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.
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.
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.