Book Review – Humans, by Robert J. Sawyer – An interspecies romance novel
I picked up Sawyer’s series The Neanderthal Parallax at the library after meeting him at the 100 Year Starship Symposium. He is intelligent and well spoken. I liked the first book in the series, Hominids, despite a few flaws. The second book keeps those flaws though and expands on them.
Humans is more romance than science fiction complete with the mandatory steamy sex scene. Unfortunately the female lead in this romance story, Mary (Homo sapiens), provokes little interest. I personally found nothing especially admirable about her and actually found her somewhat annoying. The male lead, Ponter (Homo neanderthalensis), is more interesting, but even he seems to fluctuate from being scientifically objective, as one would expect for a prominent theoretical physicist, to emotionally unstable, which one would not. Romance isn’t a genre I read and maybe this kind of soap opera contrast is common in them but these are not the kind of personalities I look for in science fiction.
Personally, I didn’t find the social commentary in this book overly preachy, as did many other reviewers. Sawyer contrasts a low population, hunter-gatherer culture with ours, which has a high population and extensive farming. Each has good points and bad points and I don’t think he came down too hard on Western society. There are other problems with the premise though.
The one that perhaps most bothers me is that all the major characters seem to accept the hypothesis that “consciousness” somehow suddenly appeared 40,000 years ago. Such an astounding and counterintuitive assertion in science fiction is not uncommon but must have at least enough techno-babble to make it possible to suspend disbelief long enough to entertain the idea for the sake of the story. This book does not provide that. It’s stated as if this is a well-known and accepted scientific theory.
The other thing I find hard to accept is that a hunter-gatherer society can achieve the population density required for the individual specialization needed to achieve a high-tech society, which the Neanderthals in this book obviously have. In areas of artificial intelligence, their tech is well beyond ours, in fact, although their achievements in other areas are not. There is some techno-babble to explain this but it seems weak.
The prose is competent and the book is readable, but in the areas of plot and characters, I think it fails. Will I read the next in the series? Yes. The first book, Hominids, was interesting enough and I have hopes that the third is more like it.