Review: Hominids by Robert J. SawyerSaturday, June 21, 2008 16:00
I might never have gotten to this book if it weren’t for reading a relatively negative review of it recently. The reviewer seemed to say, at least to my mind, that Robert J. Sawyer is a bit of a weenie with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And since I tend to like my science fiction on the weenie–the technical term is “soft”–side rather than the typical non-weenie “hard” SF, I thought that Hominids might actually be a book I could get into without having to read through millions of paragraphs worth of scientific infodumping I didn’t understand. Thankfully, my instincts were correct, and I found myself immediately drawn in by this fascinating story.
The premise here is that Ponter Boddit, a quantum physicist from a parallel universe in which Neanderthals, not our own Cro-Magnon men, evolved and became the dominant race, is doing some intense calculations via his supercomputer, when things go very, very wrong and he ends up going through a gateway into our universe. He baffles our own scientists, and ends up befriending middle-aged geneticist Mary Vaughan, the recent victim of a brutal rape, and alternately learning much about this new place he’s found and teaching his new friends about how things work on his home planet. Meanwhile, his partner, Adikor, is brought forth on charges of murder since Ponter disappeared and there is no way to contact him via the companion implant embedded in his wrist. Adikor could prove what really happened, if he could only get back into his lab, but he’s been prevented from doing so, and must struggle to prove his innocence.
Fish out of water stories are favorites of mine. This was no exception. I loved Ponter, and even though we don’t get much time in his head, I could appreciate his struggles with the fact that he is alone, that no other Neanderthals exist in our universe, and it’s unlikely he’ll get to come home. I also thought that the reactions by the rest of the world to Ponter were pretty much dead on.
I have to say that I really loved that Ponter’s society isn’t perfect either. Poor Adikor, Ponter’s colleague and partner, pretty much has a hopeless time trying to prove his innocence. See, everyone in this society has companion chips, which record what they’re doing every second of the day. People take it for granted, and Sawyer manages to make it seem like a completely normal, non-invasive thing. But the downside is that “innocent until proven guilty” is a concept that the Neanderthals simply don’t have.
Ponter’s story and Adikor’s flow together seamlessly, though it’s actually Adikor’s story that’s more interesting, plot-wise. After a while, it feels as if all Ponter, Mary, and Mary’s colleagues do is talk, and sometimes, yes, the talk does get weighed down with scientific explanations that, while they made sense, sometimes felt a little bit like Sawyer’s attempt to incorporate as much research as he could into the story.
I actually thought the romance between Ponter and Mary was cute, although their HEA at the end isn’t really guaranteed. I really loved watching them grow to respect and trust each other, and I certainly intend to read the sequel to see if that subplot ever gets resolved to my satisfaction.
The story has its flaws. It was originally serialized in Analog Magazine, and essentially just kind of copied and pasted into one novel, so periodically there will be passages that summarize everything that’s just come before. I also could have done with a bit less infodumping, and a bit more depth to some of the characters, but this is very much a readable book, and it won the Hugo Award, which is the most prominent award in science fiction. I can’t disagree with the judgment of the Hugo voters and I definitely intend to keep following Mr. Sawyer on this particular ride.
Hominids examines two unique species of people. We are one of those species; the other is the Neanderthals of a parallel world where they became the dominant intelligence. The Neanderthal civilization has reached heights of culture and science comparable to our own, but with radically different history, society and philosophy.
Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidentally pierces the barrier between worlds and is transferred to our universe. Almost immediately recognized as a Neanderthal, but only much later as a scientist, he is quarantined and studied, alone and bewildered, a stranger in a strange land. But Ponter is also befriended—by a doctor and a physicist who share his questing intelligence, and especially by Canadian geneticist Mary Vaughan, a woman with whom he develops a special rapport.
Ponter’s partner, Adikor Huld, finds himself with a messy lab, a missing body, suspicious people all around and an explosive murder trial. How can he possibly prove his innocence when he has no idea what actually happened to Ponter?
You can read an excerpt here