Reviewed: September 3, 2003
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
384 pages, $9.99
Rob Sawyer is one happy Canuck this week. Hominids, the
first volume of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, the book which introduces
the worlds further explored in the volume Iím reviewing this week, has just
been given the Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of 2002.
Not only did he win the top prize at the annual World Science
Fiction Convention, but he got to do it in front of a home audience. Torcon
3, as it was called, was held in Toronto last weekend. Rob was clearly delighted
by the whole state of affairs.
On top of that an earlier novel, Illegal Alien, received
the Seiun Award, presented by Japanese S.F. fandom to the best translated
novel of the year.
Finally, his publisher moved up the release date of Hybrids,
the final volume in the series, so that it was actually launched at Torcon.
That made last weekend quite a time for the hometown boy.
Humans, the book on hand this week, takes place not too
long after the events in Hominids, in which it was discovered that
a parallel Earth populated by Neanderthals exists a heartbeat away from ours
in quantum space and time. Actually, itís the Neanderthals who make the discovery
when one of then, Ponter Boddit, ends up in the globe full of heavy water
which occupies the same space in our world where his has an experimental
quantum computer. This happens to be miles underground, at Sudburyís neutrino
Ponterís adventures while in our world were told in a fascinating
ďfirst contactĒ story. Meanwhile, back in his world, his partner, Adikor,
had to defend himself against charges that he had murdered his vanished man-mate.
It all worked out in the end.
Some time later Ponter manages to persuade the High Grey Council
to allow him to return to Gliksin (their name for us) Earth. He has a stack
of good reasons for this, but he hides one of the most personal and important
ones. While here he had become attached emotionally to Neanderthal specialist
Mary Vaughn, and he really wants to see her again.
Mary is in much the same state in our world, trying to settle
into a new life at a prestigious research institute while still coping with
the paranoia that lingers from her brutal rape in the first book. She hasnít
set that aside yet, nor has she dealt with as she knows she must, by reporting
it so that the rapist might be caught and others might be saved from what
happened to her.
Ponterís return to Earth brings this all the forefront of her
thinking again, but also allows for a further delay in her actions. Soon
she is caught up in the possibilities of interdimensional science. This time
it is Mary who gets to make the return trip to Ponterís world,, and her culture
shock is easily the match of what he experienced in the first book.
Ponterís people, you see, donít believe in any kind of God. They
have no sense of religion at all,, though they do have ceremonies. They wear
their consciences on their arms, so to speak, in the form of a computer implant
which not only connects them to their version of the world wide web, but
also records everything they do or say in the alibi archives.
Their society is organized around the very clear biological distinctions
between males and females and breeding is strictly controlled by custom.
All the women live together in the center of their cities, and the men live
in same-sex partnerships in what we would think of as country residential
suburbs. Ponter may be in love with Mary, but he also loves Adikor, his man-mate.
Neanderthals are pretty exclusively meat eaters, and they like
to catch and cook it for themselves. Thereís lots of game because they havenít
tied up the land with agriculture and their population is very small compared
to ours. The wedding feast for Ponterís daughter is a fairly bloody affair.
Iím only catching some highlights here. There are lots of conflicts
in this story: an attempted assassination of a visiting Neanderthal by a
human, Maryís internal conflicts, plots within the human government and debates
within the Grey Council. And, oh yes, something very odd is happening to
the Aurora Borealis.
As for Ponterís internal conflicts, this book is framed around
a series of discussions that he is having with a personality sculptor (a
Gliksin psychiatrist). The book begins with Ponter saying, ďIíve done a terrible
thing.Ē Donít you just have to read on after that?
(Itís maybe the best opening line since Ted Sturgeon wrote ďThey
caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the
high school stadium ...Ē in the book variously called The Synthetic Man or The
Robert J. Sawyer was especially pleased to win this year after
having been nominated six times in the past. Last year he was beaten by Harry
Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a judgment call that some felt was an
error, given that the latter book was not a science fiction novel. This year,
Sawyer noted, J.K. Rowling didnít have a book in contention, so Harry Potter
fans would have to make due with a hairy Ponter.