Sawyer, Robert J. Humans. New York: Tor, 2003. 317pp
Another solid entry from Sawyer -- he's long been one of the most consistent authors on my regular reading list. His best are among the finest examples of idea-driven core sf being written these days: ingenious ideas, strong plots decent if unspectacular characterization. The writing is spare and unadorned, gets the message across without disrupting the flow. Among my faves in the Sawyer canon are The Terminal Experiment, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity and Calculating God. Even the occasional disappointing novel isn't really that bad, really just not as good as the rest. Starplex sticks out as a relative stinker. In fact, another relative stinker in my books was the first volume in Sawyers latest trilogy (The Neanderthal Parallax), Hominids. A competant enough tale of travel between our world and a parallel world where neanderthals evolved as the dominiant species instead of us, the idea was fine but the plot and character development left me flat. The main character, York University scientist Mary Vaughn, in particular seemed poorly drawn. Hominids, of course, won the Hugo award for best novel a few years ago when the con was in Sawyer's home town of Toronto -- the homer vote certainly played a role. The choice was quite controversial, as many didn't think the novel worthy of the award. Personally, it's all karma to me. Maybe Hominids wasn't the most deserving of his novels, but it kinda evens out for years when more deserving Sawyer novels didn't win.
Which brings me to Humans, the second volume in the trilogy. I guess we're all expecting another luke warm review, but I'll have to disappoint on that score. I actually liked this one quite a bit more than the first. The neanderthal visitor to earth, Ponter Boddit, was often quite amusing in his fish out of water comments on the weirdnesses of North American society. Also, his romance with Vaughn didn't seem quite as unlikely as I feared it would be from the forshadowing in volume 1. In many ways, the neanderthals, both the visitors to earth and those we meet on the parallel planet, are set up as more sane and compassionate versions of humans. Almost as if Sawyer has set up his parallel world as a mirror for our own, a way to see more clearly the stupidities of human societies. If the neaderthals seem a bit too nice and rational at times, well, that's a bit of flaw. Sawyer does hint that maybe the neanderthals see the same sort of mirror image in our society -- a lack of ambition leading to a blandly "nice" society.
Overall, a solid novel. Recommended.