Published in 2018, and winner of the 2019 Phillip K. Dick Award for Best Science Fiction, “Theory of Bastards” by Canadian-born author Audrey Schulman is really best described not as science fiction — lots of the science in it is real, after all — but rather, as apocalyptic and/or dystopian fiction. However, even those latter two terms do not exactly capture the totality of this provocative and riveting novel. There are surely elements of each, but they are merely adornment, or scene-setting, for an intensely personal and intimate story of how and why we choose those with whom we “mate” (both in the sense of to breed, and to take as a sexual and/or emotional partner).
The intimacy revolves mostly around main character Francine (Frankie) Burke, an evolutionary biologist who wins a MacArthur grant for her work in the study of human evolution and sexual selection. She decides to use the award money to study the mating and sexual selection habits of bonobos. As one of the handful of species of great ape — and thus, similar to humans in many evolutionary and biological respects — Frankie hopes that observing the bonobos will reveal more about her theory of human sexual selection.
She furthermore decides to carry out this study at a conservatory called The Foundation, located near Kansas City. The story is set in some unspecified future America beset by drought, unpredictable and destructive weather, and in which most humans rely on “bodyware” — smart implants — to do all the same things that we today rely on smartphones to do, and more.
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Schulman describes a world where human over-reliance on this technology, which dominates everyday existence even more so than smartphones do today. Humans of this era live with the constant threat from hacker attacks on the ubiquitous network upon which they rely, combined with the highly unstable weather and environmental conditions to provide the dystopian elements of the novel. The apocalyptic elements flow from the same conditions, but I will not divulge the particulars here so as to preserve the suspense. Suspense is ratcheted up highly effectively in the second half of the novel, culminating in a harrowing flight and fight for survival.
“Theory of Bastards” is spare in its plot, which occasionally jumps back in time to tell Frankie’s story of dealing with a painful and debilitating disease, the pain of which was recently “cured” by surgery. That same surgery renders Frankie unable to have children. While she did not necessarily want to procreate in the first place, the author rendering the scientist infertile was not arbitrary on her part.
Instead, Schulman deliberately creates a paradox of an infertile scientist who is world-renowned for her theory on sexual selection and choice of mating partner. As fate would have it, she is studying the mating and selection habits of an apparently polyamorous primate, and might or might not find herself drawn romantically to her married assistant and former Soldier, named Stotts (with whom she, of course, could never have children). So there are those elements, which give an intellectual depth to the story and which provide some thought-provoking moments for the reader.
We also, of course, have to talk about the bonobos. Really, they are the heart of the book, and easily the most sympathetic and endearing characters. Sometimes referred to as “pygmy chimpanzees,” given their smaller stature, Schulman is masterful in creating primate characters with true personalities, motivations, and depth of feeling.
The bonobos are led by an alpha female, who is unable to nurse her young offspring but who has been taught to bottle feed it. They exist in a sort of hyper-sexual communal existence where the males are subservient, two female “enforcers” help to keep the social order, and where each daily feeding at The Foundation is preceded on the part of the bonobos by an orgy. The latter group sex exercise diffuses any tensions or jealousies that might arise from the division of food resources. Apparently, this and all of the social dynamics of the apes in the story are in keeping with true-to-life dynamics observed by scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of this one particular species.
As a reader, one cannot help but become emotionally invested in the bonobos, even if it is at the expense of Frankie successfully confirming her theory. Even she herself at one point appears to place her scientific goals aside as perilous conditions require, and as it becomes clear that events will push her from being merely an observer to being an active participant in the life of the tribe. To go beyond that would give too much away. Let us just say that the protagonists will face a number of threats by novel’s end, ranging from hunger to environmental conditions, from other primates to humans, and from internal social dynamics both human and ape-centered.
This is science fiction at its best. Over the course of a captivating narrative, we — the readers — are prodded to question our entire social system and the logic behind the choices we make both as a species and as individuals. All this, while the characters are forced to deal with ethical, moral, and survival-centered decisions in the face of perilous and existential threats. Step out of your literary comfort zone and give “Theory of Bastards” a read. You might just enjoy the ride.
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