Tuesday, July 10

Humans – Robert J Sawyer

In this second part of the Parallax Trilogy the primary focus is on the Neanderthal Earth: Ponter is back home, while Mary has been headhunted to work in a well-funded US scientific think tank. Both teams are looking at ways to bridge our separate universes, perhaps permanently. For Mary, still trying to recover from being raped on a campus where she formerly felt safe, working in the US is a refuge from being confronted with that fact every day. But she flies back to Canada when Ponter re-emerges.
The middle book in this thought-provoking trilogy manages to tie up a couple of loose ends from the first book (primarily regarding the rape), while raising interesting questions about justice, parity, and made me think about how difficult it is to think outside familiar paradigms. I believe some readers have criticised Sawyer, in essence accusing him of being politically correct, a catch-all of anti-male, anti-Western culture, pro-less ‘advanced’ societies. It’s certainly true that the Neanderthal world is more in balance than ours, and it seems in many ways more Eden-like. But Sawyer also raises important questions about what injustices are done when we try to make reparations for historic harms.
One of the things I most enjoy about reading in general, and with science fiction in particular, is being confronted with assumptions I have been wholly unaware I had. For example (in no way related to this series), it was not until I discovered, many years ago, that a friend was a Holocaust denier that I had ever questioned the reality of that horror. I do not, I hasten to add, have any doubt that there was a Holocaust, or that it was responsible for the deaths of some twelve million people. But I had not been cognizant of the fact that it was possible to question it, until my friend made me aware that there are people who disbelieve.
Similarly, being exposed to unique and really different thought processes, in this case Sawyer’s conjecturing about what a society which evolved free of what we (or I, at least) consider to be ‘normal’ constraints would be like made me appreciate how hard it is to recognise and move past those unrecognised frameworks that shape our thinking.
In the Neanderthal culture, where a more well developed sense of small meant not only no development of fossil fuel-based energy (because of the smell involved), women’s hormones cause them to menstruate together, leading to a separation of the sexes from menarche, which in turn has lead to a very different social structure and concept of intimate relationships. The brilliance of Sawyer’s writing is his ability to seamlessly weave this into a gripping narrative and fully fleshed characters. - Alex

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