[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Novel Outlines

Committing Trilogy

The Origins of "The Neanderthal Parallax"

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1999 and 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Spoiler Warning! This document discloses some of the details of the plot of the novels it discusses. You might not want to look at this document until after finishing reading the novels Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids.

For me, the most daunting question is "What's next?"

That's not necessarily the case for all authors. After all, if you ask Sue Grafton "What's next?," her answer is predetermined by the letters of the alphabet. Me, I'd consider it purgatory to write 26 novels about the same character, but I suppose you can't argue with success.

See, I like to try something new each time out. For instance, The Terminal Experiment (1995) was my first attempt to do a realistic domestic situation; Starplex (1996) was my first attempt to juxtapose realistic humans with truly alien aliens; Frameshift (1997) was my first attempt to do a legitimate SF novel set entirely in the present day; Factoring Humanity (1998) was my first attempt to write a book from a female point of view; and Calculating God (2000) was my first attempt to write a thriller that consisted of nothing but talking heads.

All five of those books were Hugo Award finalists, so I suppose I succeeded to some degree in what I was attempting. Still, after a dozen novels, it becomes hard to come up with new challenges.

But one that I hadn't undertaken yet was conceiving a trilogy. I know, I know: my novels Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993), and Foreigner (1994) compose "The Quintaglio Ascension" trilogy — but they weren't conceptualized in advance as a trilogy. Far-Seer was intended to be a standalone; Fossil Hunter was a one-off sequel to the successful first volume; and Foreigner was commissioned later, as another sequel.

It was a worthy challenge: to write a trilogy that had been planned in advance as such. I'd gotten the hang of the 100,000-word form, but could I do a 300,000-word project?

I freely admit that there were also some commercial considerations: starting with my seventh novel, I'd always had two-book contracts with my publishers, which is nice, because you get a pile of money up front ... but I wanted to try for a three-book deal, and a trilogy was the natural way to do that. Also, my British publisher, HarperCollins UK, had made it clear that the only SF selling briskly in England was in the form of trilogies and series; standalones just didn't do well in that market.

Now, I'm well known as a critic of the proliferation of trilogies and (even worse) open-ended series in SF, so I knew I'd have to make peace with my personal misgivings about this form. At the outset, I set some ground rules: I would try to write a work that would succeed artistically both as three standalone volumes, each with its own legitimate beginning, middle, and end, and would also have an overarching structure that started at the beginning of the first book and reached a real conclusion at the end of the third.

Both criteria were important to me: I remember vividly Baen Books publishing Lion's Heart, by fellow Toronto writer Karen Wehrstein a dozen years ago ... with nothing in the packaging to indicate it wasn't a complete novel, and the book stopping with a cliffhanger and a note from the publisher that said, "So ends part one ..." I would feel like I was cheating my readers if I did that. But I also needed a big, three-book-worthy idea — otherwise, what was the point of committing trilogy?

Most of my novels percolate in my head for years before they get written; Hominids — the first volume of what ultimately became my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy — was no exception. I'd come up with the seed of the idea on December 30, 1995, over lunch at The Olive Garden with my wife Carolyn: Earth is threatened by some menace so great that many multiple versions of Earth — one where dinosaurs evolved intelligence; another where Neanderthals became the dominant form of humanity; others where different Cambrian explosion body-plans rose to intelligence — must band together to defeat it.

Three and half years later, on June 20, 1999, I finished the second draft of my twelfth novel, Calculating God. That evening, Carolyn and I went for a walk — something we often do in the summer — and talked through a more focused version of that idea: a novel about parallel modern-day worlds, one peopled by the descendants of Cro-Magnons, the other by the descendants of Neanderthals.

For me, plots always come from research. For many years, my favorite online resource was Magazine Database Plus, a full-text article database available through CompuServe; on June 22, 1999, I downloaded 50,000 words of magazine and journal articles about Neanderthals. Magazine Database Plus was expensive — a buck an article — but I had a freebie account on CompuServe, left over from when I'd been an associate system operator of the WordStar Forum there, so I used it with abandon. Those articles were only the tip of the iceberg of my research, of course, but they gave me the major plot points to write an outline.

That same day, I looked on Amazon.com at other novels with ancient hominids encountering modern humans, including Frank M. Robinson's Waiting, Petru Popescu's Almost Adam, Philip Kerr's Esau, and John Darnton's Neanderthal, to make sure that none of them had premises similar to what I had in mind; they didn't.

Also that day, I wrote up a series of goals for this book:

  • To write an ambitious, Hugo Award-caliber novel;

  • To be a tour de force of world-building, rewriting the last 40,000 years of human history;

  • To be a big book, 150,000 words [at this point, I wasn't yet ready to commit to a trilogy — I was simply going to try a bigger book than anything I'd ever written before].

  • To have out-of-genre appeal.

On Friday, July 9, 1999, I arrived at Readercon, a literary SF convention held outside of Boston. There I hand-delivered the manuscript for Calculating God to Jim Minz, the assistant to my editor David G. Hartwell. Jim asked me what I was going to do next, so I pitched the Neanderthal concept — still quite vague in my mind — to him: two versions of Earth that have to work together to stem a catastrophe facing both worlds. Jim was very intrigued. I asked him whether I should do it as a standalone or a trilogy; Jim said Tor would be happy either way.

(This was a red-letter day for me for another reason: Harlan Ellison was guest of honor at Readercon that year, and in his speech that night he called for a standing ovation for my accomplishments as SFWA president; my time in office had been very difficult, so this pleased me enormously.)

A month later, Carolyn and I rented a cottage on Otter Lake in Northern Ontario; one of my goals while there was to outline my next novel. On Thursday, July 29, I wrote this in my journal:

Finished, by mid-afternoon, I thought, the outline for Neandertal World [then the working title] — but in the evening I skimmed Waiting by Frank M. Robinson (which had been edited by my editor, David G. Hartwell); Jim Minz had sent me a copy because I told him I was working on a book about Neandertals. Robinson uses his conflict between us and the modern descendants of archaic humans to preach about ecology; despite previously having checked this book out on Amazon.com, my take was too close to that. Aided by the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Grolier's Encyclopedia, I came up with the idea of the threat to the two worlds being a magnetic reversal (I suspect this might have been in my mind because earlier in the week, I had used Britannica to look up the Geologic Time Scale, and the chart it presented listed magnetic reversals). I like the magnetic-field collapse better than the ecological threat, anyway.

(Ah, the joys of computers in those pre-Wikipedia days! It was wonderful to be sitting on the side of a lake with several complete encyclopedias installed on your hard drive.)

The next day, I finished a revised outline, and faxed it to my agent, Ralph Vicinanza. At this stage, I was still pitching only a single novel, and I had absolutely no idea who the characters would be. (I was also using the -tal spelling of Neanderthal back then; I've since reverted to the older -thal spelling for reasons I outline at length in a forward to Hominids.)

Here's the outline, in its entirety; don't worry too much about spoilers — the final project deviated significantly from this document:

Neandertal Parallax
a novel proposal by
Robert J. Sawyer

Ne·an·der·tal: now the preferred spelling by most English-language paleoanthropologists of the word formerly rendered as Neanderthal, recognizing the official revision of the spelling of the original German place name by the German government.

par·al·lax: the apparent shifting of an object's position when seen from a different point of view.

Forty thousand years ago, two distinct species of humanity existed on Earth: Archaic Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Both looked out on their world with dull gazes, unable to comprehend it, barely aware of their own existence.

And then an event that would change everything occurred: in the quantum structures of the complex neural tissue packed into the brains of Homo sapiens, consciousness emerged. And with consciousness came art and sophisticated language and science and religion and subtle emotions and planning for the future. Until this time, no truly self-aware lifeform had existed on Earth, no creature lived, primate or otherwise, that was driven by anything other than instinct.

Of course, this newfound awareness enabled Homo sapiens to out-compete the Neandertals; in less than ten thousand years, the Neandertals were extinct.

Or, at least, they were extinct here — in this universe.

But, under quantum physics, the phenomenon of consciousness is intimately tied in with the nature of reality. Indeed, quantum theory predicts that every time an event observed by an intelligent being could have two outcomes, both outcomes do come to pass — but in separate universes. Until the rise of consciousness, there were no branching universes, no parallel realities. But, starting on that crucial day 40,000 years ago when consciousness emerged for the first time, the universe did begin to split into multiple versions.

The very first split — the very first time an alternative universe was spun off from this one — happened because the original emergence of consciousness, a product of quantum fluctuations, could have gone a different way: instead of consciousness first arising in a Homo sapiens mind, it might instead have arisen originally in a Homo neanderthalensis mind, leading to the Neandertals deposing our ancestors, instead of vice versa.

And 40,000 years later, in what in this universe is referred to as the dawn of the 21st century, an artificial portal opens, bridging between our universe and one in which the descendants of Neandertals are the dominant form, allowing small numbers of individuals to pass in either direction.

Many things are the same on both Earths: the sky shows the same patterns of stars, the year is still 365 days long, and is divided into months based on the cycling of the moon's phases. The gross geography of both worlds — the shapes of the continents, the location of lakes and mountains — is the same. And the flora and fauna is essentially the same (although Neandertals never hunted mammoths or other animals into extinction, and so they still flourish).

But all the details of culture are different. Gender roles, family structures, economic models, morals, ethics, religion, art, vices, and more are unique to each species. In what I hope will be a tour de force of world building, the Neandertal world will be as rich and as human as our own, but different in almost every particular. Although there is much diversity in modern human cultures, many themes recur in almost all of them, themes that can be traced back to our archaic Homo sapiens ancestors of 40,000 years ago: pair-bonding, belief in an afterlife, territorial defense, xenophobia, accumulation of wealth. The modern Neandertal society will have entirely different approaches to these and other issues, based on the their different evolutionary history.

For instance, humans are able to effectively communicate with words alone: language spoken in darkness, printed text, radio, telephone conversations, E-mail — all are possible because we can easily transcribe or transmit spoken sounds, and convey virtually our entire intended meaning with just these sounds. But there is much evidence that Neandertals would have had a substantially reduced vocal range compared to that of archaic humans — possibly meaning they, and their descendants, would have to supplement verbal communication with facial expressions and gestures. If their descendants developed books or telephones at all, they might only be useful for conveying limited kinds of information.

Meanwhile, some fossil sites suggest that only female Neandertals homesteaded, and males lived nomadic existences, interacting with females only to breed. Projected into the present day, such lifestyles might define radically different social arrangements, with most individuals having long-term same-sex partnerships (of two, or possibly more, individuals), and secondary other-sex relationships. Absentee fathers wouldn't necessarily be bad fathers, though: modern Neandertal society might be built around multiday holidays during which all work stops and rural males come into the cities to be with their offspring.

And, of course, all the background of daily life — here, in our universe, typified by such things as single-family dwellings, nine-to-five jobs, private automobiles, television, contract law, national allegiances, and war — would be completely different in the Neandertal world, a world equally advanced scientifically but in which individuals are much more physically robust, have larger brains (ancient Neandertal brains averaged 10% larger than those of Homo sapiens), are much less interested in colonizing and proselytizing, and are much better suited to living in cold, northern climates: the harsh lands that we know as Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, Scandinavia, and Iceland — sparsely populated in this universe — might be developed centers in the Neandertal world.

Neandertals and humans differ genetically by only 0.5% (whereas humans and chimpanzees differ by 1.4%); incorporating the latest anthropological research to develop a modern, technological Neandertal culture, the book will illuminate what it means to be human.

The portal between the two universes has been opened accidentally, by the creation not in this world but rather in the Neandertal one of a giant quantum-computing facility (quantum computers — currently in development — access alternate universes to almost instantly solve otherwise intractable mathematical problems).

The contact could not have come at a more propitious time. In both universes, Earth's magnetic field is collapsing — a prelude to a polarity reversal. Such reversals have happened many times during our planet's geologic history. They occur without any discernible periodicity, and can last as little as two thousand years or as long as 35 million years (the current normal-polarity period began 780,000 years ago; the preceding period of reversed polarity lasted from 980,000 to 780,000 years ago). The difference between reversed and normal polarity is trivial: compass needles point south during the former and north during the latter. But the transitional period is of great concern: during it, the magnetic field shuts down, and dangerous cosmic-ray particles that are normally deflected are free to bombard the Earth's surface.

Neither the Neandertals nor the Homo sapiens alone have the technology to prevent the collapse of the magnetic field, or, failing that, to protect their worlds during the transitional period — but, perhaps by pooling their differing scientific expertises, they will jointly be able to save both worlds.

The exchange of science and culture starts off promisingly enough, but then the Neandertals discover that we have depleted our ozone layer (which provides additional protection from cosmic rays) through our use of chlorofluorocarbons and petrochemical exhaust from automobiles. It becomes clear that the magnetic-field collapse actually presents a much greater threat to us than it does to them. On their world, the onslaught of cosmic rays will surely cause many cancers and mutations, but on ours, out-and-out mass extinctions — including, likely, that of Homo sapiens — will additionally occur.

The Neandertals have learned of our history of expansionism and warfare (something they don't share). Many of them fear if no solution to the magnetic-field collapse is found that we will try to forcibly invade their world with its intact ozone shield — it is, after all, the only other habitable planet that we could possibly escape to.

Continued contact between the two universes is at the Neandertals' discretion, not ours: shutting off their quantum-computing facility will almost certainly sever the link, closing the portal. And once they learn that 40,000 years ago in this universe, our kind drove their ancestors to extinction, will they want to help us? Or, indeed, will they feel justified in letting us die — just as we let their kind die in our own past? Homo sapiens will have to prove its humanity, if it is going to be saved.

Neandertal Parallax will be an ultimately uplifting novel of first contact, speculative anthropology, world-building, and cutting-edge quantum theory, with the potential for a sequel or ongoing series.


That outline was written the year the World Science Fiction Convention was in Melbourne, Australia — and Carolyn and I went down under for five and a half weeks. I vacillated about doing a trilogy, or just a standalone, for much of that period, and talked with my editor David G. Hartwell about it at the Worldcon (during a wonderful lunch at which we were joined by Stephen Baxter). When I got back to Canada, I called Ralph Vicinanza, and told him to go for a trilogy contract, based on the existing outline.

Ralph did just that. It took some time — we were asking for a substantial amount of money — but the deal was finally closed on November 1, 1999, with me getting everything I wanted.

I spent the next three and half months doing nothing but research on Neanderthals. On February 16, 2002, the idea of opening the novel deep in the nickel mine housing the real Sudbury Neutrino Observatory occurred to me, and the next day I wrote the first words of the first book in the trilogy, a prologue (which ultimately got thrown out) designed to explain the origins of the subterranean nickel, and how it led to physics labs being built on the same site in our version of Earth and the Neanderthal one:

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.

It was a beginning (even if not a very good one), and from there I was off to the races, writing 2,000 new words every day until I had a first draft. Meanwhile, I set about visiting various experts on Neanderthals, including Philip Lieberman of Brown University (who noted that Neanderthals probably couldn't say the ee phoneme, a fact I make much of in the trilogy), Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History (whose talk "The Origin of the Human Capacity," a transcript of which I'd found online, had introduced me to the concept of the Great Leap Forward — the dawn of human consciousness — which I gave a quantum-mechanical twist in the series), and Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan, himself an SF fan, who believes that we co-opted Neanderthal DNA into our own through interbreeding.

As I write these words, the first week of January 2003, I've just finished the final revisions on Hybrids, the third book in the trilogy. In preparing this essay, I re-read the above outline for the first time in over three years, and am surprised by how much grew from that tiny seed. I'm really proud of how the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy turned out, but I was more than a little surprised when I got an E-mail from Moshe Feder, who had replaced Jim Minz as David Hartwell's assistant, saying that David would be happy to contemplate a fourth Neanderthal book ...

I was flattered, but felt that would be wrong. I'd wrapped up the story, and I was ready to move on to another challenge.

Now, all I have to do is figure out a new answer to that ever-vexing question, "What's next?"

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How trilogies happen

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