Relic, by Jonathan Brooks, offers a new type of Neanderthal scifi adventure.
The story is deceptively simple. A rouge black ops military unit wants to clone Neanderthals to create an unstoppable breed of super-soldier – one that represents a “superior” human condition of strength and force. The team extracts DNA from archaeological Neanderthal remains and combines it with DNA from an unsuspecting scientist, who has a higher-than-normal percentage of Neanderthal genes. The military unit hides what they are doing behind a shell corporation managed by a shady law firm, working against the clock of impending government shut down to implant Neanderthal zygotes into unsuspecting surrogate mothers. The next Iraq, their logic goes, would be fought with warriors from the Paleolithic.
It’s like Orphan Black decided to re-imagine its next season with Castor clones as Neanderthals.
Neanderthals in science fiction are curious creatures. In some instances, like the early twentieth-century’s Quest For Fire, Neanderthals are props – literary foils – to explain the “superiority” of the Homo sapiens condition. (Neanderthals, with their evolutionary “failure” explain our own evolutionary “success”, thanks to our technological prowess over things like fire.) In Robert Sawyer’s Hominids trilogy, however, the success of Neanderthals in a parallel universe show how capricious and contingent we are in our own evolutionary narrative. (We comfortably imagine our own evolutionary trajectory as predetermined.) The species acts as a continuum for us to test our humanity against.
In Relic, however, Neanderthals occupy the space between MacGuffins and characters and move between the two extremes. In keeping with classic scifi, Brooks’ Neanderthals are how we explore the question – What makes us human? The book ends on a cliffhanger, poised for its sequel.
For die-hard Neanderthal fans, Relic is a reminder that how we talk about the fossil species tells us more about ourselves than it does about them.