Thursday, February 5, 2009

Robert J. Sawyer: Hominids (2003)

Subgenre: parallel universes

I started this 2003 Hugo winner with a great deal of anticipation, probably for all the wrong reasons. After having immediately judged the book by its cover, I was excited - we get Neanderthals and neutrino physics, two subjects that I find (possibly inappropriately) badass. And initially, I was rewarded as the novel started out with a nice locked-room type mystery, introducing both the human and Neanderthal worlds cleanly and engendering the sense of wonder that is the hallmark of good science fiction. Then, in Chapter Six, a new female character is introduced and raped in about five pages. This, as you might imagine, sets off all sorts of alarm bells ringing for anyone who's studied portrayals of rape, or even this webcomic. Look, I'm not an expert on this by any means, and Sawyer clearly put research in before making an attempt to write a woman coping with a difficult situation, trying to develop Mary's character, but it still comes off as shallow - the character becomes defined by her victim status. This draws attention to one of the book's clear flaws - the characterization (at least of the humans) is weak and somewhat cliched - I don't remember the character's names as much as I do "hot female physicist," "victim," "doctor," and so on. Where this would be a forgivable (and, to be honest, common in some science fiction) flaw in another work, it has a whiff of Rape is the New Dead Parents here. This isn't helped by being reminded every ten pages or so how attractive the other female character is, a little tic that set my teeth on edge after the third or fourth time.

And that's a shame, because the Neanderthal world that mixes utopia and dystopia is compelling, while the humans are dull. Becoming immersed in this world is the best part of the novel, and even the apparent fact that a species without lawyers can still do a pretty good Matlock impression can't dull that. Unfortunately, on the whole, much of this book has been done better before - Daniel Quinn's Ishmael kept coming to mind re: the noble savage idea, and Stranger in a Strange Land as well. I'm not going to bash Hominids for not being Stranger, but I can't help but want more - more consequences, more characterization, more depth. I realize Hominids is the first of a series, but this didn't really leave me enthused for the next one.

I'd say No on general principle. I haven't read any of the other nominees for 2003, but I can't imagine picking this over a Kim Stanley Robinson novel. I'll give Hominids a C-.

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