Hominids: What if Neanderthals survived on a parallel Earth?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF book reviews Hominids by Robert J. SawyerHominids by Robert J. Sawyer

What would it be like if Neanderthals had become the dominant race of humans on the planet? Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer explores that very idea. This book follows a brilliant Neanderthal physicist named Ponter Boddet. Ponter and his partner, while working on experimental quantum computers, accidently open a bridge between universes. The bridge leads to the world we (Homo sapiens sapiens) currently reside in. Ponter fell into our world accidently and has now become stranded here.

Robert J. Sawyer is a master at taking an interesting thought experiment and turning it into a full-length novel. What would a Neanderthal world be like? What would a modern Neanderthal do if he were dropped into our world? It’s fascinating to think about. Sawyer answers those questions in a thoughtful, heavily researched, and entertaining manner.

Ponter Boddit is one of the most dynamic and interesting characters I have ever read. He is thoughtful, intelligent, and quick-witted. He is the key to making Hominids an amazing work of fiction, and is a big part of the reason it won a Hugo Award.

As with many of Sawyer’s books, Hominids has a bit of a mystery novel woven into the overall story. Since Ponter totally vanished from his own world, his partner Adikore has been accused of his murder. Adikore has been left trying to prove his innocence. The problem is that is he trying to explain a hiccup in advanced quantum computing to laymen who believe he’s murdered his best friend. Adikore’s part of the novel is a riveting legal fight taking place in the Neanderthal world while Ponter is trying to adjust to his surroundings in the other universe. There is not a single wasted word in this entire novel.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI listened to this on Brilliance Audio CD, narrated by Jonathan Davis. Davis is smooth as butter, and provides so much life to the characters he reads. I highly recommend getting the audio version of Hominids if you can.

~Justin Blazier


Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer science fiction book reviewsIn Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, Ponter, a theoretical physicist who specializes in quantum mechanics, accidently transports to a parallel Earth. Incredibly, Ponter realizes, on this world, his fellow Neanderthals went extinct.

Although it features creatures traveling between dimensions or planets, Hominids is not about invasion or war. Instead, Ponter spends most of his time in Canada talking to doctors who do their best to keep him away from the media. The government does not get involved because most people are skeptical that Ponter is a Neanderthal. Ponter’s doctors therefore invite Mary Vaughan, a geneticist, to fly in and to run some tests. Sadly, we meet Mary just as she is raped on her way home from the lab. Distraught, she decides to leave town and travels to Sudbury to study Ponter. She does not realize, however, that she is about to fall in love.

Meanwhile, on Neanderthal Earth, Ponter’s partner, Adikor, is charged with murder. The story of Adikor’s trial is not very compelling compared to, say, the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird or Twelve Angry Men, but it does allow us to learn about the Neanderthal world.

So, here are some interesting Neanderthal-World facts. A Neanderthal city is separated into the center and the rim — the men live in the rim while the women live in the center. The men only travel to the center to meet their woman-mates when “Two become One.” Otherwise, men pleasure their man-mates back in the rim. Crime is all but non-existent in the Neanderthal world because a Companion is lodged in everyone’s wrist. The Companion is a little like Siri, but less snarky and arguably more intelligent. The Companion monitors the activity of the Neanderthals, which gives everyone an alibi if they are accused of a crime. However, if someone is found guilty of a violent crime, both the perpetrator and anyone that shares 50% of his (or her) DNA will be sterilized to remove the violent genes from the population.

Justice on the Neanderthal world may sound harsh to Mary and the other humans, but Ponter’s world — and the way he responds to our world — allow Sawyer to question assumptions about sexuality, religion (about Christianity, really), and environmental policies. Among other things, Ponter is shocked that humans have wiped out most of the world’s megafauna, he finds the air in the city difficult to breathe, and he finds the concept of a creator being difficult to comprehend.

While these topics may seem rather deep, Hominids is not very challenging. In fact, it’s one of the lightest science fiction novels I’ve ever read. For the most part, the structure is transparent and the pages turn themselves. I found the Companion a neat gadget, and Sawyer’s riffs on quantum mechanics and what we know and theorize about Neanderthals should please most science fiction readers. There is even a lengthy reading list at the end of the novel for readers who are eager to continue studying Neanderthals. Within just a few days, I realized I’d finished this novel and would likely read the sequel.

Having said that, Sawyer’s light, genial style sometimes works against him. For example, Mary, a victim of rape, seems to be in the novel in order to 1) make the benefits of the Neanderthals’ surveillance society more credible and 2) provide a love interest for Ponter. Well, I couldn’t shake how jarring it was to read a light, breezy sci-fi love story largely told from the point of view of a woman attempting to recover from the trauma of being raped. And given the novel’s content, some readers may find Sawyer’s jokes about PMS in poor taste.

(I also found the Neanderthal curse words like “gristle!” annoying; if you’re going to curse, just curse.)

Hominids won the Hugo Prize for Best Novel, and, to be honest, better novels than this one were nominated. Still, science fiction readers that enjoy parallel universes, quantum mechanics, Planet of the Apes, and stories that invite us to reconsider our traditions and norms should enjoy Hominids.

~Ryan Skardal

Neanderthal Parallax — (2002-2003) Publisher: Hominids examines two unique species of people. We are one of those species; the other is the Neanderthals of a parallel world where they became the dominant intelligence. The Neanderthal civilization has reached heights of culture and science comparable to our own, but with radically different history, society and philosophy. Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidentally pierces the barrier between worlds and is transferred to our universe. Almost immediately recognized as a Neanderthal, but only much later as a scientist, he is quarantined and studied, alone and bewildered, a stranger in a strange land. But Ponter is also befriended — by a doctor and a physicist who share his questing intelligence, and especially by Canadian geneticist Mary Vaughan, a woman with whom he develops a special rapport. Ponter’s partner, Adikor Huld, finds himself with a messy lab, a missing body, suspicious people all around and an explosive murder trial. How can he possibly prove his innocence when he has no idea what actually happened to Ponter?

Robert Sawyer Neanterthal Parallax 1. Hominids 2. Humans 3. HybridsRobert Sawyer Neanterthal Parallax 1. Hominids 2. Humans 3. HybridsRobert Sawyer Neanterthal Parallax 1. Hominids 2. Humans 3. Hybrids


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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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3 comments

  1. It’s interesting that Sawyer chose to go with “Neanderthal experiences parallel Earth” rather than taking a human out of his comfort zone. I would think that writing from a human’s perspective would have been easier.

    • Ryan /

      I suspect the humans will begin to corrupt the Neanderthals in the sequel.

  2. Ryan, I’ve heard other reviews that match your opinion: good concept, rapid page turning, but lacking in depth and transparent storyline. Despite it winning the Hugo, there are lots of other books ahead of it on the TBR list.

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