[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
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SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Hominids > Pat Forde's Analysis

An Analysis of Hominids

by Pat Forde

Copyright © 2003 Pat Forde
Reprinted with Mr. Forde's permission.
All Rights Reserved.

Pat Forde was a finalist for the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella of the Year, for his "In Spirit," first published in the September 2002 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

This analysis of Robert J. Sawyer's novel Hominids was first published on the official Analog forum.

1. An Opening Confession

Robert J. Sawyer's novel Hominids, serialized in early 2002, is Analog's entry on the current Hugo ballot for Best Novel. This is Mr. Sawyer's sixth nomination in that category, and for those who read it here a long while back (or those who may have missed out on reading it), I'd like to refresh your memory, and offer you some thoughts on this particular Sawyer offering ...

But before I begin, I've a confession to make.

Though most book collectors will consider this a travesty, I have, for several decades now, developed a habit of making notes on the fiction I'm reading in the margins of novels and magazines. My extensive book collection contains a graffiti of marginalia, scribblings and scrawlings coherent only to me, capturing my at-the-time-of-reading to paragraphs, often in point-form or abbreviated footnotes with arrows pointing up to the prose I'm commenting on. I also highlight the hell out of the hardcovers I read. (I'm picturing all you bibliophiles out there writhing in horror!)

This allows me to go back and quickly find a passage I was struck by, a technique I learned an important lesson from, and so on.

So in reviewing Hominids now, I'm relying on notes I made in the margins of four copies of Analog (yes, I admit it openly: most of my Analogs are filled with notes and arrows and annotations. The upside is, no one ever wants to borrow my books!)

Consider this a personal review of Hominids, as seen from the margins ...

2. Parallax And Point Of View

My margin notes make one thing perfectly clear about the opening quarter of Mr. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax serial: the part of the book's opening I was most struck by was the impressive, imaginative world-building Sawyer did on his Neanderthal parallel-earth. Having read numerous parallel-universe SF treatments before, I was intrigued by the mysterious opening chapter set-up, but became totally hooked when I got to Chapter Three, the first one set entirely in the Neanderthal's version of modernity.

Chapter Three is crammed with details of life on an alternate Earth. This alternate Earth grows to be one of the novel's central attractions ... And here, in Chapter Three, the reader is given a hint of what's to come, as the traditional purpose of parallel world-building in SF stories rears its head:

The opportunity to mirror humanity's modern world, and reflect the way we live now in ways that entertain and enlighten. An example, from the end of Chapter Three:

The Neanderthals have mass-media, but didn't develop TV programming for their "Voyeur" screens; instead, they leapt straight to live `webcam' reporting by a class of epinionated "Exhibitionists", celebrities who are a social by-product of the Neanderthal's ubiquitous communication technology — implants known as "Companions" ... Picture a Palm Pilot in your palm (or, in the case of Hominids, in your wrist!)

This kind of current-trend social commentary is becoming one of Mr. Sawyer's trademarks. And though it dates back at least to Gulliver's Travels (if not to Gilgamesh the King), nevertheless, social critiquing/mirroring is fairly rare in hard SF novels that attempt major world-building. There's little room for social commentary in, say, RINGWORLD or A FIRE UPON THE DEEP. (Okay, maybe in Varley's TITAN trilogy, but that was limited to metaphors about Varley's love of movies).

Hominids, however, showcases Sawyers knack for writing fiction that's meticulously constructed from cutting-edge science and capable of mirroring/skewering the latest cultural trends rippling through our modern world.

The opening chapters also set the rotating Point-of-View structure of the novel:

We have Ponter Boddit, the Neanderthal physicist who crosses from his parallel universe into ours.

And Mary, a geneticist from Toronto who studies the DNA of extinct creatures, and essentially shares with Ponter the role of main character in Hominids. The intro scene with Mary is quite dark, as Analog tales go: it describes a violent sexual assault that Mary survives on the way home from her lab one night ...

The evocation of the rape scene inspired me to jot a lot of margin notes. At the bottom of the darkest page I jotted: "brutal, mechanical, animal--subtly suggests `Neanderthal' stereotype." Much of the rest of the novel plays off against this stereotype, revealing a Neanderthal culture that's more human and humane in some ways than our own (especially where violence against women is concerned.)

The novel focuses on the psychological aftermath of rape without flinching. Mary decides she's not up to facing the police, even though she's always thought women who don't report a rape are culpable in their own way (allowing the perp to continue his spree, target other women.)

Disoriented, consumed by disgust and guilt, Mary returns to her genetics lab, performs her own rape kit, and there's a potent riff that juxtaposes an item of clothing with the perp's DNA being stored in a specimen container and tucked away among jars containing DNA from wooly mammoths and Egyptian mummies.

Here my marginalia/highlighting underscored Sawyer's realistic portrayal of a rape-victim's state of mind. When Mary finally gets home:

She entered her bedroom and took off her clothes - clothes that she knew she would throw out, clothes that she could never wear again, clothes that could never come clean no matter how many times they were washed.

A later scene has Mary visiting a university rape-crisis center, and again its handled with unflinching realism (leaving me feeling that Mr. Sawyer may have visited just such a center as part of the obviously exhaustive research he did for this book).

3. Constant Cliffhangings

As the novel quickly established a pattern of rotating P.O.Vs between key characters, I found the scenes with Ponter the most compelling, as they all have that classic "fish out of water" power shared by Dorothy's disorientation in Oz, ET braving suburbia in modern L.A., Croc Dundee in NYC, and so on ...

There's something intrinsically fascinating with having the Other in our midst. How will ET/Croc Duncee/Ponter react to us? How we will react when we realize a living Neanderthal's appeared in northern Ontario? (This extends to other genres, like horror. Part of the pleasure of Salem's Lot, for example, is getting to see how someone believable might actually react when confronted by a vampire in a Funeral Home.)

Unfortunately, my initial focus on Ponter left the third main character — Ponter's roommate and lifemate Akidor, the main P.O.V. back on the Neanderthal parallel-Earth — out of focus. I was afraid the Akidor scenes wouldn't interest me that much ... Who really cares what Croc Dundee's mates are up to back home in Oz?

But Sawyer quickly changed my mind, by taking the Neanderthal world-and-society building ever farther with each Akidor chapter. By the time Akidor is forced to visit something called `the Center'*, I was just as eager to read his POV as Ponter's, the Neanderthal stranded among humanity.

The technique is called "Constant Cliffhanging" — pulling away from a character we hate to leave only to rejoin a character we've been dying to get back to.

Constant Cliffhanging's hard to pull off, IMO. It's rare to find a book where, no matter what POV you're jumping to, you want to jump to it. (Most of Gibson's books fail at this abysmally, offering only one really interesting POV sequence to follow among other tedious sidetracks.)

Yet Sawyer masters it fairly quickly here (can only guess at the amount of forethought he put into Hominids structure, and admire the result!)

Hominids yet, I won't spoil this aspect of the book. I'll only tell you that the Center is an example of the `multi-direction implication set' that Sawyer spins out of his opening premise: in the margin of the page describing the Center, I jotted "bio-geopolitics! That what Sawyer's developing in his Neanderthal society ..."
(Later scenes in Hominids take the early bio-geopolitical concepts very far indeed, exploring the impact of `hidden ovulation' on human social life/family units — and how a connection between hidden ovulation and the nasal physiology of Neanderthals creates quite a different society/population patterns on the parallel-Earth.)

4. Taking a Premise Madly Off in All Directions

Another trademark-strength of Sawyer novels is the way they take an opening premise way way farther than the astute SF reader opening one of his novels initially imagines (The Terminal Experiment and FlashForward stand out in my mind in this regard). No doubt that has a lot to do with Sawyer's popularity as an Analog writer in particular and an SF writer in general.

Personally, I get a charge out of writers who appear to offer juicy throw-away details just for the hell of it: details that are fascinating in and of themselves, but don't seem essential — and then turn out to be essential, a key building block in a later, even more wildly juicy scientific extrapolation.

Hominids is filled with this sort of thing.

Consider the setting.

The story takes place in the Canadian mining city of Sudbury, both on our earth and on the parallel Neanderthal earth (where Sudbury is a community called Saldak). At one point, the story drops in a detail about how we humans mine in Sudbury because a nickel-rich asteroid stuck that part of earth 1.8 billion years ago, "long before there was any multicellular life on Earth."

Cool! I've been to Sudbury, and had no idea that was true.

But this toss-off detail proves to be a critical cornerstone to the novel's later extrapolations, and ties back powerfully into the opening premise, too. Hominids is a testament to Sawyer's deliberate, no-detail-wasted manner of writing ... Here's another example of how the story finds a multiple use for every juicy detail, from the February installment:

On the Neanderthal-earth, Companions are the universal communication and recording implants that link the parallel Hominids into their equivalent of the Web. But when Ponter arrives on Earth, his implanted Companion clearly has the powers of an AI, and can analyze and eventually translate human speech, and speak on Ponter's behalf, and act as an intelligent companion so he doesn't go completely bonkers, etc ...

But before I had a chance to wonder why Neanderthals would bother implanting every citizen with a full-fledged AI when the implants patched them into a planetary net (where any AI would naturally reside), the story neatly dispatched questions on the matter:

At the opening, Ponter the physicist is working on an experimental quantum computer deep in a mine below Saldak (a mine exists at the same site in both parallel realities, since the asteroid hit earth long before the parallel realities "split") ... Working so far below ground, Ponter is cut off from communication through his implant to the planetary net. So he had to have a special AI-enhanced Companion to perform his research so far underground, away from the radiation that can distort quantum computations.

That's a completely consistent, convincing explanation; I never had a chance to quibble. But I also thought that was the end of the matter ...

Not a chance. Later, the lack of Net-communication from the depths of the Saldak mine triggers a major plot twist, one that takes into account the vagaries of the `bio-geopolitical' Neanderthal society Sawyer lays out in the opening chapters!

Every detail of Hominids interlocks, implicates, resonates and resolves into a far larger picture than I had guessed at by the halfway point in the serial, (that much is evident from my marginalia.)

5. Look out, Crichton!

Sawyer's books have always struck me as `SF written in a mainstream voice.' And perhaps never more so than in Hominids.

Much of the marginalia in the third (March 2002) installment of Sawyer's Analog serial boils to the same phrase: "So damn accessible!" Hominids dishes up a lot of complex hard science concepts, and offers them in an extremely palatable format. The book's discussions of how DNA identification of a Neanderthal is actually performed or how a quantum computer actually works are eminently readable, understandable.

In one margin I wrote: "Mom and Dad would like this!" My parents, understand, don't read SF, watch Trek, or anything of the sort ... But Hominids is, I think, the kind of novel that can bring new readers to SF. In that sense, the book is a reflection of its author: those of you who haven't yet seen or talked to Robert Sawyer at a convention will discover Sawyer is a great spokesperson and all-round ambassador for the SF field, (largely because he is an engaging raconteur with a remarkable memory/insider's knowledge of the field.)

Other people besides Sawyer write highly accessible SF for the masses. Michael Crichton comes immediately to mind ... But Sawyer's writing offers something lacking in Crichton novels:

A infectious sense of fun.

One technique Sawyer uses a lot is opening chapters with fictional pop-cultural quotes, comic bits and soundbites, often cast as net news. In FlashForward, readers were treated to hilarious `News Digest' samplings; in Hominids, they're called `News Searches'. Two of my faves came from a top ten list of reasons why Ponter must be Neanderthal.

#9: "Mistaken in dim light for Leonid Breshnev."
#2: "Now collecting royalties on fire."

There's also a liberal sprinkling of `Neanderthalisms' throughout the novel. My favorite was the Neanderthal profanity "Gristle!" — a word that makes the reader question humanity's rather goofy profanities. (Sawyer books are nothing if not intelligence-boosting reads. )

Or how about: "You got a lot of neck muscle coming here."

Or "Daklar says it was difficult for you to always be downwind of my father." (Meaning overshadowed by!)

The parallel-universe concept gives Sawyer lots of opportunity for lateral plays on the literal meanings of words and phrases. "Talk to the hand" takes on new meaning when a Neanderthal comes equipped with an AI in his wrist! And on the parallel-earth, males literally "head for the hills" when that time of the month comes for Neanderthal females, a `bio-geopolitical' imperative that results from their physiology.

All this leads to some sharp stabs at the way we've looked at Neanderthals over the years:

"There's been a lot of debate over various things, like, well, for instance, what your prominent browridges are for."

Ponter blinked. "They shield my eyes from the sun."

"Really?" said Mary. "I guess that makes sense. But then why don't my people have them?" ...

"We wondered that too," said Ponter, "when we looked at Gliksin fossils."

"Gliksin?" repeated Mary.

"The type of fossil hominid from my world you most closely resemble. Gliksins didn't have browridges, so we had assumed they were nocturnal."

Mary smiled. "I guess a lot of what people conclude from looking just at bones is wrong."

And consider the following exchange, which deftly demonstrates that Neanderthals are equipped with a `sixth sense' when it comes to reading each other:

Jasmel looked at Akidor. He could see her nostrils dilating, taking in his scent, his pheromones. "Why should I believe you?"

Akidor frowned. He'd made his grief plain; he'd tried arguing emotions. But this girl had more than Ponter's eyes; she had his mind, too — a keen, analytical mind, a mind that prized logic and rationality.

Here Akidor uses his pheromones to deliberately make an emotional appeal to a friend. Later, Sawyer shows how the implications of this pheromone-sensing ability affect the design of a Neanderthal courtroom!

The third installment of Hominids unfolds and unfurls a lot of implications — expanding on the scientific foundations of the opening, deftly delving into the Neanderthal's science of quantum computation ... I scribbled my delight in the margins of the page that suggested that a quantum `factoring' calculation of a large number could temporarily open up whole new universes just to perform a parallel calculation in, universes that would neatly close again upon completion of the calculation:

All those universes collapse back down into one again, since except for the candidate number they tested to see if it was a factor, they're otherwise identical.

What a concept!

And the clincher: a breathtaking explanation for the novel's main premise — the way Sawyer explains how the two parallel universes came into contact in the first place is extremely well thought-out; this may be the first novel of parallel universes that actually provides a plausible explanation for how such universes split and how they might later come back into contact.

(An explanation worth the price of the book, for those of you who haven't delved into it yet ...)

6. An Epidemiological Prescience

A remarkable bit of prescience in the pages of Analog presaged the whole SARS-in-Ontario breakout — I'm talking about the conclusion of Robert Sawyer's Hominids . . . The novel was, of course, written well before the outbreak of SARS in the Guangdong province of China. Nevertheless, I found Mr. Sawyer's serial scattered with lines that ring with uncanny topical prescience.

In Hominids' later chapters, a group of Ontario scientists come to grips with the fact that a living Neanderthal has arrived from a parallel universe. Meanwhile, the Neanderthal himself comes down with flu-like symptoms.

It dawns on the doctor looking after Ponter that a visitor from a parallel Earth could bring with him viral infections against which humanity would be defenseless. This quick-thinking doc puts Ponter in quarantine, along with all the scientists who've been studying him — and then attempts to contact all the people who've made contact with Ponter since his arrival.

Sound familiar?

The quarantined scientists actually sit down to write up lists of names of people who might have met Ponter in the hospital where he was first treated and examined after emerging from the parallel Earth. Exactly the same steps were taken by doctors here in Toronto, according to our papers . . . There's even a line about the Canadian and U.S. disease tracking centers analyzing how Ontario is dealing with the situation:

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, today praised the Canadian government's rapid response to the arrival of a potential plague vector. "We think they acted properly," said Dr. Ramona Keitel.

That's almost exactly what a CDC doctor did say about Toronto's response to the SARS outbreak back in May. Talk about writing futuristic novels about the present-day! The careful research that went into Hominids results in passages that are nothing less than prophetically realistic . . .

Sawyer's speculations on the broader differences between the civilization we developed and the civilization Neanderthals developed prove even more topical: being a low population society that never domesticated crops and animals, and so avoided the attendant destructive forces of overpopulation and pollution, the Neanderthalers lack immunity "to the most serious diseases that affect us [which] started in domesticated animals, and then transferred to people." A line that could have come right out of any recent article on SARS.

Later passages reveal how domestication as a vector-of-transmission produced diseases that slaughtered the hunter-gatherer societies of the new world when Europeans first showed up, but major diseases did not come the other way, back into Europeans. A fact that impacts the possibility of trade and tourism between the two parallel Earths in the final part of Sawyer's series . . . Fascinating!

7. What It All Adds Up To

From the start of Hominids, it's clear that the plot is ideally suited for comparing the world we have made with the world we could have made. When Sawyer begins to weave in such comparisons, both his story and his prose hit their high points.

"How many people are there?"

"In the whole world?" asked Mary.

"Yes."

"A little over six billion." . . .

Mary raised her eyebrows. "How many people on your world?"

"One hundred and eighty-five million," said Ponter.

"Why so few?" asked Mary.

"Why so many?" asked Ponter.

The final chapters read as a potent indictment of humanity's record in the past and present, especially where the extinction of species is concerned. Sawyer places prehistoric man's predilection for wiping out the megafauna of whole continents in juxtaposition with the modern mass-extinction we are triggering, then brings it all to a hard-hitting crescendo as Ponter finally realizes that Neanderthals are extinct in this version of Earth because humans wiped them out, too.

I've come to expect big payoffs in the conclusions of Sawyer novels, and Hominids is no exception:

"There's the whole `mitochondrial Eve' hypothesis — that all modern humans trace their origin to one woman who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even the theory's name-- Eve! -- screams that it's being pushed more because of biblical resonances than because it's good science." Mary paused. "Anyway, sorry, you were talking about the Neanderthal version of quantum physics ..."

In classic Sawyerian fashion, all the novel's big ideas intersect in the concluding pages: Cosmology meets Quantum Theory meets macro-Anthropology meets Religion!

So for anyone out there who missed this Analog serial, let me end this review by saying that if you want to read about a possible quantum explanation for the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, Hominids is the novel for you!


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