© 2003 Robert Sawyer
“You manage to comfortably feed six billion people with plants?”
“Well, ah, no,” said Mary. “About half a billion people don’t have enough to eat.”
“That is very bad,” said Ponter, simply.
Why did humans kill off the Neanderthals? Nobody likes a scold. Researchers studying neutrinos are startled when a Neanderthal suddenly appears in the bowels of their laboratory, though not as surprised as he, who materialized into a tank of heavy water while conducting some quantum research of his own. Quantum research? Yes, this Neanderthal is no time-traveling caveman. He’s a scientist from a parallel world, one in which Homo sapiens is extinct and Neanderthals are the dominant species — and what they’ve accomplished puts humanity to shame. Hominids is the beginning of an intriguing yet maddening SF trilogy that I can’t help but wonder at even as I wince.
Sawyer uses a small group of viewpoint characters to tell a fast story. Two scientists in our world are responsible for taking care of their interspatial colleague “Ponter”, who has no idea what’s has no idea what’s happened to him and finds himself in a world that is utterly alien, yet mockingly familiar in terms of geography. He knows the landscape: it is his home, and yet these are not his people. Across the divide, one of Ponter’s coworkers is desperate to find out what happened to him, as in the wake of Ponter’s disappearances, the assumption is that he has been murdered…and the coworker is the only plausible suspect. Sawyer uses the two Neanderthal men to explore the differences between the societies that Sapiens and Neanderthalensis have created. Although the story itself has little dramas — the trial, Ponter’s attempts to communicate, the question of how his displacement occurred — anthropology carries the day, along with mystic physics and sketchy musings on consciousness.
By our standards, the Neanderthals have created a utopia wherein poverty, hunger, and crime are unknown, and technology is highly advanced even though the population is smaller and more widely dispersed. A global population of 185 million people is sustained on a diet of meat and fruit, and the only species human beings have driven extinct are themselves — Sapiens, are extinct on that world, and viewed as stupidly violent by Neanderthal anthropologists. Neanderthals live close to the Earth; literally, their beds are flush with the ground, and they use moss as their flooring. Their ways seem ancient, at times — a council of elders, called the Grays, are the leaders, and men and women live apart in separate groups for most of the month — but are also inseperable from modern technology. Therein lies a darker side to the utopia: violent crime isn’t an issue because violent offenders are castrated or sterilized, as are whichever members of their family share 50% of their DNA. Even those who carry an impulse toward violence are careful to keep it in check, because the odds of their being discovered are nearly perfect: all Neanderthals carry an implant which records everything they do (rather like the implants in The Final Cut, with Robin Williams) onto a data cube.
The novel puts forth a lot of interesting ideas, ideas which come from scholarly sources but are unlikely to find as broad an audience as an exciting novel might find. Because Ponter’s people never embraced agriculture, nor domesticated the attendant animals, they and he are not susceptible to diseases that were born in livestock and later spread to humans through close association. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel made the same point about native Americans: because they didn’t use cattle, horses, and pigs, they were never exposed their diseases until Europeans arrived in the Americas, pestilence in tow. Unfortunately, these ideas are presented with all the subtlety of a club to the head. The Mary-Sue esque lead character of Earth’s Children, Aayla, was a Sapiens woman raised by Neanderthals: she could do everything, perfectly, the first time. Little wonder: she must have been raised by Sawyer’s Neanderthals, because they’re just so gosh-darned wonderful. Ponter spends most of his time slack-jawed, not because he’s ignorant, but because he’s bewildered by the actions of people — people, with their smelly internal combustion engines, and their violent crime, and their patent failure to embrace birth control, and their gods and taboos. (Neanderthals are not only nonreligious, they’ve never had anything like religion and are utterly baffled by it. Their every measurement system is based on tens, with no religious calendars to bother with, so they’re a bit like beefy French revolutionaries.)
I tend to agree with the author on the merits of his Neanderthals, but they’re so overplayed and the Sapiens are so ridiculously weak that the constant preaching becomes obnoxious. Yes, I get it. Humans are terrible. But we have spunk! Sawyer’s humans don’t. When Ponter wanders and finds a Catholic character following the Mass on TV, he stands jaw agape at what she’s doing, and later schools Mary on why she’s irrational. And incredibly, Mary marvels at what a fool she’s been her entire life. She’s like a character from a Chick tract, and not any more believable. With the exception of one Neanderthal, most of the characters are sock puppets used to put forth arguments that lose interest when one realizes there’s no tension in them: there’s never a chance that the humans won’t go “Gosh, we’re so dumb.” And the one time that humans do something that impresses Ponter — going to the Moon, which he’s just flabbergasted by — he loses interest upon learning we did it once, decades ago, and for the trivial reason of proving the worth of economic systems. But he tries hard to make his new human companions think he’s still impressed, sounding for all the world like a parent presented with a crayola drawing of a box with legs from their child and marveling at it as though it’s a masterwork.
I like that Sawyer overturns expectations by having his Neanderthals be more intelligent than Sapiens: unfortunately, the expression thereof is just unbelievable. Even beyond the characters, his society itself strains credulity. How exactly did the Neanderthals build an advanced world society without agriculture? What is its material basis, considering how many resources it takes to sustain scientific enterprises in the 21st century? The Neanderthals don’t use fossil fuels, so how on Earth did they go from hunter-gathers to the scientific and industrial revolutions? They use solar power, fine — but what power did they use to produce the materials that solar plants need? I’m sort of hoping that the next book, Humans, or the third, Hybrids, will answer those questions…which is why, even though the series off to a problematic start, I’m planning to read more. Whatever its limitations, the central idea fascinates me.
If you’d like to read a sample, there’s a chapter available here.