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Robert J. Sawyer – Hominids

Title: Hominids
Author: Robert J. Sawyer
Year: 2002

The word “hominid” means an erect bipedal primate, of which there are only us humans and some of our long dead ancestors, such as the Neanderthals. Beginning to read a book with this title is therefore somewhat interesting, especially since the title implies two types of hominids. The essence of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel is an accidental bridging between two parallel universes, our own Earth and another one on which the Neanderthals survived and we died out (presumably by killing ourselves). A Neanderthal is pushed over the bridge, which collapses after him.

The story is subdivided into two main story lines, one in each version of Earth. Here, the Neanderthal causes much ado, but the focus of this part of the novel is not really on him, but on us humans. This is a classical “explain to an alien how civilisation works”, which is adequately but not brilliantly executed. The other part depicts a Neanderthal society, heavily based on anthropology and archaeology (subjects on which I am in no way an expert).

My reactions to Hominids are many and varied. First of all, the book is much more interesting than any summary can merit. I was genuinely hooked throughout the novel, which is partly because of the fluidity of the narration and partly because of the story itself. The language is not extraordinary in any way, but serves its purpose.

The novel is succinct and not many words are wasted. For me, this is truly positive, since I hate wordy fiction. However, and this might sound contradictory at first, I find Hominids somewhat superficial. There are many discussions of our society that feel somewhat imbecilic in that they do not say something I had not thought of before. To make this novel brilliant, Sawyer would have had to depict our reality in some new way previously unknown to me, but this is not the case. This would probably not have been alleviated by increasing the number of pages, but somewhat extended and deeper dialogue would have been nice.

I cannot really assess the scientific quality of the novel, but it seems to me that the author has invested much time and effort in researching Neanderthals and building up their society in a way which at least manages to convince me. This might be Sawyer’s primary strength: that he is adept at extrapolating from actual research and create something genuinely creative and still keep a solid and trustworthy atmosphere.

Conclusively, Hominids is a good read, but I feel somewhat frustrated because it could have been much better. The superficiality of parts of the novel is really the only point where I think Sawyer falls short, but the other aspects of the novel are still good enough to merit four out of five snails.

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