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  1. #1
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    Jan 2002
    Somewhere to the Left

    December Book: Hominids by Robert Sawyer

    I had wanted to come up with some topics and questions regarding this month's discussion, but alas, my boss is actually making me work today!

    So, without further delay, what did y'all think of Hominids?

    I was quite dubious, despite the fact that I love anthropological SF, because I thought a parallel universe involving Neanderthals would be hokey. I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it so much that I finished it one day and immediately followed it with Humans.

    I don't know enough about quantum physics to posit whether or not the premise of opening an alternate universe with a quantum computer is even possible, but I was willing to buy it for the sake of the novel.

  2. #2
    Seeker of Stuff Moderator Kamakhya's Avatar
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    Somewhere to the Left
    One of the things that I loved about this novel is it caused me to set it aside and really think about the ideas Sawyer brings up. He is very good with that and he is rapidly becoming a favorite author.

    One of the things that Sawyer often explores is religion, particularly Christianity. In the other books I have read by him, he seems to do it in a way that is completely nonoffensive. This novel seems to push some of the boundaries; namely how can we believe in something that has no scientific foundation. Was anyone here offended by his treatment of religion in this book? Did anything make you think about your own beliefs? How much of an effect do you think religion plays in our cultural heritage?

    Another aspect that I really enjoyed was the depiction of the Neanderthal culture almost dichotomous to our own; e.g., peaceful, clean, small, etc. So anyone see it as a Utopia, or did it strike you as a dystopia (boring, stagnant and completely predictable).

    It has been many a year since I got my degree in Anthro and all of his references are way past my time, but I did find his anthropological science spot on and great fun. To me it was clearly well researched and I appreciated his list of references. What about the quantum stuff? Anyone know enough about this to comment?

    I was highly amused to discover that genders live apart in Neanderthal society. While it seemed a pretty interesting way to deal with male aggressiveness and possessiveness, I think it was a bit far-fetched.

    Finally, the whole Eugenics thing was very intriguing. I think that while the concept of breeding humans along such lines is repulsive, I felt a certain amount of admiration for such a system. I think Sawyer managed to portray this seemingly barbaric practice with an element of finesse. Yes, it is cruel, but it obviously worked. It is pursued with even more vigor in the second novel. Along the same lines are the alaibi archives. You know that you can do no harm because your every action will be recorded. Combine this with the fact that the archives are not accessed or viewed accept under judicial review and he makes a fine argument for such vigilence.

    At any rate, a book chock full of issues and ideas thoroughly contemporary with today's society. This was by far the best Sawyer work I have read to date.

  3. #3
    Registered User lemming's Avatar
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    Jun 2001
    Cambridge, MA
    I didn't find Sawyer's treatment of Christianity offensive at all, and even thought he evened the score a bit by having Neanderthals not believe in the big bang (something most of us believe is true) and not have gotten into space... but then I'm not religious so I might not be the right person to ask.

    I thought the Neanderthal culture was pretty much a utopia until the unjust trial started. At that point it became evident that human nature is still human nature, and although the Neanderthals' culture is certainly more environmentally friendly, it's by no means perfect. I did love "what's your contribution?". Much nicer and more focused on the big picture than "So what do you do?". Nobody in that culture could ever choose a career without really thinking about it, with people asking that question as small talk!

    The eugenics thing was definitely interesting, but I'm not going to agree that it's repulsive. Is it more repulsive to have some conscious, directed thought put into our reproduction (or lack thereof) than for us to just randomly breed with no apparent thought for what we're doing for the species? I wouldn't say so. Eugenics is not a bad word... it happens every time a person makes a decision to have or not have a child based partly on thoughts of the far future. There are lots of people who decide not to pass on their genes because of a known (and hereditary) defect, and lots of childfree people who donate eggs or sperm because they have characteristics they honestly think are worth passing on. That does happen. It's eugenics of a gentle sort, and of course it happens alongside all the responsible people who "just want kids" but limit themselves to one or two out of respect for the environment and the future population of the earth.

    The idea of breeding excessive violence out of the gene pool by forced sterilization (or at least forced not-breeding) isn't a new one, though I doubt it would work in as straightforward a way as it does in this book and... ummm... a Sheri Tepper book in which the same thing is done (avoiding the title to avoid a massive spoiler). Whatever the genetics of the traits involved are, they're probably subtle and a combination of the expression of many genes. I do personally like the idea and find it rather kinder than the death penalty, and I wouldn't mind some form of population control too as long as I'm daydreaming, but I don't think these ideas are likely to take hold in Western societies anytime soon... for better or worse, we're too big on individual liberty and also way too invested in the pronatalist "everyone should want and have children" mindset.

    (I noticed Sawyer was very careful to have the "huh, our gene pool COULD be cleaned up a little" thought come from a traumatized, raped woman, precisely so she could be excused for having such a sensible, whups, I mean repulsive thought.)

    The book itself was good--as I said in the November Reads thread, a much faster and more fun read than I was expecting. To answer Kamakhya's question, I don't know how realistic the geometry and (apparent) physics of the gateway are, but the general workings of the quantum computer are totally consistent with what I heard about them in college... not that I heard a lot, but one of my engineering profs did discuss them one day. The part that seemed diciest to me was the "so after it ran out of alternate universes in which it existed, it reached out to this one because, uhhh, we're special!" Ah well, it was as good a device as any for getting the two universes in contact.

    Can't wait for Humans to come out in paperback.

  4. #4
    Hip, cool, jiggy wit' it emohawk's Avatar
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    May 2003
    Sydney-ish, Australia
    I too really enjoyed reading Hominids, moreso that I expected to. This is the second Sawyer book I've read (the other being The Terminal Experiment) and it is definately a much more mature novel, so full credit to Sawyer.

    Hominids reminded me of reading Timescape by Gregory Benford, though imo Timescape is a superior novel. While Hominids was a very good novel, it didn't quite reach the "excellent" rating for me, mostly because of Sawyer's trouble with working in subplots. The whole rape situation just felt forced (no pun intended) and to my mind just didn't add enough to the plot to warrant being there. Sure it went a little way to explaining her attraction to the neanderthal, but I just don't think such a major event had enough impact on the plot or the characters to warrant inclusion.

    I had the same problem with the whole murder trial subplot on the Neaderthal world. A Dr disappears from somewhere that is completely cut off from the outside world, the only suspect being his assistant who just happens to be one of very few Neaderthals that has a problem with anger and violence. The missing Dr also just happens to have a dead female mate, whose own female mate just happens to have a grudge against the assistant. All very convienient. Sure it's mildly entertaining, but it seems very contrived and at the end of it all the resolution of the trial is very much an anticlimax anyway. If you're going to dip into another genres territory for a subplot (ie crime) you really need to do it a lot less clunkingly that Sawyer does here. Perhaps he should read some Vorkosigan books, Bujold handles things like that much more masterfully.

    While the whole subplot issue is pretty major, it's my only real beef with it, and I still managed to enjoy the book so kudos to Sawyer.

    In regards to the whole science of the book, I'm in no way scientific myself outside of what I read in SF, but I followed it all very easily (Sawyer definately does have a gift for putting complicated scientific theory across to the general readership) and I mostly bought the whole quantum theory and parallel universe thing. On a couple of occassions I had to suspend my disbelief and give him the benefit of the doubt but I dislike "hard" SF novels that are more concerned with getting the science precise than making the book entertaining.

    The religion side of things wasn't offensive for me either. I didn't find it entirely confrontational though, mostly as there wasn't anything there that hasn't been propsitioned before by other authors, sometimes 50 odd years ago (James Blish's A Case of Conscience springs to mind as an example an obvious example). But let's face it, if you're going to be offended by people putting forth other views or questioning religious presumptions you shouldn't be reading SF.

    Thats just a couple of my thoughts on the novel, but what it boils down to is:
    a) Did I enjoy it: Yes, very much
    b) Does it make me want to read the sequels: Probably not. All the plot threads were more or less resolved to my mind, I wasn't left caring enough about any of the characters to have a burning need to find out what else happens to them, and I suspect that Humans is mainly going to be about one of the humans (probably Mary) going to the Neanderthal world, which is the unimaginative path for a sequel (I should probably find out what it's about before making such assumptions though, lol).

    Personally, if I had written the novel (it's all very easy to be an expert on these things when you're not the one doing them) I would have had a human unsuspectingly transferred to the Neanderthal world at the same time as the Neanderthal Dr (who's name escapes me) is transferred to ours - instead of the heavy water - and then replace the murder trial subplot with the unwitting human trying to figure things out on the neanderthal world at the same time as the neanderthal is doing the same thing here. That's probably just me though.

  5. #5
    Anitaverse Refugee FicusFan's Avatar
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    Nov 2002
    Nashua, NH
    I also liked the book. I thought it was one of the better RS books (in his current incarnation).

    My favorite books by RS: He wrote a trilogy several years ago, which is out of print, based in a dinosaur civilization. They re-enacted three of the major events in science (the first was a retelling of Gallaleo (SP?)), while working in the specifics of the dinosaur world (on a moon or an asteroid, I think) and the dino characters. It was much meatier than any of his more modern novels. I forget the names other than one was called Foreigner, which I remember because CJ Cherryh has a book of the same name.

    I find that his current stories are a bit on the superficial side, and that his characters are rather limp and bland. He does a good job with working the science in, and not overwhelming the story with it, but he needs to do better on story and character.

    The people in this book are actually better than most of those done in his recent stories. I cared for them during the book, but don't remember a lot once the book is over. I will read the other 2 books in the series because the first book is not really badly done, and I am a sucker for all things ancient.

    What I disliked specifically was the characterization of the female scientist who was raped. I also was not thrilled about the rape, though I understand that RS wanted a reason for her to reject human men, and turn to the neanderthal. But really the neanderthal was still male and I no more think he would have been ok for her at that point than any other male.

    One of the things that I wondered as I read the story was if RS was working the reality of 'rape' into the story, though it was far from a gritty portrayal. In his last book Calculating God he made his main human character a cancer patient. He said he did that because he has a neighbor who was going through cancer treatment. But you can't really ask, with his wife sitting there, if he is using rape because it is something that has also touched his life. It might have nothing to do with him or her, but it really is something they have to volunteer, not something that you can ask about (he visits my discussion group about twice a year), because if it isn't something personal, then I felt it was a bit gratuitous. The woman could have been coming off a bad relationship, or had some other reason to avoid a human male.

    The other problem I had with the woman was that she had, throughout the whole book maybe a page at most of 'scientific' thought/dialog/interaction. The rest of the time she is thinking about clothes, make-up, her looks, her mother, dating, men, sex, and other couples. Now those are all legitimate thoughts for a woman, but they are not the only thoughts a woman has, especially a scientist who has been handed the holy grail of her professional life. I also thought given that she was a rape survivior, she would have focused more on her professional side, and would have frozen out her other side because she wouldn't want to deal with the pain and the complications of life after rape (at least right away).

    I didn't mind the trial in the neanderthal world, but thought that it was odd the woman pressing the case had so much hate for him, since it had almost been exstinguished, and that nobody there really noticed it till the end. That part felt contrived.

    In terms of the separate neanderthal communities of men and women - that is based on an actual academic theory of how they lived. It has something to do I think with bones that they found grouped separately by sex. Not sure of the details, because I have only read others talking about the theory, not actually explaining it fully. It may also be in vogue because they are looking for a way to explain why such a large competent being went extinct (now that they have debunked the stupid brute myth), so they are trying to see them as less able to work together, and less adaptable to change. All that said, I don't know if it is still a current and workable theory- or based in the past.

    The idea of quantum universes is probably less shocking than previously thought because of the advent of String theory. I have read some stuff on both Quantum and String theory (though at the level of romper room stuff for non-scientists) and String theory requires the existence of parallel universes, and they are looking toward it to become the TOE (Theory of Everything) and help explain how everything works. I don't know anything about the idea of a quantum computer.

    The underground heavywater facility in the book, actually exists by the way. RS visited it, and worked it into the book. They aren't doing the science in the book though.

    In terms of his treatment of religion, I think compared to his other books, that it was mild. I didn't find anything that pushes the boundaries, if anything he uses a light touch. In Calculating God he uses southern red-neck born again christian killers to make his point about what he thinks of religion and its current place in the world. Religion is one of his pet peeves.

    I would also have to say that to me there is nothing wrong with modifying humanity. I think we not only should be building a better moustrap, we should be building odder ones. I think the ability to prevent cancer, heart attacks, and dementia should go hand in hand with gills, the ability to function undewater, and any other enhancement someone might want. I am always amused at the horrified knee jerk reaction that is mouthed whenever human cloning is mentioned. Not one person has ever actually says why it is so terrible, they all just agree that it is.

    My take on the neanderthal society is that you give up some things - like total freedom (because you were recorded) and you got other things in return - like freedom from crime. It also to me was a vignette about what the possiblities were if you didn't have such incredible population pressures. Because there were fewer people and less reproduction, there was more time for thought and choice, rather than having to do things without thinking because thousands would starve to death if you didn't. You didn't have to mortgage your future to save the present.

    There are several in my discussion group though who read it and took it as RS comparing and lecturing on the difference between Canadien society and American society.

    Well those are my rambling thoughts on the RS and the book.

  6. #6
    Who me? SusF's Avatar
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    Nov 2001
    Oklahoma, USA
    I loved Hominids and am halfway through the sequel, Humans, at the moment.

    The Neanderthal society was fascinating, but somehow, especially into the second book, a bit too perfect, too pat, and too obviously a mirror to our own. I find myself wanting to see more flaws in their logic.

    I love the anthropology of it all. I've watched many of the evolutionary shows and such on the science channels and it's nice to see the theories used in a science fiction setting.

    Mary's rape and reaction to it bothered me quite a bit. I felt it wasn't really necessary to the plot. There are other reasons she might initially reject contact someone so different without using rape. However, it seems to be re-visited in book 2.

    But, all in all I enjoyed this book quite a bit. This is the first book by Robert Sawyer I've read and I'll have to find more. Always happy to add a new author to my to-be-read pile.


  7. #7
    Who me? SusF's Avatar
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    Nov 2001
    Oklahoma, USA
    Finished Humans, sequel to Hominids. It's still very good and we get the human point of veiw of the neanderthal world.

    I almost bought Hybrids in hardback yesterday, but stopped myself. I have the other two in paperback and I hate to split up a series like that, hehe. Library never heard of it either.


  8. #8
    BookWyrm Archren's Avatar
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    Sep 2003
    Just finished Hominids. I'll definetely be getting the sequel.

    I agree that some of the plot points felt forced, particularly the assistant suspected of murder being one of the few Neanderthals with agression problems. Also, I felt that the story was only barely capable of supporting all the philosophy that was hung from it. However, it was capable, and stood up well, so I was able to accept it.

    It did seem like human males came in for a bad time of it in Hominids. The rapist aside, it seemed like Sawyer was emphasizing some of the negative characteristics of Montego's character. For instance, it is perfectly possible for a lovely woman and handsome male to be co-workers and not become sexually involved. Honest! It all seemed a little contrived to make the Neanderthal look better in comparison.

  9. #9
    Lost in a large book nicba's Avatar
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    Sep 2001

    Thumbs up Hominids

    I know I'm months and months late, but I just finished Hominids and I have a few comments to add to your discussion.

    First, I think you've all gotten the rape thing wrong. It wasn't included just to get Mary attached to the Neanderthal - as you said yourself he could have accomplished that in a hundred of other ways. No, I think the rape scene was included simply to strengthen his "message" about the benefits gene cleansing and the alibi archive.

    That could have been offensive and preachy, but in fact I found all these ideas and philosophies to be fascinating. They made me stop and think and were, for me, the real strength of the book.

    Now, I probably wouldn't protest very much if all rapists was to be sterialized as part of their punishment. But I honestly don't think it would help that much. I think crime is much too complex an issue to be solved by purely genetic messures. It's just as much a product of bad mileu as of bad genes.

    As of the Alibi archives, I thought those sensor fields employed to record the doings of everyone was rather far-fetched. But apart for that, I was actuallly halfway convinced that this would be a good thing to have. Until I got to the "unfair" trial.

    The Alibi archive was pretty well shielded from electronic attacks - being isolated from the net as it was. And physical access to the archive was protected by requring the participation of two officials, a "judge" and a "archive keeper." But what of the danger of corruption of those officials? The threath of someone gaining illegal access to these archives in order to view, or even worse tamper with, the recordings would be immense. And not only corruption but also political pressures, and pressure from intelligence agencies, would be a danger.

    Still, all in all, I found this a very thought provoking book. Just as a good SF novel should be.

  10. #10
    I just read Hominids. I liked it though I may or may not read the sequels. It works well as a stand alone for me.
    I accept the science in the story. After all it is science FICTION.
    The one thing that bothered me was we had four academics from two totally different totally unknown cultures. The cultural differences came out in the course of off the wall normal conversation (as opposed to direct questions) and they seemed surprised at differences. (e.g. who would be surprised that mammoths still existed in a world where Neanderthals existed).
    I am no scholar, but I would have been sitting there with a note book and taking notes. Anyway, maybe getting the cultural differences out would not have worked well story-wise in a (what I would think is) more natural way.

  11. #11
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    Oct 2006
    Vancouver, Canada
    Gristle! Quel fromage! Iím afraid Iím going to have to disagree with everyone here and proclaim this novel one cheesy piece of fiction. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Maxine MacArthurís Time Future - a story with a lot of potential let down by a clumsy, often annoyingly pedestrian execution. Unlike Time Future, however, Hominids was brimming with a great ideas. Sawyerís portrayal of the alternate Neanderthal society was fascinating, not the least because he has used his background in the field to extrapolate on established theories concerning Neanderthal man. I found the presentation of these established theories, and the section in which many of these long-held theories are discredited, fascinating. I also loved the notion of the road not taken, the alibi archives and the proposition of extreme genetic weeding to deal with crime - a solution that impacts not only the criminal but his or her family as well. Lots of amusing little instances pepper the narrative - the Letterman Top 10 List of how we know heís a Neanderthal which I found genuinely funny, Ponterís views on heterosexuality, Adikorís contemplation of how quickly the Neanderthal legal system would degenerate with the introduction of legal professionals (a.k.a. lawyers) - which made for a quick read (I finished the book in two days). All that said - holy crap was the plot, the characters, and their ďmeaningfulĒ conversations incredibly contrived.

    People jump to conclusions way too quickly throughout the book because, I guess, itís much easier to take this shortcut than build believable motivation in the narrative. Everyone jumps on the possibility that our mystery man is a Neanderthal way too quickly, then jump on the theory of a parallel universe way too quickly, Ponterís daughter agrees to defend Adikor way too quickly. Again, Iím not saying they wouldnít have gotten there eventually, just that it would have been nice to seem some sort of progression toward these rather sudden turns.

    The rape scene read like it had been written with all the paint-by-numbers aplomb of someone who had just watched an after school special on the subject and then decided to fortify their research with a quick perusal of the complimentary pamphlets at a rape crisis center.

    Speaking of paint-by-numbers, Maryís conversations with Ponter on the topics of her faith, the legal system and eugenics felt incredibly pat and superficial. The author sets up the possibility for a very interesting discussion and ends up short-changing the reader with a facile presentation of these presumably weighty subjects. I found it silly that Mary couldnít even come up with counter-arguments to Ponterís question of why adultery should be considered a bad thing (her incredibly lame response is ďbecause itís a sinĒ which really isnít so much a counter-point as an easy segue to the topic of faith), or why would anyone want to tamper with alibi archives (has Mary ever watched a news report?). I mean, come on.

    Another huuuuge stretch is the relative lack of any sort of ruling authority in the action. If word got out that a Neanderthal had suddenly appeared in our society, the authorities would have swept in and whisked him away in no time. Instead, weíre expected to believe that the ďlive and let liveĒ Canadian government will just step back and allow these three scientists to go all Thelma and Louise with this visitor from another universe. And when they do finally take action, itís only to send in the CDC to quarantine the area after Ponter gets sick. By the way, how did they find out that Ponter was sick?

    In short, lots of great ideas sloppily treated. The fact that this book won the Hugo effectively undermines my respect for this apparently prestigious award. Gristle indeed.

  12. #12
    I met Robert Sawyer today when he came to my school as a guest speaker, on invitation by the Literacy Committee. He gave a very short presentation in cafetorium to approximately 300 tenth graders. A lot of students asked a lot of good questions.

    He later joined the LCommittee for lunch, and my colleague who has read Hominids and Humans asked him the question about the graphic rape scene. Why was it portrayed in such graphic detail, and what purpose does it serve? Mind, my colleagued asked this in a much less blunt manner.

    The answer we got was:
    1. He wanted to portray how troubled our society is when a woman cannot spend a few minutes walking around a parking lot at night time without being sexually assaulted.

    2. He later writes a sex scene where Mary is making love to someone she cares about, and who cares about her, too. It is a love-making that is healing for her and it serves to contrast the previous violent sexual assault.

    I, personally, have not read the books so I cannot evaluate whether these answers would suffice.

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