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Hybrids
Robert J. Sawyer
Tor Books, 396 pages

Hybrids
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won three Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula and Hominids won the Hugo for best novel. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Hominids
SF Site Review: Flashforward
SF Site Review: Frameshift
SF Site Review: Calculating God
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift
Steven H Silver's Review of Starplex
Steven H Silver's Review of The Terminal Experiment

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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With Hybrids, Robert J. Sawyer completes his three-volume Neanderthal Parallax, a story of the opening of a parallel world where Neanderthals out-lived Homo Sapiens, and of the people it brings together, most notably the Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit and Mary Vaughan, a human geneticist who falls in love with him. It is also a story that contrasts two very different cultures, and incorporates what are bound to be some discussion-provoking viewpoints on justice, social engineering, and gender politics. Hybrids, for many, could be a novel where, even as you are enjoying the story, you find yourself thinking, "Oh, I'm not sure I agree with that." It's a classic example of a SF story leading its readers into confronting questions that they might rather have not asked.

The novel begins in a leisurely fashion, as we journey with Mary and Ponter through the peculiarities of modern human culture. Among hard SF writers, Sawyer most resembles Kim Stanley Robinson in his willingness to indulge in exposition and scene-setting. Sawyer prefers to build slowly instead of starting out with a bang, and by the time the conflicts in the plot become clear, Sawyer has firmly established his world and his characters.

The conflicts mostly grow out of the different viewpoints of Neanderthal and human society when it comes to crime and punishment. Violent crime is nearly unheard of in Neanderthal society, and when it occurs the penalty is severe: Sterilization for the criminal and anyone who shares fifty percent of his or her genes. This method of justice had led Ponter, in Humans, to commit an act of violence in revenge for Mary's rape at the beginning of Hominids, the first book in the series. Ponter's secret hangs like a cloud over Hybrids, and when combined with the story of his love with Mary and the discovery of a scheme to exploit the undeveloped, resource-rich Neanderthal world, the story inevitably leads to a point where individuals must make decisions regarding life and death not only for themselves, but their entire society.

Now, in science fiction, that's not an unusual situation. The controversial element in Hybrids comes not from individual characters making important decisions, but what, in the end, those decisions entail. At one point in the novel, Mary Vaughan is faced with a decision whether to create a tailored virus that would kill only human males. The justification is simple, a human male threatens the Neanderthals. The decision Mary makes is one of the crucial elements in Hybrids, but the actions of another character make it plain that regardless of Mary's decision, unleashing the virus is the right thing to do.

The moral situation set up here is worth a much longer discussion, there are elements of guilt and punishment, the individual versus society, and the use of violence in order to prevent violence. In addition, Hybrids injects an element of gender politics; there is more than a hint that some actions are simply more likely to be committed by human males than anyone else, and the proposed response to this proposition takes Sawyer into territory that recalls both the off-beat brand of feminism espoused in David Brin's The Postman and the we-must-guard-against-men mentality of Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate To Women's Country. It's an odd intersection where libertarianism runs smack into social engineering based on gender, and species.

In the end, Hybrids succeeds at completing Ponter and Mary's story, and at the very least confronting the moral and philosophical issues raised by the contrasting approaches to justice and society found in Neanderthal and human culture. In the end, the reader may or may not agree with the decisions Mary and the other characters make, but they will know why those decisions were made. Hybrids is a novel that tells a good story, and doesn't back down from confronting the issues that story creates. It's a first-class finish to a series that ranks with the author's finest work.

Copyright © 2004 by Greg L. Johnson

In one of those odd moments of synchronicity that help make reality fun, reviewer Greg L. Johnson recently found himself dining on pheasant while at that moment in their story, Mary and Ponter were doing the same. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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