“The Neanderthal is sick, and this place has been quarantined by the order of Health Canada.”

Title: Hominids

Author: Robert J. Sawyer

Original Publication Date: May 2002

ISBN: 0-312-87692-0

Price at Amazon: $7.99 U.S., $25.17 Canadian

Buy from: Amazon.com or Amazon.ca


An accident brings to our world a scientist from an alternate earth where Neanderthals became the dominant hominid. His arrival brings troubling questions to homo sapiens, legal danger to his partner back home, and the promise of sequels from Robert J. Sawyer.

High Points:

Sawyer never loses track of his premises and their possible implications. What would a technologically-advanced Neanderthal society looks like? If it resembled the one portrayed here, what else would follow? If one of its members turned up in our world, what would the consequences be?

You won’t always agree with Sawyer’s answers. I have difficulty imagining that any hominid society would run as smoothly as the one he depicts. Nevertheless, he uses his version of a Neanderthal world to raise some fair questions about ours, and the plot involving Adikor Huld (the partner of Ponter, the novel’s world-traveller) explores the less ideal side of this other world. Yes, the Neanderthals run things better than we do, but at a cost. Although Sawyer shows certain biases, this is, in the end, a different society, rather than a Utopia.

Low Points:

Sawyer loads his novel with real-life references. Some, such as the references to Sudbury, Ontario, explain the principal setting in our world; the reader does not need to know these places are real.

Some of the book’s pleasure, however, comes from recognizing the references to Jay Ingram or typical Internet behaviour, or catching jabs at targets such as Creationism or former Ontario premiere Mike Harris. The book reads well now; it may seem a bit dated in the near future.

The novel contains an awful lot of “Info-dump.” In my review of Mieville’s The Scar, I praised his understanding of what the Turkey City Lexicon calls the “Edges of Ideas.” While I realize that Sawyer and Mieville have written very different books, I could have done with a little less direct explanation of quite so many things in Sawyer’s.

The Scores

Originality: 3/6 Essentially, a Stranger arrives in a Strange Land, raising questions about his and our society. Sawyer handles the premise well, but it’s hardly original.

Imagery: 4/6 The imagery is fine, but not especially memorable.

Story: 4/6 Although it represents the first book of a trilogy, Hominids works well as a novel by itself. The story kept my interest.

Characterization: 4/6 Sawyer can be compared to a good many successful mainstream writers. I found Hominids to be an entertaining read, but the characters do not remain with me in any significant way. What we learn about them seems familiar and plausible, but not really memorable.

They’re also danged politically correct. Yes, it’s nice Ponter encounters a racially and sexually diverse group of sensitive intellectuals, but I would have enjoyed a more raw encounter with humanity. Perhaps that will occur in the next Neanderthal Parallax novel.

Emotional Response: 3 out of 6.

Editing: 4 out of 6. We have an awful lot of lengthy, philosophical discussions and explanations that might have occupied fewer pages.

Overall Score: 4 out 6.

In total, Hominids receives 26 out of 42.

Additional Notes and Comments:

Really, I wish this novel would have received a higher score. The ranking system used here can work against certain types of books

Of this year’s Hugo nominees, Hominids is the most conventionally “SF.” Sawyer tells an interesting tale based on a speculative scientific premise, and peppers it with philosophical considerations (shades of Heinlein, though Sawyer’s politics are very different). The author knows his science, and tells a reader-friendly tale. He understands that even very similar species will develop different cultures and technologies. If I were developing my own SF TV show or running a certain lame incarnation of Star Trek, I would hire this man to bring credible and interesting speculative concepts to it.

Hominids has been nominated for a Hugo Award. Look for reviews of other Hugo- nominated works between now and mid-July.