Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
2003 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
The book’s synopsis had me quite worried at the start:
“During a quantum-computing experiment, Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidentally pierces the barrier between worlds and is transferred to our universe. He is almost immediately recognized as a Neanderthal, but only much later as a scientist. He is quarantined and studied, along and bewildered, a stranger in a strange land.”
– from the inside cover
Hominids was such an odd read and got off to a very shaky start for me. Parallel universe stories are not my favorite, AT ALL. Added to that was a decidedly pretentious author’s note intended to demonstrate how much research Sawyer had done – and no, Mr. Sawyer, I’m not interested in where to look if I want to learn more about Neanderthals. Then a decidedly male gaze (we are introduced to Louise as a lacy-bra-wearing, cosmo-reading-when-she-should-be-paying-attention-to-sciency-stuff, statuesque French-Canadian post-doc) left me thinking I had really stepped in it. I should have been more prepared, the dedication was to “Dude and The Other Dude” after all. Of course that was only the beginning of my woes, but I’ll get back to that because there was at least one element that had me smiling (not for long), and I don’t want to lose this fleeting positive attitude.
I’ve you’ve seen my reviews of Startide Rising and The Uplift War, you know that one of my favorite things about the Hugo Awards has been the extension of personhood to dolphins and monkeys. The jump from Neanderthal to Sapien probably isn’t much of a leap but it’s something, but expanding our sense of who we are and who else is “us”, even just a little, is a step in the right direction. And it’s a direction that I consider one of the most proper roles of science fiction.
Rape, religion, and everything else that made no sense.
While we’re on the topic of the proper roles of science fiction, let’s talk about one of the most contentious elements of the book, the rape of Mary Vaughan.
After reading +/-80% of the Hugo Novels, I’ve come to expect a nuanced and meaningful discussion of the interplay between technological and social progress from any Hugo winner. Instead, Sawyer completely misses an opportunity to discuss the unequal realization of the benefits of scientific advancements between men and women. Here I found myself excited at the possibility for a courageous discussion when Mary dashes back to the lab to collect any possible evidence. Skipping ahead though, rather than a treatment of the way that science allows us to bring to justice so many more rapists than ever before, or maybe instead of the frequency with which the justice system fails to do so despite clear evidence, Sawyer never returns to the evidence in the lab. In fact, Mary never really gives reporting the rape a second thought once she’s made her way into Ponter’s safe, gigantic – male – hands. Sawyer’s treatment of rape is problematic at best; his failure to return to the theme though, is inexcusable.
Then, there is the unexplainable religious debate between Mary and Ponter just days after Ponter finds himself in our universe, and while he still can’t speak English. The whole argument is completely flaccid and clearly propped-up by a desire to make Mary’s faith seem silly. More than the question of whether Mary’s beliefs were given a fair shake though, I just found myself exasperated that the entire conversation was even happening. Meanwhile, Reuben and Louise are either pounding each like they’ve been charged with repopulating the world, or else cooking meat in the back yard.
Needless to say, I found it completely ludicrous that after a Neanderthal inexplicably shows up on Earth and has subsequently been kidnapped, fallen deathly ill, quarantined, and learned English, all in a matter of days, that anyone it that house would act as they did. These were apparently serious and respected scientists in the midst of the greatest discovery in the history of the universe and the whole thing had the air of a Seinfeld episode with the added gravity of The Room.
Finally there is Sawyer’s apparent disdain for humanity. Here I’ll call into question precisely that which has been so hailed as Sawyer’s crowning achievement, the Neanderthal society. Sawyer from the beginning establishes a worldview which holds human social norms in pretty low regard, clearly in an effort to bludgeon his way to a human development story, but his apparent response is the creation of a Neanderthal universe which is clearly just as bad in every way. I actually thought there was the potential for an interesting question of free-will here, but trying to do too many things made any possible human development theme awkward and confused.
In particular, but among other things, I was thrown by his treatment of male-female sexual relationships. Sex for Reuben/Louise was just inappropriate, and in Mary’s case, it’s a tool for violence. Sawyer’s response is basically akin to an abstinence only philosophy. Sure male-male sex seems to be good, but I don’t recall if there is even mention of female-female, and male-female is only allowed for procreation…and we all know how well that works.
Worst of all, Sawyer never returns to Mary’s rape. Well he does, but simply and vaguely to move her past her rape and “into the future”. In the absence of further discussion, Sawyer appears to use rape simply to create drama. This is of course a frequent use of rape in popular culture, but inexcusable nonetheless. For this reason alone (but the other issues don’t help Hominid’s cause), I would hesitate for a long while before recommending this book to anyone.
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Scientific Wonders 3/5