Friday, 6 September 2013

The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy Are Good Books

Or why you should read Hominid, Human, and Hybrid by Robert J Sawyer

Okay. This series has a hokey name and a premise that at first blush sounds pretty goofy (Neanderthal Parallax sounds like a bad Stoneage Green Lantern villain). But! This is one of the smartest, best, heartfelt, high concept group of Science Fiction novels I've ever read. Really, it is a fantastically empathetic and intelligent read. These books are among my very favourite. So hear me out!

The premise of the Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy (stay with me) is that a man suddenly appears inside the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory heavy water sphere, which is located kilometres underground in an especially well-shielded, and radioactively inert nickel mine in northern Ontario, Canada. Which is impossible: one moment the tank is empty and the next this sealed, nigh unreachable chamber has a man inside it. Even more impossibly, this man is a Neanderthal, a living example of a prehistoric hominid that cohabited the Earth with humanity for tens of thousands of years. It is quickly discovered that the Neanderthal, Ponter Boddit, is from a technologically advanced civilization from a parallel reality where Neanderthal's became the dominant species of human while Homo Sapiens died off and has ended up on our Earth as the result of an experimental accident. Ponter, together with prehistoric genetics professor Mary Vaughn, doctor Rueben Montego, and astrophysicist Louise Benoit, must find a place for Ponter in this brave new world. Meanwhile Adikor, Ponter's scientific colleague and partner back in his home reality, must discover what happened to Ponter before he is convicted of murder. What follows is the ultimate story of cultural collision as humanity, both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens are confronted by a whole different society and way of life. Can they see past their many differences and find a way to coexist? Can they learn from one another? Can they even love one another?

The brilliance of this novel is the way it attacks and discusses our preconceived notions of what it means to be human. With the Neanderthals, Sawyer creates a society and, as a result, world that is wildly different than ours. Neanderthals are a society of communist, atheist, polyamorous, bisexual, hunter-gatherer environmentalists. They live in gender segregated communities, uniting the sexes only during the period of the female's synched-up menstrual cycle where they are infertile as a means of rigorous population control. They practice eugenics, sterilizing criminals and the least intelligent to better their genetic legacy. The Neanderthals live under constant surveillance from implanted computers and have a democratic government where only elderly members of society have a voice. And it is the contrast between this Neanderthal society and our own that creates the magic of Hominid, Human, and Hybrid.

Because, here's the thing, there are a lot of interesting social ideas that are taboo. We all agree that eugenics or a total surveillance society are bad. Many of us believe that the notion of monogamy and sexual preference are natural. We think that true communism cannot possibly work. What these novels do is remove human-nature (or at least homo sapiens nature) from the equation, removing any contamination from our socialization and history, and genuinely plays with the idea of what is better. Does eugenics divorced from all the racist garbage have merit? Should we castrate rapists both as a punishment and treatment for their conditions? Is population control a sound solution to our environmental problems? Is perfect, universal surveillance a good thing if we could guarantee that no one would abuse it? Are our sexual habits and shame pig-headed? Is religion just so much superstitious and damaging malarky? The brilliance of these novels is that they provide a safe space for a discourse about some really loaded, really interested ideas. It's really cool.

(Full disclosure, I think eugenics is fascinating. Not in a we-should-actually-do-it way, since it is immoral as anything and just begging to be abused in horrific ways, but in a Scientific curiosity way. Like, how much of who we are is genetic (or epigenetic or encoded in the various other physical ways our bodies store information)? I think it is an interesting question, but one much too hot to really touch given our terrible history with the idea. So I found the discussion of eugenics in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy pretty engaging.)

But, these books are more than just a scholarly debate. These elements, and a bunch of other really well researched ideas about consciousness and evolution, are built into really engaging narratives. For instance, Hominids functions very much as a mystery novel, dealing with how Pontor reached our Earth and the legal proceedings in the Neanderthal reality, Humans is very much a mystery-suspense novel solving a bunch of questions set up in the initial book, and Hybrids is a good old fashioned techno-thriller with global stakes playing out. But the entire Neanderthal Parallax trilogy is, more than anything, a love story between Mary Vaughn and Ponter Boddit, about whether two people from different worlds, different societies, and even different species can find love and maintain a relationship. It's a pretty touching central narrative that emphasizes Sawyers way of coupling high concept Sci-fi with exciting plots and deeply empathetic human tales. These are eminently readable novels that are also properly smart.

They are also set in Canada. Which I am a sucker for.

I do however have one complaint about the trilogy. Now, these days I am a Science Gradstudent embedded in the academic system of Canadian Science. I have a pretty good idea of how it all works. Unfortunately the Neanderthal Parallax novels doesn't so much... The novels have this weirdly mistaken view of how University Science Faculties work, and if you are affectively living in one it is pretty frustrating! It seems that Sawyer thinks that Science Professors make their living and interact with gradstudents like... I presume Humanities Professors do? He doesn't seem to understand that Science Faculties are all about publishing and grants and an Academic research lab is like a small research business. Teaching isn't how my supervisor makes his living, and is mostly a pleasant chore that comes along with being a Science Professor. And my boss hasn't touched an actual experiment during my time in his lab. The idea that the place you earned your PhD has an impact on your hiring as a prof (as opposed to your publication record) is nuts, as is the idea that young straight white men can't get positions in Science faculties (they can). I mean, this shouldn't be too big a deal, it's a small part of the novel and you probably aren't a Science Academic, but it's a shame that something so simple is wrong in such well researched novels. It just bugs me a bit.

Really though, I heartily recommend these books to anyone. They are so, so smart and so, so heartfelt and very entertaining. The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy are some of my favourite novels, and if you give them a chance they might end up being some of yours too.

Red Planet Blues 
The WWW Trilogy


  1. I really loved these books, too. But... didn't you feel, at the end, like you wanted a little more about the hybrid in "Hybrids"? It seemed like a very misleading title, and a missed opportunity to explore a fascinating new humanoid's life.

    1. Maybe? I kind of love that it's so open at the end... like, this cultural collision has happened, and their is just this open expanse of possibilities. Learning more about the Hybrid would probably mean advancing the plot through time, which might require some cementing of the future of the post-crossover world, and maybe that closes some doors? I don't know? I guess I just liked the ending how it stands.

      Of course, being left wanting more is probably the true mark of a great read...