Hominids, the first book in the Neanderthal Parallax and a novel that won Sawyer a Hugo award, is probably one of his best known works. I had this one lying on the to read stack for more than half a year now and ended up reading a more recent book, WWW: Wake, first. I very much liked WWW: Wake so my expectations were rather high. I guess this is one of those love it or hate it books. It has the potential to piss off just about every person on the planet of for one reason or another. If you manage to keep your anger in check however, there is a very interesting novel underneath. It does lean a bit too much on ideas though.
In Hominids an experiment with quantum computing by two Neanderthal scientists goes awry. One of them, a man named Ponter Boddit, is transported to a parallel dimension and ends up in our universe. He needs to rescued from the Sudburry neutrino observatory by a number of perplexed scientist. He did after all, emerge in a closed room. Geneticist Mary Vaughan is soon called in to determine if Boddit, is indeed what he appears to be, a living breathing Neanderthal man. In the mean time Ponter's partner, Adikor Huld, has his own problems. He faces charges for the murder of Ponter and this is preventing him from figuring out where his partner disappeared to.
This novel is driven by ideas and I must say the concept of a man from an advanced Neanderthal society appearing in our own appealed to me. Sawyer has managed to create a very interesting Neanderthal point of view in the novel. Their society is about as different from ours as you can imagine. This is also the source of lot of criticism on the book. Especially the unusual way in which male/female relationships are organized and the fact that all Neanderthals are in effect bisexual will strike many readers as unrealistic. On top of that Neanderthal society has implemented a system of anti-crime personal surveillances than would make Big Brother jealous. All of the characters seem to be very convinced this system is uses to serve justice, with the data only being made available in case of a suspected crime, but it certainly gave me the creeps. As it turns out, it is not so infallible as many Neanderthal seem to think.
On top of this unusual society Ponter, once in our universe, challenges just about anything we take as a given. From the Big Bang theory to religion, from our judicial system to the minimum age to vote, from population control to our sexual morale, there doesn't seem to be much we do agree on. These challenges are what makes the concept of this book absolutely brilliant. Ponter forces you to rethink everything. If you are overly attached to a particular item he challenges that may cause some readers to dislike the book. Personally I think the necessity to rethink certain ideas is one of the things that make science fiction interesting. This novel contains more challenges than your average science fiction novel so don't say I didn't warn you.
Sawyer has, as usual, done his homework on Neanderthals. There is a lot of speculations about this species still. Scientists don't agree on whether it is a sub-species of Homo Sapiens or a species in it's own right, the don't agree on what caused their extinction, whether they could speak and had language, if they had a religion or even how intelligent they are. There's a lot of research being done so some of the things Sawyer refers to are no doubt out of date already. He's also had to make some choices about what theories to use and which he considers the most likely. The science dealing with our ancestors (or cousins, as seems to be more likely in the case of the Neanderthal) is full of often contradicting theories. On top of that there is also the image of the dumb brute of a Neanderthal dragging his woman (whom he fist clubbed in some sort of mating ritual) in a cave by the hair. Science may not agree on a lot when it comes to Neanderthals but this idea surely is outdated. Sawyer manages to navigate this minefield of perhaps, maybe and inconclusive evidence skilfully to create a scenario that is not unlikely given the knowledge available at the time of the writing. His thorough research notwithstanding, he'd probably be the first to tell you that in a decade the picture might look different altogether.
If you consider science fiction the literature of ideas, you can't get much better than this book. Hominids is so full of ideas and interesting theories than one reading is probably not enough to catch them all. I think it did go at the expense of the story itself though. As you can see I used one paragraph for the synopsis where I usually need two or even three. I felt I couldn't write more without giving the entire plot away. The story is a bit thin. I hope Sawyer manages to create a bit more depth in the following two books in this trilogy. Saywer injected some very interesting ideas but the way his characters deal with sexuality and the choices them make in that respect made me cringe at some points. Hominids is a very good read but from a literary point of few it leaves a few things to be desired. That surprised me a little given the fact that the book won one of the biggest awards in the genre. Still, it is well worth reading. I am most certainly going to dig up the next two book on my next visit to the (online) book store.
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2002