[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Typical Passage


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

When giving readings at bookstores, I often don't read the opening of a novel; rather, I look for a typical passage that embodies the flavor and theme of the book. I find that in a book superstore, where the acoustics are usually quite lousy, a six- or seven-minute reading is ideal. This is the passage I often read from Hominids.

       The injured man was still in the x-ray room, presumably in case Dr. Singh decided to order more pictures. He was seated now in his wheelchair, looking more frightened, Reuben thought, than even a small child usually did in a hospital. The radiology technician had clipped the man's x-rays — a front view and a lateral shot — to a lighted wall panel, and Singh and Reuben moved over to examine them.

       "Will you look at that?" said Reuben softly.

       "Remarkable," said Singh. "Remarkable."

       The skull was long — much longer than a normal skull, with a rounded protrusion at the back, almost like a hair bun. The doubly arched browridge was prominent and the forehead low. The nasal cavity was gigantic, with strange triangular projections pointing into it from either side. The huge mandible, visible at the bottom of the frame, revealed what the beard had hidden: the complete lack of a chin. It also showed a gap between the last molar and the rest of the jaw.

       "I've never seen anything like it," said Reuben.

       Singh's brown eyes were wide. "I have," he said. "I have." He turned to look at the man, who was still sitting in the wheelchair, babbling gibberish. Then Singh consulted the ghostly gray images again. "It is impossible," said the Sikh. "Impossible."


       "It cannot be ..."

       "What? Dr. Singh, for God's sake —"

       Singh raised his hand. "I do not know how it can be thus, but ..."

       "Yes? Yes?"

       "This patient of yours," said Singh, in a voice full of wonder, "appears to be a Neanderthal."

       "Where am I?" Ponter Boddit knew his voice sounded panicky, but, try as he might, he couldn't control it. He was still seated in the odd chair that rolled on hoops, which was a good thing, because he doubted he'd be very steady on his feet.

       "Calm down, Ponter," said Hak, the computer implant embedded in his left forearm. "Your pulse is up to—"

       "Calm down!" snapped Ponter, as if Hak had suggested a ridiculous impossibility. "Where am I?"

       "I'm not sure," said the computer. "I'm picking up no signals from the positioning towers. In addition, I'm cut off entirely from the planetary information network, and am receiving no acknowledgment from the alibi archives."

       "You're not malfunctioning?"


       "Then — then this can't be Earth, can it? You'd be getting signals if —"

       "I'm sure it is Earth," said Hak. "Did you notice the sun while they brought you over to that white vehicle?"

       "What about it?"

       "Its color temperature was 5,200 degrees, and it subtended one-seven-hundredth of the celestial sphere — just like Sol as seen from Earth's orbit. Also, I recognized most of the trees and plants I saw. No, this is clearly the surface of the Earth."

       "But the stench! The air is foul!"

       "I'll have to take your word for that," said Hak.

       "Could we have — could we have traveled in time?"

       "That seems unlikely," replied the computer. "But if I can see the constellations tonight, I will be able to tell if we've moved forward or backward an appreciable amount. And if I can spot some of the other planets and the phase of the moon, I should be able to figure the exact date."

       "But how do we get back home? How do we —"

       "Again, Ponter, I must exhort you to calm down. You are close to hyperventilating. Take a deep breath. There. Now let it out slowly. That's right. Relax. Another breath —"

       "What are those creatures?" Ponter asked, waving a hand at the scrawny figure with dark brown skin and no hair and the other scrawny figure with lighter skin and a wrapping of fabric around his head.

       "My best guess?" said Hak. "They are Gliksins."

       "Gliksins!" exclaimed Ponter, loud enough that the two strange figures turned to look at him. He lowered his voice. "Gliksins? Oh, come on ..."

       "Look at those skull images over there." Hak was speaking to Ponter through a pair of cochlear implants, but by changing the left-right balance of his voice he could indicate a direction as surely as if he had pointed. Ponter got up — shakily — and crossed the room, heading away from the strange beings and approaching an illuminated panel like the one they were looking at, with several deepviews of skulls clipped to it.

       "Green meat!" said Ponter, looking at the strange skulls. "They are Gliksins — aren't they?"

       "I would say so. No other primate has that lack of browridge, or that projection from the front of the lower jaw."

       "Gliksins! But they've been extinct for — well, for how long?"

       "Perhaps thirty thousand years," said Hak.

       "But this can't possibly be Earth of that long ago," said Ponter. "I mean, there's no way the civilization we've seen would have failed to leave traces in the archeological record. At best, Gliksins chipped stone into crude choppers, right?"


       Ponter tried to keep from sounding hysterical. "So, again, where are we?"

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