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Hominids

by Robert J. Sawyer

A blurb on the jacket of Hominids, the latest novel from Toronto science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, suggests that he be considered “Canada’s answer to Michael Crichton.” Talk about damning with faint praise. While the financial implications of the comparison are attractive, Sawyer utterly outstrips Crichton with the richness of his imagination, the breadth of his research, and his skills as a writer.

Hominids begins with the discovery of a Neanderthal at a scientific research site near Sudbury. The discovery is not a fossil, but a living – and well evolved – Neanderthal physicist named Ponter Boddit, an accidental visitor from a parallel world where Neanderthals evolved instead of Homo Sapiens. Boddit was transported here when his own scientific research went awry. The scientific rationale behind the transport is complex and speculative, but Sawyer does a remarkable job of making it easy for lay people to follow. While much of the novel focuses on Boddit’s experiences in our world, Sawyer also tells the simultaneous story of Boddit’s partner Adikor Huld, who finds himself on trial for murder following Boddit’s disappearance from the Neanderthal world.

The Neanderthal society is richly imagined and convincing. Sawyer has studied the anthropological and evolutionary underpinnings of human society and extrapolates a fully rendered Neanderthal society from the anthropological and fossil record of that species. Everything, from gender relations to religious ideas, from issues of privacy to conflict and urban planning, is given close scrutiny.

But Hominids, despite its weighty theoretical underpinnings, is more than just an intellectual exercise. Sawyer takes tremendous care in the creation of his characters, particularly Boddit and Huld. Their relationship gives the novel an emotional weight that never stoops to melodrama or pathos. Some of the human characters, especially the women, aren’t always as convincing, but this is partially due to the intensity of the reader’s emotional investment in the Neanderthals.

Hominids is the first novel of the planned trilogy The Neanderthal Parallax, and as such leaves key storylines dangling. It is, nevertheless, a highly satisfying novel in its own right.