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Humans, by Robert J. Sawyer
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Published: 2003
Review Posted: 9/3/2005
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 5 out of 10

Humans, by Robert J. Sawyer

Book Review by Pete S. Allen

Have you read this book?

Note: Robert Sawyer's Humans is the sequel to his "Hominids," a book which chronicled the accidental meeting of "humans" on our earth and Neanderthals that are the dominant form of humanity on an alternate earth. As such, Humans picks up where the first book left off, reintroducing us to characters and continuing their stories. Reading "Hominids" first is highly recommended.

Mere weeks after closing the Pandora's box that is the door between the worlds, the Neanderthal ("Barast" in their own language) scientists decide to once again open the door and approach the earth of our humanity. This time, physicist Ponder Boddit is accompanied by an older Neanderthal (one of the very ingenious quirks of Sawyer's Neanderthal stories is their selective breeding processes -- their age is identified by being a member of a certain generation, 142, 143, etc.) who is an official ambassador of the unified world government of the Neanderthal alternate earth.

Governments on our side have already been preparing for the return of the Neanderthals in a typically greedy and paranoid though in some cases, idealistic fashion. The Canadian government immediately seeks to establish the birthplaces of our visitors, and claims them as Canadian citizens, furnishing them with diplomatic passports and dinners with dignitaries. Thus armed, the Neanderthals take the world stage.

As the Neanderthals are governed by a largely conservative group of elders, their technology in some cases is far advanced, but their technology regarding exploration and "conquest" of various environments is negligible -- by way of example: they have hovercraft and wrist implants, forced castration of violent offenders and their families, instances of selective breeding, strict population control and a largely untouched environment using solar power, but, they don't have flight, and have not been to the moon.

As can be expected, this opens a variety of items for Sawyer to promote and comment on, such as environmentalism, war and religion, and he does, though his sentiments reach preachiness only occasionally and he balances his look at humanity through the eyes of the "other" fairly well by noting the accomplishments of our own humanity as well as our shortcomings. The Neanderthals have a love/hate relationship with our humanity as a whole, but are overly generous in wishing to share technology and to reach a mutual peaceful coexistence. For our part, we seem as frightened (and rightfully so) by some of the draconian and Orwellian measures of the utopia of the Barast.

Humans and its predecessor, "Hominids," can best be described as "science fiction lite." The story moves fast and is pretty basic, almost to the point of skipping plotline developments. I read it in an evening, and though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it felt unfulfilling. The basic premise of the book was incredibly attractive to me as a reader, that of an alternative humanity and its eventual interaction with our own, and the characters themselves are well developed as is the world and society of the Barast earth.

However, some of the scientific aspects of the book were a bit iffy, and this was annoying considering that the other aspects were well developed and well defined. Example -- the think tank where one of the main characters works needed a genetic "tag" to differentiate between Neanderthal and "human." (I put humans in quotes because in the book and in current anthropological thought, Neanderthal is human.) The main character in our book is a geneticist, and stumbles across the fact that her Neanderthal boyfriend's DNA carries an extra chromosome pair -- he's Trisome 21. In our version of humanity, this would give him Down's syndrome. But Sawyer links this with the fact that chimps also have 48 chromosomes vs. humanity's 46. This is not only an easy out, but pushes the split between modern humanity and Neanderthal way further back in the evolutionary record -- to the point somewhere around the time chimps and humans split. Which pretty much undermines everything else he's trying to establish about the humanity of the Neanderthal. On this same note, based on one genetic sample of Neanderthal DNA (despite now having access to several more) our geneticist presents this finding at an anthropological conference.

At the same time, Sawyer explores new ideas in the anthropological field regarding the importance (or lack thereof) of agriculture in the evolution of civilization, language, culture, etc. Though these ideas are fairly new, they are also currently taught in anthropology classes at even a basic undergrad level. Why then are his anthropologists at this conference largely unaware of them? -- except for the native guy of course.

When stacking these presentations of ideas against the truly magnificent speculation about a quantum computer, built so that it can scan through alternate universes for its own duplicates to borrow processing power, (this is how the breach between worlds first occurs -- the computer hit our own universe, which didn't have a twin and so hiccupped open a breach) the reader is left to wonder whether the accuracy of the science is only important as long as it furthers the writer's agenda.

Final brief complaint. The magnetic poles of the earth are reversing. Not sure why, nothing's done about it, and if the various parts regarding it were pulled out of the book and slapped together, it'd take up about four pages. Paraphrasing what a wise writer said once, if your characters aren't going to shoot the gun, don't tell the readers they have one.

Having said all that, this is not a bad book, those are my nitpicky notes -- like I said before, if you're looking for something light with some really nifty ideas, this is a good bet. It's a fun exploration and a valid reminder of the alternatives in technology and the environment, and the mistakes we seem doomed to repeat. It may get over the top sometimes, and I'm not sure what the fixation with religion is about, especially as it ignores everything but Christianity, but maybe that's just my own mindset. I had hoped that it would be as intriguing as the play with radical evolutionary ideas in "Darwin's Radio," but you can't win them all.
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Comments on Humans, by Robert J. Sawyer
Posted by Terry Baker on 9/4/2005
My review of Hominids can be read here:

and my review of Humans here...

Ariel discontinued reviews on his site before I got the chance to review Hybrids.