The third book in The Neanderthal Parallax series returns to the soft science fiction theme of two cultures colliding. This final book has a single antagonist, a racist (or would it be species-ist?) bigot who wants to take the unexploited and unpolluted Neanderthal world for Homo sapiens. Of course to do so will involve a minor case of genocide but he has the tools and he has the technology, kindly provided by the Neanderthals themselves. Mary, the geneticist heroine from the last book, has to stop him. She is still annoying and she is still a bag of internal contradictions but her hard to understand romance with the Neanderthal, Ponter, is demoted to a major subplot rather than the main story.
I have a hard time with the Mary character because she simply does not make sense. She is described as a devout Catholic and accepts that the Pope speaks for God but she doesn’t seem to agree with Catholic doctrine on pretty much anything including divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, or celibacy for clergy. So why, I kept asking myself, does this woman identify with this particular faith when, in fact, she doesn’t agree with its stand on most issues? Why does she get defensive when Ponter questions her about religion? She is supposed to be a brilliant scientist and self sufficient woman but she comes across as intellectually and emotionally weak for not asking herself these questions a long time ago given her positions on these issues.
The main scientific flaw that continues to bother me and which makes it hard to really suspend disbelief enough to go with the flow of the story is the reliance on the assumption that human consciousness, a particularly tenuous and inexact concept, emerged suddenly 40,000 years ago because of a shift it the Earth’s magnetic field. There is finally some techno-babble to explain this but it is far from compelling although the whole scientific community in these books seems to accept it as established fact.
I do like the contrast Sawyer draws between the ethically enlightened Neanderthals with the selfishly competitive Homo sapiens. This shines the light of inquiry on our species and all good soft science fiction must do that in some way. But this contrast, I think, would have been clearer and more believable if the Neanderthals were described as ethically, philosophically and even perhaps artistically more advanced while Homo sapiens retained the clear edge on technology and science. Giving the Neanderthals an arguable advantage in almost all areas made them simply too good to believe.