Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sawyer: Hybrids - Seeking Paradise in Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy


The third book of Robert Sawyer's series about the interface of the Neanderthal Parallax with our Earth, Hybrids is a worthy follower for the first two. All are based on the premise that a parallel universe (in which the world is occupied solely by Neanderthals) has intersected ours deep in the nickel mines near Sudbury, Ontario.

As you might guess from the titles, the first book, Hominids, introduces the alternative world in which (as Sawyer has it) the Sapiens hominids did not hunt the Neanderthal branch to extinction. The second, Humans, delves more deeply into the interaction of Homo Sapiens humans with their long-lost Neanderthal cousins. The third explores the prospect of the birth of a hybrid child.

The parents of this planned child will be Neanderthal scientist Ponter Boddit and his very good Sapiens friend, Mary Vaughan. They will need to choose explicitly how their child will express the wildly different characteristics of Neanderthal and Sapiens. Will it have 24 chromosomes (be Neanderthal), or 23 (be Homo Sapiens)? Will it have golden eyes like Ponter's or blue eyes like Mary's? Most important, will it be able to believe, as its mother does but its father cannot, in God?

Once again Sawyer has given a picture of an idyllic society, an Eden peopled with Neanderthals. These are peaceable hunters who eat meat almost exclusively, yet somehow have not hunted bison and passenger pigeons to extinction. They submit to the ultimate Big Brother, a bio-coupled Companion that records everything they do and say, yet somehow avoid abusing that capability.

They ruthlessly cull their gene pool of characteristics defined as undesirable, and just as strictly limit their reproduction. They marry twice, once in a homosexual relationship that occupies them for twenty-four days per month, and once for their opposite-sex partner for the four days per month when "Two become One." Except for those four days, men and women live totally apart.

More than sexual and social customs, Neanderthal and Sapiens differ in number of chromosomes: Neanderthals have one more, apparently due to the combination of two chromosomes into one for Sapiens. For Ponter and Mary, this would prevent the natural combination of sperm and egg. A gene-coding invention that seems to offer the solution is banned in Neanderthal space and poses its own unique danger on the Sapiens side of the interface.

If you haven't read the first two books, Hybrids is hard to get into. When you have, it is a typical Sawyer feast - a dozen solid science facts and theories twisted together with a total blue-sky conjecture or two, then tossed into the ozone and left to fall like the tapir's leg-bone where it may.

Is it just me, or is this a Canadian's-eye-view of Paradise? Don't get me wrong, I adore Robert Sawyer's fiction. I usually grab each book as soon as it appears in paperback. But I think Mary Vaughn's appreciation of Neanderthal sexual mores may have more to do with her rape than with how fertile, intelligent women normally react. For me, this was the worm in the apple of this whole trilogy. BookLoons has a review that may be a spoiler if you haven't read the book already.