A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Robert J. Sawyer

Reviewed by SFExplorer
Posted November 29, 2003

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Hominids deals with anthropology and the largely theoretical sciences of Parallel Universes and Quantum Computing. On a parallel Earth, Homo neanderthalensis (or neanderthals) became the dominant species while Homo sapiens became extinct. On another Earth (ours) Homo sapiens (us) became the dominant species while, of course, the neanderthal disappeared several thousand years ago leaving us only with fossil records of their existence. Both species on their otherwise almost identical versions of Earth think of themselves as "humans" and both became advanced in their own ways. The book at its heart is an exploration of the differences and similarities between the two, taking place in modern day Canada and its parallel universe geographic equivalent.

Ponter Boddit is a male neanderthal scientist working with his partner, Adikor Huld, on testing quantum computing with very large numbers. Meanwhile, here on the sapiens version of Earth, in the same location deep inside a mine in Canada, exists a Neutrino Observatory. Through an accidental opening of a doorway between the parallel universes, Ponter enters our version of Earth and becomes trapped here. Thus begins the story of two different types of humans trying to first understand what happened, of course, and then trying to understand and accept each other. Mary Vaughan, a scientist on our Earth who specializes in DNA taken from fossils, is called in to try to match the DNA of her fossil studies with the DNA of Ponter Boddit to try to determine if there is a match and if in fact Ponter is a true neanderthal as suspected. Mary, a very recent rape victim, comes to know and even care for Ponter, which makes an interesting element to the story in itself, but where the book really shines is in its comparisons, through character dialogue, of the cultures, philosophies, and religions (or lack thereof) of each of the two types of humans. The impression that comes across is how much better Homo neanderthalensis did than Homo sapiens in coming to terms with and adapting to various cultural issues -- a bit of slap in the face (or perhaps just a well-disguised nudge?) directed at us, Homo sapiens.

Meanwhile, back on the neanderthal version of our Earth, Adikor Huld, Ponter's partner, faces murder charges because of Ponter's disappearance. Adikor, as is the case with the theory being simultaneously explored to explain Ponter's arrival on our version of Earth, comes to his own conclusions about the existence of parallel universes, and his story runs concurrent to the tale of Ponter. How can Adikor prove this theory of parallel universes or even repeat the experiment -- the only way there is any hope of rescuing Ponter -- in the face of being charged with Ponter's murder. The science in the book -- anthropology, parallel universe and quantum computing theories -- seems consistence with what is currently known, although part of my conclusion is just observation and trust in the author having done his research. One of the theories used in this book to explain the possibility of parallel universes I have come across three times in the past year alone, so obviously this is a commonly known theory. In Hominids it is presented this way:

"If you shoot a single photon at a barrier with two vertical slits in it, and a piece of photographic paper on the other side shows interference patterns, what happened? ...the universe actually splits, briefly becoming two universes. In one, the photon--still a particle--went through the left slit, and in the other, the photon went through the right slit. And, because it doesn't make any conceivable difference which slit the photon went through in this or the other universe, the two universes collapse back into one, with the interference pattern being the result of the two universes rejoining."

This idea is built upon with other scientific premises being offered. But the main thrust of the book is not overwhelmed with scientific extrapolation but rather in character development and seeing how they adapt to this very unusual situation, and that's ultimately what makes it interesting on a "human" level. In one heartbreaking scene, Ponter travels with Mary on our Earth to the same geographic location where his home is located on his version of Earth. Much of it is exactly the same:

He closed his eyes. "The sounds," he said wistfully. "The rustle of the leaves, the buzz of insects, the brook, and-there!-you hear it? The call of a loon." He shook his head slightly in wonder. "It sounds the same." He opened his eyes, and Mary could see that his golden irises were surrounded now by pink. "So close," he said, his voice trembling a bit. "So very close. If only I could--"

Unspoken: If only he could perhaps just wish himself back into his own world...

Hominids is well-written, the book was over all too soon, and although it is a complete story in itself there is more story to tell. No surprise then that there are two sequels: Humans and Hybrids. Hominids is the first book I've read by Robert J. Sawyer, and I admit I was drawn to it when he won the Hugo Award for this book and, as a result, I read many commentaries about it and his other works. I'm glad I gave it a shot; after finishing the book, it was all I could do not to immediately pick up Humans and continue with the story. I still might; if not now, then definitely at some point.


Related Links:
Galen's review of Hominids, first book in the Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy
Robert Sawyer's Homepage - sfwriter.com
An Interview with Sawyer at SFSite
Sawyer's Bibliography Page at fantasticfiction.com


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Robert J. Sawyer



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