Guest Review: The Neanderthal Parallax by Robert Sawyer

Today we get a guest review from none other than my dear husband!  He recently re-read a trilogy that both of us recommend all the time.  It’s science fiction but I think it’s a fascinating series even if you’re not a big science fiction reader.  So without further ado…


CurlyGeek’s husband here again,  with my review of a trilogy by one of my favorite authors, The Neanderthal Parallax (Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids) by Robert Sawyer.  The books were published in 2002-2004 and Hominids won the Hugo Award while Humans was a Hugo Finalist.  When they were first published, I read each book as quickly as I could get my hands on them.   I eventually convinced CurlyGeek to give them a read and she fell in love with them as well.  Seeing a gap in my current reading list, I thought I’d re-read the series and see if I loved it as much the second time around.  Sure enough, they were just as good as I remembered.

The books describe the discovery of a parallel world where Neanderthals became the dominant species rather than Homo sapiens.  The first book tells the story of Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal scientist whose experiment accidentally opens a doorway between the worlds and falls through.  In our universe, Ponter is rushed to the hospital where they discover that he isn’t like any other human.  That’s where our second main character, Mary Vaughn is introduced; she’s the reigning expert on Neanderthal DNA and is asked to verify that Ponter is truly another species.

Back in the Neanderthal world, Ponter’s disappearance cannot be explained and his man-mate (all Neanderthals are bisexual) is accused of murdering him.  This proves an excellent set piece for describing the vast differences between the two worlds.  Sawyer’s books are almost always grounded in cutting edge science and describe how the logical extension would affect people and society.  Here, Sawyer employs the latest research on Neanderthals to build a unique and fascinating world that, though quite different from our own, is still very recognizably human.  Our civilization is based on agriculture and ultimately that affects every facet of our lives including the foundations of our societies, our physiology, and our environment.  The Neanderthals, on the other hand, are hunter-gatherers.  What that world look like?  How would that affect their society, physiology, and environment?  The answers to these questions are fascinating and profound.

The second book, Humans explores these themes further as the Neanderthals establish a permanent gateway between the worlds.  Sawyer also explores the deepening relationship between Ponter and Mary as well as the Neanderthal justice system and how it would deal with one of the most heinous crimes: rape.  The third book, Hybrids, explores the ramifications of Ponter and Mary’s choice to construct a life together and introduces a villain (human, of course) to give the series a little action for its conclusion.

I love Sawyer’s books because they are one of the purest forms of science fiction you’ll find.  His books are always quick reads that examine the effects of one or two big science fictional ‘ideas’ on present day or near future people and society.  What if we could actually experience the thoughts and feelings of others?  What if there was actual physical proof of God?  How would we treat an elderly man reborn in the body of a teenager?  What separates the Neanderthal trilogy from his other works is the size and number of ‘big ideas,’ (there are tons and they’re all great) coupled with the length he needs to develop his two main characters, Ponter and Mary, into fully realized people. This is science fiction at its absolute best.

After re-reading the books, I discovered some minor quibbles I’d forgotten, especially with the third book.  For most science fiction, it’s easy for the reader to suspend disbelief because the setting is usually so radically different from our own reality.  The reader can’t predict how people will react if they live in the far future or in fundamentally different societies.  With these books, however, it’s a little more difficult as the setting is the present day (early in the last decade).  The time span of the books is very quick and he crams a great deal of character growth in to a very short time.  A character seemingly fully recovers from a rape in a matter of weeks, rather than years, and the world adjusts to the existence of a parallel universe with no difficulty.  Finally there’s the ‘villain’ in the third book who’s little more than a mustache-twirling sketch seemingly inserted to provide an exciting conclusion.  These are only minor disagreements with a very strong ending to a fascinating series.

If you’re looking for an entertaining, thought-provoking sci-fi series with interesting, well fleshed out characters, then these are the books for you.  And like every other Sawyer book, they make for fast reading – perfect for a day or two at the beach.   Enjoy your summer!

  1 comment for “Guest Review: The Neanderthal Parallax by Robert Sawyer

  1. July 22, 2011 at 7:08 am

    I recently saw a BBC programme about early hominids and have been wanting to read more about neanderthals who had a complex and sophisticated social culture. And even better when I came across reference to Sawyer’s books a few weeks ago before coming across your review. I think I may just have to get myself a copy:)

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