In the appendix to her fourth novel, Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman lists the many scholarly works she consulted in the course of her writing. These cover a wide range of subjects, from the lives and communities of great apes, to the study of flint-knapping, to research into pain and the medical community's attitude towards it. It's an eclectic bunch of topics that epitomizes both the novel's charms and its frustrations. Theory of Bastards is about so many fascinating things that one can't help being carried along by them (and by Schulman's gift for dramatizing these subjects and fitting them into her story's framework). But eventually one comes to wonder what the novel itself is trying to say with all its erudition. This is a question that becomes even more pressing when Theory of Bastards reinvents itself halfway through, becoming something completely different than what it started as.
In that first half, Theory of Bastards is the story of Dr. Frankie Burk, a renowned, MacArthur-winning evolutionary psychologist who, in the near future, accepts a fellowship at a Midwestern great apes preserve to study bonobos. Frankie's research has been on the subject of mate selection, and particularly the potential evolutionary advantages of infidelity. She's come to the foundation to study bonobos, famously matriarchal and casually promiscuous, to see what, if any, considerations go into their choice of whom to have children with
Frankie is the type of female character whom reviewers tend to dub “unlikable” (and have, in this case). And she does, in fact, do things that are unsympathetic, particularly when interacting with the bonobos' deaf caretaker, or with Stotts, the researcher assigned to assist her in getting to know the apes and learning to interact with them. But what Frankie actually is, above any other trait, is focused. As we learn when the narrative takes us back through her youth and early career, the reason for that focus is pain.
From an early age, Frankie has suffered from severe, debilitating endometriosis, a condition known not only for its painful symptoms, but for the difficulty that its sufferers experience in reaching a diagnosis, or even getting medical professionals to take their complaints seriously. Frankie's journey with the disease introduces us to well-meaning but dismissive parental figures, doctors who suspect her of drug-seeking, and specialists who have few good options to offer her even after she gets her diagnosis (one of them suggests becoming pregnant as a way of temporarily alleviating the symptoms, which occur during menstruation). Pain limits and narrows Frankie's life, changing her personality for the worse and eating away at her relationships. But it also, as she believes, teaches her coping strategies that end up telling in her career as a researcher:
Years later, stepping up to the microphone after her MacArthur Award was announced, she looked across the audience and spotted three different colleagues she believed would score higher on intelligence tests or have a more comprehensive understanding of their fields. Standing there, wondering why she was on this stage instead of them, the only difference she could think of was the way her disease had taught her mind to focus. Like a snapping turtle, once her brain had clamped its jaws on a specific problem it would not let go, not unless someone sawed through her scrawny neck.
Frankie's condition shapes her, but it also excludes her from the type of life that a young woman might expect to live. It poisons her romantic relationships and makes sex painful and unappealing. In the later years of her struggle with the disease, she deliberately de-sexes herself—wearing childish clothes and cropping her hair short—in an effort to conserve the energy she needs to deal with constant pain. The disease also threatens and eventually destroys her fertility. When she arrives at the foundation, finally free of pain and able, for the first time in years, to enjoy simple actions like stretching or eating chocolate, Schulman takes a strangely long time to reveal that the magic treatment that has freed Frankie from pain was a hysterectomy.
It is a final, irrevocable exclusion from her own topic of study, one towards which, we are led to understand, Frankie has been moving her entire life. Schulman’s argument, however, is that that feeling of being set apart is directly tied to Frankie's interest in mating strategies, and to her ability to analyze the underlying impulses that govern seemingly counterintuitive mating behavior. As Frankie observes when concluding that female infidelity and promiscuity play an important role in producing fitter offspring, “humanity had evolved a basic inability to assess the possibility that a wife might have a lover, or even to comprehend the blatantly obvious fact that heterosexual women had as much sex as heterosexual men.” As an outsider to these games of match- and baby-making, Frankie is poised to make the observations that no one else will. It’s an argument that works while reading the book, though one can’t help but wonder if, like a lot of Frankie’s pronouncements about how evolution and mate selection work, it isn’t a vast oversimplification for which there are many counterexamples.
Theory of Bastards is set in the near future, and Schulman does an impressive job (especially for a newcomer to the genre) of constructing a plausible and thought-out portrait of life in the coming decades. She casually drops into the narrative such ideas as a future type of internet in which computer-generated avatars present the news, or a combination implant and gene therapy that turns the deaf bonobo keeper's mouth into another ear, able to perceive vibrations and translate them into sound. But for the most part, the picture she paints is not encouraging. The novel's future is prone to extreme weather events, such as dust storms that sweep across the midwest and cause severe respiratory illnesses (Stotts's toddler daughter suffers from life-threatening asthma), or self-replicating computer viruses that periodically shut down the internet. Underlying it all is the slow hollowing out of the economy, the loss of jobs to automation, the loss of services and facilities that make things like Frankie or Stotts's research seem like a luxury from a bygone era.
Evocative as that portrait is, it also draws attention to a fundamental problem of Schulman's choice to set her novel in the future. Namely, that most of Frankie's research and discoveries have been known quantities for decades. A note at the beginning of the novel informs us that all of the experiments described in it actually happened, and for some of them—such as Stotts's attempts to teach bonobos to knap flint in order to theorize about how early humans developed the skill—this makes for a neat, unexplored corner of human knowledge. But even I, a complete neophyte, had at least a vague awareness of the fact that infidelity is understood to be a viable evolutionary strategy. What's more, by pushing the date of that discovery several decades into our future, Schulman is able to neatly avoid acknowledging the fact that evolutionary psychology has been adopted by MRA groups into a justification for their poisonous, misogynistic theories about human behavior and female inferiority.
This is not, to be clear, a fatal problem in the book, merely a necessary suspension of disbelief for the reader's enjoyment. But it might go some way towards explaining why Theory of Bastards works so much better when it moves away from the SFnal and concentrates on Frankie's research. Much of the first half of the novel is spent with her getting to know the community of bonobos who live at the foundation. Led by the imperious Mama, the group has its share of strong personalities and cross-currents of friendship and enmity. Frankie—accustomed to steamrolling opposition and out of practice at making friends or asking for anything—takes a while to understand that she needs to earn her acceptance into this community. Once she does, however, we get a wonderful glimpse into the personalities that make it work, these non-human intelligences who are nevertheless capable of compassion, pride, and humor.
And then it all changes. Everything I've described so far happens in the first half of the book. At that point, the foundation is evacuated due to a looming dust storm. Frankie, still working on the assumption that the rules don't apply to her, decides to stay so that she can continue her observations of the bonobos’ mating habits. Stotts, whose daughter has traveled abroad to get gene therapy for her asthma, stays behind for the extra pay. A few days into the storm, the information grid goes away, and so does the power running the 3D printers on which Frankie and Stotts were relying to feed their fourteen hungry charges. They spend the next few days scrambling for supplies that the bonobos will agree to eat, trying to keep them contained after the electronic locks fail, and waiting for rescue.
For someone like myself, who had been enjoying the intellectual rigors of the early parts of the novel, these chapters, though well-written and entertaining, felt like a distraction. Like Frankie, I wanted to get back to research, to pondering the unseen currents that govern evolution and shape entire species. And like Frankie, it took me a while to realize that normal wasn't coming back. Eventually, however, the remaining humans at the foundation have to accept that something has gone seriously wrong, and that the animals in their care will starve if they stay put. Frankie and Stotts set off together, hoping—with a hope that grows fainter every day—to reach the edge of the sudden wilderness they've found themselves at the center of and rejoin civilization, while also fearing what civilization might do to the animals they've come to think of as family.
The rest of the novel is made up of this journey. It takes a while for Schulman to reveal the extent of the destruction she's wrought on her world, but readers familiar with SF will not be surprised if I say that Theory of Bastards ends up being a post-apocalyptic novel, even if most of that apocalypse happens off-page. What matters, instead, is the family Frankie and Stotts form with the bonobos, and with each other. Even as Stotts obsesses over his separation from his daughter, his and Frankie's relationship begins to change in ways neither one of them can deny (and which the bonobos, who have integrated the humans into their community, don't entirely approve of).
It's a journey of transformation, as all such journeys ultimately are. But as well-done as it is, one can't help but feel that Theory of Bastards is less interesting for it. Most SF readers will have read a novel like this before (if, perhaps, not one with the added twist of post-apocalyptic survivors having to care for a troupe of intelligent, independent-minded, but extremely vulnerable, animals). More importantly, it's hard to tell what Schulman was aiming at with this sudden lurch in genres. There is the slightly glib reading in which Frankie's detachment—scientific and personal—is finally worn away by the need to survive and her willingness to care for others. And there is a more charitable take in which her newfound sense of connection combines with her research to reach a conclusion about the qualities we should prefer in our society and mate selection:
“She said, someone probably did it. Some leader of a country ordered the cyberwar or a programmer created the poly-roach. Someone built the EMP device. Someone decided this should happen to all of us. I just... I wish that person had been nicer.
Stotts turned to her.
She said, maybe if the mom of that person had chosen someone like Sweetie, someone with big eyes and a generous soul, maybe then he would have been born a little different, wouldn't have done what he did.”
But once again, this bumps us up against the limitations of evolutionary psychology. Not every action comes down to your genes. Not every pairing that produces a child comes down to an innate drive to maximize your genetic information’s potential to propagate itself (or, for that matter, to a woman's choice of whom to mate with). There's nothing wrong with talking up the value of cooperation, altruism, and kindness—and, in fact, research has shown that all of these qualities have evolutionary advantages. But as a conclusion to a novel as busy and full of stuff as Theory of Bastards, it feels a bit thin.
Theory of Bastards is too decisive in its oddball, out-of-the-blue choices to be anything less than exactly the novel that Schulman intended it to be. And for that, as well as for her interest in so many topics that are worth talking about and that rarely get this much attention in fiction, I have to salute her. There's a lot here worth reading and pondering, and readers who are hungry for novels about women in science, about difficult and willful women, about the struggle of women to be taken seriously by the medical profession, not to mention novels about apes, will find a great deal to enjoy here. But when it all comes together, the final outcome—the family formed by Frankie, Stotts, and the bonobos—feels less interesting than all the other ideas left by the wayside.
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