Fiction Reviews


(2003) Robert J. Sawyer, Tor, US$6.99, pbk, 334 pp, ISBN 0-765-34675-3

This has yet (as of 2004) to come out in the UK and Europe but I dare say that a publisher keeping an eye on the Hugo Award winners (and a couple of the runners up) will want to publish this fairly soon as its prequel, Hominids (which we've already reviewed) won the 2003 Hugo for best novel. Please check out this review as I will take those comments as read and proceed from there...

Because Hominids won the Hugo - or is it because the Hugo is a fan-voted award? - I am sure that it and Humans will do very well when they finally make it this side of the Pond. As is revealed by our penetrating interview with the man, ironically it was a Brit publisher who urged Sawyer to do the Neanderthal Parallax in the first place but failed to pick it up or anything else the man has done recently. This has much to do with the (early 21st century) parlous state of SF publishing this side of the Pond which in turn relates to the genre's poor marketing and presentation in the UK. So we have to wait or even miss out on works of proven popularity in North America but these can at least be imported.

Now, about Humans. It is the second volume of Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax. Unfortunately you do need to read Hominids first for unlike some trilogies this one really is one novel split into three, albeit three distinct parts, as opposed to three related stories. It takes forward the story of human-neanderthal interaction through a portal between two universes; ours and a parallel Earth in which H. sapiens sapiens died out while H. neanderthalensis survived to create its own technical civilization.

At this point in the story the civilizations on both sides of the portal have accepted that the other exists. Both feel threatened and yet at the same time recognise there are opportunities. Meanwhile, the protagonists are getting on with their lives. The Neanderthal Ponter Boddit and Human Mary Vaughan develop their relationship and get it off (don't worry it was predictable from the first volume just as it is that she will have a child in the third volume Hybrids (I guess (but what if I'm wrong..?) JC bites nails to elbow). As with Sawyer's work much of the plot is by-the-numbers: there are those on both sides for contact and those against. However the joy is in the new world and society that Sawyer has created. I am not a palaeontologist as Sawyer is but I have done some palaeo-ecology, especially palaeoclimatology, as I come from an environmental and ecological background. So it was not only interesting to read Sawyer's portrayal of a fictional Neanderthal world, but it was fascinating to see how his science holds up and doubly so since he and I have a different academic background. It is a pleasure to report that the fictional world he portrays does hold up in terms of a Darwinian and ecological perspectives. This is not to say that he is right, we are discussing fiction here, but it is to say that he has come up with one (of a possible number of) likely what-if options. This actually says a lot as there is very little SF that actually does this. Even Dune which is rightly praised for recognising the value of including an ecological dimension - and so is an important landmark book for science in SF - is actually has a poorly thought out ecology (some non-ecologists may consider this blasphemy but tough). And as for lesser works, there is so much crap science in SF, that it is a real pleasure to find someone has actually gone to the trouble of doing the research. Indeed I personally know that Sawyer does the leg work for on returning to the UK from the 2003 Worldcon, in Sawyer's home city of Toronto, it transpired that the director of the Creighton Mine Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was due to give a lecture at the Royal Society, London. (I have been known, sad creature that I am, to occasionally attend their lectures and symposia) and so I e-mailed the Director with a few pointers as to what to look out for when visiting Carlton House Terrace, and mentioned that Sawyer just won the Hugo for Hominids which featured his observatory. He replied that he knew Sawyer who had gone to him when researching for the trilogy. So there you have it, corroborative evidence of an author doing the leg work.

OK. I won't spoil the plot. I can say that if you found the first book interesting (or even only mildly interesting as I did) then you will get more off on the second (which I found definitely interesting). There is a clear tension between the two worlds and though the cultural exchange continues, so the political tension between the two grows. The 'crime' Ponter commits indicated at the end of the first book is not the one you think, though Sawyer laid the logic out for you in the first volume. (Damn, I really hate it when that happens - too much speed reading and not enough engaging brain; which is why I took more care over reading Humans, though did it in fewer (three) sittings.) Big cliff hanger for me is the imminent magnetic reversal of the Earth's field which is clearly all wrapped up in the split into two parallel Earths. Sawyer could play this a number of ways (but I'm going with a variation on number '7' 'cos that's the kind of guy I am). I can't give you more hints than that as I've not read the third volume as it was only just out in hardback (weighing three paperbacks) when I was at the Canadian Worldcon.

Meanwhile, until some Western European publisher brings this trilogy out over here you will either have to check out a specialist bookshop or get it imported, or hope that someone at the (currently) forthcoming 2005 Worldcon will have it in the dealers' hanger. Sorry about that. Still I mention this as an unsubtle hint to either a publisher or book dealer to get these across here. (Living in Europe can have the disadvantages of living on IVa settee II with none of the benefits. Ah, well.)

Jonathan Cowie

Robert Sawyer is interviewed elsewhere on the site (but does not mention his Fireball XL5) and there are (so far) the following reviews of his books: Calculating God, Factoring Humanity, Frameshift, and Hominids.

[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 04.15.30 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]