July 2010 – Feature Article
This month’s Feature Article will be taking a look at Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids. It’s been a long time since I’ve turned the pages of a book as quickly as I did with Hominids. I cracked it late on Friday evening, read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and then got up much too early for a Saturday to finish it, foregoing my morning papers – I did get the coffee made first, however. Sawyer’s Hominids has all the earmarks of a great book: conceptually, it is unique and fresh, and it drew me in as few books have done in quite some time; both storylines on the parallel earths are equally engaging and effectively woven together; and it is well written with a quick easy pace that turns pages. However, despite these strengths, which I admit are fairly subjective, Hominids was not without its flaws, many of which might prove too much to bear for a lot of readers. Even so, I believe the strengths greatly outweigh the weaknesses.
Sawyer’s Hominids immediately engages the reader with the accident at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and the arrival of Ponter Boddit, a highly educated Neanderthal computer engineer, into our world. Conceptually, I was hooked right then and there, but Sawyer still had his work cut out for him as simply bringing an advanced Neanderthal from a parallel earth into our midst would just remain a good idea unless it was done interestingly and done well. Of course, it was immediately apparent that Sawyer would use this context as a platform to juxtapose the two worlds, and it should come as no surprise that he manages to pontificate on all the faults of mankind as Ponter is introduced to our society. This, however, didn’t bother me since Sawyer is entitled to his opinions; after all, it’s his story, and I think you can certainly enjoy Hominids without agreeing with or accepting any of Sawyer’s politics. It almost goes without saying that the reader was going to be subjected to seeing our society as violent, environmentally destructive, warmongering and unenlightened. That Sawyer was using a caveman to throw all the sins of mankind at our feet was even more ironic.
As heavy-handed as this comparison between the two parallel earths might have seemed at times, I think Sawyer was a little more subtle than he was given credit for in other reviews. He has set up an interesting philosophical debate in Hominids. Ponter’s world may be peaceful, crime free and exist in complete harmony with the environment, but all of this does come with a heavy price. First, all individual rights are relinquished, essentially giving way to some sort of enlightened communism. Furthermore, with the Companions recording every individual action in Ponter’s world, the concept of Big Brother is taken to a whole new level, and flipping our notion of justice on its head by having the accused proclaimed guilty until proven innocent is debatably intolerable. Essentially, Sawyer is asking what price to individual freedoms should be paid for a society free of crime, strife, unemployment, hunger, etc. Using the brutal rape scene early in the story to hit us over the head with the evils in our society may have gone too far, but Sawyer has asked a valid question.
What freedoms are we willing to give up as a society in order that a crime like that cannot go unpunished? (Also, we cannot forget that the Neanderthal’s practice forced sterilization of all convicted criminals, also sterilizing anyone who shares fifty percent of the convicted person’s genes in order to entirely remove those genes from the gene pool.) Are we willing to be governed by dictatorial elites, benevolent as they may seem to be, in order to form an egalitarian society? Are we willing to relinquish all reproductive rights to the state to strictly control population, in addition to the aforementioned sterilizations?
Enlightened communism always looks good on paper, but the complete relinquishing of individual rights and the suppression of the individual for the community is a much more difficult task to accomplish. Suffice to say that it may not be in our DNA to produce a society such as Ponter’s. Thus, we have perhaps Sawyer’s basic conundrum. We are human and Ponter is Neanderthal; we are different, and we are not like them at our very core. We cannot be like them because to do so would make us not human. We have kept our individuality and our freedoms, accepting the downsides that come by doing so; while the Neanderthals have relinquished all their freedoms and individuality to society, accepting the downsides that come with that as well.
I am going to comment on two things that I found stretched credulity in Hominids. One was the hands-off approach by the Canadian government to Ponter’s arrival, especially in regards to the quarantine. I suspect this was simply a poke in the eye at the U.S. and a failed effort to somehow show how progressive the Canadians are; even so, it wasn’t remotely believable given the massive public safety concerns that would have been in play. The second thing I took issue with was the lameness of the reporters in Hominids. Every time they needed to be eluded, they were, sometimes so easily that it became farcical. Did Sawyer simply forget that humans had invented the helicopter, and that most major news organizations have one? Perhaps the many southern California car chases we seem privy to every other month never make it to the Canadian airwaves; I don’t know.
So was Hominids a great book, worthy of the Hugo Award it received? Probably, considering it managed to engage so thoroughly despite its numerous flaws. Each time that little voice in my head whispered, that’s not quite believable, or, that’s too preachy and politically correct, I found myself shooing it away, saying, I don’t care – this is too good to let that bother me. I was cognizant of that Hugo while I was reading, and even while I was mentally ticking off the flaws as I read, I kept nodding my head, recognizing how Hominids was able to sway the powers that be to bestow the Hugo upon it.
The bottom-line, I believe, is that Hominids is just one of those stories that is so engrossing conceptually, that all its flaws just get pushed to the periphery. Once a story like this is well written, many issues with plot details just get ignored. This isn’t a perfect story by any means, and I suspect that many copies will find their way into the kindling pile, or as one reviewer wrote, the toilet-paper pile, but for many, Hominids will be one of those stories you find yourself contemplating for weeks.