Robert Sawyer is a hugely popular science fiction author, with a surprisingly devoted international following (the Spanish love him!). Although 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 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:
- Gender equality, based on strict gender divisions, with men living outside of the city until they are expected to return for a few days each month to copulate with their female lovers*;
- Bisexuality and polyamory, with each individual coupling with two mates, male and female. Homosexual couples share relations during most of the month, until they split to join their other-gendered partner during the government-assigned heterosexual days;
- Government-regulated impregnation, determined by the female menstrual cycle (all females live together in the city, so they are synchronized because bigger noses result in stronger pheromone influence**). Therefore, the Neanderthal population remains small, and only increases every 10 years. Instead of measuring an individual’s age, they measure by generations, (ex. “I’m a 148.”);
- Virtually nonexistent crime due to the recent invention of personal quantum logs that are attached to the wrist of every individual. The logs are stored in an archive, and are not monitored until needed (to prove innocence, or find one’s keys). The notion of privacy is nonexistent;
- Jobs are called “contributions,” as in, “What is your contribution?”;
- News media called “exhibitionists,” because some individuals share the entire contents of their personal logs to witness and report events.
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.
*There is no mention of whether there is a transgendered population within this strictly divided society.
**Sawyer forgot to mention that this anecdotal evidence has been essentially debunked.