Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy
by Robert J. Sawyer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 24, 2019
Book 1: Hominids / 2. Humans / 3. Hybrids
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Hominids won a Hugo for Best Novel in 2003, and was also a finalist for Aurora and John W. Campbell Memorial awards. It was previously reviewed by SFExplorer, but Mike never followed up with a continuation of the series. I intend to, that's why I gave this page the collective title for the trilogy, the Neanderthal Parallax, although I have no idea when I'll get to the others. The first book at least features several interesting characters, intriguing ideas and speculations, but there are some problematic elements as well.
I'm sure Sawyer researched a lot about anthropological and archeaological studies of early man and homo neanderthalensis, but I'd bet his notions about the methodology of quantum computing was pure speculation. On a parallel Earth, Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens were extinct. On that world, deep underground in a nickel mine, physicist Ponter Boddit and his engineering partner Adikor Huld, are experimenting with quantum computer calculations when they accidentally open a dimensional portal, with Ponter traversing the barrier and entering our world. Supposedly their computer reached out to other universes in which their experiment was being duplicated, in order to access a multiplicity of computational power. The problem arose because our world was not duplicating that work, at least not in the same geographical location, which caused the rift. What was happening on our world, in that location, was observations of neutrino bombardment in a large containment unit filled with heavy water. When Ponter entered that unit he might have drowned if not for the fact a bubble of air from his world came with him. The pressure of that air caused the inner lining of the sphere to break.
Chapters alternate between the two worlds, how each society is reacting to the phenomenon. It's obvious the Neanderthal civilization was as technologically advanced as ours, although not in the same ways or for the same reasons. They remained primarily a hunter-gatherer society, their diet consisting of meat and fresh fruits, and they had not developed an agricultural industry. They maintained sustainability with an ecological balance, made possible by controlling their population. Only about 185 million barasts (their term for themselves, meaning human) in the entire world, compared to our multiple billions. They had cars and planes, but not based on the internal combustion engine, so they had no worry about the pollution that comes with that. Good thing, since their enhanced sense of smell meant Ponter had a very negative reaction to our air quality. Ponter had just as much trouble imagining our way of life as the human scientists did about his. Communication was made easier through Ponter's "Companion" implant, which quickly analyzed our language and translated for him.
That implant was not only a marvel of technology, it also made possible a unique element in barast society. Everyone's Companion recorded their actions all the time, transferring that data to an "alibi-archive." It made for a very peaceful society, since everyone knew their every move was available for replay if they were to be accused of a crime. That system comes into play when Adikor Huld is accused of murdering Ponter, the suspicion being he used the fact of the deep mine cutting off transmissions from his Companion to hide his crime. While that system did make for a peaceful world, there were aspects that might not be viewed as positively. Everything was based on genetics, so if someone was convicted of a crime, and depending on the severity of that crime, they could be sentenced to sterilization so that their genes would be eliminated from society. Or, in the worst of situations, they would be executed, along with all family members that shared at least 50% of their genes; brothers, sisters, children. Other than that, their society seemed well-structured and stable, and completely non-patriarchal.
The strengths of the book are in the comparisons of the two distinctly different societies. Another difference between them concerned religion, which puzzled Ponter. Barasts did not believe in a creator or an afterlife, that what mattered was how you conducted yourself while alive, the legacy you left for those who cared about you, not some fabled reward or punishment later. They thought the universe had always been the way it is, no beginning and no end. Ponter argued that even our sciences were influenced by religion, that the Big Bang Theory was simply a way to justify belief in a creation. Ponter became depressed about Neanderthals being extinct in our world, especially when he learned homo sapiens were the primary reason for their extinction. However, I'm surprised no one asked him how homo sapiens became extinct on his world. Lots of good ideas to ponder, of how societies are formed and maintained, what priorities they should have for the present and the future. However, as I said above, there are a few problematic things.
One of the human scientists, male, keeps sexualizing the women, commenting on their appearance as a judgement of their worth. One of the women scientists doesn't seem to have a problem with that. Another of the women scientists had just been raped before being called into the investigation. Thankfully that event was not used as a redemption arc for the perpetrator, but her aversion to men after that was too conveniently tossed aside when she developed an attraction to Ponter. It could be argued that the humans were representative of the European colonizers of the Americas, with Ponter and the Neanderthals stand-ins for the oppressed, indigenous population, the "noble savage" trope. It's not inconceivable that Ponter and Mary could have a healthy friendship based on mutual respect, but a potential romantic liason struck me as ludicrous. I haven't looked ahead to the next book to find out if that story line is developed further. Hopefully not. Another thing I thought was a mistake was the timeline was the very near future at the time of the writing, now quite a bit in our past. The nickel mine (Creighton) was at that time the site of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Ontario, Canada, and the company that maintained it, INCO, are all named, rather than some fictional location and companies. Also, political figures like then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and US President George W. Bush are mentioned, when a science fiction novel shouldn't be constrained by a particular time period like that, especially when everything about the plot is as other-worldly as this.
In summation: not a waste of time, lots of good ideas and concepts, and I can recommend it on those strengths, but still with a cautionary note about the problematic stuff. Of other books on the Hugo and Nebula final ballots that year, I've read three, all of which I'd say were better, although I might change my mind on a re-read of them. One of these days I'll continue with the trilogy, Humans and then Hybrids.
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