Robert J. Sawyer
Hominids Cover

Made of cardboard and research


Robert Sawyer is a hugely popular science fiction author, with a surprisingly devoted international following (the Spanish love him!). While I enjoyed his young adult novel, WWW: Wake (2009), his Hugo award-winning Hominids(2002), and its Hugo-nominated sequel,Humans (2003), fall flat. There's a third novel called Ha! I Made You Buy Another Book!, or something like that, but I didn't get that far.

After an experimental mishap, physicist Ponter Boddit is transported from his Neanderthal universe to our human-populated universe. With the portal closed, and the humans lacking the technology of his advanced civilization, he tries to make sense of this new world full of murder, jealousy, privacy, religion, and stinking fossil fuels (Neanderthals use only clean fuel on account of their big nostrils). In the meantime, he develops a romantic interest in a Catholic DNA researcher who just survived a rape (cue: groan). She is intrigued by him because he's not like the human men who remind her of her perp. Meanwhile, one of Ponter's romantic partners in Neanderthal-land, Adikor, is accused of murder after Ponter mysterious disappearance.

There's no question that Sawyer did his research. In fact, that seems to be his M. O. for of his books. When I read Sawyer, I can envision him sitting in a university office, or at bar, chatting amiably with a scholar of his momentary subject. Sawyer dapples and plops his newfound learnings into his books, like sour cream on a baked potato. It's obvious it was added, and you know that potato didn't grow like that.

Perhaps that's why this series has no magic—the author's hand is always visible. Sawyer's process is transparent; his story is a culmination of his construction. Built correctly, with all of the right tools, yet that recycled particle board will topple when pushed. Besides that, the dialogue is contrived and expository, a chore to read when the narrative is equally as artificial.

I never forgot that I was reading a story.

Still, that's not to say that Sawyer isn't daring or inventive, it just doesn't show in his technique. His imaginary world contains some intriguing ideas that might make mainstream readers squirm. By juxtaposing his parallel Neanderthal world with our own, he criticizes human notions of capitalism, religion, marriage, crime, etc. It's all surface polemics, though, and nothing experimental or innovative. His speculations about the Neanderthal world, based on anthropological research, are a little more interesting, which include:

That's some serious speculation going on. And this is speculative fiction, after all.

As I said before, Robert Sawyer is hugely popular worldwide, and I suspect his thin, yet accessible, delivery makes translating a breeze. Not only does he often win top SF awards in Europe and China, but his books are common staples in overseas bookstores. But I may be a little more cautious picking up another book by him.

*Sawyer forgot to mention that this anecdotal evidence has been essentially debunked.

**Apparently transgendered individuals do not exist in this society.