Book Review – Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
I met Robert J. Sawyer, an award winning science fiction author from Toronto, Ontario last weekend at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, Florida. He was outside in the warm Florida sunshine looking over some of the literature from the symposium and I had just come out to puff on a clove cigar, a recently reacquired vice that I should never have started again and should quit.
I recognized him immediately from the photos on his website, which I had visited a few times before. When we met, I would have loved to tell him how much I had enjoyed his books but the fact is I had never read any. Instead, I just thanked him for coming to speak at the symposium. The next day, we met again during a break and I told him how much I enjoyed his comments during one of the science fiction author panels the symposium hosted. At both brief chance encounters, I found him quite friendly and engaging.
Mr. Sawyer is one of a few authors on my “to get around to someday” list. I hadn’t gotten around to his books yet because they sounded a little “heavy” to me. I really enjoy novels that explore deep, philosophical questions, as his appeared to do, but I prefer those with a humorous, lighthearted, or satirical tone. From the descriptions I’d read, his seemed to be more serious and possibly even a bit preachy.
But a few days after the symposium, I went to the local library and picked up three of his novels. I just finished reading the first of these.
Hominids is an engrossing tale of cultural contrasts. In this novel, Ponter, a physicist from a parallel universe, and his partner accidentally open a portal between their Earth and ours. Ponter is sucked into ours and his arrival makes quite an impression, not because of its unexpected nature or because of what it means to our understanding of physics but because Ponter is a Neanderthal.
The book flips back and forth between showing what the consequences of this accident are in both worlds. In so doing, Sawyer provides an interesting contrast between their physiology, culture, religion (or lack thereof), and technology and ours. Looking at ourselves from the outside is one of the things I find most compelling about speculative fiction and Sawyer does that in this book. There were a few things I thought fairly contrived, poorly explained, or simply unlikely though.
The human (Homo sapiens) characters in the book are either one dimensional or simply unbelievable. One, a female geneticist called in to verify that Ponter’s DNA is, in fact, Neanderthal, seems especially so. She quickly falls for this gentle hunk of man after having been raped just prior to learning of his sudden appearance. The fact that this supposedly brilliant scientist who, somewhat oxymoronically, is a fairly devout Catholic, allows herself to be swept away emotionally in this way, especially after such a traumatic event, makes little sense. A hesitant friendship would be understandable but a romantic attraction, although it remains chaste, is not.
There is a discussion on consciousness between Mary, the geneticist, and another character toward the end of the book that also had me scratching my head. They are speculating on what it is that causes people, either us or the Neanderthals, to develop consciousness. The proposed hypothesis that this is somehow due to a sudden and poorly explained quantum event sounds almost magical. Mary doesn’t challenge the idea. In fact she seems to seriously consider it.
A third thing that I have a hard time with is the description of the Neanderthal society. It is described as a hunter-gatherer culture with a very small global population that never developed farming. Things like furniture are made individually by craftsmen (or crafts-women). No mention is made of any type of industry or mass production and yet they have somehow developed a technology capable of developing sophisticated robots and seemingly sentient artificial intelligence. How? Is this another mystical quantum thing?
This book gets three stars by default from me because it looks at our society from the outside and does so competently. The reason for the extra star is because it is highly absorbing at the beginning. I found it hard to put down and it did hold my attention. Another reason for the extra star is that I’ve met Mr. Sawyer and he’s a very charming fellow.
Posted on October 7, 2011, in Book Reviews, Fiction Reading, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction and tagged Book review, Hominids, Neanderthal, Robert J. Sawyer, Speculative fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.