I recently read Robert Sawyer’s Trilogy “The Neanderthal Parallax,” made up of Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids. I have enjoyed Sawyer’s work in the past and dove into these books with great anticipation. How did they fare? Let’s find out! There will be SPOILERS in what follows.
I’ll not summarize the whole plot (see Wikipedia for more), but the basic outline is as follows: A portal is opened between our world an alternative world in which the Neanderthals thrived and we went extinct. As the two worlds interact, it is discovered that the Neanderthals largely remained a kind of hunter-gatherer society and developed a completely different culture than humans in our world did. The two worlds collide as people from our world see the Neanderthals as a challenge to our ways of life, and various issues related to religion and ethical issues come to the forefront. Ultimately, Ponter Boddit, the first Neanderthal to cross into our world, and Mary Vaughan, a woman from our world fall in love and decide to have a hybrid child. This, after an attempt to exterminate the Neanderthals goes awry and instead releases a deadly plague that prevents any males from our world crossing over to the Neanderthal side. The door is left open to the reader to imagine what comes next.
The culture Sawyer created for the Neanderthals is extremely deep and complex. I’d have to say it is one of the more interesting and unique worlds I’ve read. The male and female Neanderthals live largely separate lives until they come together for 4 days each month. This is to control population and also provide time for other cultural developments. Each Neanderthal has specific contributions they make to the society. The Neanderthals all wear “Companions” that record everything they do and say, which means there is no way to get away with crime, get lost, etc. They have also actively controlled their genetic lineage and weeded out traits they find detrimental. Neanderthals often have both a man-mate and a woman-mate regardless of their gender. This is to give them companionship both when they are with their own gender and when the genders intermix. All of this is just the beginnings of explaining the world Sawyer created in the novels, which is extremely interesting.
The premise is also great, because it’s one of those “what-ifs” that I feel we all wonder about from time to time. This premise touches off the plot, which traces what might happen if we ran into a group of people very similar to us, yet with profound differences. Sawyer also clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching and inventing the science and technologies in the book. It feels like many of these are just within our reach if we could just cross certain thresholds to create them.
There are some serious difficulties with the books, however. First, the intriguing Neanderthal society is largely used as a Utopia by which we might contrast the failings that have occurred in our world with violence, the environment, and the like. Although this can be a useful plot device, it makes the whole thing feel a bit contrived and much more simplistic than interaction with such a complex society should have been. Sure, there are moral questions about eugenics and the like, but overall even those are largely brushed off as just another aspect of an apparently perfect society.
The trilogy has a few explicit scenes, and the one in which Mary and Ponter initially “get involved” is particularly explicit. I’m not a fan of such graphic detail being portrayed, and felt that the scenes were largely unnecessary to the plot and were very uncomfortable overall. Sawyer also clearly tried to put forward a kind of women’s rights agenda alongside the other issues raised (gun control, environmental issues, and the like), but despite seemingly trying to advocate for women’s rights, I think he largely failed here. Mary is raped early in the trilogy, and she has to deal with the various feelings that come with it. But ultimately, the rape is just another plot device to make other plot threads meet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think that such an act of violence should not be used instrumentally. Moreover, it was jarring how casually the scene was portrayed. There never seemed to be a strong emotional content to trying to get the reader to empathize either; rather than focusing on the great evil of such an act, it was more about Mary’s subjective response. Of course, this is probably at least in part because Sawyer had no basis for objectivity in the novels.
The greatest difficulty in the book is the continual misrepresentation of Christianity in particular and faith in general. Mary Vaughan is put forward as a Roman Catholic who allegedly presents the best defenses Christianity has to offer, but not only is she questionably Roman Catholic (can someone claim that title if they reject the doctrine of original sin and their Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, and the like?), but the “defenses” offered are quite weak and poorly presented. Sawyer’s has the Neanderthals teach an alternative to Big Bang cosmology which allegedly undermines Christian belief in a universe with a beginning, but apparently fails to realize that for centuries Christians also believed and affirmed an eternal universe (see Aquinas, for example). The amount of care and research put into presenting the science in the novels is not evidenced in the representation of faith. In fact, at times the books read like thinly-veiled attacks on Christianity and belief in general.
Overall, the books were a rather big disappointment for me. The complexity of the invented Neanderthal culture is never fully cashed in, the research and care put into the science in the book doesn’t carry into other areas, and the moral issues raised find no objective criteria for arbitration. It’s a decent sci-fi plot with some great imagination grounding it, but the baggage that comes with it makes it very difficult to recommend.
+Complex, amazingly deep culture invented for the Neanderthals
+Clearly lots of research behind science and invented science in books
-Little research or insight into issues of faith
-Constantly misrepresents or fails to adequately present Christianity and other faiths
-Unnecessarily explicit sexual scenes
-Overly simplistic Utopia vs. Reality
-Seems to falter on its issues of women’s rights, despite clearly attempting to emphasize them
Grade: C- “A solid plot can’t salvage what seems to be a thinly-disguised assault on faith of all kinds and overly simplistic comparisons.”
J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!
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Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations in Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”– I write about a different Robert Sawyer book that I did enjoy quite a bit, Calculating God. I even wrote a second post discussing abortion, fundamentalism, and other issues the book raised.