SF Book Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
This first book in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy tackled a lot of interesting ideas and touched on some interesting subjects. Unfortunately, I had trouble reconciling Sawyer’s high-concept plot with his flimsy and contradictory characters. Much of the book came across as unnecessarily preachy, and by the end of the trilogy it was more like beating a dead horse. Of the three, Hominids was the most intriguing novel and ultimately why I chose to continue with the trilogy. Humans did little for me, and felt a bit like a bridge between #1 and #3 and nothing else. Hybrids had potential, but I think the plot got bogged down in Sawyer’s extreme social commentary. This review is mainly of Hominids, although I can’t promise that the other two novels aren’t colouring my perception of it in hindsight.
I have no issues with the science behind Hominids. Granted much of it went over my head, and I’m not much of a hard-SF fangirl to begin with. But it didn’t get in my way, and Sawyer seems to have a good grasp of the concepts that he’s employing. I just went along with it, for the most part. I did find it interesting to read now that we have a little better understanding of prehistoric relations between human and Neanderthal than at the time that was published. For example, studies are showing that most people of European decent actually have some Neanderthal DNA which contributes to our ability to fight certain kinds of cancer and other diseases. Neanderthal may have been absorbed by modern humans rather than wiped out. Interesting, but inconsequential to this review 😉
My issue with Hominds is really an issue with Mary. A Catholic geneticist studying human evolution? Her attachment to the Catholic church makes absolutely no sense. Her work flies in the face of her religion, yet she somehow manages to make excuses for the inconsistencies in her belief as far as it is needed for her professional self. Meanwhile, she gives her personal self little leeway, being ashamed of using birth control throughout her failed marriage and refusing to divorce her estranged husband for fear of excommunication. Throughout the novel she steadfastly defends the more ridiculous notions of her religion with a blindness that is disturbing to witness in a supposed scientist.
And Mary is not the only religious scientist in the novel. I don’t think there was a single atheist character, other than the Neanderthals. As if being human and being religious were one and the same. As an atheist, I found this a little hard to understand and, frankly, to stomach. I couldn’t tell if Sawyer was intentionally pointing out the inconsistencies between religious belief and scientific progress, or if he is himself struggling with two opposing world views and using his confused characters to sort out his own issues. Mary’s confusion distanced me from her and really just ended up being irritating.
Her religiosity is not the only issue. Mary is fickle in her moods and opinions, continually on the defensive about her own position, closed minded, and shallow. This is really difficult to reconcile with what we are told of her being a brilliant scientist. She comes across as a caricature of a woman: jealous and suspicious of attractive females, angry at all men for the failures of a few, constantly insecure about her own body, etc.
Her relationship with the Neanderthal Ponter Boddit is confusingly shallow. It is as if she becomes attracted to him solely because of her negative experiences with human males, whom she blames for all of the world’s problems. This becomes more of an issue in the later novels when we are asked to believe in their relationship without any kind of understanding of what attracts each to the other. But in Hominids it’s more superficial. Why would a woman who has been recently raped be attracted to the biggest, most masculine male she finds? Granted, Ponter is a gentle giant. But Mary often comments on his size, his strength, even his massive penis (which she catches a glimpse of one morning), while at the same time she seems to be repulsed by masculinity in her own species.
The subplot occurring in the Neanderthal world is really what kept this book alive for me. Ponter’s observations of our world are interesting at first, but quickly come across as preachy (not in Ponter’s voice but in the author’s). While things are different in the Neanderthal world, they clearly would not be suitable solutions for our own. And there are obvious issues with the Neanderthal way of life as well, as we see in Adikor’s legal fight after the disappearance of Ponter. Hominids provides the best balance between the two worlds where, increasingly throughout the trilogy, Sawyer seems to lean towards idealization or idolization of his own creation in the Neanderthal society.
Overall, I think Hominids is definitely worth the read. The trilogy itself is pretty quick and easy, and I don’t regret finishing it. But there are some serious flaws in the characterization that make it difficult to be truly satisfied with the outcome of the plot.