Can a rape victim find true love in the arms of Homo neanderthalensis? That, believe it or not, is just one of the bizarre thematic conundrums Bob Sawyer bitch-slaps readers with in Hominids, a work of pop-literary shock-and-awe that will no doubt further polarize the SF reading public into "love Sawyer or hate him" camps. I've never seen a writer provoke such passionate diatribes on Usenet. "Bring Me the Head of Robert J. Sawyer" seems to be a recurring rec.arts.sf.written leitmotif. Still, he has this knack for managing to get one of his eminently readable yet stylistically trashy page-turners on either the Hugo or Nebula ballot almost every year. (And, travesty of travesties, Hominids actually won the Hugo, if you can believe it.) His writing shares more of a kinship with Crichton and Robin Cook than genre tentpoles like Clarke, Asimov or Niven. And this, coupled with what appears to be an immodest personality (his website is an effusive exercise in self-love), has fanned the flames of much criticism.
Hominids is, as of this writing, only the third Sawyer novel I've read. In the past I've found his work the very definition of enjoyable light reading, with just the right amount of professionalism and craft to entertain, but not exactly wowing me with its depth or stretching the boundaries of the genre in bold new directions. Yet with Hominids, I find myself siding with the detractors, and ironically it's because this is a novel that does present the reader with serious subtext. It's just that the themes and messages Sawyer offers here are stale at best and condescending and offensive at worst, and some of its most dramatic moments border on unintentional comedy.
Ponter Boddit and Adikor Huld are Neanderthal physicists in an alternate universe in which they, and not Homo sapiens, evolved an advanced civilization. They are testing a prototype of the world's first quantum computer, and an attempt to get the machine to crunch a number so large it would take a conventional computer something like eternity to do it ends up overtaxing it to the point that it opens up a wormhole from their universe into ours, through which poor Ponter is promptly sucked. (Maybe he shouldn't have been leaning on the computer.)
Ponter finds himself in precisely the same corresponding spot when he emerges in our world, which happens to be a heavy-water tank in an underground neutrino detector near Toronto. Ponter is saved from drowning by sexpot postdoc Louise Benoît, who has him rushed to a nearby hospital where x-rays promptly reveal that the impossible must be true: Ponter is a living Neanderthal man.
At this point two storylines commence. In one, Ponter must come to terms with his stranger in a strange land status, as well as the sobering fact he may never go home again. He develops a friendship with DNA specialist Mary Vaughan, who, only the day before Ponter's arrival, has been viciously raped on the university campus where she works. Unable to face what has happened to her, Mary accepts the call to help study Ponter's DNA mainly just to get out of town.
Sawyer actually handles Mary's rape trauma with — for the most part — appropriate sensitivity, but it's a dubious choice to include in the same novel a character like Louise, who's basically a male fantasy object. The contrast between hot young Louise and plain-jane, middle-aged Mary is underscored repeatedly. Does Sawyer deliberately present a character like Louise as a dare to male readers, to see just who will have the gall to objectify her when Mary's rape looms in the foreground, indicting us all for our lusts, as it were? (Hominids has a bibliography featuring several books on male violence, including the highly controversial A Natural History of Rape by Thornhill and Palmer.)
I think he does. Sawyer uses Ponter, ultimately, to indict the whole human race, not just the icky lustful males (but mostly us), for our foibles. Ponter's remark at the end that he was treated well by us and we're basically fine folks notwithstanding (because it's really just Sawyer playing C.Y.A.), for the most part he has the gentle and genuinely likable Neanderthal reacting with wide-eyed horror as he learns of the evils that men do. But this kind of moralizing is just banal and lazy. Who but the most cretinous plutocrat wouldn't agree that it's a bad thing to pollute the environment and hunt species — even other primates — to extinction? Who but the most wilfully blind in their faith isn't aware that religion has been a profoundly divisive force that has been used to justify countless atrocities down the ages? (The Neanderthals lack even a concept of God, which I admit I'd call a thumbs-up.) In short, Sawyer's social commentaries are not, to put it politely, anything new. He's just shooting fish in a barrel here. Readers will, I think, feel distinctly patronized.
Sawyer is careful not to present Neanderthal society as a conveniently simplistic alternative for how we ought to be. Sure, there's enough about it that seems calculated to please the PC Police, but there's plenty to disdain. Crime is nearly nonexistent, but at a definite cost to personal liberty. All Neanderthals have a surgically implanted AI device on their wrists that monitors their activities from cradle to grave, sort of an Orwell meets Dick Tracy thing. (It's this gizmo that helps Ponter learn to talk to humans.) And when crimes among Neanderthals do occur, the accused doesn't exactly enjoy the presumption of innocence — and convicted criminals as well as their offspring face sterilization, to prevent any tainting of the gene pool.
But even though it is on the one hand a good thing for Sawyer not to have presented Neanderthal culture as the idyll/ideal to which we should all aspire (as that would have made the book even more condescending), what we are left with then is a book that passes facile moral judgments just to do so. And that should point out as eloquently as anything the hazards of writing stories from behind a lectern: there's no way to do it, in the end, that isn't offensive to some degree. Moral themes should arise organizally from the story. The story shouldn't be a vehicle for finger-wagging.
Hominids' second story thread is the better one. Following Ponter's disappearance, Adikor Huld (who is Ponter's partner in more ways than one — Neanderthals all practice bisexual polyamory as a matter of course) finds himself accused of Ponter's murder. Normally Adikor would be able to exonerate himself by accessing the recordings made by his wrist device in the "alibi archives," but because the underground lab in which they were working is one of the few areas transmissions from the wrist devices cannot be recorded, Adikor finds himself in a tight spot from which to establish his innocence. If only he can find a way to learn what really happened to Ponter.
This storyline works because it plays out as a straightforward thriller, portraying the very different consequences that Ponter's disappearance has had in their world. Though the unfairness of a legal system under which the accused bears the burden of proof is clearly illustrated, Sawyer doesn't have the message-mongering approach to his Neanderthals the same way he does towards his human characters.
But the part of the book I think readers will have the most trouble with is the budding, tentative attraction that forms between Mary and Ponter. It's not that the premise of romance between human woman and Neanderthal man isn't in and of itself believable. It's the insulting subtext. Evil human white men (the only male human characters in the book who are depicted positively are black and middle eastern) just aren't sensitive and in touch with their feelings like Ponter is. He's the first man Mary's ever met who likes her for who she is as a person, doesn't care about her looks, yada yada. I mean, gimme a break. Sawyer does spare us — by a hair — the indignity of an interspecies love scene (and, coming so soon after Mary's rape it would have been utterly unbelievable anyway), but their burgeoning feelings are conveyed with all the subtlety of an oncoming train. And a novel that trades, however discreetly, in misandrist "what violent sexual predators are we" clichés only to end in a flurry of romantic bathos is a confused mess indeed, no matter how readable it may be.
The sequel to Hominids is titled Humans. Let's hope it treats them better, shall we?