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Literature / The Neanderthal Parallax

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A Sci-Fi trilogy created by Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer, about an Alternate Universe where Neanderthals survived to modern-day and became the dominant species while normal humans (i.e. us) went extinct in prehistory.

The first novel begins when a Freak Lab Accident accidentally teleports one of these advanced Neanderthals into our world. The rest of the series deconstructs and explores the differences and similarities in the parallel hominid societies.

The trilogy is comprised of Hominids (published 2002), Humans (2003), and Hybrids (2003).

The Neanderthal Parallax includes examples of:

  • Accidental Truth: Ponter asks Mary the English word for someone who "shows all for the world to see." Mary is confused as to what he means but guesses "exhibitionist." Turns out that's the Neanderthal word for a reporter, which is what Ponter was talking about (while given how open Neanderthals are about nudity and having sex, it's very possible that's shown by many too).
  • Aesoptinum: The trilogy features a society in which everyone wears a gadget that records everything they do 24/7, storing it in an archive that can only be accessed by the person in question, or by the authorities if they have sufficient cause. It's explicitly shown as resulting in a better society.
  • All Abusers Are Male: Sexual violence is a theme explored heavily in the books, as a result of Mary's rape and its aftermath. While causes are discussed, they focus solely on men. There is not a single mention of the idea that women can also be the perpetrators (nor with domestic abuse, which also comes up), with a biological explanation that could only apply with males given for its occurrence.
  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: Completely subverted by the trilogy in which Barasts (Neanderthals) are obviously a different species from humanity's ancestors and are rather a cousin species that continued to develop in an alternate reality.
  • Alternate History: The books take place in 2002-03, although the years are never explicitly shown.
  • Alternate Universe: The trilogy is all about an alternate universe where Neanderthals didn't go extinct, but homo sapiens did.
  • Alternative Calendar: The Neanderthals lack agriculture and religion, therefore they use a calendar that isn't influenced by them, following the actual lunar (for months) or solar (years) cycles. Further they measure things by "tenmonths" (295.32 days), "hundredmonths" (8.085 sidereal years) "thousandmonths" (80.853 years) and divide the month by the moon's phases for controlling population growth (with males separate from females during the peak ovulation most times). Decades are still used to denote generations though.
  • Artistic License – Geography: One book mentions that during the winter, Neanderthals walk across the frozen Hudson River from their Earth's equivalent of New Jersey to New York City. A human character points out the Hudson doesn't freeze that far south, and the Neanderthals cite humans' destructive effects on the climate as the reason. However, while anthropological climate change is certainly real, the main reason the Hudson doesn't freeze that far south is because it changes over from freshwater to saltwater around West Point, well up river of Manhattan, requiring significantly colder temperatures to freeze than further upstate.
  • Author Tract: Hybrids spends a lot of time talking about how evil human males are, and how they've done nothing but bring evil into the world. Plus, when religious/mystical belief disappears it's described as causing many good things to occur, and Neanderthals (who are atheists universally) are in many ways better than humanity. This one is milder however. Hominids in the same series, along with some material produced to promote it, includes many arguments about the evils of privacy.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: With the Companion implants. Subverted, in that Neanderthals see this as a good thing, as it makes alibing yourself for crimes and identifying perpetrators easy. Except if suspected of a crime, no one monitors a person's recordings-they're only "unlocked" when a formal charge has been made. Sawyer proposes this in Real Life too.
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: Mary, Ponter, and Adikor. Partially subverted, in that Neanderthals all have two lovers, but that Adikor wants Mary to follow the Neanderthal rules, and Mary wants Ponter to follow human rules. Eventually solved by Mary going bi (or at least in for Sitch Sexuality) and taking a Neanderthal woman-mate.
  • Canada, Eh?: The book takes place in Canada (specifically Ontario) on this Earth, as well as its geological analogue on the Neanderthals' Earth. Sawyer likes to set novels in his native country, especially in or around his home town Toronto, as most sci-fi has been US-based.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: The interactions between Neanderthal and human society start to look like this by about halfway through the first book, and continue throughout the series, with the Neanderthals taking the part of the "elves."
  • Cessation of Existence: The Neanderthals universally believe that death is the end of being. Even "life after death" is an oxymoron to them. Ponter says that our afterlife beliefs might enable war, as we can tell ourselves that the dead are still "here" in a sense. Cornelius hopes they're right before killing himself.
  • Clash of Evolutionary Levels: In the books, a gateway opens to a parallel Earth where Neanderthals became the dominant form in humanity and evolved a society which in many ways is at least as advanced as our Cro-Magnon Earth and in some ways outstrips it. From the Neanderthal point of view, their problem is that they chose to apply birth control and hence population control quite early on. They are outnumbered by a factor of thousands to one. Meanwhile, there are people on the overpopulated and spoilt Cro-Magnon Earth (ours) who see Neanderthal Earth as a godsend and plan to conquer it. To them the Neanderthals are a nuisance who should, at best, have the status of Native Americans on reservations following the conquest of the Americas — and that's the liberal view. Others want to distribute diseases the Neanderthals have no defense against, and deal with the problem that way... In fairness, most of Neanderthal Earth is uninhabited due to their smaller population, but Cro-Magnons who want to colonize it aren't asking if they'd be okay to settle in other areas either.
  • Covers Always Lie: The first book's cover shows a Neanderthal (presumably Ponter), typically, as dark-haired and dark-skinned. However, in the book he's described as blond and pale-skinned (as would be more accurate to what we've found out about the appearance of Neanderthals). The other book covers only showed his arms, still dark-skinned as before.
  • Crisis of Faith: Mary starts to undergo one when it's shown that a religious experience can be induced by magnetic fields. When this happens to people all over the world at once, following the specific beliefs they have, she concludes that religion is bunk. Even before this, she disagrees with the Catholic Church on many issues (as many liberal Catholics in North America do). This prompts her to decide her child with Ponter shouldn't be made capable of religious beliefs.
  • Driven to Suicide: After the virus he made is unleashed by Jock, Cornelius kills himself. Through burning, since he wants no evidence left behind that he's been castrated.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Inverted with the Neanderthals, whose punishment for violent crimes is castration (of the male criminals-we don't learn what happens to female ones), precisely because it kills their aggression afterward, thus making them less likely to commit new crimes. Cornelius Ruskin is given this treatment by Ponter after the latter discovers that he'd raped Mary, with the same results. He begins feeling remorse at what he'd done to her and Quasir, Mary's boss. In fact he comes to hate violent men like him, and then even engineers a virus which targets human males. Unfortunately this gets loose and kills two men. Cornelius kills himself in guilt over it, since he didn't intend for this to happen.
  • Everyone Is Bi:
    • Every Neanderthal shown has a male and a female mate. "Nearly all" are said to, but the exceptions aren't seen. Enforced by virtue of living in a segregated society (females all live in the city center, males all live on the rim; the two meet for four days out of every month that they periodically adjust to avoid or encourage fertility, with the latter occurring only once a decade to limit population growth). May also invoke Sitch Sexuality and/or If It's You, It's Okay.
    • It's unclear if the "exceptions" are those who aren't bi, or are those like Ponter, whose woman-mate Klast died of cancer before the events of the series, so he just has a man-mate until he and Mary are bonded at the end of the third book. Daklar Bolbay was Klast's woman-mate, and she split up with her man-mate as well after he was castrated when his brother assaulted somebody so she has no partner as of the time of the novel.
    • We might surmise that some Neanderthals with purely straight or gay orientations also exist and just have a close friend/housemate instead, though it isn't made explicit.
  • Final Solution: Jock has Cornelius create a virus that only affects Neanderthals "just in case" they're a threat. Naturally, he releases it into their world upon determining that they are. It turns out Cornelius changed this to one targeting all human males however, so he's killed instead, along with Rubin, meaning that half of humanity cannot even visit in the future.
  • Fish Out Of Quantum Water: Ponter on Human Earth, in spades. Mary later has similar troubles on Neanderthal Earth.
  • Foreign Queasine: The Neanderthals don't have agriculture, and thus no alcohol, dairy products, bread, or spices. They seem to find cheese extra disgusting, because the idea of taking milk from another mammal and letting microorganisms spoil it is shocking. Inverted with Ponter's love for KFC. When Ponter is first offered dairy, he, noticing that Homo Sapiens women have larger breasts then Neanderthal women, assumes it's their milk. He's no less grossed out when he hears that it's cow milk.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: One of the major subplots is Mary and Ponter's struggle to have a child together. They eventually manage due to a gene-rewriting device, and have a daughter.
  • Interdimensional Travel Device: Decoherence caused by a quantum computer allows for travel between Human Earth and Neanderthal Earth.
  • Lady Land: Any Neanderthal city's center will be entirely populated and run by women.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • In-Universe. Due to Neanderthal jaw anatomy, Ponter can't pronounce the "ee" syllable. Therefore, he pronounces Mary's name as "Mare," which happens to mean "beloved" in the Barast language.
    • Subverted as well with Mary, who has a vision of the Virgin Mary while wearing the God Helmet and again at the end. However, as we find out, none of it is real. Mary herself acknowledges the power of suggestion from her name and that if she were a Hispanic man named Jesus (that is, "Hay-SOOS"), she probably would have seen Christ.
  • Non-Heteronormative Society: Among Neanderthals, bisexuality is the norm. Everyone customarily has both a man mate and woman mate. For most of the month, they live along with their same-sex mate as a form of planned Population Control.
  • No Periods, Period:
    • Averted. Ponter is very surprised to note that one of the women from the Sudbury team is menstruating, but not all of them; coming from a society with an isolated female population, he's used to everyone being on a synchronized cycle. Back on Neanderthal Earth, Adikor is repeatedly accused of insanity for going downtown to talk to a female colleague during "Last Five," the last five days before the full moon. Apparently Neanderthal women get truly spectacular PMS, and all at once...
    • It's later implied the PMS isn't nearly as bad as Ponter, Adikor, and the other male characters think it is, and it was initially deliberately exaggerated as a defense mechanism against aggressive males during a vulnerable time before it turned into the legend it is at the time of the story, when such violence has grown uncommon.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions:
    • The Neanderthals didn't have to outgrow them, because they never had them. Because of the different structure of their brains, they are biologically incapable of believing in an afterlife,note  or gods.
    • It's deconstructed, as Ponter makes a sincere attempt to understand and respect Mary's beliefs, and the attitude of most of the Neanderthals in the series toward human religion is more puzzlement and curiosity than contempt. The final book has all humans' brains change as well due to the magnetic pole reversal, which causes peace to break out in the Middle East, making it more of a straight example.
    • As a side note, the differing structure of the Neanderthal brain also means that they don't have UFO or other paranormal experiences and while they are technologically capable of space travel, they never developed the desire to do so as a result.
    • In an odd additional wrinkle, the Neanderthal race not only don't believe in a divine origin to the cosmos but don't believe in our scientific theory about it either. According to them the Big Bang never happened and the universe didn't really have a "beginning" but just sort of always existed. Like with religion, this is due to their brain structure, and they even have verified scientific evidence to back their viewpoint, claiming that human science is biased toward this desire to have a "beginning" to everything.
  • Pardon My Klingon: Subverted by the Neanderthals' language as curses are translated into English literally, giving us insight into their profanity. Given that the Neanderthals' lack religious beliefs, phrases such as "Astonishment!" are used instead of, say, "Oh my God!" As for actual profanity, we get such gems as "gristle" and "marrowless bone." Conversely, presumed swearing by a human is rendered by a Neanderthal's translation device as "wholly feces."
  • Polyamory: It's the norm among Neanderthals that all citizens have both a male and female spouse, since Everyone Is Bi. Only those who've recently lost a spouse are seen as exceptions.
  • Population Control: The Neanderthals only have children once ever 10 years. This is accomplished by women and men living separately and only meeting on a cycle that ensures they're only fertile one visit every 10 years. The population control also allows them to concentrate their resources on particular age groups at regular, predictable intervals.
  • Rape as Drama: Mary is raped in her first appearance by a masked man. Over the rest of the trilogy, she's dealing with it.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: When Ponter hears that Cornelius Ruskin raped Mary and Qaiser, he goes over to Ruskin's house and castrates him so that he can't pass on his genes or repeat the act on another woman. This is the legal punishment for violent crimes in his society.
  • Religion Is Wrong: It's revealed that religion (and mystical beliefs generally) is simply the result of some magnetic rays affecting people's brains. After the magnetic field around earth reverses polarity, these beliefs at first flare up, and then disappear, causing improvements like peace in the Middle East.
  • Schizo Tech: The Neanderthals never developed agriculture (or for that matter most of the technology related to it). They developed a theory of genetics by selectively breeding hunting dogs as opposed to crops. Also, they never developed space travel or the jet engine (although they do have powered flight in the form of hovercraft and helicopters). Likewise, fossil fuel technology is entirely unknown, theorized to be because they have a very keen sense of smell and thus would not be able to tolerate stinking technologies like this.
  • Shown Their Work: Robert J. Sawyer knows quite a bit about physics, chemistry, and biology and shows it off frequently throughout the books.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: The trilogy involves opening contact with a parallel world wherein Neanderthals instead of Cro-Magnon humans are the dominant species (with our species long extinct there, just as theirs died here). Among the many differences they have, bisexuality is apparently universal for Neanderthals, with every person shown having a male and female spouse. They largely live with their same-sex mates as Population Control.
  • Strawman Political: Jock is the only conservative character to be shown in the series. At first he seems okay, if a bit paranoid about the Neanderthals (but then, his job is to ponder potential threats). Then he winds up attempting genocide against the Neanderthals, believing they might do the same thing to us down the line.
  • Superior Species: The Neanderthals tend to fall into this. One of the main points in their favor is that they themselves have a hard time accepting the idea that they may be significantly better than their Homo sapiens cousins. They are also capable of acknowledging their own faults (which are displayed by several characters across the trilogy).
  • Super-Senses: The Neanderthals have a much stronger sense of smell than homo sapiens, to the point that Ponter is capable of hunting down a man across a city after just smelling him on a piece of clothing once, making him equal or better than a bloodhound. It's influenced their culture as well, since they didn't ever develop smelly technologies like internal combustion engines which would have vexed them. Surgeons also don't wear masks, in spite of the hygienic risk, since their enhanced sense of smell aids them while working on a patient.
  • Super-Strength: Neanderthals are, compared with homo sapiens incredibly strong, capable of easily killing or severely injuring people far more easily simply with their bare hands. It's stated in the past most assassinations in their society were simply done by walking up to a target and caving their skull in with the attacker's clenched fists. When the Neanderthal ambassador to Earth is attacked as well, she easily smashes her attacker's skull into a pulp, shocking her police bodyguards. It's affected their culture as they've taken extreme measures against this spreading, castrating not only any person convicted of violent crimes, but also immediate family members to prevent aggressive genes from being propagated and using Companion implants which constantly record the wearer for easily solving cases mostly (the recordings are only accessed when a formal accusation has been made however), with far less tolerance for violence generally (they lament that in their last war, about seven hundred people died, with it being over a thousand years back, which is treated as high-they're shocked by how violent homo sapiens are).
  • Utopia: The Neanderthal world has very little crime, hasn't had a war in hundreds of years, and lives in harmony with nature. Deconstructed in later books. The Neanderthal society deliberately chose to breed violence out of its population sterilizing anyone sharing half or more of a violent person's genome. It's implied that the sterilization policy has actually created a pretty significant problem with domestic violence, since the victim can't report the crime without condemning any children they might have to the same fate as the abuser.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means:
    • Deconstructed; the reason behind their sterilization policy has to do with the fact that Neanderthals are, on the whole, very physically strong (hint: they routinely hunt mammoth using only wooden spears), and a simple dispute could easily end up with someone getting killed (one major plot point in the first book involves one Neanderthal character being struck by another. The loser got his jaw essentially destroyed with one punch, and even that was a pulled punch; if the other party had taken a full swing and he hadn't pulled away it would have been fatal.) It's stated that in the past, Neanderthal political assassinations were done by just walking up to the target and smashing their skull in. We later see this in action when the Neanderthal ambassador to Earth easily dispatches a human assassin with her bare hands. This is also probably why they never had many wars-it's stated in the books that the last one took place over 1600 years back, and even then only 719 people were killed (which is apparently high, from the way they reflect on it).
    • Also subverted, in that we see in Hybrids a weak link in the Neanderthal justice system: a case of domestic abuse which would normally be punishable by castration. Unfortunately the woman refuses to press charges because she does not want to be responsible for sterilizing her children too, and only escapes by going to live on Human Earth, which obviously would not work for all Neanderthal abuse victims. It's a major flaw if the couple has children.
  • Villainous Lineage: Neanderthals strongly believe that violent urges are genetic, and the punishment for crimes of violence is castration. They sterilize the offender's close relatives along with them so it won't be passed on, though it's never made clear if these urges were hereditary. In any case, they admit castration has the second effect of lowering aggression when testosterone has dropped.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Neanderthals are quite militant in the view that they can breed social harmony into their species by eliminating violent individuals from their gene pool - a policy enforced by surgically sterilizing not only the offender, but also anyone sharing more than half of his/her genome. Of course, in-universe this seems to be true. Not to mention that they also sterilized everyone of low intelligence, raising their collective IQ a standard deviation, and also those with genetic disorders, which are also goals of eugenics.