Some long flights and airport waiting to and from Chicago last week gave me time to whip through The Neanderthal Parallax, a trilogy of books from one of my favorite SF authors, Robert J. Sawyer. It’s a great alternative history/universe romp.
Hominids kicks it off, with a Neanderthal suddenly appearing in the middle of a neutrino detection tank in Canada. Nope, not a spear waving, meat-cooking-over-fire stereotype. This is a Neanderthal scientist Ponter Boddit, who got kicked out of his alternative world and into ours due to a quantum computer experiment he and his partner were conducting.
In Ponter’s version of Earth, it was humans — homo sapiens (or homo sapiens sapiens apparently) — that died out. Ponter turns out to be surprised we could even have survived due to our smaller brains. Ponter’s world is also pretty utopian-like. There are less than half-a-billion people, due to zero population growth maintained through regular generations allowed to be born every 10 years. The result is lots of nature, low industrialization and no pollution. Crime is pretty much non-existent due to the “Companions” embedded in everyone’s arms that record all they do.
The society is also unique. Woman live separately from men except for during “Two Become One,” when men come into the women’s areas when they are all just past their periods and thus not fertile. Since they all live together — and are extremely sensitive to pheromones due to their greater sense of smell — the women all have synchronized menstrual cycles.
What about the remaining part of the month? In addition to having a different sex partner, each Neanderthal also has a same sex one. So Ponter has both a husband and a wife, if you will (they use different terms). His wife has a wife; his husband also has a wife.
We come off pretty strange. The biggest Neanderthal war involved a shocking 800 or so deaths. Ponter nearly goes into shock when reading about our wars. The smells of pollution hit him strong, and we seem pretty uncivilized and illogical. But then again, he’s deeply impressed that we’ve been to the moon. The Neanderthals have no space flight at all, an area they’ve simply not expanded into.
Most of the book deals with his growing relationship with a geneticist and comparing and contrasting Earths. Back in Ponter’s world, his partner goes on trial accused of murder. Their quantum computing facility was deep underground, so there is no companion recording to prove his innocence.
Humans is the sequel, the middle book of the trilogy. Ponter’s made it back home, and a bridge is opened up between the two worlds. He now begins an actual relationship with the geneticist, Mary Vaughan. She suffered a rape in the earlier book, and that develops out into an unexpected way as Ponter eventually finds and confronts her attacker. Relations between the two worlds also expand as more Neanderthals come over and begin interacting with scientists and politicians. Meanwhile on our side, the head of a US think tank begins leaving you worried about his real intentions.
Hybrids concludes the trilogy. Mary’s attacker is still around but changed in a variety of ways, physically and mentally. Ponter and Mary seek a way to have a baby, a challenge when he has 24 chromosomes and she 23. The issue of God, which runs throughout all the books, hits a crisis point. Mary’s a devout Catholic. Neanderthals have no belief in a god at all — and as it turns out, no “god organ” in the brain that reacts to magnetic effects that the book makes out to be why our type of human believe in greater powers. Should Mary’s child have this god organ or not? Meanwhile, the think tank guy proves he’s definitely no good, and much more happens and gets resolved.
Overall, it’s great reading, probably even more so if you’re a Canadian. Instead of everything taking place in the US, Sawyer, a Canadian author, has the action firmly in Canada.
Flashforward remains my favorite. A science experiment “flashforwards” everyone in the world more than twenty years in the future — or at least they get glimpses of their future lives for a few minutes. How do you piece together moving forward with your life if you saw yourself with a different partner, as a rich famous person, committing a crime or ominously — nothing but blackness? Just outstanding.
I’m an absolute sucker for alternative history/universe stories. If you get hooked by the genre, a few other authors to check out:
Harry Turtledove: I love the Worldwar series (In the Balance, first book of four) that’s followed by the Colonization series (Second Contact, first book of three), where alien lizard people arrive in the middle of WW II. A concluding book to both of the series has finally come out, Homeward Bound (and see review here), but I hate hardbacks, so I haven’t read it yet. Also see A World of Difference, where Earth finds Mars to be inhabited. He’s also written many, many other books of alternative history.
Harry Harrison: Check out A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, where Victorians want to build a tunnel under the Atlantic to reach the still British colony of America. Ruled Britannia was good, where Shakespeare ends up in a plot to overthrow England’s Spanish rulers. Stars & Stripes Forever is the first of three great books that kicks off an alternative history where during the US Civil War, England accidentally attacks their allies, The South. The North rallies to the defense, and suddenly the war shifts to one between American and England.
SM Stirling: Island in the Sea of Time throws Nantucket back 3,000 years, and it’s a lot of fun to watch how they adjust. Unfortunately, the rest of the series sadly goes downhill and it was almost a chore reading the last one in the trilogy. But Conquistador was great, where a window opens up between modern day California to an alternative version that’s never been settled by Europeans.
Eric Flint: 1632 has a chunk of West Virginia getting thrown back in time into Germany. Great reading. Unfortunately, then the following books 1633 and — wait for it — 1634: The Galileo Affair weren’t as good. In fact, 1634 was appalling, if only for the fact that Galileo himself barely appears or does much in it.
I’ve got a few more authors and books of alternative history as well. These were just the ones that came to mind quickly or that I could spot on my bookshelf. I might do a post on some other ones the next time I start moving books around.