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Book Report: Hominids

A couple of weeks ago, Your Humble Blogger had occasion to note recent Hugo-winning novels, and the one that looked most intriguing was Hominids. I picked it up at the library, and it was a pretty quick and enjoyable read. For those who haven’t read it, the basic plot is that a portal is opened up to an alternate universe where it was Neanderthal, not Homo Sapiens, that became the only civilized and intelligent race. A Neanderthal gets abandoned in this world (or a near analogue thereof), and the plot pretty much centers on who gets to have sex with him first.

I’ve read no previous or subsequent books by Robert J. Sawyer, so I have no sense of which aspects of the book are his own hobby-horses. I found the creation of Neanderthal world fascinating, and the various speculative bits of our own world were pretty swell, too. And, of course, it had that old-fashioned thing that YHB once described as “[I]t’s a science what-if, the main characters are scientists, and the plot involves the working out of scientific and social consequences of the what-if.” I would distinguish that from the, er, hardness of the SF in question; A Fire Upon the Deep was hard as heck, but had no scientists working out any scientific consequences. Well, not much. Anyway, I’m less interested in the question of what constitutes Hard SF, and more interested in the question of what I like, and I think I like the Asimovian stuff I grew up with quite a bit. There are lots of other things I like, but I suspect that Asimov imprinted on my young consciousness the idea of Science! being the nub of the question.

Not, bye the bye, that Mr. Sawyer entirely gives a pass to what I’d consider gratuitous character development. In fact, one of the prongs of the plot really hinges on a very atmospheric and intense battering at a character’s, um, character. Well, and that wasn’t gratuitous, but there was some of that, too, and it didn’t bother me. What did bother me was the nasty misanthropy, of the typical 70s “humans are soulless, greedy, vicious wasters who—haw, haw—believe in a Divine Creator!” type, and the humans, as they did in the 70s, sort of slap their foreheads and say “why didn’t we think of that?” I suspect that Mr. Sawyer thinks he is being even-handed, and his human main character maintains her faith despite having no argument whatsoever against the Stranger’s contemptuous atheism. But he isn’t. However his actual sympathies lie, the book comes off as pro-Neanderthal to a ludicrous extent.

I suspect that the next book will feature the human venturing into the Neanderthal world, and perhaps we will get an examination of the ways in which the apparent utopia falls short. There are glimpses already: there is no art other than design, none of what we might call “entertainment”, a state with theoretical power far beyond what humans would accept (and capable not only of error, but of miscarriage and manipulation), misogyny or whatever the Neanderthal equivalent would be, and generally a vastly narrower scope for life. And perhaps the human will become suddenly eloquent when faced with these things, and it will be the Neanderthal who is tongue-tied. That would be interesting to read. But in the book I’ve actually read, it’s not.

I don’t want to leave this note on that angle, though, as it really was an entertaining book, and the plot is handled nicely, and I finished it with a strong intention of reading more by the author. However, as YHB may have mentioned, it’s much easier to write hatchet jobs than puff pieces.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

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