Tor, 2003, 384 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87691-2
Ding! In this second round of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, the plot thickens slightly, the exposition continues unabated, hard-core interspecies naughtiness is graphially described and a distasteful subplot is resolved in a manner that will strike some as silly and others as ridiculous. Sawyer’s usual preoccupations with theology and matrimony are also finally allowed to simmer to the surface. As if that wasn’t enough, more explicit Canadian flag-waving also ensues. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.
When we last left Hominids, the (mostly) self-contained first volume in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, a quantum bridge had been opened between two civilizations in alternate universe: Our human world and another one evolved from what we know as Neanderthals.
Things aren’t simple as this second volume gets underway. Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit may start the novel in his alternate reality, but it doesn’t take a long time until he back in ours again as an assistant-ambassador. Meanwhile, Marie Vaughan may have been snapped up by an American think-tank, but she too doesn’t end up spending a lot of time away from Ponter. Later on, she even makes the trip over to the other universe and gets to see the differences between the two societies for herself. There is an assassination attempt (I’m not telling where or how), a Significant Scene between Ponter and Mary and one or two ominous developments regarding events in the upcoming third volume, but otherwise that’s the extent of Humans‘ plotting.
What abounds, however, is plenty of exposition and speculation thinly disguised as dialogue. Neanderthal society, in this trilogy, has never known agriculture, has managed to develop information-age technology while side-stepping industrialization and has unanimously agreed on not only ritualized mating, but also the omnipresence of personal life-recording devices. With such radical notions, it fall to Sawyer to make us understand how this may have happened, or at the very least sufficiently suspend our disbelief. As a lifelong hard-SF fan, I’m easy when it comes to disbelief suspension, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean my agreement with Sawyer’s thinly-developed thesis. While the first volume hand-waved away doubts about the sustainability of development without large cities, Humans half-heartedly attempt an explanation in a horribly condescending chapter (Twenty-Four: P.210-221) that mixes Native American smugness (!) with silly non-rhetoric (“Hello!” said Henry “Earth to Angela!”) that ends up proving not much if the exact opposite of Sawyer’s argument. Add that to the “unified society” fallacy (in which alien societies are monolithic blocks where no dissension is ever expressed and where such whoopers as massive birth regulation are enacted with nary a peep) and the whole trilogy suddenly seems based on very wobbly foundations. In short, I wasn’t convinced. And I found it Highly Significant that the prehistoric annihilation of humans in the Neanderthal universe is never seriously discussed.
I’d like to comment on the resolution-of-sorts of the “rapist” subplot, but I can’t trust myself to do it without being sarcastic. Your Mileage Might (Hopefully) Vary.
But onward. For being a nitpicker is just no fun when confronted with such an easily readable book. While some of the material may be exasperating, it’s a creditable effort to develop an interesting alternate society and imagine what could happen if a brand-new Earth was discovered right alongside ours. As usual, Sawyer’s prose is lean, clunky, and instantly readable. There are better, more satisfying novels out there, but few of them are as absorbing as Sawyer’s work; even as you’re protesting rather loudly against what’s written down, you can’t help but to turn the page to see what happens next.
Which will bring us, eventually, to the conclusion of the trilogy…