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Multicultural melange - with a twist
on 10 January 2004
You have to give Sawyer credit. He offers a Francophone, a Japanese-Canadian, a Canadian-Jamaican, an Ojibway, a Neanderthal, multiple universes, and a rape - all in the first 80 pages. He uses well-established credentials in converting science, albeit speculative, into fiction. He has achieved a high point with this book. Incorporating geology, paleoanthropology and quantum physics into this story, he makes a fantastic situation both credible and readable.
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]