Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The Neanderthal Parallax began 10 years ago today

by Rob - February 17th, 2010.
Filed under: Hominids, Neanderthal.

It was ten years ago today, on Thursday, February 17, 2000, that I wrote the first words for what became Hominids, the first volume of my “Neanderthal Parallax” trilogy.

That day, I wrote the opening below — not one line of which made it into the final book — leading up to establishing the setting as Sudbury, Ontario, where the nickel mines exist because of an asteroid impact:

Everyone has heard about the asteroid that may have felled the dinosaurs, and how if it hadn’t hit, we might not be here.

But there have been many other asteroid impacts in Earth’s past, and when this one crashed into Earth, the dinosaurs weren’t yet even a twinkle in God’s eye. If it hadn’t hit, we would probably still be here, but they — the others — would not. This flying mountain, a hunk of detritus left over from the formation of the solar system that measured between one and three kilometers wide, brutally slammed into —

Into what? How to describe the rocks that bore this assault? Today, most of the world calls them the Canadian Shield, a vast horseshoe shaped region covering half the nation we refer to as Canada — but when the impact occurred, Canada, and every other human construct, was still 1.8 billion years in the future.

Of course, in Canada, where everything would naturally be Canadian-this or Canadian-that, these rocks are sometimes called the Precambrian Shield instead, but —

But everything was Precambrian back when this colossal boulder, moving at fifteen kilometers per second, slammed into our world, setting it ringing like a giant bell in space. Although Earth had hosted life for two billion years by that point, none of it was yet multicellular. The first worms were another billion years in the future; jawless fish, the first vertebrates, were still 1.3 billion years away; and the first mammals — ancestors to us, yes, and to them as well — wouldn’t appear for an additional three hundred million after that.

Carolyn didn’t like that much, and the next day, Friday, February 18, 2000, I completely revamped the opening:

The darkness was absolute, more obsidian than Hitler’s heart, darker than a rapist’s soul.

Two kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory waited patiently. At its core was a vast acrylic globe twelve meters across, its walls 2.5 centimeters thick, filled with 1,100 tonnes of heavy water, on loan from Atomic Energy Canada Limited; the globe was made up of XX curved pieces each measuring XXX — the largest size that could fit down the mine shaft leading to the observatory.

Surrounding that sphere was a geodesic of photomultiplier tubes — 9,600 of them, each cupped in a reflective parabola, each aimed inward toward the sphere. And surrounding that was a giant barrel-shaped container, ten stories tall, filled with ultrapure regular water.

The two kilometers of Canadian shield overhead protected the heavy water from cosmic rays. The shell of regular water absorbed the natural background radiation from the uranium and thorium in the granite gabbro, preventing any of it from reaching the heavy water. Indeed, nothing at all could penetrate into the heavy water except neutrinos; trillions passed through the Earth every second, and any one of them could travel through a block of lead a light-year thick with only a fifty-percent chance of hitting anything.

Heavy water is just like regular water in taste (or lack thereof) and appearance, and it behaves virtually identically in most chemical reactions.

Of course, that lacked any character or drama. The final, published version of Hominids, which came out in 2002, began thus:

The blackness was absolute.

Watching over it was Louise BenoĆ®t, twenty-eight, a statuesque postdoc from Montreal with a mane of thick brown hair stuffed, as required here, into a hair net. She kept her vigil in a cramped control room, buried two kilometers — “a mile an’ a quarder,” as she sometimes explained for American visitors in an accent that charmed them — beneath the Earth’s surface.

The control room was next to the deck above the vast, unilluminated cavern housing the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Suspended in the center of that cavern was the world’s largest acrylic sphere, twelve meters — “almost fordy feet” — across. The sphere was filled with eleven hundred tonnes of heavy water on loan from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.

Enveloping that transparent globe was a geodesic array of stainless-steel struts, supporting 9,600 photomultiplier tubes, each cupped in a reflective parabola, each aimed in toward the sphere. All of this — the heavy water, the acrylic globe that contained it, and the enveloping geodesic shell — was housed in a ten-story-tall barrel-shaped cavern, excavated from the surrounding norite rock. And that gargantuan cavern was filled almost to the top with ultrapure regular water.

The two kilometers of Canadian shield overhead, Louise knew, protected the heavy water from cosmic rays. And the shell of regular water absorbed the natural background radiation from the small quantities of uranium and thorium in the surrounding rock, preventing that, too, from reaching the heavy water. Indeed, nothing could penetrate into the heavy water except neutrinos, those infinitesimal subatomic particles that were the subject of Louise’s research. Trillions of neutrinos passed right through the Earth every second; in fact, a neutrino could travel through a block of lead a light-year thick with only a fifty-percent chance of hitting something.

Still, neutrinos poured out of the sun in such vast profusion that collisions did occasionally occur — and heavy water was an ideal target for such collisions. The hydrogen nuclei in heavy water each contain a proton — the normal constituent of a hydrogen nucleus — plus a neutron, as well. And when a neutrino did chance to hit a neutron, the neutron decayed, releasing a proton of its own, an electron, and a flash of light that could be detected by the photomultiplier tubes.

At first, Louise’s dark, arching eyebrows did not rise when she heard the neutrino-detection alarm go ping; the alarm sounded briefly about a dozen times a day, and although it was normally the most exciting thing to happen down here, it still didn’t merit looking up from her copy of Cosmopolitan.

But then the alarm sounded again, and yet again, and then it stayed on, a solid, unending electric bleep like a dying man’s EKG.

You can read more of the published opening here.

Hominids went on to win the 2003 Hugo Award for best novel of the year, and it was the first volume of a trilogy. I’m very proud of the finished book, and pleased to look back on its humble origins a decade ago.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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