I knew going in to this novel that fellow Hugo blogger Das Ubernerd declared this his least favorite Hugo-winning novel. I also knew that sf review podcaster Luke Burrage hated this book, despite not listening to the episode in question, because he rants about it on a regular basis. Combined with my own dislike of www:Wake and, especially, The Terminal Experiment, I was really afraid of this one. And…maybe this is the low expectations speaking...but it wasn’t that bad.
Ponter Boddit and his male life-partner Adikor Huld hail from a dimension in which Neanderthals became the dominant hominid lifeform on Earth rather than our own competing Cro Magnon ancestors. They’re running an experiment with a quantum computer in an abandoned mine when something goes wrong, causing Ponter to be transported to our Earth. While Adikor goes on trial for Ponter’s disappearance, Ponter hangs out with a small group of Canadian scientists in a house somewhere, discusses his sub-species’ differences, science, and religion, and….falls in love?
Okay, it’s kind of silly. The idea that a Neanderthal visitor from another dimension would be allowed to relax with a doctor, an anthropologist and a physicist in a Canadian country home is just ridiculous, and the conversations they have are pretty inane. There’s a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity out of these scientists and the world as a whole. The main human character, Mary Vaughan, is raped just before she meets Ponter. It’s a bold move at character-development on Sawyer’s part, but it's also executed with maximum awkwardness, and means that we spend a lot of time seeing if Mary can learn to love again. The novel just isn’t strong enough to support this level of serious drama.
Meanwhile, on the flipside, the trial feels a lot like a bad episode of Ally McBeal, complete with bizarre legal procedures, melodramatic reveals of evidence, and even more melodramatic motives for the participants. I got the impression that the Neanderthal world is supposed to be some sort of utopia. We see harmonious economics and politics, a focus on sustainability, gender equality and universal bisexuality, advanced science, and almost no crime. On the other hand, there is universal surveillance and eugenics programs, which Sawyer doesn’t do much to condemn. He also presents Neanderthals as pure rationalists, and quickly dismisses a whole pile of evidence of Neanderthal religion (which I find fascinating) with some hand-waiving. At the same time, he builds his whole society around Lewis Binford’s far more controversial and unlikely ideas that Neanderthals kept the genders completely segregated most of the time. Sawyer seems to do this a lot – promoting himself as a pro-science rationalist while using very arbitrary, and very convenient, evidentiary standards to push his own favorite ideas.
On top of these flaws, we get the standard Sawyerisms that I’ve really come to dislike: obscure geek references dominating casual conversation (Kira Nerys? Really?), corny dialogue (“par-tay!”), characters spending all of their time debating what are clearly Sawyer’s own pet ideas (quantum consciousness!), and Canada-centrism. Sawyer even returns to a device he used in Terminal Experiment – a series of dumb headlines reacting to the book’s world-changing events that reveal more about Sawyer’s blinkered view of humanity than anything else.
Okay, so I complained a lot. I didn’t say it was a great novel, it’s just not as bad as I thought it’d be. The central idea is kind of cool, and I thought the Neanderthal society was interesting enough, despite my problems with it. I know this is the first volume in a trilogy, and I’m actually half-intrigued to see where it goes. Maybe they won’t spend all of the next book barbecuing in a random Canadian home!
Then again, considering that one of my all-time favorite sf books was also on the ballot (I'll get to it shortly), I probably could get pretty steamed about this choice.