In this near-future world, the development of machine intelligence has enabled most adults to be physically wired into an internet-like network called Quark. People wear electronic Bindis, which light up when mentally activated and display corporate logos. They have internalized Lenses so that they can access information and read files in their heads. Schulman makes this sound ordinary as we watch people standing in the street, swiping their finger through the empty air to turn a page as if they were operating invisible reading devices…like the physical device that I read this novel on. You open a door, which has identified you, by telling it to open. Planes fly themselves with a human backup pilot looking on and probably dozing off.
I read in the after-notes that Schulman hadn’t planned on writing another novel, and then, through the persuasion of her editor, has written her best one. It’s a summa of the Schulmanian literary brain: quirky, alienated, semi-autistic, rankly empathic to the point of tears, with all the intellect and hard science deep-think that you should justly admire in her work.
Frankie is a brilliant MacArthur genius award winner whose research on the evolutionary advantage of bastardy in humans rocked the talking heads circuit. She suffers from chronic pain due to endometriosis, a horrific-sounding pathology that results from the appearance of endometrial tissue outside the uterus, causing severe pain.
In a Schulman trope like a classic defense strategy in chess, Frankie is awkward with people but has a gift relating to other sentient life forms. Thanks to the prestige of her MacArthur Award, she can call the shots in her posting to an advanced center for the study of primates. She is researching the sexual behavior of bonobos, our closest primate relatives.
Bonobos are smaller than chimps, pound per pound stronger than humans but gentle, whereas chimps are aggressive. Bonobo society is matriarchal, so a bonobo named Mama calls the shots. Every morning Mama expects a cup of coffee and no human can enter the bonobo enclosure without her permission.
If you’re familiar with Schulman, you know that each of her concise chapters has the disciplined assertion of a commando squad on an assault mission. It’s a thrilling, take-no-prisoners writing style saturated with serious science writing.
Schulman’s empathy for the bonobos is heartbreaking. I usually recoil from sentiment in fiction, but this is what I’d rationalize as naturalistic sentiment. You will learn about the bonobos, learn their names and their distinctive personalities. You will appreciate how they bond to protect their own. They have the intelligence of three or four-year-old’s, are curious, sensitive, with great senses of humor and orgy levels of sexual appetite. They are imprisoned in their compound but in the outside world, this species that I liked better than human beings would risk being slaughtered in short order.
At the halfway mark through the elaborate exposition, I wondered where this story was going. Then the approach of a massive dust storm, exacerbated by climate change, leads to a heart-in-the-mouth second half.
Look, this is brilliant stuff. Have you ever wondered about alien intelligences? Well, you don’t have to look for them on distant star systems, they are right here on earth. You will beg for the survival of Mama and her primate community, crying and laughing with them, admiring their courage while pitying their dicey chances, as you turn page after page of Theory of Bastards.