Review: Roslyn Jollyon James Bradley

Thought Experiments

Set in the near future, Ghost Species depicts a frighteningly familiar world. Seasons come early and stay late, to the deep confusion of plants and animals. There are constant forest fires and relentless extinctions. Far from being the stuff of dystopian fantasy, these are the conditions in which we now live our lives. Last summer, choking on smoke under orange-grey skies, many of us in eastern Australia experienced every day the feeling described here, that ‘something is deeply awry’. James Bradley has been one of our country’s most outspoken and prolific commentators on the climate crisis, and his warnings about the environmental devastation that is already locked into the future have started to bite in ways that can no longer be ignored. Now, with coronavirus so quickly following the bushfires, we recognise even more clearly the state of constant, underlying dread portrayed in this novel, with its ‘sense of hastening, a dislocation deep in the fabric of things’.

Novels of ideas flourish during times of historical stress; epochal change and existential threat are their lifeblood. The emergence of the world’s first industrial society in nineteenth-century England prompted ‘discussion novels’, such as Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) and Gaskell’s North and South (1855). Dostoevsky wrote his philosophical novels as a thousand-year-old system of political and religious authority in Russia began to unravel. In the twentieth century, the threat of nuclear annihilation concentrated the minds of novelists as different as Aldous Huxley and Doris Lessing. In all these instances, the novel was used to think through the consequences of a particular historical crisis and, sometimes, to propose a way forward.

Climate catastrophes and pandemics also call for novel solutions, provoking fiction to become a forum for sharing thoughts on how we came to be here and how we might possibly get out of this mess. In our time of fire, flood and plague, we need as many good ideas as we can get, along with the means of critically evaluating them. Fiction can be a place where space is created to explore both these possibilities.

A novel keenly and visibly concerned with ideas, Ghost Species contributes to a growing body of fiction that addresses the potential consequences of climate change. Like most works of this kind, it belongs to a particular sub-genre of the novel of ideas, speculative fiction. All novels speculate – that’s intrinsic to the very concept of fiction – but some novels speculate on a scale that encompasses the fates not just of fictional individuals, but of whole societies or species in the real world.

A speculative fiction is a type of thought experiment, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a mental assessment of the implications of a hypothesis’. As such, speculative fictions always begin with a question: what if? What if the different parts of a human personality could be chemically separated? (Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886). What if England were not a capitalist society but a community of workers? (Morris’ News from Nowhere, 1891). What if the United States were to be governed by a malevolent patriarchy that subjected women to reproductive slavery? (Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985). And after the ‘what if’ question, the next question posed in speculative fiction, the answering of which forms the meat of the novel, is always ‘what then?’

In Ghost Species, a massive program of plant modifications designed to combat the effects of climate change has been carried out at a science facility in Tasmania, funded by a fabulously wealthy and somewhat sinister tech entrepreneur, Davis. Researchers at other branches of Davis’s worldwide foundation have also begun using genetic engineering to resurrect extinct animal species wiped out by the actions of homo sapiens, including megafauna such as mammoths. The next step in Davis’s thinking is to re-engineer another human, or almost-human, species, Neanderthals.

Why? Before the project begins, Davis provides his rationale:

Because we can. Because it gives us the chance to undo the wrong that was done when they were wiped out. But also because we need them; the world needs them. Look at the Earth, at what our carelessness has done to it. We can’t let that happen again. We need to be tested by other minds, other perspectives. We need to learn how other eyes see the world. Think what we could learn from them, from their minds!

The novel’s ‘what if’ question – what if science could bring back what the Smithsonian Museum calls ‘our closest extinct human relative’? – is in one sense dealt with in a fairly straightforward fashion. The scientific challenges of the project are presented as surmountable using a combination of DNA recovery, genetic programming and maternal surrogacy, with the result that members of the species Homo sapiens can interact with a member of the species Homo neanderthalensis. Such an encounter has not taken place for nearly 40,000 years, when the two species last co-existed on Earth.

So, what then? Unfortunately, Davis’s plan for inter-species enlightenment fizzles quickly, and not just because one of his lead scientists absconds with the Neanderthal child they have created, hoping to save her from the life of a lab rat. In fact, the scientist Kate and baby Eve are never really lost. They are under constant surveillance and the research facility can reclaim them whenever it chooses to. But Davis, worried about ‘cost and reputational risk’ and satisfied that the team has achieved ‘proof of concept’, orders the project to be wound up, redirecting resources to other initiatives. He de-authorises the genesis of any more Neanderthals, showing a remarkably short attention span for a vision that was articulated earlier with such enthusiasm.

The revelation in just the second of the novel’s eight sections that the project was abandoned when Eve was still an infant means that the story doesn’t pursue Davis’s ‘what then?’ question – the question of whether we might find solutions to the planet’s current problems if we could see the world through Neanderthal eyes. Instead, the plot becomes completely focused on a different ‘what then?’ question: that of the moral, psychological and emotional consequences of the experiment for those who are involved in it. This question is primarily answered through an exploration of the relationship between Kate and Eve, which, interspersed with flashbacks to Kate’s own traumatic past, is the focus of the novel’s second to sixth sections. Only the last two sections, one of them extremely short, follow Eve’s life beyond her relationship with Kate.

The collapse of interest in Davis’s original vision – ‘Think what we could learn from them, from their minds!’ – curtails the novel’s imaginative reach, at least until the last few pages. After the absconders are returned to the facility, the scientists continue to study Eve, but devote most of their energies to a kind of metrics of deficiency, measuring the ways in which she is ‘slower’, ‘less developed’, ‘fails’ or exhibits ‘lack’ in relation to the cognitive functions of a normal sapient child. So much for allowing their own assumptions ‘to be tested by other minds, other perspectives’. They draw up ‘a program to help Eve extend her abilities in those areas where she has deficits’, subjecting her to ‘years of speech therapy’ and other normalisation procedures. Only Kate reminds them, just a little, of the original aims of the project, insisting

they also formulate a plan to allow [Eve] to develop herself in those areas in which she exceeds the normal sapient range. ‘Why should we limit her education with sapient standards of normality?’ Kate argues. ‘By that reasoning we should be being trained to improve our visual memory until it equals Eve’s.’

It is not recorded that any such training takes place.

We might hope that Kate, the outlier, would pursue her own study of the cognitive and phenomenological possibilities of seeing our world through another species’ eyes and perhaps thereby discovering pathways towards healing it. But although Kate is interested in and sympathetic to the ways in which Eve is different from herself, her comprehension of those differences is extremely limited. Kate has an appreciation of Eve’s beauty, which most others don’t have: ‘what strikes Kate is the strength and power of Eve, the way her fox-brown eyes and tawny hair give her the look of a forest creature, wild and sleek.’ She is also acutely aware of ‘the animal in her’ – Eve’s wariness, her withdrawnness, her capacity for stillness.

When she is in the bush she seems more alive, her body attuned to her surroundings, preternaturally alert. More than once Kate has watched her ascend a hill, moving fast and low, as fluid as a cat. Her hearing and sense of smell are similarly heightened; frequently when they are out she will fall still suddenly, raise her head, sniffing or listening for something Kate cannot hear, her body tensed, still.

But all this is external, like the image of Eve near the end of the novel, snarling and fighting and growling like a powerful animal when her friend is attacked.

That leaves Eve herself as a source of insight for us into another kind of mind, but such insight is compromised by the terms of the experiment itself. Having been brought up in the sapient world by researchers indifferent to her unique potential and by a mother-figure (Kate) desperate to give her the safety of ‘a normal life’, Eve can only see herself filtered through the gaze of others, a gaze that seems inevitably to encode the same assumption of deficiency that governed the scientists’ investigations of her abilities.

When she is alone – on her bike or moving through the forest – she feels strong, fast, free in motion. Yet she also sees her body in the mirror every morning and evening, its broad shoulders and heavy musculature misshapen, lumpen. Is this what others see?

Later, when she is older, she receives praise from a co-worker – ‘You’re strong … This would have taken twice as long without you’ – but the other woman’s expression, kind as it is, still leaves her feeling ‘maladroit, lumpen’. This is the result of Eve’s education, which has been entirely directed towards identifying and trying to supply the sapient attributes she lacks, rather than towards understanding and celebrating the Neanderthal attributes she has.

With Davis losing interest so quickly in his project and the scientists who take care of its legacy losing sight of his original aims, one whole area of speculative interest in the novel – perhaps its primary area – is shut down or curtailed. The lack of imagination shown by the scientific team and even by Kate, obsessed as they all are in different ways with the idea of the ‘normal’, creates an imaginative deficit in the novel as a whole. We receive Eve’s troubled view of herself as filtered through the gaze of others, but not what Davis’ experiment promised – a chance to reverse the mirror and through her radically alien perspective to gain ‘some glimpse of a world [we] have forgotten how to see’.

It could be argued that because Davis is a morally compromised character, his speculative questions are not worth pursuing. This seems to me a case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Of course Davis’s experiment is ethically wrong. It is judged and condemned very early in the narrative on the ground of technological hubris, even before the personal consequences for Eve unfold. Nothing in the rest of the novel changes the principled condemnation of Davis’s de-extinction project. But does this have to mean that, with Eve now in existence, the challenging, countering, regenerative possibilities of her non-sapient mind must remain unexplored?

So it seems. Instead, most of the narrative is devoted to the novel’s second ‘what then’ question, the one about the ethical dilemmas and emotional fallout of the project. This question is largely explored through direct reports of the main character’s thoughts and feelings. Here, for instance, is a record of Kate’s thoughts near the end of the fourth section, when she is agonising about the rights and wrongs of telling the teenage Eve who and what she is:

Once, she would have believed everybody had a right to know where they came from, that withholding this sort of information was a kind of abuse, but now she is not so sure. Would it make things better for Eve to know the truth? Or worse? And what would it really change?

Yet simultaneously she knows her reluctance to share the truth with Eve is as much about her own fears as it is about concern for Eve’s wellbeing. What if Eve is angry? What if she blames Kate for not telling her sooner, or for her part in creating her?

It’s interesting to see ‘what if’ thinking at work, even at this micro-level of the plot. Indeed, a reliance on the interrogative mode, so striking in these paragraphs, is a prominent feature of the whole novel. Early in the narrative, Bradley takes us inside Kate’s mind as she contemplates a natural tree growing amidst a plantation of genetically re-engineered species:

How long has it stood here? Ten years? Twenty? A hundred? Each year spreading its seeds, reproducing itself. She has read about the networks of trees, the slow linkages of genetic memory and shared information that pass between them, connecting them into a shifting whole, the life of which spans centuries. What will it mean if Davis’s trees overtake this one, overtake all of them? Will the engineered trees do the same? And what if they do not? What will be lost? Not just these trees but an entire way of being.

We must regard the questions as Kate’s questions, but they seem to be just as much the author’s too. Is that a problem? Maybe. There does seem to be an inverse relation between the robustness of a character’s existence as a fully formed, independent being and the degree to which that character functions as a mouthpiece for an author’s opinions or musings. Does this passage represent the shape and texture of Kate’s thinking, or does her character operate as a conduit for the thoughts of the author? The same question arose for me at another point in the narrative when Kate, living off-grid after stealing baby Eve from the research facility,

… sees now just how surveilled our lives are. It is not a new awareness – she has never really been comfortable with the constant intrusion of technology, the ways in which the self is performed and curated – yet simultaneously it has only been these past weeks that it has become clear how entirely these systems entrap us, ensuring we are monitored, assessed, used.

I would have felt more comfortable accepting this passage as a record of Kate’s train of thought if its language had been less abstract and generalised, if the phrasing were more expressive of her particular personality and experiences, or even if her conclusions were relativised with a ‘she thinks’ or ‘she believes’. As it is, Kate’s thought seems to have complete authority – and that gives me the niggling feeling that her situation is merely a peg on which the author can hang his own opinions.

‘The chief defect of the novel of ideas is that you must write about people who have ideas to express,’ Aldous Huxley observed in his 1928 novel Point Counter Point, an exemplar of the genre. To Huxley this was a defect, because (he wrote snobbishly) it excluded ‘all but about .01 per cent of the human race’ from the potential cast of characters. But it may also be a defect in another way, as ‘people who have ideas to express’ can all tend to sound rather alike: they seem to have read the same books, to have adopted the same educated idiom, and to have the same eagerness to tell us what they think.

One way for a novel of ideas to get past the sense of a monologic intelligence imposing itself on both the fictional world and the reader’s reaction to that world is to use dialogue to present ideas in debate. The European novelists have been good at this: Tolstoy, Zola and Thomas Mann all used the technique with brilliant success. In Ghost Species, though, the isolation of the main characters limits the opportunities for presenting ideas in dialogue. Early in the novel, there are discussions between the scientist Kate, her scientist partner Jay, and their enigmatic boss Davis about the ethics of the project to recreate lost species. But after Kate absconds with Eve she is either alone with the child or, after their recapture, emotionally and professionally isolated at the facility. When Eve becomes old enough to be used as an alternative focaliser for the narrative, she is, through personality and circumstance, also a loner. This means that most of the ideas these characters entertain about technology and science and species-identity and the limits of the human are not spoken aloud, but reverberate within their own minds, to be captured for the reader through third-person omniscient narrative. And that brings us back again to the uncomfortable sense of a single, ruling intelligence running the whole show, as it were, rather than the novel being a system of multiple and colliding thought-patterns.

Reading this book has made me revise my cartoonish conception of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging numbskulls who lived out their brutish existences without art, without spirit, without intelligence. I now want to know more about them and the lives they fashioned for themselves in the cold north of our planet, and I want especially to know more about the 30,000 or more years when the European continent was inhabited by both Neanderthals and our own human species, the African-derived sapients. I would like someone to help me imagine the drama of their co-existence, which, scientists believe, included interbreeding and the emergence of hybrid humans.

Only in its four-page prefatory section, in which Kate muses about ‘a people who were not quite us’, and in some later passages where Eve tries to research her heritage does Ghost Species look back to those prehistoric times, and in these cases it does so discursively rather than dramatically. But the novel’s ending, which is extraordinary, sets up the possibility of a sequel, wherein Neanderthals and sapients could interact outside the imaginatively confined and inherently distorting framework of the scientific experiment, in a time and place where actual (not just impending) climate catastrophe has evened out the power imbalance between the two kinds of humans.

The imaginative challenges of such an enterprise are immense. In Ghost Species, Eve sets up her own, brief thought experiment, when she tries to imagine the phenomenological experience of the fish inhabiting the river by which she sits:

Eve stares at them, struck for a moment by their beauty, their silvery otherness. What do the fish think, what is their world composed of? What other rhythms make up this landscape? If she were to dive down, swim beside them, would she understand their world, could she lose herself in that motion, become a fish? Or would she still be her awkward, hulking self?

So, I still wonder after reading this book, what do Neanderthals think, what is their world composed of? Can we imagine that, or must we always remain our sapient selves, ‘awkward’ in our self-consciousness, ‘hulking’ in our incessant drive to dominate all we survey? In an essay published in 2017, Bradley argued the need for ‘new imaginative and lexical vocabularies capable of naming and describing concepts and experiences that exceed the human’. Perhaps, in a sequel to Ghost Species, they will begin to be found.

Works Cited

Bradley, James, ‘Writing on the Precipice’, Sydney Review of Books, 21 February 2017.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, ‘Homo neanderthalensis’, 10 January 2020.