Tor, 2003, 396 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87690-4
And so the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy ends, not with a bang, but with a tacked-upon conclusion driven by a mustache-twirling villain. In some ways, this is a fitting end, an adequate finish to an adequate series that had both good and bad moments.
You shouldn’t be reading this review if you haven’t yet started the trilogy, and you shouldn’t start the trilogy if you don’t intend to finish it. Suffice to say that the plot finally starts to roll in this third volume, as every element laboriously set up by Sawyer during the first two volumes finally comes into play. The Earth is threatened by an abrupt reversal of its magnetic poles. Evil villains take a long hungry look at this new unspoiled alternate Earth. Mary and Ponter want to have a kid. Whee!
If any overly sensitive Americans, misogynists or fundamentalists were left in the room after the first two volumes of the series, they’re in for further shocks: The only American character of note turns out to be a lunatic with dreams of trans-universal conquest (how droll), our female protagonists muses at length on the destruction of human males and the novel more or less ends up celebrating a multi-racial bisexual marriage à trois. Whew! Check your prejudices at the door, a Canadian liberal is on a rampage!
There is indeed some shock value built into this trilogy (witness the graphic sex scenes, for instance) and one gets the feeling that Sawyer is consciously pushing the envelope in order to piss off some people who ought to be offended. It’s all good fun, though it’s not pulled off quite as subtly as it ought to be. That type of material requires a deft touch and I’m not sure that Sawyer’s typically unsubtle style is appropriate for it. (I will once again remain bemusedly coy on the aftermath of the “rapist” subplot of the trilogy.) On the other hand, Sawyer’s treatment of the religious theme of the trilogy ends up someplace different than I expected given the author’s past track record; good.
It’s somewhat of a relief, though, to see the plot moving after nearly two volumes’ worth of nearly constant exposition. Alas, the plot development sometimes feel quite a bit silly, such as when this isolated Neanderthal scientist ends up possessing the Magical Plot Device that not only turns out to be vitally important to our protagonists’ happiness, but also contains the seeds of destruction for both worlds! (Here are a few more explanation points to sprinkle freely in the previous sentence: !!!!!!!) Who would have thought that a whole industrial civilization would be useless in coming up with this stuff? Or that such a useful technology would stay banned like that, once again by a curiously monolithic civilization? (If you want to keep on nitpicking, you can also note my objections to rapid plague vectoring in a dispersed civilization. But I’m not forcing you to.)
Generally speaking, I was also somewhat disappointed to see the direction taken by the latter two books of the trilogy. By focusing on two individuals and a very short time span, it merely suggests a bigger story worth telling: How contact between the two societies would ultimately result in some pretty significant changes along the way on the two worlds. The monolithic Neanderthal society, in particular, would seem to be ripe for some dramatic changes. But that may only serve to highlight the lack of political depth (as in “various interests competing”) in Sawyer’s otherwise expansive imagination of the Neanderthal civilization. (Eek; is he planning a sequel?)
Silly stuff, but it’s hard not to see it with some affection when Sawyer’s writing style is so devastatingly efficient. A screwy novel that doesn’t take any time to read isn’t the worst thing in the world. Indeed, even the “Basic Suspense 101” twists that Sawyer keeps throwing in the second half of the book have a certain well-worn charm.
But this is hardly Hugo-worthy stuff, and it’s not hard to share some pundits’ dissatisfaction with Hominids taking home The Big One in September 2003. I like Sawyer, and I think that some of his stuff is well worth reading. In the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, one gets the feeling that he did try for more ambitious material and succeeded only mildly. Still, the effort is commendable, and we can only wait for his next effort.