Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hybrids - Robert J. Sawyer

I was hoping to finish Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax in 2009 and I have managed in the nick of time. This is going to be the last review of the year. Hybrids continues the story of Sawyer's parallel Neanderthal populated world he began to reveal in his award winning novel Hominids. I thought Hominids was an interesting novel but the sequel Humans turned out to be not nearly as good. I'm afraid Hybrids doesn't manage to get us back to the level of Hominids. It's a decent read but he takes some elements introduced earlier in the trilogy too far to be believable. Before reading any further, be advised I have some things to say about this book that could be considered spoilers.

The political disaster in the second book that almost lead to the permanent closure of the connection between our own earth and the Neanderthal world has been successfully averted. Some of the most highly regarded Neanderthal scientists, artists and philosophers have crossed over to freely share their knowledge with humans and see what they can learn in return. Almost everybody seem happy with the way events have turned out yet some people remain cautious. Neanderthal society is very different from ours, its technology could threaten a number of liberties western society takes for granted.

Mary in the mean time is trying to figure out how to deal with her relationship with Ponter. He may be a wonderful man, he does come with ties to a man-mate as well as two daughters. She may be liberal by the standard of the catholic faith, there are some elements in Neanderthal society she finds very hard to accept. And there is another problem. Mary has proven Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal are genetically different species. They will never be able to have children the natural way. There is a piece of Neanderthal technology that could help them but it has recently been banned by the Neanderthal government. Mary intends to find it anyway.

As with the previous two volumes, Sawyer stuffs a lot of science and speculation into this work. We find out more about Neanderthal society, which in some ways seems to perfect to be true. On the other hand this is the third book, Sawyer is already committed to most of those elements in the story at this point. There is a quite a bit on genetics and also a lot of speculation on the way the human brain works. One of the researchers Mary and Ponter meet studies the areas of the brain that are associated with religious experiences. She is even able to activate these parts of the brain in a controlled experiment. Ponter shows no reaction at all, Neanderthals seem to lack whatever it is that makes Homo Sapiens religious.

As with the previous volumes I thought a lot of the scientific ideas presented in the book very interesting. I am not thrilled by how he used two of these elements however. The first one is the piece of Neanderthal technology that allows one to sequence DNA and RNA one base pair at a time if you so desire. I was completely baffled by Mary's naiveté in this matter. How can the truly enormous potential for abuse be so completely ignored by a trained geneticist? Science is not the main thing on Mary's mind in this book but certainly all those years of training should kick in at some point. Handing over banned technology to someone who has spend his life trying to outsmart the Russians in war game scenarios is simply beyond stupid.

The second thing that really bothers me about the story is the storyline dealing with the scientific explanation of religious feelings. I am not religious myself, in fact, I think there is something to say for the Neanderthal view on such matters presented in this book but I think it could have been dealt with in a slightly more subtle fashion. The reduction of a religious experience to a series of electromagnetic pulses in the brain on an experimental scale will not sit well with some people, the massive scale on which this occurs at the end of the novel under the influence of fluctuations the earth's magnetic field, seems to be almost deliberately provocative. Now there is nothing wrong with making people think about these things, it is a science fiction novel after all, but I fail to see why the story needs this epilogue. Mary is rapidly loosing faith in the Catholic church this book, the epilogue seems designed to drive the point home. She was right to doubt.

Despite its flaws I did enjoy reading the Neanderthal Parallax and its final volume Hybrids at some level but I very much doubt they represent Sawyer's best work. Hybrids is a fast paced novel rich in ideas and scientific concepts but with a rather unlikely plot. I guess it shows that it takes more than a good premise and fascinating ideas to write a really good science fiction novel. If you are like me, unable to put down a trilogy once you started, then this book is very readable but I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone less stubborn.

Book Details
Title: Hybrids
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 396
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-4675-9
First published: 2003

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