by Robert J. Sawyer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer created a world in which Neanderthals survived and thrived and H. sapiens did not. Not content to explore that world, Sawyer opened a bridge between the world of the Neanderthals and our own world and allowed Neanderthal physicist Ponter Boddit to spend several weeks in Canada in the company of Mary Vaughan, a DNA researcher at York University in Toronto. At the end of the novel, Ponter Boddit returns to his world and Mary remains in hers.
As Humans, the second novel in the Neanderthal Parallax, opens, the Neanderthals are trying to figure out how to reopen the portal to our world in order to stimulate trade of goods and ideas while the humans are trying to arranging for the possibility that the portal will reopen. Mary is offered a job with an American think tank and moves to Rochester, New York to get away from the trauma of her recent rape (which opened Hominids). When the portal is reopened, the Neanderthals send a delegation through.
Humans is not so much plot driven as character and idea driven. The main conflict arises from Mary and Ponter's growing affection for each other and they are shown trying to come to terms with it, and their different cultures, both in our world and in the Neanderthal world, allowing Sawyer to partake of the world-building at which he is so skilled. Although he described many aspects of the Neanderthal world in Hominids, he only really has the opportunity to show that world when Ponter brings Mary back to attend the bonding ceremony of his daughter.
In addition to the questions arising from the differences in the physical world, which gives Sawyer the chance to play with some off the wall scientific theories, the underlying question involved in Humans is what it means to be human, with Mary and Ponter both espousing the idea that their other species is just as human as their own while some members of their own species may not be deserving of the title. Even as Mary argues that the Neanderthals are human, one of the tasks she is given at the think tank is to find some genetic test to ensure the native universe of a human or Neanderthal can be determined.
The story is actually told in flashback, with a framing sequence of Ponter Boddit meeting with a Neanderthal "Personality sculptor," their equivalent of a psychologist. Because of these interstitial dialogues, the reader learns early that Ponter feels some guilt about a crime he committed in our world, although it doesn't become clear until the end of the novel what the crime was. What makes the situation even more interesting is the sequence of events which led to the crime which is based on his growing understanding of our culture and trying to work our culture into the worldview of the Neanderthals.
While some might attempt to portray Sawyer's Neanderthal world as utopian, from Mary's brief sojourn there, it is clear that Ponter's world has its own pitfalls and drawbacks. The Neanderthals' world works for the Neanderthals as well as the humans' world works for humans. Both worlds can use changes and the idea behind their trade is clearly to achieve some of those beneficial alterations. The end of the novel sets up the third book, Hybrids, with a new set of challenges for Ponter and Mary to focus on.
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