Reviewed: September 13, 2002
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
444 Pages, $35.95

Alternate worlds and other dimensions are pretty common stuff in science fiction. I first recall running across them in the works of the great Andre Norton (Quest Crosstime and many other juvenile works) shortly after I discovered 40¢ paperback novels. Television sci-fi fans may recall the reasonably successful adventure series, Sliders, which allowed its producers to play with “alien” cultures without having to create expensive sets by shuffling its core cast around the dimensions.

Comic book fans will be familiar with Earths 1, 2 and 3 (along with many others) from DC comics and Earth X from Marvel.

I mention all this up front because I don’t want anyone getting the impression that this part of the premise in Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel is earth-shakingly new. It’s not. But, as the old song says, “it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it; that’s what gets results.” And Sawyer’s results are very good.

Sawyer’s notion is one of diverging time lines. If you want a full explanation of what he has in mind, you can consult the reader’s guide at his web site (www.sfwriter.com), but the quick and dirty version is that sometimes when history could go one of two ways it goes both, and parallel versions of events exist a heartbeat away in time.

The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, of which Hominids is the first volume, takes up the notion that there is a universe in which it was Homo neanderthalensis, rather than Homo sapiens, which survived the evolutionary cut. Theirs is a world populated (rather sparsely by our standards) by gentle carnivores who live in much smaller urban centres than we can imagine and whose sexual drives are much more biologically ordered than ours. Their thought patterns are sufficiently different from ours that they have no problem wearing in-grafted computer devices (called Companions) which not only link them to their version of the world-wide web but also effectively place each and every one of them under 24 hour surveillance.

In our world the depths of the Creighton Mine in Sudbury are home to a neutrino observatory. In the other world the same area is home to an experiment in quantum computing. When something goes wrong with that experiment a small cubic portion of the two universes change places. it just happens that Ponter, the man who designed the experiment, is within the perimeter of the area which is swapped for a similar area in our world. Ponter finds himself inside the heavy water sphere in the Sudbury Neutrino Lab, trying to find enough of the air that came with him to breathe.

The workers in the lab find their very expensive equipment breaking down and have to figure out what went wrong. When they find Ponter the discovery raises more questions than it answers.

In our world we have Ponter playing stranger in a strange land, along with a cast which includes a number of scientists and technicians, and Mary Vaughn, one of the world’s leading experts on Neanderthals. Mary is also a recent rape victim, though she hasn’t told anyone yet. For her, having to study a live, very robust male specimen poses some difficult problems.

In Ponter’s world meanwhile, his male-mate and scientific partner has been accused of murder. The accident took place in one of the few areas on the planet where the monitoring system doesn’t work, and Ponter’s female-mate (relationships are complicated where sex is strictly a cyclical biological imperative) has decided that Adikor must have killed his partner in a fit of rage. Adikor actually has a chemical imbalance which is controlled by drugs and that makes it easier for her to sell this idea to their version of the courts, where the onus is on the accused to disprove the claim.

In this initial volume Sawyer paints an almost idyllic picture of the Neanderthal’s world when compared to ours. It is, in many ways, more advanced, less compromised, and more reasonable. The inhabitants are certainly more in tune with the planet, even if they are meat eaters, and are generally less violent, a necessity given the fact that they are immensely more physically powerful than we are. He has indicated that we will be seeing more of the negative aspects of their culture in the remaining two books.

In the meantime I’m happy to report that this is not one of those trilogies which will have you suffering from what some call bookus interruptus in between volumes. Hominids is self-contained and its major plot lines are nicely wrapped up at the end of the story; even though there are lots of things left to explore and compare, there are no cliff-hangers here.