A typical science fiction book will project you so many years into the future and wow you with all that has been achieved or dismay you with the awfulness that is our possible destiny. Not so for Steven Burgauer’s latest book, The Night of the Eleventh Sun, which takes us back to the dawn of our time. But it is not us that is his focus; we are a mere bit part in this tale. Rather it is our rival hominid species, the Neanderthal, that takes centre stage.
Hold on a minute, I hear you utter, does that not make it an historical fiction rather than sci-fi? Well, possibly, but the author has quite cleverly interweaved his narrative with a science lens to help us make sense of the Neanderthal’s actions. Clearly much of the science resides in the theoretical realm; ideas are pieced together from fragmented clues collected by decades of patient anthropological endeavours, so the tag of science fiction/fantasy stands.
Initially there is a simplicity to the narrative that leads you to think that this might be pitched at a younger audience, but don’t be fooled – once the voracious sex lives of the Neanderthals is covered you know that this is definitely not for children! It is clear from what we learn about the everyday lives of the clan that their lives were similar to our own clan ancestors: use of tools for hunting and preparation, plants for healing, creativity, abstract thinking and philosophising.
However, there is a question mark forever lurking whilst you read: why didn’t they endure? The clan in the story are one in decline, weakened by infighting, high infant mortality and threats from other, more successful and ‘different’ clans. Any, or all of these reasons may explain the Neanderthal’s demise, but it is too easy to dismiss them as a species that wasn’t ‘fit’ enough to survive; partly as they continue to exist genetically within many of us but also, as the book demonstrates well, we have much still to learn about their cultural legacy.