The Neanderthal brain was most positively and definitely not smaller than our own; indeed, and this is a rather bitter pill, it appears to have been perhaps a little larger." --William Howells, Harvard, Mankind So Far
Hard science fiction has lately been enjoying a renaissance. As sciences from genetics to quantum physics continue to move forward in great leaps, a genre that once seemed passé is becoming timely. We're finding a number of novels that use recent breakthroughs in science to bring issues to the forefront that are simply too close-to-home now to be ignored. Robert Sawyer's latest novel, Hominids (Tor, 2002) exemplifies this by braving such stormy matters as privacy, religion, and the origins of man. It begins with the discovery of a Neanderthal in our midst.
Deep within the Canadian nickel mine that plays host to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, an inexplicable explosion occurs, and scientists discover a man floating unconscious within a sealed tank of heavy water. How did he get there? The scientists open the tank to save the man before he drowns and discover that the intruder is stranger than they expected. Aside from being unusually large and muscular, he is covered with a fine down of hair, has heavily-ridged eyebrows, a receding jaw line, broad nose, and . . . according to all outwardly visible evidence, appears to be a Neanderthal!
Enter Mary Vaughan, a geneticist, who confirms to the astonished scientists that this man, who arrived so mysteriously, wearing strange clothes and an unidentifiable biotech implant in his arm, is indeed a Neanderthal -- a species of hominid thought to have died out over 17,000 years ago.
With the help of the biotech device, a type of highly personal computer, communication is established, and we're introduced to Ponter Bonditt, Neanderthal and theoretical quantum physicist. This is not a man who has ever lived in a cave or relied upon stone axes to get along. It's eventually decided that Ponter could only have come from a parallel dimension in which homo neanderthalis survived rather than homo sapiens, and created a peaceful, technologically advanced civilization.
Immediately, media and governments around the world express great interest in Ponter. What could easily turn into a feeding frenzy of network personalities and "men in black" scenarios is quashed, thankfully, as the Canadian neutrino lab where Ponter was discovered takes responsibility, and the scientists work to shelter and protect their Neanderthal guest. This also provides them with the enviable opportunity of learning more about Ponter, his world, and how he got here.
Running parallel to Ponter's story are a series of events occurring in the Neanderthal dimension. Deep within an abandoned underground nickel mine located in the exact same location on Earth as the Sudbury site, Ponter's research and life-partner Adikor Huld cannot explain why their experiment in quantum computing resulted in Ponter's mysterious disappearance and his replacement by a small flood of heavy water. Before he can get very far into his investigation, Adikor finds himself under investigation and brought to trial for murder -- Ponter Bonditt's murder.
Robert Sawyer establishes the setup then runs with it.
On our Earth, Ponter Bonditt learns much about how the world turns out with homo sapiens in charge. He's fairly well horrified and fascinated at the same time. Gone are the mammoths and passenger pigeons so common in his world. Present are a multitude of air pollutants that offend his highly acute olfactory sense. Overpopulation seems staggering to Ponter, who wonders how we feed ourselves. Crime runs unchecked in our world, while for Ponter, the concept of war is utterly alien. To him, homo sapiens is an insane race, and it's a wonder how we survived in this world while his people died out.
The people of our world are similarly fascinated by Ponter. Neanderthals, having been more peaceful, interbred more readily in their past and therefore exhibit more homogenous traits than the modern humans of our world. Neanderthal men and women generally live apart -- meeting mostly to mate. Bisexuality is a common practice. But most surprising of all is a total absence of supernatural beliefs. Neanderthals, in Sawyer's creation, not only do not believe in an afterlife, but also have no concept of a supreme being. This would appear to contradict current popular beliefs about primitive religion among Neanderthals, which are based upon archaeological discoveries of Neanderthal remains interred with remnants of garlands and bones arranged in patterns, but Sawyer points out more recent research which disputes many of these suppositions. Likewise, Sawyer points out that there is a distinct lack of solid evidence suggesting that Neanderthals displayed warlike behavior.
The part of the story that takes place on our world focuses mainly on the differences between our world and society and those of the Neanderthals. The part set on Adikor's side of the dimensional wall is more plot-driven as Adikor strives to prove his innocence. If he fails, he and all of his male relatives who share more than half his genetic makeup will be subjected to forced sterilization. In Adikor's half of the story, we see that the Neanderthal world is hardly an Eden. In addition to having a legal system that puts the onus of proof upon the accused, this society has very little in the way of personal privacy. All citizens wear biotech implants that constantly monitor their locations and activities, storing the data in a main computer. This practice is universally accepted in the Neanderthal world. Given this constant monitoring, it seems that crime should be nonexistent. The system isn't perfect, however (as we learn), and it still raises the issue of whether sacrificing privacy for safety is right -- a very timely question in this post 9/11 world.
Adding weight to the privacy issue in Hominids is an event that occurs early in the novel. Mary Vaughan, before being called to examine Ponter's genetic makeup, is suddenly and brutally raped by an unknown assailant near her lab. Rape does not occur in Ponter's society. How could it? People are constantly on record, and violent tendencies are bred out existence by sterilizing the few violent criminals that appear. It's a system that could only exist in a speculative world.
Much of the science in science fiction is of dubious quality -- faster-than-light drives, universal translators and so on -- but it carries along the story's plot and ideas. Sawyer's science sometimes seems to work this way. Whether or not the quantum science in Hominids is real is almost beside the point. It's merely the vehicle that transports Ponter into our world. The technology behind the biotech implant may be generations ahead of our own technology, but it's the conduit for exploring issues of privacy and public safety. Sawyer makes careful use of archaeology and sociology, however, to create a reasonably postulated world of modern Neanderthals not only to show us a world that might have been, but also to allow us to examine ourselves through the eyes of an alien culture.
On the other hand, excessive scientific exposition can turn readers off. Sawyer avoids this problem by relating technical information in an easy-to-swallow manner and weaving it seamlessly into the storyline. Although there's much discussion of studies of early man and quantum mechanics, the reader is never in danger of choking on force-fed information. Better yet, the reader often learns something new, because Sawyer carefully prepares his subject matter using current research and goes to great lengths to make the science used in Hominids accessible to the reader. I don't know quantum mechanics from butterfly wings, but I was still able to follow the arguments in the novel and found them quite reasonable for the telling of the story. (Sawyer even includes an introduction in which he explains the issues concerning the Neanderthal and Neandertal spellings and pronunciations.)
Hominids includes much that will be familiar to readers of some of Sawyer's past novels (Flashforward, Factoring Humanity, and especially Calculating God): a multi-cultural cast of characters, environmental issues, religion vs. science, and so on. These Sawyeresque themes function well as springboards for the compare-and-contrast scenes between our world and the Neanderthals'. At times it seems like the Neanderthals represent an ideal, especially when heard from Ponter Bonditt's perspective. At others, we see that there is no real paradise as we follow Adikor's story. In the end Sawyer presents a balanced view, enjoying the opportunity to raise issues for the reader and not trying to force any one single answer.
Sawyer's balanced approach is especially important because, like Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, Hominids addresses the highly controversial debate between evolution and creationism. Sawyer doesn't condemn one in favor of the other -- at least not entirely. Fully aware of all the facets of the debate, Sawyer challenges the reader to think rather than accepting dogma and doctrine blindly. Readers may recall similar themes from Calculating God, which won both praise and harsh criticism from both sides for its handling of religion and science.
There are moments where the plot seems to take a break so Sawyer's characters can discuss the various issues the novel brings up, but they pass before they can become too didactic. Every now and then Sawyer also remembers to insert a little bit of humor to keep the novel from becoming too heavy. Many chapters begin with snippets of world news coverage over Ponter's appearance, including a manufactured Top Ten list à la David Letterman.
Not all of the popular-culture references made in the novel work out as well as one might wish, but they're minor and don't trip the reader too much. The only real negative criticism about this book concerns the flatness of some of the secondary characters. The story focuses primarily on Ponter Bonditt and Adikor Huld, who are the most developed characters in the story, but I feel the novel's third major character, Mary Vaughan, could have used some more fleshing out.
Overall, Hominids is a technically smooth novel with a pleasing style and sense of balance that is also interesting and timely in its theme and content. The parallel-running plot is straightforward and sound, with enough surprise to be interesting but enough integrity to avoid any sort of deus ex machina.
Sawyer's latest novel stands well on its own while also providing the setup for the next two novels to come. As the first of three books, collectively called The Neanderthal Parallax, Hominids will be followed by Humans, which takes up the story a few days after the end of Hominids. The third book, Hybrids, by its title alone, suggests that Sawyer has some intriguing twists planned. (I recently met with Robert Sawyer at Readercon and mentioned this. He swears we're in for a surprise and nothing is as obvious as it looks.)
Given his track record, it will be an interesting and thoughtful read.
. . . a Neanderthaler is a model of evolutionary refinement. Put him in a Brooks Brothers suit and send him down to the supermarket for some groceries and he might pass completely unnoticed. He might run a little shorter than the clerk serving him but he would not necessarily be the shortest man in the place. He might be heavier-featured, squattier and more muscular than most, but again he might be no more so than the porter handling the beer cases back in the stock room. --Evolution, Time-Life Nature Library.
John Teehan lives and writes in Providence, Rhode Island. He has recently sold stories which will appear in Men Writing SF as Women (Daw, 2003) and Low Port (Meisha Merlin, 2003). "The Literary Roots of Fantasy" appears in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy (Twilight Times, 2002). He also publishes the fanzine Sleight of Hand. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him, visit his Web site.