Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Review - Hominids

by Robert J. Sawyer
2003 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The reason that I missed a few days of posting wasn't because I had moved and didn't have Internet access until they wired up the house. I had touched this book again and it hospitalized me.

This is it: the bottom of the barrel, as low as things can get, the worst novel to ever be awarded a Hugo. I found They'd Rather Be Right's pro-Scientology message disturbing but at least the book was written to the average standards of quality for science fiction in the 1950's. There is no such excuse for Hominids. It reads like a bad fanfic.

Robert J. Sawyer used to promote himself as Canada's only full time science fiction author (he wasn't really but why let facts stand in the way of self-aggrandizement). The 2003 Worldcon where this... thing that passes itself off as a book was selected for the Hugo award was held at Torcon in Toronto. So congratulations Canadians, your nationalism has committed the single biggest atrocity in the history of science fiction awards.

I had considered doing a full week of just how terrible Hominids is. It's that bad. I could have torn it apart page by page, posting passages of people spouting random facts like a child copying a sentence from an encyclopedia for a report one day and detailing the non-characters another. My move has put me behind schedule though so you only get this one day of review. I have a lot of pent up hostility toward Hominids so it's going to be a doozy. Thanks to Robert J. Sawyer I now know what a human optic nerve looks like. This is due to my eyes rolling so much as I read this birdcage lining masquerading as novel that I could see my own brain shriveling in horror.

In Hominids a Neanderthal from a parallel world where Cro-Magnons died out is transported to our world due to an accident involving computers. Once here he provides unsubtle and unclever comments on how bad modern day man is which are presented as "deep". Meanwhile on his own world his partner is put on trial for his murder despite the fact that it's incredibly simple to demonstrate that he didn't.

Sawyer peppers the book with facts about Neanderthals that often makes it read like a third grader's science paper. Particularly awful is the fact that his technologically advanced Neanderthal society is directly built around then current theories about Neanderthal behavior. Think about that for a second. Let's turn that around for us. Could you extrapolate anything like modern western society from knowledge of society and culture at the time of the Norman invasion? You might be able to draw simple parallels (there's white men in charge!) but hardly anything else and that's starting from a thousand years ago with a fairly complete understanding of the society. Sawyer attempts to connect societal structures from hunter/gatherers 100,000 years ago to a technological society a hundred years more advanced than us. It's a hundred times more stupid than thinking you could start from William the Conquerer and drop that society right into the modern UK.

And the foolishness keeps on coming. Neanderthals don't have internal combustion engines as they are good little guardians of the earth, but the book explicitly states that they use plastic sheets as writing materials (presumably so they don't hurt trees). Plastic means that they extract oil and refine it. If they refine it then they have to make kerosene and gasoline. So what are they doing with the combustibles since they aren't burning them?

The book is jam packed with contradictions like that. If you can't find a major logical problem on each page then you must be looking at one of the blank ones that are occasionally between chapters. There's the fact that an AI that learn English in four hours and could pass a Turing Test doesn't prove that the Neanderthal isn't from our present-day earth. And did you know that since Neanderthals cannot pronounce the long "e" sound due to their mouth structure neither can their computers. Or how about the fact that it is explained that a quantum computer would use copies itself in parallel universes but it ran out of parallel earths ("Divide by Infinity Minus One Error: Abort, Retry, Fail?")? Or that one of the human characters suddenly has a 1930's telephone connection that requires operator assistance to place a call so that he can have dramatic dialog?

The really bad stuff comes from things where Sawyer decided to just have Neanderthals do things differently from humans just so they would be different with little consideration of the complications of engineering, design, culture, or usability involved. They pull studs rather than push buttons; imagine trying to work a keyboard by pulling stops rather than pressing keys to see why this doesn't work. Neanderthal clothing is fastened at the shoulders; stick two towels together with a little bit of masking tape so that one hangs over each side of your body and they are fastened at your shoulders and then gently pull one down to see why clothing isn't made this way. And a special annoyance for cooks reading the book is that they use lasers to grill their food; despite what George Forman tells you a grill is not defined by the fact that it leaves lines on food when it cooks it.

So the world building is about as bad as it gets but Sawyer is not content to just be sloppy. The characters are also a problem. Or should I say the lack of character. Everyone in this book could have been replaced with a cardboard cut out and it would have made no difference. Particularly horrifying is the educated, mature college professor who gets raped at the beginning of the novel (Rape! TM, the lazy way of giving a female character a tragic background since 1612). She doesn't report it since she thinks that she wouldn't be believed. An over forty year old woman. In modern day Canada. On a college campus. And apparently she thinks she has the reputation as the town slut, that quick and simple techniques for handling the crime don't exist and certainly wouldn't be available in the location where rapes are most likely to occur, or is living in a place where women aren't trusted when they report rapes. Instead she freezes her attacker's sperm sample. You'd think that this would be an important plot point but the only thing that happens because of the rape is that she doesn't like men.

And she's the most defined character.

Despite the lowest common denominator prose and the large print and margins on the page it took me a long time to get through this one. Mainly because I had to stop every two paragraphs to walk across the room and pick up the book again. My body reflexively hurled anything that moronic thing away from me for fear of being contaminated by it. I'm not even joking on this one; I repeatedly tossed this book away as I recoiled from the horror of it.

I can honestly say I'd rather read They'd Rather Be Right again than this tripe. This is as bad as it gets. I have heard that Sawyer's Nebula win was similarly due to politicking and is an equally terrible novel. I'm dreading reaching that one.