Book Review: Hominids: The Neanderthal Parallax
What if there were parallel universes? What if in one of those universes, Homo Sapiens became extinct and Homo Neanderthalensis lived on to create a complex civilization? What if one of those Neanderthals came through to our universe? This is the central idea in the Hugo Award winning Hominids: The Neanderthal Parallax by Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer and the thought behind my mentioning “books that entertain, educate and move the boundaries of your mind” in Monday’s post.
In the depths of a nickel mine, Ponter Bodditt, a quantum physicist, is working with his partner Atticor Hold, researching parallel universes when something goes wrong (note: as I read this on audiobook, I'm fuzzy on the spellings). In the depths of the same nickel mine, in another universe, Louise Benoit is working in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory when something goes wrong and in that moment, Ponter stays in one place, but moves between universes. Back in the Neanderthal universe, Atticor is accused of murdering Ponter, while in ours, Mary Vaughan, at geneticist at York University in Toronto, is asked to test Ponter’s DNA in order to authenticate his genetic makeup (that it partly happens in my home province was ridiculously fun). The book takes place over the next week or so, examining our culture through the eyes of Ponter as he learns of the world he's traveled to and through the humans getting to know Ponter and the story of Atticor’s trial, we get to know the Neanderthal world.
And what a world it is! Sawyer has taken the little we know/theorize about Neanderthals based on the structure of their skeletons and skulls and surrounding archaeological findings and spent a lot of time thinking about what these facts would mean for a culture created by such a people.
For instance, although in the past it was believed that Neanderthals had a religion, this has since been discredited. What does that mean in terms of the development of a civilization? How does a culture develop a moral code without a deity? Sawyer argues that if you have no idea of an afterlife, this life becomes so much more precious with a subsequent intense focus on nonviolence. As well, he makes a rather excellent argument that in a religious species like ours, science will inherently be contaminated by religion (e.g., the Big Bang theory essentially being a creation myth). I mean, think about it! What if early Homo Sapiens hadn't found religion? It’s been rattling around in my mind ever since I finished this book.
And what about the method of subsistence? I remember learning about the !Kung Bushmen’s slow integration into the Bantu agrarian lifestyle, how the transition from hunting and gathering to animal husbandry and agriculture influenced the culture, among other things, changing a more egalitarian culture to a patriarchal one. The notion of property, of owning things, changes not just gender roles, but what about worldview in general? How many of our inventions and social mores are predicated upon ownership? How much of what we have done to this earth is based in the idea that we own it and its resources?
There are two major geek-fests in this book, physics (apparently quantum and regular) and anthropology/archaeology. I know nothing of physics, so much of it went completely over my head (sounding much like the adults do in Charlie Brown), although I have to say this: I know more now than I did before I read the book and was thoroughly entertained while I learned. Back in my undergraduate days, I took a couple of anthro courses for electives, fell in love with the field and if it wasn't because the activities of this particular profession tend not to be overly accessible, I would've switched majors in a heartbeat. And although I enjoyed the physics part in a sort of befuddled way, I geeked out all over the place when it came to the anthropological part of it.
Sawyer’s Neanderthal universe is incredible and best of all, we discover it slowly as the story alternates between Atticor’s experiences and what happens in our universe. Knowing that the description of the Neanderthal culture and belief system is extrapolated from something real left me awestruck with Sawyer’s depth of knowledge and imagination. More than just a good book, reading this story felt like a master class in how to make an imaginary world makes sense.
And it is. A good book, I mean. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's a great book. It's a damn good story, the science is easily explained, integrated in the story and doesn't make your brain hurt at all and it's stuck with me, making me think deeper on the different theories presented, wanting to learn more. And I'm also pretty excited about Hominids being the first book in a trilogy - I can't wait to read the other two.