Robert J. Sawyer,
(Tor, 2002)

The human imagination, unsurprisingly, likes to place humans at the centre of the universe. Science, on the other hand, tries to dispel such delusions of grandeur. Thus Galileo displaced the Earth from the centre to the periphery, and Darwin left little room for the idea of humans as possessors of some grand destiny. But at least humans are undisputedly the dominant species on Earth -- of all the early hominids only we survived, giving us the claim to being the best. Robert J Sawyer in his latest book Hominids attempts to deprive us of even this consolation.

An experiment in quantum computing inadvertently transports a scientist from one universe to a parallel one. The scientist is Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal from a world in which Homo Sapiens died out in pre-historic times, leaving Neanderthals as the planet's dominant species. After a traumatic journey between universes Ponter awakens in our world where his kind are long extinct and Homo Sapiens are in charge.

The dramatic manner of Ponter's arrival conveys very well to the reader a sense of what it means for worlds to exist in parallel. On each of the worlds every point in space is mirrored exactly but events take a unique course. As he interacts with his new strange surroundings Ponter becomes that archetypal character of imaginative literature, the stranger through whose newly observant eyes readers are invited to re-examine their own world.

The practical and political consequences of a Neanderthal's arrival are well described and in a manner that does not allow them to slow the dynamics of the story or the development of its characters. Among these characters are those whom Ponter left behind in his world, and who face there severe legal and personal consequences resulting from his unexplained disappearance.

Typical of this novel's slick plot is the use made of a piece of Neanderthal technology that Ponter brings with him. This technological device is essential to the organization of Neanderthal society and plays a major part in the plot developments that occur in that world. Therefore the secondary use to which it is put in our world (as an aid to inter-species language communication) is uncontrived and successfully cuts out the annoying "me Tarzan" chest-thumping episodes that can so bog down "first-contact" stories.

Things are made interesting by the fact that the human scientist who befriends Ponter is a woman who has very recently been on the receiving end of an appalling act of random male violence. In the throes of the slow process of psychological recovery she nevertheless listens as Ponter tells about Neanderthal society and of how different it is from her own. A complex dialogue develops between the two of them, and while some of the differences between their worlds are stark, no simple answers emerge. Each species has its own way of dealing with anger, fear, jealousy and cruelty which, it seems, exist everywhere.

Hominids is the first volume in the projected The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. Already we have been shown how human society reacts to a visit by an alternative "human" and it will of course be interesting to see what happens when, as seems likely, the visit is reciprocated. Volume one has, in mountaineering parlance, created a secure base-camp preparatory to the forthcoming climb (in future volumes) into the high regions of Homo Sapien/Neanderthal species interaction. Adventures on the ascent are anticipated, as are breathtaking vistas from the summit.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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