Reviewed: September 24, 2004
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
394 pages, $34.95
Hybrids is the final volume of Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. The first volume, Hominids, introduced us to a new world where the relative positions of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were reversed some forty thousand years ago. In that world we are extinct and the barasts, as they call themselves, are the dominant species on the planet. They are much less numerous than we are and not dependent on agriculture. They do not have really large cities and their reproductive cycles are ruled by biological imperatives that dictate a much different set of living arrangements and sexual practices.
This is not just about describing another way of life, another avenue of human development. This is about having the two divergent streams meet. Two kinds of research, being carried on in identical geographic locations deep in the mines of what we call Sudbury, make it possible to open a rift between what turn out to be two dimensions, separated by a heartbeat and yet having more than a world of difference.
Hominids was the first book, and in it Ponter Boddit was the stranger in our strange land, the first being to cross the dimensional barrier. In Humans, Mary Vaughn, the geneticist who confirmed the reality of Ponter's species to our world, is the first human to spend time in the Neanderthal world.
Over the course of those books the two developed a relationship which has made a big difference in each of their lives and has proved challenging. Mary has to overcome rape trauma and Ponter has to try and understand a different way of looking at relationships. Both are dealing with a member of an extinct species and both keep tripping over customs and emotions.
(Hominids, by the way, won a Hugo Award for best Novel in 2003, and Humans was nominated for 2004.)
In Hybrids, a number of plot threads finally make a pattern. Mary's rapist, with whom Ponter dealt in book two, is inadvertently responsible for making sure that the Barast world will not be endangered by contact with humanity. There is the possibility of a plot, which we could see the seeds of earlier, which might have seen humans spewing their surplus population into Ponter's largely empty world and raping it of the resources that the Barasts have not used up.
There is a question of religion, which is something that has never entered a Barast mind, at least, not in the way it enters human minds. Neanderthals are rigorously scientific and practical, and do not appear to be biologically hard wired to experience any sense of the divine. Sawyer combines some recent research on mental states with some speculation about the Aurora and the Earth's magnetic field to suggest an origin for religion that some may find offensive.
Sawyer likes to play with religion in a number of ways. In an earlier book an alien race came to Earth with proof positive that we live in a created universe, with an absolutely logical belief in a supreme being. An even earlier book featured a scientist who came up with measurable proof for the existence of a soul.
There is a question of relationships. Mary plans to move to Ponter's world full time, but the social arrangements there are such that they cannot live together except at a certain time of the month. Mary will have to live with the women at the urban core of their city while Ponter lives with his man-mate, Adikor, in what we might think of as the suburbs. Sharing lovers across gender lines is a concept Mary has to wrestle with, but she has no family in her world, and Ponter would have to leave his children and his complicated web of significant others to go live in hers.
There is a question of conception, and it is here that, for the first time, we begin to see a darker side to the Barast world, which has generally been portrayed as superior to ours. They have been ruthless about weeding out violent genetic traits. They all carry computer linked implants which hook them up to a sort of planetary internet, but also monitor their every action. They simply forbid certain lines of scientific inquiry.
Put all of these elements together and you have a story which provokes a lot of thought while also leading to an exciting denouement.
Since Hominids won the Hugo, a number of Sawyer's older books have come back into print, and you can bet there will be more news of the doings between humans and barasts sometime in his future.