Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review: Hominids

Robert J. Sawyer
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

In the documentary Wordplay, crossword-puzzle fan Jon Stewart admits that sometimes when he’s in a hotel he will do the USA Today puzzle. But, he says, “I don’t feel good about myself when I do it.”

I felt the same way about this book. It grabbed my attention right away and it read very easily and fast, but when it was done I didn’t feel good about myself for reading it.

Hominids has all the elements of a blockbuster best-seller: uncomplicated characters; carefully-paced rising tension; a crisis, pinch, and climax at precisely the right spots; resolution of conflicts so the good guys win; and a love story sideline. And it has just enough of a scientific veneer to qualify as science fiction.

The book is the first in Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy and sets up the premise for the whole series, which is that there exists a parallel universe in which Neanderthals became the dominant intelligent species on earth and homo sapiens was the species that died out. In the parallel universe, a couple of Neanderthal physicists conduct an experiment in quantum computing. There is an accident during the experiment causing one of them to get transported to our universe, where he lands in the middle of an experiment being conducted by a human physicist.

The human physicist spirits the Neanderthal physicist away to a doctor friend’s remote country house before the government can get its hands on him. The two humans call in a geneticist to make sure the Neanderthal, whose name is Ponter, is what they think he is and then the four of them hole up in the house to keep the press and the feds away while they figure out where Ponter came from and whether or not they can send him back home.

One of my major issues with the book is that the characters are pretty formulaic. Ponter, for example, is universally beloved in his own universe. He is kind and gentle and understanding at all times. The three humans who befriend him (the physicist, the geneticist, and the doctor) are all super-intelligent, earnest, straightforward, excellent at keeping confidences, and uniformly good-natured. So, also, are Ponter’s Neanderthal man-mate, his woman-mate, and his daughter back home.

Any opportunities for real internal crises are deftly skirted. One of the most troubling is that one of the key characters (the geneticist) is raped at the very beginning of the book. She decides to handle it by not telling anyone and going on as if nothing has happened. And while this clearly isn’t easy, and the memory of the rape comes up over and over again in her mind, she essentially all but recovers during the Neanderthal business (which spans maybe a week) and finds (thank goodness!) that she’s still attracted to men… or at least to beefy, well-endowed Neanderthals.

The other main issue I had was with the science. The New York Times is quoted on the cover of the hardcover first edition of this book saying, “Sawyer is a writer of boundless confidence and bold scientific extrapolation.” I would certainly agree with that, if by “scientific extrapolation” they mean “wild and contrived applications of perfectly decent theory.”

Many reviewers give the book kudos for being so thoroughly researched, and there certainly is a long bibliography at the end. But there’s no anthropologist among the main characters, and the science about Neanderthals that comes up either seems too pat and basic or too fanciful and wacky.

For example, the Neanderthals in the parallel universe have a much more peaceful and progressive culture than ours. They use solar energy, are all secular humanists, are practically crime-free, have intimate relationships with both women and men as a matter of course, never domesticated plants or animals to any great extent and so have hardly any pathogens, and are appalled by our wars and man’s inhumanity to man. It’s definitely a message of “O, what these noble savages could teach us!” Maybe it’s just my cynical homo sapiens nature coming out but it’s hard to believe all that would result from their inherently different biology. It’s also hard to imagine it working on a large scale with hardly any missteps or conflict.

And the explanations for the parallel universes, and for how they are supposedly going to bring Ponter home to the exact right single universe out of all the infinite possibilities, both just seemed silly. Even for a blockbuster best-seller.

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