of the Companions is presented as a good thing, especially in contrast to the despair suffered by Mary -- she decides to not even report her rape because she doesnít think the police will be able to catch the rapist. Neanderthals have no war, no pollution, no extinct species, no overpopulation, no organized religion, and so forth. Sometimes the story feels a bit unbalanced in this regard, despite Sawyerís attempts to make Ponterís world less than a utopia (mostly by way of Adikorís trial).

I should mention the ending. Hominids stands on its own, to emphasize the point again. But Sawyer has to create some interest in the continuing trilogy and he does so very cleverly. This story is self-contained, but it ends with a hint that the next book will be about widespread contact and trade between the two societies. Now that we know about Ponterís world, and how an individual Neanderthal would react, society-wide contact is the logical next step. I am very curious to see what would happen!


Last modified: May 8, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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