Books

Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman: I Still Dream, James Smythe

Doug Johnstone considers two compelling approaches to the subject of human identity in a rapidly changing world

Science fiction is as broad a church as any other genre, from full-on laser-zapping space operas to subtle literary speculative tales only slightly removed from modern reality. This week we have two books that fall into the latter category, books that have taken recent advances in science and technology and extrapolated them into intriguing and convincing new places.

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First up is the superbly titled Theory of Bastards by Canadian writer Audrey Schulman. Set in an alternate near future, the story revolves around a young female scientist called Frankie Burke who has developed a distinct theory of evolution and is testing it out in a research facility on a group of bonobos. Frankie has endometriosis, giving her a body awareness few others can understand, and she works closely with ex-military biologist David Stotts. In Schulman’s world humans are directly connected up to the Quark, a kind of next generation internet, while 3-D printers generate the food for the animals in the lab.

Theory of Bastards asks big questions about human identity, communication, and our attitude to the environment and the planet

Added to this, large-scale climate events are a constant threat to parts of civilisation, and it’s one such event that precipitates a major crisis in the story, with Frankie, Stotts and the apes having to leave the research station in order to survive.

There’s a lot going on in Schulman’s novel, but the author weaves it together with skill and subtlety, quickly settling us into Frankie’s world and focusing on her fascinating interactions with the bonobos. The apes are like a matriarchal and pacifist version of chimpanzees, where sex replaces violence as the main form of societal control, and Schulman has a lot of fun comparing ape culture and interactions with the human equivalents, for better or worse.

As the plot progresses the action and tension increase too, as they should, but Theory of Bastards continues to ask the reader big questions into the bargain, about the nature of human identity, about communication, and about our attitude to the environment and the planet. Delicately off kilter, this is an unsettling but endlessly interesting read from start to finish.

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In a different way our second book this week also deals with big themes of human identity and communication. I Still Dream by James Smythe begins in 1997, where teenager Laura Bow has invented a basic artificial intelligence called Organon. As Laura grows so does Organon, and the story jumps forward in ten-year leaps as far as 2047. At the same time as Organon and Laura mature, another A.I. called SCION is being developed by a company initially started by Laura’s father, who disappeared from Laura’s life when she was little. 

Smythe is looking at how the internet interacts with all our lives in I Still Dream, and some of the plot later on seems ripped from recent newspaper headlines, as we deal with the repercussions of big data abuse. SCION gets sold to the US government but Smythe is no doom merchant, and he uses Organon to balance his view, examining possibly more optimistic futures. 

At the heart of the novel, though, is Laura’s journey through life, and how that is mirrored and refracted through Organon’s journey. It’s a fascinating and emotional journey, one depicted with honesty and clarity, looking at love, loss and what it means to be human in the digital age.

Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman (Europa Editions, £12.99)

I Still Dream, James Smythe (Borough Press, £12.99) 

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