When a portal opens between two universes, mankind on either side of the divide learns about potential other paths…
The first volume of Sawyer’s early 21st century trilogy (Humans and Hybrids follow) deals with some of the author’s familiar themes: the definition of humanity; what aspects of our behaviour are dictated by our upbringing and social mores; and what our society would look like to an outsider who doesn’t begin from the same precepts.
As ever, Sawyer wraps all of these discussions – as well as an overview of then-current research into Neanderthals and quantum physics – into a gripping story, with Neanderthal Ponter Boddit the “stranger in a strange land” in our reality, while back on an Earth where Neanderthals weren’t wiped out and remained the dominant strain of humanity, his partner Adikor Huld faces charges of murder. This gives Sawyer the opportunity to look at contemporary Canadian society with a very objective eye, as well as challenging the roots of some scientific theories. (It also means this books includes the words Canada or Canadian more than perhaps any other I’ve read!)
Sawyer comes at the question of what makes a man from an oblique angle. One of the main characters is the victim of rape in a very early scene, and is therefore understandably reluctant about interacting with men. However she is forced by necessity into forming a relationship of some sort with Ponter, and her reactions to a man who has been brought up with very different preconceptions are fascinating and well-drawn.
The world-building of the Neanderthal society is equally fascinating, extrapolating everything from their attitude to menstruation to their calendar from what is known of their physicality and lifestyle. Sawyer takes the opportunity to point gentle fun at those who build wide-ranging theories on little evidence – something which, to a layman, this book does not appear to do! There are some nice wry moments – particularly the chapter headings taken from a “news search” – and the odd pop culture reference (I wonder how many people nowadays will get the Kira Nerys joke).
Verdict: Hominids deservedly won the 2003 Hugo Award, and is certainly the most accessible of the nominees that year. A great standalone novel that leaves doors open for a return to the parallel worlds. 9/10