Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review of "Hominids' by Robert J. Sawyer

Reading the author bio in Robert J. Sawyer’s 2002 Hominids, I noted the extreme lack of meaningful content.  One page long, it is an endless string of: award for this, award finalist for that, considered by many this, heralded as that—even an appearance on Geraldo is lauded.  But nothing spoke of the man (except the last sentence: he’s married), his style of writing, or the subjects his books approach—the usual bio fodder.  This was not a surprise, however: the author bio was located at the end of the novel.  I will explain what I mean by this.

Hominids is a book filled with ideas having that new car smell; they’re straight from the theorist’s pen.  Sawyer bets everything on the state of research of 2002, no leeway for what five or ten more years might reveal.  More than half the book is “conversations” on theology, physics, biology, law, human rights, chemistry, social science, and other subjects that touch upon the cutting edge of scholarly study at the time of the book’s publishing.  The problem is, 10 years have passed and already some of it feels dated.  There are even old ideas (eugenics!) utilized.  I can only imagine another decade will cast further doubt on the ideas discussed, the effect of the novel diminishing with each passing year.

“Conversations” above was written in quotations because Sawyer’s voice is so obviously channeled through the characters that little difference can be found among them.  Mary the geneticist, Louise the physicist, Adikor the scientist, and Ponter’s AI implant, all speak in exactly the same tone and with exactly the right questions to prod the speaker to produce more wowwie-zowwie facts and figures pulled nearly directly from the textbooks Sawyer acknowledges.  If you’re the kind of reader who enjoys being educated in such overt fashion—the author thisclose to addressing the reader directly—then by all means have a go.  However, if you’re someone who appreciates their subject matter more subtlety mixed into plot and authors who assume their readership is of marginal intelligence and does not require hand holding on every subject broached, avoid, avoid, avoid.

Before I get ahead of myself, the basics first.  Hominids is the story of Ponter Boddit and his fall through a portal into our world.  A neanderthal, Ponter comes from a parallel Earth where humans went extinct and neanderthals flourished.  Their civilization more technically and socially advanced than ours—a utopia?—Ponter marvels at the “primitive” behavior of we humans.  In fact a thinly veiled opportunity for Sawyer to point out all of the ills of our world and posit his solution in the neanderthal world, to say the descriptions Ponter offers the amazed Earthlings is naïve would be an understatement given the fairy tale storyline propelling the characters.  In purely melodramatic fashion, Adikor (Ponter’s best friend in the Neanderthal world) seeks to free himself from accusations of murder that arise upon Ponter’s disappearance.  Meanwhile in our world, Ponter, “learns” about humanity while trying to figure a way back to his own.

Hominids is not a rich story.  Sawyer, in an effort to tag all the bases he set out for himself at the get go, skims over a huge variety of big topics and passes up numerous opportunities for in-depth discussion.  As mentioned, the subjects of religion, science, society, the meaning of life, etc. get a brief mention before melodrama moves the story to another stage, a stage where more big topics are bandied about in “intelligent” style.  Suffice to say, with so many heavy topics covered in such a short page span, the gravity of their import pulls less, undermining the novel’s integrity in the process.

Style, well, let’s be polite and call it “lean”.  If you like pop-culture references, Sawyer has a million of them.  Ford Explorer, a particular brand of potato chips, Coca-cola, and countless other corporate names are mentioned.  I’m annoyed by this; you may not be.  He also has a habit of repeating character’s names or the equivalent pronoun at the beginning of nearly all sentences in a paragraph.  A typical string might be: “John went over to the table.  He picked up the phone.  He talked into it.  He was telling the man that…”  Again, if you’re not bothered by such antics, don’t heed my words.  (See the end of this blog post for a selection of quotes from the novel that say more than I ever could.)

And we can not go further without mentioning the humor.  An example: “Mary had a rental car now, courtesy of Inco—a red Dodge Neon.  (When she picked it up, Mary had asked the rental clerk if it ran on noble gas; all she’d gotten was a blank stare in return.)  Nyuck, nyuck, nycuk.  You’re a clever one, Robbie.  The way you took time away from the plot to tell us the make and color of Mary’s car, not to mention include that delicious insider joke really speaks to the seriousness of your endeavor.  Sawyer’s certainly a style some enjoy, it’s not for me.  

In the end, Hominids is a collection of many different colors that add up to: brown.  Side humor (or attempts thereat), romance, religion, socio-political utopia, and a fairy tale ending are forced together to produce a story that falls short of literary standards, let alone entertainment—of the intentional variety, that is.  It is a naïve book one step short of being YA given the level of intelligence and patience required to read its melodrama, pop culture references, and love story between human and Neanderthal that takes all of six days to develop—just after the human was raped.  Planet of the Apes presents a much better juxtaposition of man and ape.  There is extensive research—oh, so, visible—that Sawyer throws at the reader to suit the scene.  And it’s all so obviously a platform for the author to show off what he read and to produce solutions to solve social ills that show only the slightest of insight into the human condition.  (The bibliography may be the most useful part of the book.)  Like the author bio, the book lacks content presented in cohesive and intelligent enough fashion to hold any value beyond the superficial.  Hugo voters should be ashamed...

Random quotes from Hominids that provide unintentional entertainment:

"They drove along, CJMX-FM playing softly on the car’s stereo: the current song was Geri Halliwell’s rendition of “It’s Raining Men.”  “So,” said Reuben, looking over at Louise, “make me a believer: why do you think Ponter came from a parallel universe.”

“Mary read the report over a couple of times, then clicked “Send Now.”

“Ponter spoke again in his own language, his voice low, perhaps really just talking to himself, but the implant rendered the words in English anyway: “My kind gone.” […] Mary nodded slowly, sadly.  “The word you’re looking for,” she said gently, “is ‘alone.’”

“Still running she fumbled open her small purse and fished out her keys, offering them to him.  Ponter shook his head slightly.  For a second, Mary thought he was saying, Not without you.  But it was surely more basic than that: Ponter had never driven a car in his life.”


  1. I read Calculating God by Sawyer a while back and I had EXACTLY the same complaints about it as you do about this book. Looks like that's just his normal writing style.

    1. I'm still willing to give him another shot, but your comment makes me want to wait until I find something at the absolute bottom of the bargain barrel... :)