08 March 2009

Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids (Tor, 2002)


I continue my study of SF&F works with Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids (2002), which won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novel. As I mentioned in my thoughts on Sawyer’s Calculating God, I am starting with Sawyer in large part because of his success and recognition: I figure, he must be doing something right –– so, what is that something?

Hominids was an entertaining read overall, especially the plotline focussing on Adikor’s murder trial in the Neanderthal version of Earth. Yet I finished the novel dissatisfied with it for various reasons, which I’ll describe here. It is stronger than Calculating God, but like that novel its parts fit together uneasily in the end.

A clear strength of Hominids is the immediate dramatic action of the opening chapter, with the destruction of the SNO detector chamber and the rescue of Ponter Boddit. This is an effective hook; it had me ready to read on and to want to learn what this was all about. From here, Sawyer skillfully manages the dramatic irony and tension between the two storylines, as Chapters Three and Four introduce us to the Neanderthal side of the equation, focussed on Adikor and Ponter’s quantum computing accident that brings the storylines together (structurally and thematically). For the rest of the novel, dramatic irony and tension reside primarily in Adikor’s murder trial and attempts to know what happened to Ponter, if not to get him back, which is balanced by Ponter’s experience as the “stranger in a strange land” and his growing resignation to the reality that he must make a life for himself in the Earth of humanity.

Another strong element involves the world building of the Neanderthal version of Earth and how Sawyer introduces the reader to it through the plot of Adikor’s murder trial. The alternate Earth of the Neanderthals feels distinctly different yet always plausible, and –– even if at times it shades a little into the role of a near-utopia in contrast to our Earth –– it touches on some intriguing sociocultural and scientific questions: i.e., the use of Companions, personal computers implanted in an arm of every Neanderthal, has led to a kind of Orwellian “Big Brother” society, in which a person’s every action and word are recorded and available for viewing according to certain protocols (such as legal cases); the means of population control practiced by the Neanderthals are at once attractive, such as regulated mating and procreation cycles (with a new “generation” conceived every ten years), and troubling in their implications, such as the legal eradication of undesirable genetic traits (say, a tendency to violence) by sterilizing all males of a criminal’s family.

Also, Sawyer’s choice to present complicated and detailed scientific information through dialogue between characters contributes to the novel’s dramatic tension and to engaging the reader. (The points in the novel when the narrator provides such information are some of the weakest because they bend the “show don’t tell” rule a touch too far, such as the description of and statistics about the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory that open the novel.) This technique makes the science (in Hominids, that of evolution and quantum physics mostly) part of the story, avoiding the need to delay the plot for “info dumps.”

Despite these strengths, however, the novel as a whole falters owing to some awkward and flat characterization, a central plot element that remains unresolved by the end, and, most significantly for me, in terms of style and artistry.

The weakest characters are those of our Earth, particularly because Sawyer paints them with clichés and relies upon stereotypes. Louise Benoit, for instance, is a 28-year old French Canadian woman from Montreal and postdoctoral student involved with the SNO: certainly, an intelligent, ambitious woman, one might suspect? Yet we rarely see this possible side of Louise’s character as the narrative consistently encourages us to pay attention to her sex appeal. The initial description of her tells us she is “statuesque,” with a “mane of thick brown hair” (15); we learn of Louise’s mildly exasperated awareness of grad student Paul Kiriyama’s clumsy attraction to her; then, before the end of Chapter One, she is stripped down to her underwear, thankful to have “worn a bra today” but wishing “it hadn’t been as lacy” (22). After Chapter One, Louise becomes a background character; she serves chiefly as a contrast to Mary –– the sexy, beautiful woman who can get nearly anything she wants from men by wearing t-shirts tied up to expose her stomach versus the plain, 38-year old professor “long separated” (59) from her ex-husband and uncomfortable with her own sexuality. When Louise thus offers the complicated (and fascinating) scientific explanation for how there could be parallel Earths with divergent evolutionary outcomes and for how Ponter ended up in our Earth, trusting her authority in such matters is difficult. Not only does she read up “on this on the Web” (362), regarding evolutionary theory in particular, which is Mary’s field, but she effectively dismisses Mary’s contributions to the discussion. Sawyer, I think, undermines Louise in these ways, such that when she clearly demonstrates she’s not just another pretty Quebecoise face, the foregoing objectification of her cannot simply be set aside.

Turning to the plot, Mary, in fact, experiences perhaps the most intense and uncomfortable event of the novel when she is raped on the campus of York University, in Chapter Six. The rape happens suddenly and brutally, both to Mary and to the story, even if Sawyer somewhat obviously prepares the reader for it: Mary telling her graduate student Daria to be careful (59); Mary deciding she doesn’t need to call the “campus walking service” for an escort at 9:25pm in August (60). The issue with the rape is not so much that it happens, but its role in the plot: i.e., providing Mary’s motivation for going to Sudbury at a moment’s notice; providing the context for Mary’s eventual attraction, physical and emotional, to Ponter. I acknowledge that Sawyer throughout handles Mary’s reaction to the rape with sympathy. Yet the violence of it, finally, seems unnecessary, for I’m sure Mary, as an expert in Neanderthal DNA, would willingly go to Sudbury purely for the sake of academic curiosity and scientific enquiry; moreover, I suspect her attraction to Ponter could just as easily develop naturally.

In going with the rape, however, Sawyer misses an opportunity both to follow up on Mary’s actions right after it happens and to bring it to a more fitting resolution in the plot. For me, Mary does a startling and incredibly courageous thing once her attacker runs off into the night: she gets back to her office and lab, collects the attacker’s semen sample, and puts the sample and her underwear in a “fridge” with other “biological specimens” (66). I understand that Hominids is the first book of a trilogy, and I admit that I have not yet read the subsequent books (Humans, 2003; Hybrids, 2003). As a reader, though, I kept looking for some kind of return to this courageous aspect of Mary (which sets her apart from Louise) and some kind of resolution to the rape –– such as Mary handing the semen and underwear over to the police, buoyed by her tentative love for Ponter (she is already losing weight and painting her fingernails red). Instead, we leave Mary contemplating carving “MV+PB” (412) on the wall against which she was raped and walking “forward, into the future” (413). In the end, then, the sudden brutality of the rape needs a more … substantial closure, especially for how crucially it affects Mary’s motivations and psychology in the novel.

Character and plot constitute tangible, clear markers of the stumbles in Hominids. Having read two novels by Sawyer, though, I found myself struggling to identify what leaves me unsatisfied with them, despite being entertained by both, particularly Hominids. Then I realized that my dissatisfaction had to do with style –– with artistry, or even poetry, if you will. Let me explain.

In essence, Sawyer lacks what we might call an artistic or poetic sensibility. We come across the occasional instance of an insightful and surprising metaphor or simile. Yet we never soar with the artistry of the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Nor do we reach the psychological complexity at the end of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds: “Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer …. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.” With Gibson and Wells, the poetry of the language communicates the atmosphere, mood, and tone of their futures. With Sawyer, style is subservient to the idea(s) at his novel’s heart. With Sawyer, the idea forms the body, the frame; style functions basically as clothing (from, say, Old Navy or Joe Fresh), as the bricks and windows and doors that give a house a bit of colour and character. Sawyer’s style does not inspire, does not search for a beautiful turn of phrase, does not catch the breath with its ingenuity or uniqueness.

A comparison of Sawyer with another nominee on the 2003 Hugo ballot might be helpful, China Mieville’s The Scar (Ballantine, 2002):

     Watching over [the blackness] was Louise Benoit, twenty-eight, a statuesque postdoc from Montreal with a mane of thick brown hair stuffed, as required here, into a hair net. She kept her vigil in a cramped control room, buried two kilometers –– “a mile an’ a quarder,” as she sometimes explained for American visitors in an accent that charmed them –– beneath the Earth’s surface. (Sawyer 15)


A mile below the lowest cloud, rock breaches water and the sea begins.

     It has been given many names. Each inlet and bay and stream has been classified as if it were discrete. But it is one thing, where borders are absurd. It fills the spaces between the stones and sand, curling around coastlines and filling trenches between continents. (Mieville 1)

These passages come from the beginning of each novel. Next to Mieville’s enticing style (“borders are absurd … the spaces between the stones and sand, curling around coastlines”), which quickly intimates a sort of depth and keenness of observation, Sawyer’s language feels unpoetic, thin, too straightforward.

John Keats wrote in a letter of 16 August 1820 to Percy Bysshe Shelley, “You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore.” My dissatisfaction with Sawyer lies here, with the lack of “ore” in his writing. On the one hand, I recognize that this is a matter of individual, subjective taste, that Sawyer’s stuff is not for me. On the other hand, I also recognize that Sawyer has clearly found a formula and level of style that suits his purposes, which are entertaining the reader with provocative ideas and dramatic action. I see him as fitting into the popular or “pulp” tradition of hard SF, and he is certainly successful within that framework. In my own fiction, therefore, I would want to achieve Sawyer’s facility with hooking the reader, plotting, and making challenging (and well researched) scientific ideas accessible. Ultimately, though, I would look to achieve the sort of artistry of a Gibson or Wells or Mieville –– to inspire with poetry as well as with speculation.

Here are links to some reviews of Hominids:

Strange Horizons

The SF Site

Challenging Destiny

SF Reviews

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