Tor, 2002, 444 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87692-0
I was lucky enough to be in the audience when Robert J. Sawyer won the 2003 Best Novel Hugo Award for Hominids, the first tome in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. While everyone in the room got to hear a wonderful acceptance speech, pundits on the net weren’t so impressed: Over the next few days, anguished comments protested the decision and blames the local-area vote of sabotaging the results. Hey, don’t look at me: I didn’t vote for the book because I hadn’t yet read it, and I hadn’t yet read it because the three volumes of the trilogy hadn’t yet come out. It took another month for me to take a look at the book and find out for myself whether the furor was deserved. As it turns out, Hominids is a flawed book, and certainly still not my choice for the Hugo Award. But it is worthy of vitriol? Maybe. Let’s see.
Plot-wise, this first volume is a thin introduction. A freak quantum science experiment on an alternate Earth sends Ponter Bodditt, a Neanderthal scientist, to our own present-day reality. In this universe, we struggle to understand what happen. On theirs, the unexplainable disappearance of Ponter leads directly to a murder trial for his lab partner. Both plot-lines are resolved when (as it was bound to happen), the link is re-established between the universe. All is well that ends well… maybe.
But Hominids isn’t a story as much as it’s a series of discussions, demonstration and digressions on a bunch of topics such as parallel evolution, Neanderthal sociology, the legalities of extra-dimensional visitors, privacy-less societies, human follies and many other subjects. No wonder if some old-school SF readers will find themselves at home in Sawyer’s novel; the (pseudo-)integration of that didactic material will instantly be familiar to anyone who’s read his fair share of, say, Asimov.
There is a lot of material discussed and references, so be prepared for a lot of false dialogues meant to convey pure ideas (not a quote: “We Neanderthals never developed agriculture” “Don’t you say!” “Our cities are very small” “No way!” “Our males and females live separately” “Get out!” “We all have implanted recorders taking automatic note of everything that happens in our lives.” “Shut up!”) I wasn’t convinced by many of the characteristics of the seemingly-monolithic Neanderthal society (High tech without an industrial base? Without density of population?), and neither were some of the characters: What’s more serious, though is that the objections are simply swatted aside as if they didn’t matter, or more likely to keep some stuff in reserve for the sequels.
Fans of Sawyer’s previous work will here see many of the author’s tics, from explicit Canadian content (virtually all of the novel takes place in Ontario, in one reality or another) to a fascination with legal mysteries, along with slams at Mike Harris and organized Skeptics. Sawyer’s usually double-shot of theology and matrimony aren’t to be found here, but there are hints that those may be forthcoming in the two other volumes. (Otherwise, the volume is satisfyingly self-contained for a first of three.)
One eeek-factor is worth mentioning, though: a disturbing rape plot sub-thread which ends up feeling exploitative despite all efforts to the contrary. But that just may be my own prejudices protesting, so pay no attention to this particular knee-jerk reaction.
Fortunately, Sawyer’s prose is as readable as ever. It’s not seamless (the strictly-utilitarian prose feels more convenient than elegant), but it work well at what it’s supposed to do: Tell a story. It’s just a shame that there isn’t much of a story to tell.
But I was entertained, and in the end that’s pretty much all I ask for. No, it’s not worthy of a Hugo, especially not given the competition in 2002. And if I wasn’t already preoccupied by other things, I’d probably vent about it and rail about the increased stupidity of Hugo voters. But you know what? At least Hominids is real, pure, indisputable science-fiction. And after two years of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman going home with the award, well, at least that’s a step up.