Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
Published: Tor, 2002
Series: Book 1 of the Neanderthal Parallax
Awards: Hugo Award
Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Book:
Hominids examines two unique species of people. We are one of those species; the other is the Neanderthals of a parallel world where they became the dominant intelligence. The Neanderthal civilization has reached heights of culture and science comparable to our own, but with radically different history, society and philosophy.

Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidentally pierces the barrier between worlds and is transferred to our universe. Almost immediately recognized as a Neanderthal, but only much later as a scientist, he is quarantined and studied, alone and bewildered, a stranger in a strange land. But Ponter is also befriended—by a doctor and a physicist who share his questing intelligence, and especially by Canadian geneticist Mary Vaughan, a woman with whom he develops a special rapport.

Ponter’s partner, Adikor Huld, finds himself with a messy lab, a missing body, suspicious people all around and an explosive murder trial. How can he possibly prove his innocence when he has no idea what actually happened to Ponter? “ ~from

Hominids is the first novel I’ve read by Robert J. Sawyer.  It stands on its own as a novel, but it pretty clearly leads into the sequel, Humans.

My Thoughts:
As a physicist myself, I was delighted when the story opened with the link between worlds appearing in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, under the nose of the post-doc Louise Benoit.  Physics continues to play a prominent role in the story, but Sawyer quickly takes it from the realm of real science to the realm of wild speculation.  In addition to physics, Sawyer’s story also relies on anthropology, specifically concerning the differences between Neanderthals and Humans.  Of course, his anthropological information also moves way past actual science into the realm of conjecture, as Sawyer creates his own modern Neanderthal society. 
Sadly, he does not spend much time at all explaining how the impressive technology of the Neanderthals was developed.  For instance, all Neanderthals have a ‘companion’ implanted in their wrist, which records their entire life as viewed from a short distance away.  When the characters discuss the companions, they give no detailed suggestions as to how it could actually work.  I found myself occasionally frustrated by Sawyer’s minimal treatment of his futuristic technology, in addition to the artistic license he took with accepted sciences.
The two parallel plotlines follow Ponter, as he learns about the human world, and his man-mate Adikor, who is left behind to deal with Ponter’s disappearance.  My favorite of the two stories was definitely Adikor’s.  Sawyer created an interesting modern Neanderthal society, though I wish the book allowed us to see more of it.  I found Adikor to be an engaging protagonist.  He is intelligent, active, and has interesting internal conflicts as a result of his place in his society.
The Neanderthal world contains a hunter-gatherer society extrapolated forward into modern times. Neanderthals are typically bisexual, and most have a mate of each gender.  They tend to live with their same-gender mate, and meet with the opposite-gender mate for a brief period each month.  The stable two-partner system created some interesting webs of social connections, but I didn’t really accept that strict gender separation was necessarily a positive thing.  The Neanderthals also practice basic eugenics, and they monitor everyone for every second of their life.  Strangely, Sawyer portrays the constant surveillance, strict gender roles, and genetic culling as positive aspects of society.  Adikor’s story does illustrate some flaws in their community, but the novel still comes across as strongly in favor of this oppressive regime.
In Adikor’s story, Adikor and Ponter are conducting a science experiment in a nickel mine, deep underground, when Ponter vanishes. Their Companions were unable to send recordings to the central database, so some believe that Adikor lured his man-mate into the mines in order to kill him unobserved.  Adikor must find a way to prove his innocence, or he will suffer terrible consequences.  The secondary characters involved, such as Ponter’s daughter Jasmel and Adikor’s accuser Daklar Bolbay (Ponter’s deceased woman-mate’s woman mate), are reasonably fleshed out and necessary to the plot.  They don’t receive a huge amount of attention in the narrative, but they are believable as individuals with their own fears and desires.  Overall, I enjoyed watching the workings of Neanderthal society as Adikor tried to save both Ponter and himself.
Ponter’s story in the human world is considerably less active.  He becomes acquainted with the humans, particularly Mary Vaughan, and learns about the differences between the two worlds.  This plotline had a tendency to become fairly preachy.  It is understandable that Ponter would have a rose-colored view of his home world, since he is lonely and homesick.  To some extent, his idealized view of Neanderthal society is tempered by the less than ideal events of Adikor’s storyline.  The humans, however, seem strangely determined to represent our world in the worst possible light.  Ponter even has to convince them to lighten up occasionally, by pointing out remarkable things our civilization has accomplished.  I sometimes found myself mentally arguing with the book, as the humans harped on our world’s ‘terrible’ societies, beliefs, and history.
The characters in Ponter’s story seemed much flatter than in the other plotline.  The three Human companions (geneticist Mary Vaughan, physicist Louise Benoit, and doctor Reuben Montego) mostly exist as Ponter’s soundboard.  They are essentially just people plucked by chance out of their normal life to interact with a Neanderthal.  The one with the largest role is Mary Vaughan, who becomes Ponter’s love interest.  At the very beginning of the book, she is raped by a stranger in a dark alley.  I kept expecting this to be necessary to the plot somehow, but, in the end, it just seemed gratuitous.  As far as I could tell, she was raped so that there could be a rape victim character, in order to add emotional weight to the anti-human arguments.  This really bothered me.  Furthermore, Mary is the religious character, a Catholic, though she seems oddly ignorant of her own religion. In a way, Mary is set up as religion’s inadequate advocate, just as the others are set up as humanity’s inadequate defenders.  As a result, humanity comes off looking the worse in every conversation, not because of any particular points that were made, but because it has such a poor defense.  I would have liked to see more depth to the human characters, instead of just seeing them as people who react to Ponter.
My Rating: 2/5
I appreciated the bits of physics and anthropology described in Hominids, and I’m generally willing to overlook some questionable science for the sake of a story. I enjoyed reading about the Neanderthal society, even while I thought it was kind of horrifying, and I found Adikor’s story very entertaining.  However, Ponter’s story mostly killed my enjoyment of the book.  Very little seemed to happen, and their conversations had a tendency to devolve into anti-human preaching.  I never really believed the human characters as individuals, since they didn’t really seem to have much depth to their personalities.  Ultimately, from my point of view, the interesting premise of the book was crushed by the preachiness of Ponter’s storyline.


  1. I was hooked on the first ... err ... few pages. The premise was, and still is, a very interesting one. I enjoyed with some amount of anticipation the whole technology around the portal between the worlds, and the initial few glimpses of the Neanderthal society. But then it fell completely flat to the extend that by the end of the book, I felt cheated, impassioned and the book contrived.

    The rape of Mary storyboard made no sense in the context of the book (perhaps it does in the wider context of the trilogy). The potential issues with religion and human society's beliefs remained largely unresolved, Neanderthal society ultimately horrific, nothing more than a slight deviation of fascist society, recalling the "Starship Troopers" controversy and the characters devoid of any ... well ... depth. Everything simply seemed a setup to show human society is defunct, irrational and mean. Is the Neanderthal society really the best utopia that Sawyer could come up with? I view it as a very feeble attempt to dislodge, disown and disregard religion through the very portrayal of Mary as a weak advocate. Inevitably Neanderthal society will emerge victorious. There is a silent acceptance on the part of Mary of the very same draconian ideas that threatens our own society today, neatly packaged as a natural "evolution" for the Neanderthals without any logical, dare I say even scientific, background to why this so. Why the character had to be raped, I still don't understand.

    I honestly fail to understand how it could have won the 2003 Hugo. There is nothing in "Hominids" that energizes me to continue with the series.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! Sounds like we did end up having similar complaints: the gratuitous rape scene, discrediting humanity/religion through a poor defense rather than any valid debate, and the glorification of a fascist regime. I agree with you about it seeming like "a setup to show human society is defunct, irrational and mean".

    Given the title of the final book ("Hybrids") and the romance setup between Mary and Ponter, I'm guessing that their relationship is important in the second two books. Maybe Mary's rape makes sense in context of that story, but I don't have any plans to read on and find out. I also agree that "Hominids" doesn't measure up as a work of fiction to most of the other Hugo-award-winning novels that I have read.

  3. This is a great review Allie. I'm preparing to write my own now and saw that you had reviewed it. is a tough nut to crack.