Author: Dan Simmons
Tor / 448 pages / May 2002
Hard science fiction is easy. Rising above the facts, figures, phenomena, and fancy gadgets to create a story that is so much more is where the true artistry lies. That rarified air is where you will find Robert J. Sawyer’s novels. Near the top of that even more select list you will find Sawyer’s latest novel, Hominids, a blend of physics, anthropology, and sociology that snatches up the reader with a sharp hook of a first sentence and just keeps gaining speed.
Faced with sketches or fossils or depictions of Neanderthals, modern homo sapiens remark on the animalistic appearance of our extinct predecessors: look at the sloping forehead, the lack of chin, the overall brutish demeanour. Sweet sassy molassey! We are so much better than them! Thank god natural selection chose us, for we really are the best.
But, come to think of it, don’t we all think we are better than somebody else? And we really have no basis for that conclusion, so how do we know evolution didn’t take a wrong turn somewhere? In Hominids, the first book of Sawyer’s new Neanderthal Parallax, we get a chance to see exactly how mistaken we may be.
Ponter Boddit — respected physicist, father, lover, and Neanderthal — is about to be plucked from his world and thrust into a parallel world where, hard as it is to believe, homo sapiens became the dominant life form. Frightened and confused as he is at being dropped into the middle of these masses of creatures he thought long extinct, it is his research partner, back in their world who has the most to worry about. You see, with Ponter missing and no explanation to account for his disappearance, the legal system is almost ready to convict Adikor of murder. If convicted, the repercussions will be horrific, not only for the accused, but for his entire family.
Back on our world, a team of doctors and scientists try to make sense of the unprecedented occurrence, even as this learn to communicate with Ponter and try to shield him from the crush of his sudden celebrity. The more they discover about the Neanderthal’s world, the more doubtful it appears that the “right” hominid won the battle for survival on our world. In fact, with each new revelation, I wondered more and more if other readers would feel more in synch with the Neanderthals world than with this one. Ponter’s world is not paradise, but you, too, may find you have much more in common with them, philosophically, than with the real world.
Of course, there is science aplenty, but Sawyer broadens his story to focus on what really goes on inside people and how they interact, even when the interactions are as savage as rape and as tentative as the first steps toward recovery. The love between his characters is as simple as a first glance and as multifarious as jealousy and want. Never is Sawyer afraid to reveal the emotions inherent in every connection. And that’s when you soar above the equations to produce genuine artistry.
Hominids is only the first of Sawyer’s new series, but I’m already champing at the bit for the next volume. Lucky for all of us he’s constantly at work on the next surprise.