Theory of Bastards
Audrey Schulman, Europa, 2018, ISBN 978-1-60945-437-1, 413pp
Audrey Schulman is a Canadian-American writer with four previous novels to her name. Hers was not a name that I knew and, indeed, she is unusual enough not to have an entry in Wikipedia though I imagine that is by design rather than due to a lack of, or desire for a lack of, notoriety because she has a website. I bought the book simply because I liked the title. The word “theory” suggested some science somewhere and the word “bastard” is always evocative. When I settled down to read it was not what I had expected. Indeed, I was convinced for the first several pages that it would be one of those rare books that I did not finish. It is a book that features animals and more specially it features bonobos. Now I am not an animal person; all I knew about bonobos could be written on the back of a postage stamp, namely that they are a primate.
Even though I am not an animal person, I had read a book by another American Karen Joy Fowler called We are all completely beside ourselves which was inspired by an experiment in the 1930s, in which two scientists, a husband-and-wife team, tried to raise a baby chimpanzee in their home as if she were human, along with their own child. Not surprisingly, the experiment didn’t work. Chimps can be pretty vicious and the experimenters found that the child started to behave like the chimp rather than the other way around. Bonobos, I learn, are different to chimps and display some rather singular behaviours that I will leave to discover from the book (or from Wikipedia).
The hero of The Theory of Bastards is a brilliant young behavioural scientist, Francine Burk. Francine Burk suffers from endometriosis and uses her experience with the condition to inspire her scientific work. The book is set against the background of a climate change event sometime in the future. Schulman has created a fairly credible technological context; that credibility means that the book is not science fiction. It is entirely plausible … that is, if you happen to be looking after a bunch of bonobos when it all starts to go wrong. Francine’s research background has won her a fellowship at the Foundation, which is a combination of public zoo and research centre. There she works with David Stotts who is an ex-military man. I enjoyed the way Schulman describes the interplay between the highly structured Stotts and the rather more laissez-faire Burk.
The first part of the book is about the research. Burk’s research is about mating habits. She has undertaken research into the mating habits of finches that involved putting hats on the birds to affect their mating choices. Her research has driven the creation of an online dating service called The Love Bank. As we follow the narrative we begin to understand why these bonobos are so interesting, and they are interesting. Francine begins to develop a theory which is really the theory of bastards, though to decide who is the bastard you will need to read the book. The theory part suggest that women may become pregnant by a man other than their usual partner because of the evolutionary advantages to the resulting child.
The second part of the book is a post-apocalyptic thriller. The two parts of the book are split by a massive dust storm that causes a loss of services to the Foundation’s facilities. When the event hits, all the human staff except Burk and Stott and a skeletal staff have left. Coping with the storm leads to events that could not have been planned for. The technological infrastructure that the Foundation and its staff depend upon fails. Burk and Stott lead their bonobos out of the Foundation in search of water and food. In fact, the water seems to be largely what the Americans call soda. I think that the point of the second half of the book is to cause us to ask ourselves how we would cope if the infrastructure that we depend upon failed us.
As you turn the pages of this book you cannot help thinking how you would cope in similar circumstances. Would the decisions that you would make be any better than Burk’s and Stott’s? Probably not.
If the subject matter of the book appeals to you then I would recommend it. If you want to know about bonbobos then you should definitely read it and the book contains references to material on these creatures. I bought the book thinking that it would be one thing and then found that it was something completely different. In the end I enjoyed it very much; the writing is good, the plot is plausible and I learned