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
Consider this a personal review of Hominids, as seen from the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
(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
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.
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.
"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
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!
More Good Reading
More about Hominids
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
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