I think I have a reading problem.
Anyway. This was sort of unintended – I’d meant to read a Dickinson a while ago after I heard he died, but I couldn’t find the book that was on my to-read list. Later, in a secondhand bookshop, I saw Eva and bought it, forgot to put it on my to-read list, and went on. The other day I was doing some tidying and came across it, and as I’d just finished The Snowden Files I thought it would serve nicely as a fluffy palate cleanser before I dived back into the murky world of depressing international politics.
It was… not fluffy. One day I’ll learn this about kids’ books.
It was so good.
The back copy of this book is intentionally very vague to avoid a major early event/twist, so if you want to read about animal rights, environmentalism, scientific morality and the nature of the self, I will lend this book to you. Don’t spoiler yourself.
Those of you remaining have either read it or don’t intend to or don’t care about spoilers, I guess, so let’s get into it. Eva, our protagonist, has been in a terrible accident and would be dead if not for her father’s connections to a chimpanzee research institute and a lucrative and morally dubious corporate sponsorship, which have resulted in her consciousness being grafted into a chimpanzee’s body.
Because of her father’s job, Eva has grown up around chimps, and she recognises the body she’s in – that of a chimpanzee named Kelly – which gives the whole thing a little more body horror, which Eva is of course not allowed to feel by the scientists who are overseeing the experiment and who have control over her emotions at first, chemically-speaking. She also doesn’t allow herself to feel the body horror of it; she knows her only chance is to break down the wall and stop thinking of herself as human-Eva and the body as less real than her old one, and forces herself to accept herself and even like herself as she now is.
It’s not just about growing used to a chimpanzee body and the attention of a human society, it’s about Kelly too – where has she gone? Eva wonders. It’s about the divide between the human and the animal, or the lack of any such divide. It’s about the chimp side as much as the human side, and the need for places away from human society and human-controlled spaces.
Eva is clever and adaptable, unsqueamish and able to read both chimp and human behaviour as the book goes on. She doesn’t think of her chimpanzee interactions in the same way as her human ones, and her chimpanzee body influences her behaviour and wants to a significant degree (she now has to deal with going into oestrus, for instance). I don’t know much about chimpanzee behaviour or research on it, but the book reads as though Dickinson did his homework (I also don’t know if anything in the book is considered outdated now, as it was written in the 80s). Compare and contrast to the Tarzans, and Tarzan’s easy movement between ape and human worlds.
This is a sci fi novel written in the 80s, so it feels a little dated (but not obsolete, if that makes sense? Dated in the sense that you can tell what kind of era it was written in and looking forward from). Dickinson wisely doesn’t give us too much detail on the future technology that appears in his world, but drops names and leaves us to infer the details of their usage and function for ourselves. He does still talk about tapes a lot, which seems almost charming coming from the era of smartphones and microSD cards and whatnot (I don’t know anything about technology I’m sorry).
It’s an environmental book as well, and should be pretty bleak given the bare facts of the world he’s writing in: the world has been ravaged and exploited, humans are overpopulated and reaching a stage of apathy where they seem to be winding up their own civilisation and getting ready to die off, either completely or to a sustainable level. At the end we hear about mass suicide pacts. There are very few animals left at all, bar anything that has adapted to urban life and the pool of chimpanzees used for research and displayed in public areas to give humans some nature to look at, which they enjoy doing. Most nature is experienced through the “shaper”, a kind of holographic television.
Somehow it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly hopeless though? We see the world through Eva and her young, animal-bodied perspective, and we experience her fierce attempts to secure a better future for her chimpanzee people. There’s no wallowing in how terrible the future is, only doggedly living in it. The environmental catastrophe seems to have little immediate effect on wherever Eva’s living, and food seems to be easily accessible, but a) it’s written from a young teen’s perspective, b) this kind of matches up with my own experience of living in a sheltered/privileged region during environmental catastrophe and c) we have learned I think a lot about the complexity of global environmental issues since the 80s. If it were to be written today I think it would be a very different picture.
And although it is written for younger people, the story doesn’t feel dumbed down at all. It’s written in clear, simple language, but that language is used to describe complicated emotions and events. As we are getting everything through Eva’s perspective and thus only know what people tell Eva (and what she works out or speculates) we get some things in brief form, but I could see all the shape of the iceberg underneath the words to what was going on behind the scenes, and I thought that was pretty cool.
The ending is fantastic also, situating Eva in this great ever-changing pattern, in both chimpanzee group dynamics and longer-term, the relationship between humanity and the chimpanzee colony, and even longer-term, the evolutionary nudges Eva has managed to (or has she?) instil in her group.
I really loved it. It hit on a lot of my pet topics (relationship between humanity and nature, animal behaviour) and it was done incredibly well, handling huge issues in a way that I wouldn’t worry would terrify a child. It was lovely, and if you cheated by getting this far without having read the book, I still recommend it to you.
(Black Lives Matter)