by Robert J. Sawyer

Cover image

Series: Neanderthal #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2002
Printing: February 2003
ISBN: 0-765-34500-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 444

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the Hugo award winner for 2003. I have absolutely no idea why. With the possible exception of Kiln People, which I've not yet read, it's far and away the worst book on the short list. I'm getting very close to the point of just ignoring the Hugos completely.

The basic story is that the Neanderthals prospered in a parallel world while Homo sapiens becomes extinct. One of the Neanderthals is accidentally shunted into our world as a side effect of a scientific experiment. A clash of culture ensues.

Well, sort of. What actually ensues is a pile of self-righteous, cliched, preachy tripe. The Neanderthals have perfect population control, have bred violence largely out of their society (without losing anything important, no less), have a perfect judicial system without real privacy concerns, are generally happy, well-adjusted, near-perfect people. And so on and so on, until the reader is utterly sick of it. The unrelenting, simplistic slam on Homo sapiens culture is at least woven into the story rather than concentrated in chunks of preaching, so there's some reason to keep reading, but it never reaches the point of credibility.

Some sections are just spectacularly bad. At the point that the only justification for religion that one of the human characters could muster was Pascal's Wager (!) and the Neanderthal concludes that the reason why human society is so messed up is because the belief in a God means no one cares about the current life nearly had me throwing the book across the room. I don't even like religion, but come on.

I like books that challenge assumptions and that tackle hard questions about human identity, but they have to actually say something interesting. I don't even mind books that get preachy if they offer some compelling story, but this one doesn't, and the preaching says nothing interesting. It just handwaves through all of the reasons why human culture is the way that it is and seems to have as its goal making the reader feel guilty about how screwed up Homo sapiens is. The random rape of one of the main human characters at the beginning of the book, just so that it can be used as an illustration of how our society is full of evil male violence, is typical of this whole book.

The book is competently plotted and the writing isn't horrible, although the characters occasionally come across as ham-handed cliches. The book is not, however, competently thought through. Avoid.

Followed by Humans.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-05-11

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