Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer

hominids-by-robert-j-sawyer coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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I bought Sawyer’s Hominids because it won the Hugo award for best novel. I was even ordered it through SFReader, earning Dave a whopping 33 cents for his continued efforts on behalf of all speculative fiction fans. I should have waited until it showed up in a second-hand store…. (sorry Dave!)

While Hominids is a decent read, I don’t think it was the best science fiction book published last year. There were several I enjoyed more, that I thought more adventurous and original in theme, and were better written. That said, I enjoyed Hominids, though I enjoyed it more the first time when it was Stranger in a Strange Land.

Ponter Boddit is a Neanderthal physicist who is accidentally transferred to our universe during an experiment in his. While he’s stuck on our Earth wondering if he will ever be able to return back to his world, his partner, Adikor Huld, must face charges of murder because of Ponter’s disappearance. Thus we have two main threads: Ponter’s adventures on our world and his Adikor Huld’s trial and attempts to prove his innocence in the other.

Sawyer writes like a blind man drives. The level of craft in the entire book seemed almost amateurish to me. Said bookisms (seeing how many different words he can use for ‘said’), implied simultaneous (using ‘ing’ on the end of verbs in conjunction with another action) are the two main infractions that kept jumping out at me.

Sawyer also violates a few other things that are on my-annoys-me-to-no-end list. Locating body parts: ‘He nodded his head’–well, what else would he nod? His ass? ‘His heart pounded in his chest’–should it pound in his leg or his arm? ‘He had a big smile on his face’–need I say more? He’s also fond of the ‘He said simply’ qualification for dialog. As opposed to saying something complexly I suppose…. I felt as though I were reading a manuscript by someone in a writing workshop at a convention.

Ok Lynn, you didn’t like the writing, but what about the book? Glad you asked. The Neanderthals live in a perfect world. No pollution, no crime, at harmony with nature, etc, etc, etc. Basically they embody everything we don’t. Which, of course, is the whole point.

Sawyer does raise (re-raise?) some interesting (though not original) questions about individual rights versus society harmony. At what point does an individual’s right to be safe take precedence over an individual’s right to privacy? Each Neanderthal is implanted with an electronic monitoring device called a Companion. This Companion monitors and records everything the Neanderthal does and says at all times. This record can be accessed, such as when a Neanderthal is accused of a crime. We see this played out in Adikor’s trial: he’s accused of murdering Ponter, but at the time of the alleged crime, he and Ponter were in their underground laboratory and the signals from their Companions couldn’t reach the recording facility. Hence Adikor can’t prove he didn’t kill Ponter and clear himself of the crime. The conclusion I took from this situation is: What good is a justice system when the only person who knows for sure if a crime is committed is the accused? Not much.

Crime is rare in Neanderthal society for another reason as well: genetic culling. If a Neanderthal commits a crime, that Neanderthal is put to death and all those who share 50% or more of his/her genetic material are sterilized. A few generations of this have greatly reduced genetic proclivity for criminal behavior in Neanderthal society. Ponter is amazed at the amount of crime we have in our world, and even more amazed at the ineffective way we deal with it.

While Sawyer’s speculations on crime and how to deal with it are interesting, they don’t pose solutions that are even remotely possible. The question ‘what if’ in this context only has power if it can reasonably be considered. Since it can’t, Sawyer’s speculations end up being rhetoric and left me thinking ‘Interesting, but so what?’

Sawyer’s human characters are pretty thin. Beautiful sexpot scientist, dowdy middle-aged scientist, noble black man scientist… all right out of central casting. He partially redeems himself with well-done Neanderthals, but not quite enough to make up for his human ones. Some of the problems the human characters deal with come across as contrived and convenient, added, it seemed to me, to provide some justification for Sawyer’s speculations on violent crime and how we deal with it.

Do I recommend it? I do, though with lukewarm enthusiasm. It rehashes old (although interesting) ideas, half the characters are trite and stereotypical, and the writing sucks. It’s not a bad book, but a Hugo winner…? I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.

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