by Robert J. Sawyer
New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, 2003
When teaching about theoretical aspects of crime, criminologists often face challenges in bringing life to abstract ideas stimulating students’ imaginations. Robert Sawyer’s science fiction novel, Hybrids, challenges criminologists to imagine the “other” and to consider alternative perspectives for understanding and responding to crime. Hybrids is relevant to criminologists in general, as well as those who teach theoretically oriented courses. As a second year undergraduate student, I had the benefit of seeing how popular culture can extend and enhance our appreciation for criminological thought.
While Emile Durkheim asked us to imagine a society of saints, Sawyer asks us to imagine two distinct societies that exist in parallel worlds. One world is occupied by ourselves, Homo sapiens, and the other is populated by Neanderthals. Sawyer’s principle purpose is to explore why the Neanderthal no longer exists on earth as we know it, and to do this he sets up a classic “first contact” scenario between Homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis. The two societies are confronted by enormous social and cultural differences, and substantially dissimilar approaches to crime.
The Neanderthals view crime and deviance as biologically based. Following a positivist approach, individuals who commit serious crimes are sterilised in order to prevent the continuation of undesirable genes in society. Immediate genetic relatives of such criminals are also sterilised. From the Homo sapiens’ perspective, this is barbaric, inhumane, and defies traditional principles of human rights. For the Neanderthals, it is an effective “treatment” for criminality and they point out that their society not just practically crime free, but convicted criminals are never incarcerated and they receive therapy and rehabilitation so that they remain contributing members of society.
Another feature of the Neanderthal justice system is that offenders are deemed guilty until proven innocent and charges can only be laid if the victim wishes a prosecution. At first, analysis of this concept is contentious, but the Neanderthal’s have developed sophisticated technologies and apply them in ways that Homo sapiens have never considered. For example, every Neanderthal wears an implanted device, called a “companion,” which functions as a personal assistant and friend. The companion also records all of its owner’s conversations and activities. This may seem Orwellian, but the recordings are permanently stored in an “alibi archive,” which can only be retrieved by the person to whom it belongs. Therefore, to establish true innocence instead of our version of “not guilty,” an accused Neanderthal would sanction the court to access the alibi database. In contrast to the procedural workings innate to our model of justice, the Neanderthal system is swift and sure. Nonetheless, Neanderthal justice is not devoid of problems as some victims refuse to pursue complaints, since the consequences of genetic treatment may affect their own innocent children.
Sawyer’s comparative approach sets up opportunities for readers to reconsider our social world. Opinions regarding our contemporary debate on same-sex marriage would be foreign to the homo Neanderthalensis, who live in bisexual polygamous relationships. Whereas technological development in our society is entrenched in capitalism and competition, the fictional Neanderthals develop surprisingly different technologies, because they are committed to sustainable environments, population control, universal social care, and elimination of criminality. Accordingly, the Neanderthal commune is characteristic of collectivism and consensus, contrary to our world of individualism and conflict.
There is an underlying theme in the novel that asks the question: ‘If our society were structured differently, how might the criminal justice system look?’ Sawyer’s fictional situations present readers with opportunities to apply their criminological imaginations, more implicitly, allowing one to relate to and distinguish criminological theory present in modern day society. Hybrids inspires and motivates its readers to challenge any pre existing notions of criminological thought, thus proving to be a useful book to any student or instructor of criminological theory.
Nick W. Peterson
Kwantlen University College