Advertisement
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.

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.

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement

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)

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
Life as a midwife aid worker: 'Plagued by vivid dreams of the patients I felt I had failed'
Books

Life as a midwife aid worker: 'Plagued by vivid dreams of the patients I felt I had failed'

Why I created a book full of weird and wonderful images I found in online archives
Books

Why I created a book full of weird and wonderful images I found in online archives

Darren McGarvey: 'Austerity was class war. I want to hit back'
inequality

Darren McGarvey: 'Austerity was class war. I want to hit back'

Being deaf is no tragedy – it's one of my greatest strengths
Books

Being deaf is no tragedy – it's one of my greatest strengths

Most Popular

Read All
Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff
1.

Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'
2.

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'
3.

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself
4.

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself

Keep up to date with The Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.