In this first volume of a trilogy, physicist Ponter Boddit disappears in mysterious circumstances from a deep mine physics laboratory. Ponter, however, is not of this earth. He is of an "advanced" Neanderthal society in an alternative universe. Homo sapiens has apparently gone extinct in his world, but Ponter emerges in a world where that "extinct" species dominates. Sawyer uses the need for Ponter's adjustment to his novel environment to examine many aspects of our society - its values, beliefs and practices. Communication is enhanced by Ponter's possession of an electronic implant that "learns" words and derives meaning from context. It's a cunning ploy, reflecting a measure of desparation to move Sawyer's other ideas along more readily. He further suggests the Neanderthal's brain capacity could mean greater intelligence, even an enhanced moral sense.
The story itself isn't complex. What happens in Ponter's world to account for his disappearance, and what must he do to adapt to the one he's in? The circumstances surrounding these issues give Sawyer the opportunity to minutely examine and contrast the two societies. People in the world Pondar left prove very "human" in their motives and behaviour. Although their society is drastically different, their emotions and interactions are vividly familiar. In this world, the characters are forced to examine their history and beliefs, appearing rather shallow in contrast to the Neanderthal milieu. In fact, the two primary
characters are of the Neanderthal, not our, world.
If the plot is thin, the ideas considered and discussed are not. He asks us to consider many alternatives. The most important of these, of course, is how our society is structured. Can our way of life be improved? Sawyer suggests it can, particularly in how we deal with nature and one another. Most importantly, he sees change deriving from our own choices, removed from false values derived from metaphysics. Unlike many of Sawyer's other books, we are not led down some devious path to accept deities. Even the origins and structures of the paired universes are perceived differently by their inhabitants. Both are perfectly plausible in light of today's astrophysics. Better, Sawyer is able to address these issues with a fine prose style and concern for the reader's comprehension. The next volume will be welcomed warmly. [stephen a. haines]
Ponter Bobbit, a physicist in this parallel universe, literally drops into ours, seemingly out of nowhere and is found floating in a tank of heavy water. An accident in his quantum computing department opens up a brief window between the two realities. The people in the science lab in Sudbury, (Ontario) were taken by surprise, to say the least. They require some time to work out who he is and what his appearance represents. This is the hook that leads to a clever and imaginative description of human (homo sapiens) attitudes vis-à-vis the unexpected. An engaging story of sharing and mutual learning from both realities in this multiverse develops from there. In particular the exchange between Mary Vaughan, the geneticist brought in to examine the Neanderthal’s DNA, and Ponter explore some pretty fundamental issues in both societies.
While Ponter is learning how to communicate with an ethnically diverse group of homo sapiens, in his Neanderthal reality his disappearance leads to a completely different set of problems. A small pool of heavy water provides the only hint of something having gone wrong. But, a person cannot really disappear thanks to the “alibi archives” that record where everybody is at any time. So, his friend and colleague, Adikor Huld, is charged with his murder. Alternating this second storyline with the first, Sawyer uses Adikor’s case to share with the reader his vision of a completely different social reality.
The dissimilar worldviews are constantly juxtaposed. Ponter brings his experiences and perceptions into our reality and, having mastered the language, confronts fundamental issues delving deeply into all aspects of human experiences - from religion to science to interpersonal behaviour. Mary becomes his responsive interlocutor.
Sawyer bases himself on thorough and wide-ranging research into paleoanthropology, evolution, Neanderthals’ fossil evidence and more. He develops a vision on how a Neanderthal civilization might have evolved and drawing interesting conclusions starting from the fundamental differences of a non-agrarian, hunter-gatherer society.
This is a fun book to read. It flows well, the characters are drawn with empathy and sensitivity and the two parallel realities that deal with Ponter's appearance and disappearance respectively give ample food for thought as well as reasons for smiles. Read it now as the second volume of the trilogy is already on its way.
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