Hominids by Robert Sawyer
List Price: $25.95
- 448 pages (May 2002)
Tor; ISBN: 0312876920
Review by Asta Sinusas
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Discovery of a body – whether caveman or mammoth – frozen in ice for millennia usually sets the world on fire. The media respond with great fervor to the finding and the knowledge fires the imagination. One of the questions that inevitably gets asked, especially in the wake of Jurassic Park, is “What would happen if the body were brought back to life?” In Hominids, the first in a trilogy called The Neanderthal Parallax, author Robert Sawyer explores the possibility of a parallel universe – one in which Neanderthals are the main human species and Sapiens have died out – and what happens when a living Neanderthal happens to cross over to our world.

It all starts with some nuclear experiments being tested in a Canadian zinc mine, away from outside influences that occur on the surface of the planet. In a parallel universe, Neanderthals are experimenting in the same zinc mine with quantum computing. Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, decides to go out into the computing floor and lean on a malfunctioning register in order to get it to work. This leads to an instantaneous switch and the contents of the computing room — including the air and Ponter — are displaced with the heavy water from the nuclear test site in our universe. Memories of 1984’s Iceman with Timothy Hutton come to mind although in this case, Ponter’s wrist implant computer – called a Companion - quickly picks up English and is soon able to translate for him with the Sapiens. Meanwhile Adikor Huld, Ponter’s friend in the Neanderthal universe, is quickly brought to trial for the disappearance and potential murder of his more brilliant colleague. All he has to prove his innocence is a sample of water that somehow replaced his colleague. It turns out that Sapiens believe in afterlife and have moral codes because of the threat of punishment in the hereafter. However, Neanderthals believe that there is nothing beyond death, and therefore no chance for later redemption, so they only get one chance to live right and the penalties for not living morally are just as strict. Adikor is running out of time, Ponter is nowhere to be found, and no one will believe him when he tells them where the body is.

Sawyer’s stories, the ones he sets in Canada and not some dinosaur-populated world, ring so clearly through my head because they are perfect representations. Whether it is the endless concrete of York University, the government ministry that will involve themselves with the scientists, or Ontario agency, because of cutbacks by Premier Mike Harris, can’t help Sawyer’s characters to the full degree they require. I think, were I ever homesick for Canada, these are the books I would ask for, because the descriptions are so accurate, they immediately create vivid mental pictures of the Great White North.

While a remarkable story, the parallels between Hominids and Calculating God, Sawyer’s last book with Tor, seem clear. In fact, Sawyer is starting to overuse his own formula: Alien comes to Earth, creates an uproar in the media, discusses life and religion with scientist. Certainly unique, I nevertheless eagerly await the next novel in the series, currently titled Humans, in which the Sapiens cross over into the Neanderthal world. The revelations in the first book - vacuum sealers instead of refrigeration, emphasis on pheromones as an additional component of human expression, and Companions that are implanted in the wrist that act as translator, health monitor and database connection all in one – certainly deserve more explanation. Their appearance would show how some of the same inventions we have overlooked might have been incorporated into daily life. In the case of pheromones, the inability to snore, or pronounce the “ee” sound, these body functions have been genetically bred out of our species. Darwin and Edison would have a field day in this parallel universe, and hopefully Sawyer will do the same. In the meantime, whether American or Canadian, Hominids is a fun read for Sapiens and Neanderthals alike.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu