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Portal for philosophy?
on March 26, 2003
Sawyer's "poetic licence" must run many pages, imposing few constraints. Travel permits are included. He takes us across many borders - between nations, between universes, between species, and over into gender relations. We tour around many fields - geophysics, genetics, cosmology, and, of course, paleoanthropology. If any writer can keep the science in "sci-fi," it's Sawyer. It's a fascinating journey, undertaken at a headlong pace. Through it all, we follow the complex lives of human Mary Vaughan and Neanderthal Ponter Boddit. If all this seems heady stuff, fear not. Sawyer's skillful prose and vivid portrayals will keep you reading steadily. It's all realistic, if not real.
Writing a trilogy has inherent dangers. A second volume must stand alone, which this one does. The characters must build and not slip into static postures. Sawyer accomplishes this by the simple expedient of increasing the interaction of the two protagonists. The plot must move in new directions. This is also achieved, not least by Ponter's return to this "Earth" and Mary's journey to the Neanderthal universe. In their respective universes, Mary and Ponter encounter new people, achieve new levels of interaction and struggle to resolve contentious issues. This last, of course, is but partially successful. This is, after all, a trilogy.
Most readers of this book will have read Hominids, and will go on to finish the trilogy. Readers must be warned, however, Sawyer has a poorly hidden agenda. As in many of his other works, Sawyer seems intent on bringing us to his god. An astonishing amount of time is spent in both volumes on discussions of faith and, that old bugaboo, the "afterlife." Little of Ponter's science is discussed, but his personality is drawn as cool, rational almost to an extreme. A major scene in this novel, and its most inconsistent one, is Mary and Ponter's visit to Washington, DC. For reasons wholly inexplicable in a Canadian who wished to keep Toronto's CN Tower in view from Rochester, NY, she drags him to the Viet Nam Memorial, engaging him in another sermon about "faith." This time, unlike in Hominids, where he resolutely rejected her ideas, he waffles. Volume three, Hybrids, is almost certain to have him converted. After all, against all logic, he claims to be in love with her. What is motivating Sawyer in these efforts remains a mystery. Perhaps it's time for him to produce a non-fiction statement of his philosophy.
Even with the "faith" shortcoming and some severe bending of anthropology and cosmology, this book remains an excellent read. Sawyer's writing is masterful and his use of real science, no matter how contentious the topics, must be applauded. If he "takes sides" why should we condemn his choices? The final volume will be welcome and the entire trilogy a valuable asset as an exhibit of his skills and the readers' taste. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]