Science fiction is riff with the question of "what if?". It's a mainstay for a genre that includes space opera as well as alternate history. In Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer's Hugo-Award-winning novel, you get to experience a fascinating "what if": what if Neanderthals became the dominant humanoid species on earth?
This is not, however, a story of a Neanderthal person having to make some grand quest as a way of showing Neanderthal Earth for what it is. Rather, this is a hard science, parallel universe story. Ponter Bodditt, a Neanderthal physicist, is conducting an experiment on (actually, under) his version of Earth when a portal is opened and he falls through to our Earth into a heavy water tank where Homo Sapiens scientists are running test. Our scientists are shocked to find a Neanderthal not only living but a modern man, complete with a computer implanted in his arm. Not only are our scientists surprised to discover Ponter's presence in our Earth, Ponter's partner, Adikor, is equally shocked at Ponter's disappearance from his world.
What follows are two main threads. Ponter, with the help of his talking computer implant and the kindly scientists and doctors, learns about our version of Earth. He is quarantined with his physician (male), a nuclear physics grad student (female), and an expert on Neanderthal DNA (female). Back on Neanderthal Earth, Adikor is accused of murdering Ponter. This story line gives Sawyer a chance to paint the life of modern Neanderthals through their judicial system.
My biggest criticism of this book is that I found the murder accusation and subsequent trial on Neanderthal Earth much more entertaining than Ponter's time on our Earth. Ponter almost did nothing but sit around a house and talk. In your typical "stranger in a strange land" story, the stranger travels. Religion is discussed--and I found some of the ideas here quite fascinating--but Ponter experiences Christianity via television. Not exactly titillating. And the usual stuff against homo sapiens--extinction of mammoths and other creatures, pillaging the planet, murdering others--gets played here. You never get the broader history of Neanderthal Earth so there isn't a chance for Ponter to feel bad about something Neanderthals did.
The Adikor side got almost Perry Mason-like in its tension. Since we the reader knew Ponter was alive, we get much more invested in Adikor's defense. It was quite entertaining and I found myself wanting to skate through the Ponter-on-Earth parts to get to the Adikor-on-Trial stuff.
These comments bring up an interesting question in my mind: how did this book win a Hugo? I'm not dogging the book or the award. I'm guessing that the Big Ideas surrounding Hominids is what did the trick with the Hugo voters. Sawyer packs his book with some Big Ideas. But, interestingly, he doesn't dwell on any for any length of time. That's both a good and bad thing. It's good in that the "sitting around talking" exposition doesn't linger too long (since there appears to be little conflict among the characters). Still, some of those ideas demanded some extra attention. Since this is book one of three, perhaps Sawyer goes into more detail in the sequels.
Note: I wrote most of this review before I met with my SF book club. The four of us all pretty much agreed that Hominids was "SF Lite." One of my friends summed it up succinctly: Hominids is the type of SF book he'd recommend to someone who doesn't know if they even like literary SF. It's not too deep but has enough Big Ideas to give a reader a taste of the larger SF world. I'd have to agree.
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