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 I’m 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, it’s 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 Sudbury’s neutrino observatory.

Ponter’s adventures while in our world were told in a fascinating “first contact” 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 hasn’t 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.

Ponter’s 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 Ponter’s world,, and her culture shock is easily the match of what he experienced in the first book.

Ponter’s people, you see, don’t 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. There’s lots of game because they haven’t tied up the land with agriculture and their population is very small compared to ours. The wedding feast for Ponter’s daughter is a fairly bloody affair.

I’m only catching some highlights here. There are lots of conflicts in this story: an attempted assassination of a visiting Neanderthal by a human, Mary’s 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 Ponter’s 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, “I’ve done a terrible thing.” Don’t you just have to read on after that?

(It’s maybe the best opening line since Ted Sturgeon wrote “They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium ...” in the book variously called The Synthetic Man or The Dreaming Jewels.)

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 didn’t have a book in contention, so Harry Potter fans would have to make due with a hairy Ponter.