In her new novel A Theory Of Bastards (paperback, Kindle), writer Audrey Schulman takes us to the not-so-distant future, where a group of scientists and some bonobo monkeys who were previously working together on a science project, have to, well, continue working together when technology stops working. But in the following email interview, Schulman explains that no, this doesn’t ultimately lead to Charlton Heston yelling at the Statue Of Liberty like a crazy person.
To begin, what is A Theory Of Bastards about?
The novel takes place a few years from now in a slightly dystopian future, where people are even more dependent on technology. It is about Frankie Burke, a MacArthur Genius Award winner, who studies how the sexual choices of females affect evolution.
While recovering from a recent surgery, she works at the Great Ape Foundation studying bonobos. Bonobos are one of our closest relatives. They look a lot like chimps except they’re a little skinnier, less muscular, and a lot less aggressive. They are the sweetest creatures, with the hair on their heads always neatly parted right down the middle like they just came from the hair stylist. Instead of occasionally hunting and killing each other like chimps do, whenever there is a potential conflict the bonobos just have sex to calm everyone down. The frequent matings are part of the reason so few people know about them. Any TV show about them would have to be R-rated, or at least highly edited.
Frankie and another researcher Stotts study the bonobos, gradually getting to know individuals well and care about them.
Part way through the book, an event happens where technology ceases to function. Frankie and Stotts and the bonobos have to struggle to care for each other and survive.
Where did you get the idea for A Theory Of Bastards and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I’ve always been fascinated with the way we consider humans so very smart and capable, but I’ve seen people get lost on a well-marked nature trail with a map in their hands. Once I remember seeing a guy standing in Aisle 5 in Whole Foods unable to find something he wanted to eat.
On the other hand a Canada goose, a bird with a brain the size of a walnut, can migrate thousands of miles and find food in a snowy field with no living vegetation.
Bonobos are supposed to be the great apes closest to early humans — the brain size and capability, the length of the limbs and body height. I’d read about this famous bonobo, Kanzi, who has even been taught how to carve stone tools and make fires. Through a keyboard, he can communicate with the vocabulary of a preschooler.
I wondered what would happen if technology failed and some very smart people along with some bonobos had to survive. I wanted to explore the difference in intelligences. I didn’t know what would happen in the book, but I was surprised by the amount of humor, as well as how much I ended up caring about the bonobo characters. There is the old writing adage that character is best shown through action, and since the bonobos don’t speak English, their characters really come to life.
Many of the reviewers have remarked about what a page turner it is in the end. I think it’s because the reader’s end up rooting for the bonobos.
A Theory Of Bastards seems to be a science fiction story. But is there a sub-genre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes this novel better?
I wouldn’t know what the classification of this book is, and try not to think that way about books in general. I read and enjoy all sorts of books from comic books to celebrated literature.
I’d say this book is sci-fi like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is sci-fi. It’s a potentially logical outcome of what’s happening now and it isn’t too far in the future. It’s an all-too-plausible not-too-distant future.
It also kind of sounds like one of those Planet Of The Apes prequels.
Oh my, no. Planet Of The Apes supposes that people do a lot of genetic meddling with apes to make them the slaves of humans and then that the apes rise up against the humans. I’m a lot less imaginative than that. I’m just talking about normal bonobos, the kind that exist today. Just about every story I tell about the bonobos in the book comes from a story that I’ve read about in the research on the animals.
The only thing that is different about this world is it’s a few years in the future, when climate change is a little bit worse and when all the technology in our phones has now been implanted in our bodies to make life a bit more convenient.
Now, A Theory Of Bastards is not your first novel. But are there any writers or specific stories that had a big impact on A Theory Of Bastards but not your earlier novels?
I love books where you learn something as you read…so long as it is worked seamlessly into the narrative. Thus I tend to research each book a lot before I start writing. In the back of this book, I have a five-page research appendix listing some of my favorite research. Vanessa Woods, Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, and so many others. I think both the research by Woods and de Waal had a strong impact because they tell stories of the kindness and humor of the bonobos.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of them have a big impact on A Theory Of Bastards?
I’ve been describing this book as the love child of Jane Goodall and Mad Max. Or perhaps [Ann Patchett’s] State Of Wonder and Station Eleven. Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and any book by Gerald Durrell.
As you know, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone novels while others are parts of larger sagas. What is A Theory Of Bastards?
I am much more of a fan of books that end while you’re still hungry for more and allow you to wonder what happened next. I want to give the world over to the reader to control, not me. Thus I wouldn’t dare to create a series. That would take the control away from the reader of imagining what would happen next.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced A Theory Of Bastards. But has there been any interesting in making A Theory Of Bastards into a movie, show, or game?
I’d love to see it as a movie. The bonobos in the book are so funny and alive and kind. They utterly steal the show and they’d be great on the screen. I heard there were some folks scouting the possibility of the movie, but haven’t heard any update since.
Is a movie your first choice for this novel?
I think a movie would be the best because it would stick to a tighter plot, rather than try to create episodes that might try to jam ten minutes of plot into forty minutes.
If A Theory Of Bastards does get made into a movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I don’t have time to watch movies or TV, so I would not be the person to suggest the best actors for the roles. However the actor I might imagine in the role of Frankie, the main character, would be a 30-year-old Frances McDormand [Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri]. McDormand has the ability to portray a very strong and independent character.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Theory Of Bastards, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Three Weeks In December is similar. A researcher sets off to the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda in order to find a medicinal plant that the endangered mountain gorillas there used to reduce their chance of heart attacks. Only one sample of the plant has been seen by humans and it tested higher in beta-blockers than anything known to science. The researcher who is sent has Asperger’s. She is sent into a jungle to follow the gorillas around. The area is just a few miles away from the territory of a brutal warlord with an army of child soldiers. She is remarkably unsuited to survival.