Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

Having previously enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, I tackled his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy over the past two weeks. Like Sawyer’s other science fiction, these novels are based on real science, however speculative some of it may be. As in the WWW trilogy, one of these areas of speculation is the origin of consciousness.

In the WWW trilogy, the theory that is explored posits a relatively recent origin of consciousness, less than three millennia ago. In this trilogy, it is set about 40,000 years ago, and is thought to be the result of a collapse and subsequent reestablishment of the earth’s magnetic field. Along with consciousness and therefore conscious choices came the first split between parallel universes.

As chance would have it (this being based on quantum theory), in our universe, it was our ancestors who developed consciousness. In the parallel universe, it was those we call Neanderthals. Our own ancestors, in that universe, failed to develop consciousness and subsequently died our, presumably (according to Neanderthal scientists) due to lower intelligence, our cranial capacity not allowing for as large a brain.

The trilogy makes some surprising speculations about how civilization might have developed. Sawyer’s Neanderthals (who call themselves barasts) have what appears to be a far more peaceful society, where people are hunter/gatherers who never developed agriculture, and who maintain a relatively small (compared to our world), stable population through a society-wide practice of the rhythm method of birth control. They have advanced technology, in some cases more advanced than that of the world of homo sapiens (whom they call gliksins), though there are other technologies they never developed.

Once the two societies have come into contact with each other (through an accident of quantum computing) and learned about each other, the comparisons are nearly all negative in regard to homo sapiens. Some people on their version of Earth get rather tired of hearing how much better the Neanderthals are, and as a reader I had the same reaction after a while. Am I being defensive about it? Or just realistic? The fact is that we know of no society where people do not mess up their own lives and the lives of others due to greed, hatred, violence, and other vices. The Christian explanation for this is the Fall, and the answer for it is the salvation graciously given by God through Jesus Christ.

Sawyer’s Neanderthals have no notion of God or of the soul, nor a higher moral code that transcends human existence. They choose to live peaceably (for the most part – they purge the gene pool of violent tendencies by sterilizing those who commit violent crimes as well as anyone sharing at least 50% of that person’s DNA), both with each other and the planet. They have not hunted animals to extinction, nor polluted the air or water. (Their very large noses make them sensitive to all smells, and they found clean sources of energy which create neither noxious fumes nor unhealthy toxins). Very little is said about the economy – money exists, but transportation and housing are administered by their worldwide government (made up of people old and wise enough to make the right decisions for everyone). There are isolated instances of violence (perhaps Sawyer thought it unreasonable to make them completely perfect), but for the most part barasts are able to live without fear of violence or theft.

One suggestion offered as to why this may be so is their lack of a particular brain development that forms the biological basis of religion. A scientific experiment that reliably provokes religious experiences among homo sapiens has no effect on barasts. From the Neanderthal’s point of view, theirs is the better situation, as they cannot be made to believe that doing harm in the name of religion could possibly be right. Even aside from religious fanatics who intentionally hurt others (these books were written after 9/11/2001), religious homo sapiens are seen as more likely to be resigned to the presence of wrongdoing and suffering because they believe that all will ultimately be made right in the afterlife.

There is brief mention of terrible wrongdoing by atheist homo sapiens, but Sawyer doesn’t follow up on that issue. Perhaps the homo sapiens brain is seen as susceptible to undue influence from anything that makes people feel they are part of something bigger themselves. (Though the Neanderthals clearly place a high premium on doing what is good for the sake of society – they even refer to their work not as a job or career but their “contribution” to society.)

I certainly am not defending people’s tendency to do harm, both in big ways and small, nor deny what experiments have shown regarding the brain’s role in religious experience. And as to the multiplicity of human religions, I have often wondered how ridiculous it might seem to a visitor from another planet to see several churches, all identifying themselves as Christian, lined up one after another along a city street. (There is one street I occasionally use, when coming home from my new job, where there are, lining both sides of a single stretch of road, a Baptist church, a Greek Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic church, an Evangelical Free church, and a Mormon church – plus an Islamic Center on the corner.)

But it is pure speculation (which is of course what science fiction writers do) to posit an intelligent race with no notion of God or ability to experience religion, where rational choices about doing what is best for society and for oneself (so as to have no regrets at one’s deathbed, since it is the end of everything for that person) consistently prevail over what we would call our baser emotions or instincts. Sawyer posits a race which needs no Savior because it had no Fall. It’s a nice utopia to imagine, but it is clearly not the world we live in. And science fiction, for all that it is by definition about a reality different from ours (whether because it is set in the future, another planet, an alternate timeline, or whatever), is best when it has something valuable to say to us in the reality we do live in.

No doubt Sawyer intends that. I’m not sure whether he does blame religion for so much of the evil in this world, or just finds it worthwhile speculating what a race of people incapable of religious belief would be like, but I’m sure he wants people to question the role of religion in their lives. His portrayal of it seems so one-sided, however, that the only people likely to be swayed are those who already doubt that faith has a place in a world where science seems to have all the explanations.

There is an interesting storyline behind (or in front of) all this, and some interesting characters, but not as much so, I thought, as the books I previously read by Sawyer. One character is raped early in the first book, and becomes uncomfortable with all men, until she meets a wonderful, loving Neanderthal. No doubt some rape victims do react by distrusting all men, but that wasn’t my experience, so it was hard for me to relate to her in that way. The science is interesting, particularly when it comes to discussions of the earth’s magnetic field, but – unlike with the other trilogy – I found nothing I wanted to learn more about after reading the novels.
I did enjoy the books – I read all three within the space of two weeks. They just fell short of my expectations – I suppose because those had been set high by the previous books I read by the same author. Looking at some reader reviews at, I see that a number of people thought the first book of this trilogy was the best, and it went downhill from there. Perhaps my current view of the series as a whole is colored by just having finished the last book. Or perhaps, like others, I just wanted a better-told story and less preaching about what’s so bad about human civilization.


One Response to Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

  1. modestypress says:

    I have not read the books. All major human religions and secular ideologies can be credited with great accomplishments, great examples of altruism and caring and major examples of destructiveness and viciousness. That’s just the kind of creatures human beings are — animals with big brains who got to the top of the food chain by a combination of nasty cunning and warm empathy.

    Humans are simply the way animals evolved intelligence. The fossil record provides examples — most notably (but not exclusively) where our genetic/cultural chain diverged and could have evolved into other types of intelligent creatures. As always, I admire your intelligence and willingness to contemplate facts and ideas a lot of conservative Christians refuse to even consider.

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