In Our Inner Ape (2005), the primatologist Frans de Waal wondered what might have happened had we learned about bonobos before chimpanzees. Perhaps, he suggested, our theories of human evolution “might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!”
A similar question preoccupies Audrey Schulman. Theory of Bastards, her fifth novel, centres on a group of bonobos and the two researchers studying them (the animal behavioural studies woven throughout will be familiar territory for anyone acquainted with de Waal’s writings). The “make love – not war” (de Waal’s words) bonobos are renowned for using mating as a social salve, choosing partners apparently indiscriminately. They carry an irresistible lure for Schulman’s protagonist, Dr Frankie Burk, whose groundbreaking research into sexual selection has earned her fame and, belatedly, some fortune.
Schulman seems drawn to characters who – because of anxiety, sexuality, body image – don’t quite fit in, and the prickly, brilliant Dr Burk is no exception. Her terseness, it emerges, is a protective shell, formed by protracted battles with endometriosis, and a medical profession unwilling to acknowledge her pain. Indeed, pain – and its life-altering constancy – figures so strongly in this book that it is almost a character in its own right. Schulman’s determination to represent the experience of a largely mischaracterized and misunderstood disease specific to women is one of the book’s strongest features. Following a hysterectomy, Burk elects to spend her medical sabbatical studying bonobos at a foundation in Missouri. There, she is assisted by a researcher, David Stotts, who is attempting to teach bonobos to make stone tools. The book is set in an unspecified near future of rising conflict and extreme environmental degradation, where people are equipped with physical implants functioning as computers, wallets and communication devices all in one.
This reliance on technology is dystopian in the extreme, Schulman makes abundantly clear. There are shades of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series here. The cast of extras – mostly tourists visiting the foundation – spend their time flicking, scrolling, playing on and watching the virtual projections cast by their lenses, blind to moments of tenderness happening in front of their eyes. Transport is automated and jobs are scarce. Polymorphic computer viruses nibble around the edges of vital systems, their interruptions a kind of technological weather to everyday life. The failure to regularly update one’s “BodyWare” implants results in infuriating glitches: “e-musement” systems refuse to turn off, litters of symbols collect in one’s field of vision. The sensory bombardments seem intolerable, but Schulman’s characters shrug them off as anyone inured to them credibly might.
One senses the degree of authorial glee when, inevitably, everything falls apart. During a catastrophic dust storm, appliances bubble and flush and flicker on and off; avatars spout nonsense (“the pencil terrifies the hand”, a holographic bonobo intones); and doors unlock, allowing the foundation’s fourteen real-life bonobos to escape into its domestic interior, where they wreak delighted havoc with human gadgetry. The researchers, physically and technologically cut off from the rest of humanity, must fall back on their own skills and resources to survive in this new world they’ve “travelled to without moving at all”. Half-shepherding, half-led by the bonobos, they navigate the “deep and biological” silence of the post-apocalyptic landscape with nothing but their own wits: this prompts a feeling “a bit like skinny-dipping, a vulnerability that heightened all sensation”.