Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
29 September, 2011
I’ve been enthralled by early humans and Neanderthals for a long time and my interest was piqued again after I saw Planet of the Apeman: Battle for Earth on the BBC a few months ago. I used to read up a lot on Richard Leakey and his research when my parents were living in Kenya and it was always fascinating to wonder where we came from, how we evolved, whether there was any interbreeding. I always assumed interbreeding was impossible but now it looks like it isn’t so improbable especially since paleoanthropologists have recently discovered another long lost cousin of ours, the Denisovans. Fascinating stuff.
So while googling Neanderthals, I came across the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer starting with Hominids and just had to read it. Unlike Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which although interesting had many issues which troubled me including the character of Ayla, Hominids is a science fictional take on the Neanderthal question. Humans and Neanderthals exist in parallel worlds and when a quantum computing experiment goes wrong, Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, is transported into the human world with no way back. His partner Adikor Huld is subsequently charged with his murder, even though there is no body, and he is in a race against time to find Ponter and clear his name. At the same time, Ponter is rescued from a heavily protected chamber at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada by human scientists who are stunned to find themselves in the presence of a real, breathing Neanderthal as they try and figure out how he appeared in a completely sealed chamber full of heavy water. Ponter is aided by Reuben Montego, a doctor, Louise Benoît a physics post-doc and Prof. Mary Vaughn, a paleoanthrolopogist.
How intriguing does this premise sound? Hominids indeed addresses some interesting issues regarding the difference between humans and Neanderthals, especially since the Neanderthal society from which Ponter hails is as advanced as modern 21st century human society. I was especially interested to see how Sawyer tackles the complex issues that would arise from thrusting an intelligent Neanderthal, who is also a physicist, into human society. Although he does touch on some extremely interesting theories from quantum physics, cosmology and paleoanthropology, I felt a little underwhelmed by the simplistic nature of the story itself. The characters and hence their interactions are too simplified and, although you are interested in them, there isn’t enough depth to warrant total emotional immersion. I also expected a lot more unpleasantness and prejudice to surface including paranoia and panic on the discovery of the Neanderthal from the government and media as well as the human scientists, but they were all fascinated and sympathetic (really?) from the start.
The most unpleasant bit in the novel was the rape of a female scientist at the beginning of the book which may explain some of her hesitant behaviour in the novel but wasn’t necessary and didn’t really need to be there to show that man is a violent being. The rape scene wasn’t really necessary to make the point. I know there was a huge hoohah about the inclusion of this scene and although it didn’t bother me, I just feel it’s a lazy way of making a point, especially since this novel is neither hard-hitting nor grim.
But what lifts this story is the character of Ponter Boddit who has depth and is a multi-faceted being of whom you would like to know more. I’m not a hundred percent swayed by Sawyer’s vision of an advanced Neanderthal society, although the anthropological and sociological aspects were certainly novel. You can see that a lot of research went into this novel and I think he segues the factual with the fictitious rather well. Hominids was overall an easy to read and fast-paced novel. I think I was expecting just a little more depth to the characters, but then there was a lot of juggling of themes going on here.
One interesting point was the difference in judicial systems and punitive measures against serious crimes. Would weeding out the criminal gene seriously make a dent to crime levels? Sawyer’s Neanderthals certainly thought so, although the humans were horrified by this form of so-called eugenics, whilst Ponter was equally shocked by the amount of serious crime, in this case that the rape was even allowed to happen, in such an advanced society. Thought provoking, no?
Despite the issues mentioned, I am looking forward to reading the next in the trilogy, Humans followed by Hybrids, just to find out more about Sawyer’s Neanderthal world and its interactions with Earth.