Last week I finally finished reading the excellent Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer: Hominids, Humans and Hybrids. Finally because there’s a bit of a saga behind this, but first for a quick review.
I’m a sucker for all things ancient and all things futuristic – anything that happened more than 1000 years ago or that might happen 1000 years into the future. I think it’s to do with the way it puts our own present into perspective – when you look at ancient cave paintings or consider the fact that there are literally billions of stars out there which may or may not have habitable planets orbiting them, it just makes you feel absolutely tiny and insignificant but also completely awed and inspired.
So the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy was perfect for me because it combines so many different elements of the ancient and the futuristic. Imagine a parallel universe in which Homo Sapiens had become extinct and Homo Neanderthalensis had evolved to become a comparably technologically advanced and highly cultured society. Now imagine a Neanderthal physicist in this universe conducting a quantum computer experiment which goes wrong and opens a portal hurtling him into our universe. Modern Homo Sapiens and Modern Homo Neanderthalensis meet for the first time.
Now there’s an excellent premise for a story! The trilogy tells of the events and repercussions of this meeting of the two universes and explores all sorts of fascinating and unexpected ideas. Like the best science-fiction, it is very well researched and all the ideas are based on real scientific and palaeoanthropological hypotheses. A lot of ground is covered, from religion, violence and war, justice and punishment, art and culture, to genetics, archaeology, technology and geology. We follow the developing relationship between a Homo Sapiens geneticist, Mary, and the Neanderthal physicist, Ponter Boddit, and discover the good and the bad in both systems of society.
I could go into a lot more detail about the plot and some of the specific ideas that interested me, but then I would never stop, so ask if you want to know! Suffice to say I think there’s something in there for everyone and I very very highly recommend it.
There’s just one problem. It was inordinately difficult for me to get hold of it. I’d heard of it because I came across an article by the author on the BBC news here which got me curious. So I popped in to my lovely local Waterstones only to discover they didn’t have it in stock. They told me they could order it but I was just about to go away on holiday so I left it until I got back. I then managed to find the first one, Hominids, in the Picadilly Waterstones and devoured it. When I came to try and order the other two from Waterstones, however, they firstly told me that it was only published in an American edition so would cost more to ship over. Fine, I could live with that. Then it transpired that the second book, Humans – and only the second book! – was out of print, so they couldn’t get it for me after all. Hmmm. Surely it’s extremely odd for only the 2nd book in a trilogy to be out of print????? So finally, I turned to Amazon. Third book in the trilogy, Hybrids, was no problem. I ordered it on a Saturday afternoon, they had it in stock in the UK and it arrived on Monday morning. Humans, however, I had to cough up £30 for, for a SECOND HAND copy (which was in excellent condition, to be fair) from a seller in America on Amazon Marketplace. And it was worth it, and I don’t regret paying that much, but it is a little ridiculous, don’t you think?
My aunt very cleverly suggested the Blackwells Espresso Book Machine as a solution when I was complaining about this. This is a new print-on-demand machine Blackwells are launching in their flagship store in Charing Cross to make millions of out-of-print titles available for whoever wants them. She’s right, it would have been perfect, though I don’t know how much it costs per book. Unfortunately I think the focus initially will be on out-of-copyright books – negotiations with publishers for out-of-print but in-copyright books is ongoing, I believe. And the catalogue is not yet live for the general public to use and order. But I’m definitely keen to go take a look when it’s up and running properly!