Sunday, November 22, 2009

Humans - Robert J. Sawyer

Humans is the sequel to Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer's Hugo award-winning opening book of the Neantherthal Parallax. Hominids raised a lot of interest because of the concept of a parallel earth where not our ancestors, but the Neanderthals survived to build an advanced society. It was a very strong concept indeed, but I thought the book leaned too much on it to be really exceptional. In Humans Sawyer continues the story of these parallel earths. We get a more in depth view of the Neanderthal world as well as a lot more science and speculations on Neanderthals, the rise of consciousness and our own ancestry.

Adikor's rescue attempt at the end of Hominids enables Ponter Boddit to return to his own universe. The brief connection with his world is closed. For Mary Vaughan it is time to get back to life as usual and return to her job in Toronto. A new college year is about to begin after all. Shortly after her return she is approached with a job offer from an American think tank that is simply too good to refuse. It seems Ponter's visit has gotten her more than 15 minutes of fame and an abruptly terminated relationship after all.

Ponter in the mean time, is arguing for re-establishing the connection to Mary's world. He thinks there is simply to much to gain from contact to ignore the possibility but he soon finds out the conservative Neanderthal elders hard to convince. They see some serious security concerns and there is the question of Ponter's motives. Does he really think the possibilities outweigh the risk or does he just want to see Mary again? After some discussion the elders reluctantly agree to renewed contact and a formal ambassador is appointed to accompany Ponter on his next trip. A trip that will prove eventful for all those involved.

I thought Hominids has a few problems but not enough to distract from the reading experience. Unfortunately Humans amplifies these problems. I love the speculative part of this book but I nonetheless have a major problem with one key plot element. Sawyer speculates that Neanderthals have a much better sense of smell than we do. As I understand it there is some evidence to support that. Ponter seems to possess the sense of smell of a top narcotics dog however, and that raises some questions. Does such a huge increase in a sense of smell not necessitate a larger area of the brain devoted to it? Wouldn't that go at the expense of something else? This increased sense of smell is supposed to be a side effect of the large nasal capacity of a Neanderthal, developed to warm up cold ice age air before it reached to lungs. Would a side effect really increase the sense of smell to such extremes without a clear ecological benefit? I'll admit to not having done any research on it but somehow that doesn't seem likely.

Sex is another issue with this book. There is of course no escaping the question whether or not Neanderthals left their DNA in the current population. This question seems to fascinate both anthropologists and the general public. Based on Ponter's DNA Mary discovers early in the book Neanderthals are a separate species, which puts her relationship with Ponter in a different light for her. It does little to discourage her however, she continues to regard Neanderthals as human. What felt wrong about the relationship between Ponter and Mary is how Ponter is pictured as an ideal man. Both manly and then some but on the other side sensitive and caring. Ponter's society has put sever restraints on violence, it is considered too dangerous given their great physical strength, but does that really suppress aggression or competitiveness of any kind that much? In combination with Mary coming to terms with being raped early in the first book it seems a bit too much.

What I did like about the book was the snippets of Ponter's talks with his personality sculptor (shrink) in which Ponter confesses a crime that is revealed in the final stages of the book. Along the way they also discuss the differences in world view between the humans and Neanderthals. Despite his better judgement Ponter is not entirely convinced the belief in an afterlife and a God that judges all our actions are a fallacy. Personally I lean more towards the Neanderthal view of things but the way Ponter discusses his doubts and how it motivates his actions is very well done.

Humans is quite a fast read and one you'll probably enjoy if you liked Hominids. That being said, it is far from flawless and with the new and exciting concept of modern Neanderthals established in the first book, it does not manage to make up for these flaws as well as Hominids. I liked the scientific speculations Sawyer put in, I liked part of Ponter's character development but there are a number of elements dealing with sexuality and religion that strike me as extremely unlikely. All in all not a brilliant book but good enough to stay on board for Hybrids, the final volume of this series.

Book Details
Title: Humans
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4675-9
First published: 2003


  1. Given that Neanderthals had larger brains than H. sapiens, I think you could fit in a heightened sense of smell.

  2. That is a possibility but the debate on whether Neanderthals had a significantly larger brain or one comparable in size is still raging.