Robert J Sawyer, 2002

Hugo Winner - 2003

Premise: In two universes, an experiment, and then a neanderthal falls through an unexpected rift into a world of homo sapiens. (Content warning: rape)

There's a lot to be intrigued by in the premise of this book. The different structure of neanderthal society is interesting at first, and it's well presented, slowly cluing in the reader without infodumps. At least, it is at first.

But then it devolves into a series of clunky, boring conversations about systems of morality, in which the humans are left feeling self-conscious about how terrible their world is. Even though the story set on the other world (much more interesting) starts to hint at the ugliness of their system by the end, the imbalance is striking.

By the time it got to fully explaining the neanderthal world, which seems awkwardly similar to modern China (secular, communist, heavy surveillance state, repressive reproductive control) but adding (possibly enforced?) ubiquitous bisexuality and definitely enforced eugenics, the book had lost me. (Weird choice there. This society was presented as positive in most ways - they don't drive creatures to extinction, little crime, etc.)

The book had lost me early on, in fact, because just a few chapters in, the main human character is introduced and immediately subjected to a graphic, brutal rape. A stranger-in-the-bushes rape, even, just to be as repulsively cliche as possible.

Why? Why would massive trauma possibly be a good way to introduce this character? I kept reading only because of my read-the-Hugos project, but the few chapters before were intriguing enough that I thought maybe it would be justified by the end. Nope.

I mean, it could have been handled much worse, the author says all the "right" things, but it's like a pamphlet about dealing with rape (shame and struggle, trying to reject self-blame, etc.), not like a real character with real feelings. And by the ending... It seems that the structural plot reasons for the attack are 1) to give the woman a reason to accept the neanderthal's argument that his surveillance state is worth it and 2) to give her a reason not to hop directly into bed with him in the few days the story takes place.

Which. Really. They're not even... Arrrgh!

That's not even mentioning the completely ridiculous stuff around quantum mechanics and connecting conscious choice (only for humans/neanderthals. No animals make choices, apparently) to multiple world theory. Admittedly, I was skimming by that point, but I'm not about to go back and spend time investigating in more depth.

I didn't have any problem with the religion-bashing, but Wikipedia tells me that at some point in the series it's revealed that the neanderthals physically can't have religion because of their brain structure? Reeeaaalllyyy. All their societal stuff seems based strictly on their physicality to an absurd degree.

In the end, I'm going to say this book held some interest for me at the very start, but squandered it quickly and never recovered.

1 Star - didn't like it much.

Index of Hugo Award Winners


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