Stomp All Over That!

One of my favourite zines, Lightspeed, is running a kickstarter for a special issue: Women Destroy SF. They achieved their initial goal almost as quickly as their name, but the kickstarter’s running for a few more weeks as they try to reach their stretch goals. Anyhow, to support their efforts they’ve got a few women to write them mini-essays about women in science fiction, and being a science communicator, mine was linked with perceptions of women in science.

Apparently, women are destroying science fiction. The historically minded will recall that we used to destroy science. We’re branching out, it seems.

It started in the test tubes, the bright labs, the white coats, with Ada Lovelace in clockwork heels and Rosalind Franklin in spiral stilettos, and both of them following behind, because their footwear was all so flimsy they couldn’t possibly hold up by themselves, without help. With Lise Meitner in windup shoes, a dolly working on automatic in a lab that didn’t want her. With Marie Curie in shoes that glowed like ruby slippers dipped in uranium, turned away from the Academy of Sciences because men don’t wear pretty slippers and they’d taint the very threshold, they would, leave little traces of woman with a half-life too desperately long to ever be scrubbed away.

Still a place was made, if grudging. We clawed our way up and into science in our pretty, silly, sensible shoes, and stuck there, because people couldn’t very well bitch about women in science when Rebecca Lancefield was helping them see off Streptococcus in sequinned, sequenced sandals and when Gertrude Elion was doing the same with leukemia, with her toenails peeping red-painted out of open-toed marrowbone shoes. When Henrietta Lacks became science, her feet shod in Petri dishes, and legion. And the bigots read outside in the waiting room, their feet in concrete blocks and granddad slippers, and suddenly there’s this whole new world of women with feet that could be stepped on, that could be bound up and turned away.

There’s Mary Shelley with electricity zipping through her iron-toed, hobnail boots. And Margaret Atwood with her decoupage slippers, handmade with pages from Genesis, and Octavia Butler in boots embossed with teeth and feathers … And beneath all the shoes, upon all the soles, is stamped exception—making, for the prints that can’t be scuffed out, and taking, for the ones that can.

And this new army of shoes, of bright, pretty prints, are tracking in mud. They’re bringing in blood and dead birds and flesh-eating bacteria and sex, all come to topple, to bring down, and the poor deluded things don’t seem to realise that they’ve missed the Golden Age, all right, and it was back when their owners were barefoot. And would they mind going back, please, to the sad, superficial corners of the wardrobes from whence they came, because gold is best when not part of a spectrum and their presence just might drown it out. Those heels are noisy, understand? And science is a single experience, and limited, and you should sit back and let other people talk about it, because those tongues in those shoes can have nothing valuable to say. (Do you hear that, Marie? Do you hear it, Ada and Mary and Margaret?)

I hear it. And stomp all over that, I say. Science belongs to us all, and so does science fiction.


Reviews, SFF

“Grimus” – Salman Rushdie

Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. London: Vintage, 1996.

grimusPublished in 1975, Salman Rushdie’s debut novel was written specifically for the Victor Gollancz Prize for Science Fiction, but Rushdie’s publishers later stepped back from marketing it for that genre, apparently considering it a mistake. Grimus tells the story of Flapping Eagle, a Native American outcast who becomes immortal after drinking some magical liquor. An inability to ‘fit in’ with a mortal world leads Flapping Eagle to attempt suicide, after which he falls through the Mediterranean Sea into another world. This world is inhabited by other potion-drinking immortals, and is presided over by the strange and powerful Grimus – a doppelganger of Flapping Eagle. The book draws heavily on mythological and religious sources, especially Sufi mysticism and mythology, but it is essentially a SF story of other selves in other dimensions, albeit a more literary story than that genre tends to go for.

Much of the critical failure of Grimus was blamed on Rushdie’s perceived inability to make a cohesive whole out of a mixture of genre and style (which might explain his publisher’s reticence about Grimus’ place within the SF genre). The fractured narrative, which moves between first and third person at lightning speed, is complex, and while fascinating does not have quite the same sure touch as Rushdie’s later works. The tone of Grimus can be uneven, and appears to suffer a little from a lack of authorial direction. For a first novel, however, Grimus is still a major accomplishment, and remains one of my favourite of Rushdie’s books (more so than the to-my-mind over-rated Satanic Verses but nowhere near the genius of Midnight’s Children) although Rushdie himself has no high opinion of it.

As with other genre types, trends in SF come and go but the underlying themes remain the same. Possibly the strongest theme in SF literature and film is conformity – specifically, the need to escape a society where conformity is a measure of acceptance and even utopia. From the celled, monastic individuals of E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops to the rigidly enforced positronic brain patterns of Asimov’s robots to the Storm-troopers of Star Wars and the Borg of Star Trek, the need to escape the confines of conformity is ubiquitous. So when Flapping Eagle shows no such inclination to escape conformity (he is much more inclined to embrace it where-ever he can find it) the ground beneath the reader begins to shake. Consciously or not, we understand what it is we’re supposed to see in SF novels, and it isn’t the protagonist desperate to fit in to a rigidly ordered group.

It is arguably this underlying instability that has resulted in calls of genre confusion within Grimus. Support for this confusion can be seen in the secondary theme of the book: migration. While this is a typical theme in SF literature (humanity travelling to distant suns, and making their home on other planets), it is also a major theme in Salman Rushdie literature. Much of the criticism available on Grimus looks at migration as an extension of Rushdie’s personality: the East Meets West collision of religious, social, and political beliefs and the alienation of the immigrant within the new cultural landscape. But I’m not sure that comparing Rushdie and Flapping Eagle in this way is accurate or helpful. Rushdie’s interviews appear to indicate an individual with a very different outlook on life to Flapping Eagle, despite superficial similarities. Rushdie has a strong predilection for non-conformity: the intellectual responsibility of individuals to move beyond the myths of their culture, to decisively not know their place and to rely on their own understanding over the myths of the past. Passivity to received dogma is not seen as a desirable or responsible intellectual characteristic.

So the fact that Rushdie could be writing an autobiography in metaphor is no indication that he actually did. However, the theme of migration between Islam and the East to the politically and religiously open West is so strong in the rest of his works that it is tempting – and even reasonable – to apply that intention in retrospect when reading Grimus. The problem here is that while Grimus may share theme with the rest of Rushdie’s work, it does not necessarily imply that all the works share genre – and different genres interpret themes differently.

An example of this is Flapping Eagle’s continuing social isolation. This alienation is itself a symptom of Flapping Eagle’s conformity to Grimus’ plans for him – Grimus has engineered much of Flapping Eagle’s life in order to control his destiny.

Do you deny that by selecting you as a Recipient I shaped your life thenceforth? Do you deny that by taking your sister from the Axona I forced your expulsion? Do you deny that by expelling Nicholas Deggle into your continuum I guided you towards Calf Island? Do you deny that allowing you to wander the world for centuries instead of bringing you here I made you the man that you are, chameleon, adaptable, confused? Do you deny that by choosing a man similar in appearance to myself I estimated exactly the effect of such a man on Virgil and on the town K? Do you deny that I lured you here with the Spectre of Bird-Dog? Do you deny that I have steered a course between the infinite potential presents and futures in order to make this meeting possible? (And then, dropping his voice:) Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny? (Rushdie 233)

Thus, Flapping Eagle’s conformity is hidden under a surface of non-conformity as he travels the course that Grimus has set for him, the course of a continually alienated outsider who is always trying to fit in to whatever society he happens to be in at the time. This is a major inversion of the usual SF treatment of this theme – a twist that might not be so unsettling in a non-SF genre.

It seems to me to be plausible that Rushdie, the non-conformist, has unsuccessfully tried to produce his own antithesis in Flapping Eagle, and fails for want of empathy. Flapping Eagle, it must be admitted, is a curiously flat character dumped into a community of the fascinatingly warped and grotesque. The fat, pedantic, and stubbornly reclusive Virgil is an infinitely more attractive and seductive character. That the guide so outshines the guided is an odd narrative choice, but is it deliberate? Or did Rushdie’s sympathy for Virgil, the active individualist, drag the author off the genre track? Is this why Grimus’ seems so muddled at times?

It’s certainly understandable that Rushdie’s sympathy for the more interesting, and more non-conformist – character led him to make the hero’s SF journey from conformity to non-conformity so unbalanced.

It is inescapably true that Flapping Eagle is mostly led around by the nose, and it’s hard to have much liking for him. Left to shift for himself, he tends to wallow and drift and take the path of least resistance until forced to do otherwise. In conformity-themed SF, this is where the protagonist normally starts his journey before he or she learns how to escape the stifling nature of their community-based conformity. In essence, this type of SF novel shows the journey of a person learning the value of non-conformity. But Flapping Eagle never achieves the growth suggested by his quest or its underlying theme. Towards the end of Grimus, when he confronts his doppelganger at Grimushome, he appears to show a smidgeon of initiative. Success!But it turns out, however, that his entire journey has been orchestrated by Grimus – Flapping Eagle has had no choices in the matter, and even his victory over Grimus is at the latter’s behest. When, only one page from the end of the novel, Flapping Eagle finally does something Grimus does not want, it is almost too unexpected to the reader as well. It is unexpected because the change is too sudden for the character. There has been little gradual awakening to his own deliberate intellectual and moral non-conformity; it simply comes regardless. The one individual in the novel who has the intellectual and moral understanding of his own relationship with conformity and lack thereof is Virgil – but Grimus merely tells the end of Virgil’s story, not the whole of it.

I’d rather have read a history of Virgil, with Flapping Eagle on the periphery – perhaps coming in at the end, where Virgil could help him perform his function of getting rid of the Stone Rose. It is Virgil who should have been the centre of a SF novel, not Flapping Eagle. It is Virgil who would have had the more convincing hero’s journey. It is Virgil who engages Rushdie’s sympathies so much that the author, probably unconsciously, pushes to one side the thematic development of Flapping Eagle in favour of the character who most suits the SF genre.

Flapping Eagle spends most of his time wishing unashamedly for conformity, and I end up wanting him to go away as much as any of the communities that exclude him. As a protagonist in a novel themed around a more realistic experience of social migration and integration, as many of Rushdie’s protagonists are, he would likely be a more successful character. However, as a SF lead his level of conformity, and his too-quick solution of it, makes him a failure – and the success of Grimus hangs on the journey of Flapping Eagle. That journey has all the hallmarks and obstacles of the SF journey towards non-conformity. Yet in its solution to the problem of conformity, and in its protagonist, Grimus does not conform to the expectations of readers well-versed in SF perceptions. That is what makes the novel so muddled within genre, and is arguably the root cause of its critical failure. Even those who are not dedicated SF readers cannot help but come to the conclusion that there is something “off” about its treatment of conformity.

There’s some irony in that.

Reviews, SFF

“The Chrysalids” – John Wyndham

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. London: Penguin Books.

First published 1955.

chrysalidsJohn Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one of the seminal books of my childhood. I first read it at about 10, and to this day I still read it every couple of months. There are passages I could probably recite from memory. What fascinated me about this book was partly the setting, and how comfortably it settled with New Zealand’s iconic anti-nuclear policy – in The Chrysalids, the mutated survivors of nuclear war headed towards New Zealand as a relatively pristine haven from the resulting environmental and social catastrophe.

It also introduced me to the idea of mutation – both biological and cultural. I didn’t recognise it in so many words when I first read the book (at ten years old, genetic mutation and social upheaval as such were still far in my mental future) but the idea that one sudden event could prompt an explosion within the human body, and the beginnings of a new type of human being… that was fascinating. What was even more fascinating was the way that this new type of human was treated – hunted down by the genetically pure, sterilised, and thrust out into the wilderness. The really creepy thing was that people would suddenly turn on their neighbours. We see this in the real world all the time – the Rwandan genocide is a particularly brutal example of a flash-point being reached, where neighbours are suddenly dehumanised due to social and cultural expectations of “us” and “other”.

If anything, The Chrysalids represented possibility, and that possibility continues to define the book for me: the idea of sudden and drastic genetic change – how it may have occurred in the past, how we have the capability to bring it about today, why we retain that ability, knowing what it can do… and how we would cope with any possible results.

Being raised in a non-religious family, The Chrysalids was my first real experience of the depths to which religion could be twisted to justify the inexplicable in order to make it understandable. How many could stand up against the need to find meaning after nuclear catastrophe, when scientific knowledge is lost and religion appears to provide a means of protection and escape – if only one can conform enough? This fear of difference and nonconformity – biological and intellectual – and the wholesale rooting out of these perceived spiritual imperfections is chilling. The child David’s dream about his father sacrificing his six-toed friend, Sophie, as he sacrificed a mutant calf is chilling, not just for the cruelty but for the indifference.

We all stood looking at her, and waiting. Presently she started to run from one person to another, imploring them to help her, but none of them moved, and none of their faces had any expression. My father started to walk towards her, the knife shining in his hand. Sophie grew frantic; she flitted from one unmoving person to another, tears running down her face …. He raised his other hand high, and as he swept it down the knife flashed in the light of the rising sun, just as it had flashed when he cut the calf’s throat… (28)

As horrible as this childish dream is, however, if pales to the later realisation of Sophie’s life as an adult – mutilated, sterilised, and thrust out into the radioactive Fringes as a child, as an adult still living there as the lover of a mutated spider-man who would throw her over in an instant for a woman who could give him children. (It appears that only the women were sterilised – male Blasphemies escaped that fate in one of Wyndham’s rare slips.) In her instinctive emotional understanding and her knowledge of her own limitations Sophie despairs: wisdom banished to the wilderness.

Wyndham is careful enough to emphasise the horror of this war-induced dystopia in two different ways. He refuses to make the dystopian community of Waknuk and its surrounds a homogenous set of people. David is exposed to the worst of it, as his father Joseph is a true and unrelenting bigot who is happy to crush his own family in the name of faith. Indirectly, this exposure also allows David to find the humanity in others – in his Aunt Harriet (who drowns her mutated infant and herself to escape having to give up her baby) he sees the possibility of an adult figure prioritising love over religion and its mandated conformity. As he ages, he sees more individuals who think this way, but they are always individuals – there is never the possibility of a community of the dispossessed. Purity of species overrides purity of heart, but even those entrusted with preserving the former can be decent enough to preserve some of the latter. The Inspector who condemns Sophie comforts David more than his father does.

The growing claustrophobia felt by David and his telepathic friends is real and immediate. Despite their abilities, they are powerless in a world of rigid power structures, where governments and individuals take pride in the power of being a true Norm. This takes its toll on them, who would share in that power without truly meriting it by the standards of their own community. They are betrayed by one of their own (and Anne is to be pitied as much as Sophie and Harriet), tortured, killed, and their leader left behind in anonymity as they escape to Zealand, where the new species is growing. As the most ordinary of the Chrysalids, David is the pivotal figure. He is neither as powerful as his little sister Petra, as practical and competent as his lover Rosalind, or as intelligent as Michael. All David has comes from his genetic makeup – his psychic abilities, his growing realisation of difference, and his legacy from his father. David is everyman as he wishes he could be. He is us.

It is that identification, that ordinariness, which provides the subtlest and most horrifying part of the book. For when the escaping Chrysalids are rescued by the Zealand airship, the pursuing Norms are killed – and the Zealander shows no remorse. Her evolutionary rationale for the destruction of inferior species is shocking – especially as the reader is left with no alternative but to accept that the Norms are inferior, and that in the coming struggle – far into the future, to be sure – they should lose, whether they are neighbours or not. In effect, the Zealanders are really no different to the Norms – they aim to preserve their species above all else. Both sides have privileged power above ethics – with some justification. But is some enough? David, who is like us ordinary in his extraordinariness, may dislike the reasoning of his new friend and may think fondly of some of his former family, but he is on his way to a new family, a new community, and his place in it promises to be as secure as his father’s is within the old. In effect, he has escaped his father only to take his place.

Genetics will out, one way or another.

Reviews, SFF

“Genesis” – Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett, Genesis, Dunedin: Longacre Press, 2006.

genesisTaking its cue from Plato’s Republic, and with more than a hint of George Orwell, Genesis outlines a world where society is split by genetic identity. In a future resulting from climate change, terrorism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the onset of World War Three, New Zealand has cut itself off from the rest of the world. In the resulting closed society, a leader called Plato sets out the rules for the new community, rules that will prevent the chaos of the outside world from destroying NZ as it has destroyed the outside world – at least, that is what the reader is led to think. It’s never made quite plain as to the state of life outside NZ – initially, refugees try to enter NZ waters and are blown up by the army. (Anyone familiar with the state of the NZ military today knows that we are now solidly in the realm of science fiction.) After a while, there are less and less attempts. Does this mean that the need grows less, or that the refugees do? This is never made clear, and is a clever way of increasing the claustrophobic tone of the book.

In the early days of the Republic, gene testing divides the population into four groups: labourers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. As can be expected, however, the odd individual arises who doesn’t fit into their assigned class as well as he or she might. One of the main characters, Adam Forde, is such an individual. Adam’s life is presented by a young student philosopher called Anaximander, who is preparing for entrance into the Academy: the highest echelon of academia, and the group with the responsibility of running the Republic – a Republic that has drastically changed since Adam’s day.

(And can I just say how extremely refreshing it is to find a recent SF novel that doesn’t cater so wholly to the five second attention span of the MTV generation? (Yes, get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!) By far the very great majority of this book takes place in two or three rooms, where two or several people simply talk to each other. It’s not trying to be Epic Science Fiction (and oh, how I’ve come to loathe that phrase. In fact, if I had every SF publishing house by the balls, I would ban, for a period of at least ten years, the publication of any SF book that could possibly be described as “epic”). It’s trying to be good science fiction. There’s a difference, and I’m lately coming to the conclusion that the two must be nearly mutually exclusive. My favourite SF literature has always resulted from the introduction of a specific technology or event into a society, and the resulting effect on people who are from the future but are in reality Just Like Us. It’s speculative fiction at its finest, uncluttered by the equivalent of summer blockbuster car chases and explosive set pieces. These are fine in their own way (when used sparingly and not as an alternative to actual plot) but are not a substitute for characterisation or actual story-telling.)

Genesis is structured around Anaximander’s oral presentation to her three examiners. The story of Adam’s life has reached legendary status in the centuries since his death, but Anaximander has a new interpretation of it, and him. Originally an extremely capable philosopher himself, Adam was demoted from the philosopher to the soldier class as a result of his inability to conform as expected to social and intellectual norms. It is not long before Adam disgraces himself in his new position as well, murdering fellow soldiers in order to avoid shooting a refugee girl.

Adam escapes the death penalty by being assigned to an experiment in identity: the philosopher William has created a new android, Art. Given that William’s previous efforts had ripped nearby children to shreds, it is decided that Art needs a more disposable test subject to interact with. In fact, by forced interaction with Art Adam is helping to programme the android, and to build its identity into a functioning individual. The science fiction staple of androids as living creatures is used effectively here, especially as Art avoids the by now too-common milquetoast innocence commonly given to androids in his situation. Art, in fact, is a nuisance brat with an annoyingly steep learning curve, and naturally this doesn’t help Adam, who is locked into his own mindset of seeing Art as a subhuman piece of machinery. Beckett manages the two perspectives (and their inherent chauvinisms, for Art is as pro-android as Adam is pro-human) well, although his sympathy initially seems to be with the android, who does tend to get the best lines:

‘Ugly’s still ugly, no matter how you see it.’

‘An interesting assertion. Justify it.’

‘You bring twenty people in here,’ Adam told him, ‘and they’ll all say the same thing. They’ll all say you’re ugly.’

‘Bring in twenty of me,’ Art spat back, ‘and we’d all say your arse is prettier than your face.’

‘There aren’t twenty of you.’

‘No, you’re right. I’m unique. So I can safely say that all androids find you ugly. Not all humans find me ugly. So technically, I’m better looking than you, using objective criteria.’

(Art isn’t your normal android. For one, he looks like an orang-utan. Why a roboticist should make an android in the shape of an orang-utan I’ve no earthly idea, unless it is to somehow reinforce its inferiority from a human-chauvinist point of view.)

But while Adam is fulfilling his role of extending Art’s programming, his input extends far beyond what anyone expects – especially Art. The secret of what happened in the final moments between the two, in their attempts to escape the testing facility, has, Anaximander believes, been lost. And when she finds that the Academy have not only still got the missing archive footage, but are actively keeping it from the public and philosophers both in a ruthless indoctrination programme of their own, her growing proximity to the secret, and how she eventually reacts to it, endangers far more than her standing in the academic community.

Examiner: You have become less careful in your answers.

Anaximander: I have.

Examiner: Are you sure that is wise?

Anaximander: I am sure it isn’t.

The realisation of the extent of the conspiracy within the Academy – a conspiracy that even involves Anaximander’s tutor Pericles, who has prepared her for the Academy examination for years – is pretty shocking. It was the twist I didn’t see coming (there’s another that most readers should get), and both involve identity: how it is formed, how it is kept… and how it is undermined. While it is true that the Republic of Anaximander’s day has reached almost utopian status, with the class divisions and civil unrest of Adam’s day long in the past, the price of maintaining that status has required the Academy to institute distinctly unsavoury measures. What price peace against the life and intellectual freedom of the individual? The totalitarian nature of the Republic has been based from the beginning on control over outside influences; firstly those from outside the borders of the country; and eventually those from within the minds of its citizens, influences in the form of ideas that spread throughout the population like a virus. Unsurprisingly, it is this viral, replicating influence that has the greatest effect. It’s also what dooms the main characters of Genesis – particularly Adam, Art, and Anaximander, but also the Academy in general – a fate that is arguably irrespective of who lives and dies.

Reviews, SFF

“The Woman & the Ape” – Peter Høeg

Høeg, Peter. The Woman & the Ape. London: The Harvill Press, 1996.

hoegNo-one likes to be called an animal, yet animals are what we inescapably are. And from poor frightened stuffy old Bishop Wilberforce on there have always been people who think that being an ape is worse, somehow, than being any animal at all. Yet apes we are, and apes we remain. Walking down the street one can see the resemblance – in the turn of a jaw, in grasping manipulative hands, in the hairy back of the man who simply must wear a singlet. A newborn baby, a particularly clumsy walk, can illuminate as lightning.

The Woman & the Ape is full of such illumination. Høeg goes out of his way to underline the animal nature of his characters. The text is ripe with comparison and allusion, and provides some of the best imagery and character moments. For example, a young alcoholic wife, driven stir-crazy by the emptiness of her life:

Madelene looked at the window frame, the park and, beyond that, across the city. From conversations overheard in her childhood home she had retained a vague and repulsive impression of what conditions were like for domestic animals on factory farms. She knew the meaning of such terms as spontaneous fracture, tongue rolling, somatotropin, urine drinking, manger biting, neighbour pecking and monotonization of mating behaviour. Now, in these terms, she spied herself.

In truth it can’t be said that Høeg is particularly subtle about this – indeed the likenesses keep coming like a sledgehammer to the head – but it has a positive effect, and the continual reinforcement is likely intended. The saturation of simile and metaphor is relentless – not for one moment is the reader allowed to forget that before her is a cast of animals, a regular circus ring of them. The stage is set, and this ruthless undermining of our own puffed-up humanity – the humanity we perceive as somehow less animal in nature than the true animals – underlines the thread of masks and disguise that runs through the text. If, as a species, we can perceive ourselves as other than what we really are, how, as individuals, can we be expected to fare any better? Other masks, and more personal, inhabit our lives and define our identities.

While science fiction does rely heavily on the theme of conformity and identity, seldom do the masks created within the genre reach this level of reality. The masks on show in The Woman & the Ape are not just constructs meant to deceive the self and others, they are characters in their own right.

Each morning Madelene was resurrected. This resurrection occurred in front of her mirror and took between thirty and forty-five minutes. While it was underway, she was totally absorbed; during that space of time, with uncompromising thoroughness, she did the one thing she knew herself to be truly good at: she recreated the myth which said that Madelene looks gorgeous.

Høeg’s description of the making of his protagonist’s mask as “resurrection” underlies this point. The mask is a living thing, with its own wants, needs, and expectations. The under-Madelene, the creative personality behind the mask, is content enough to exist, stupefied into near oblivion, behind the mask that she so industriously and continuously maintains. The bored trophy wife of a rich man, transplanted from her native Denmark into the teeming jungle of London, Madelene’s mask, her self-created myth, exists in her place until she comes face to face with a new form of ape. Illegally imported by her husband Adam, the ape Erasmus is as intelligent and human as Madelene herself – at least Madelene on her better days, when her brain is not pickled with alcohol. Recognising a kindred spirit, Madelene rescues Erasmus from her husband’s experiments, and the two of them flee through London, ending up in St. Francis Forest, a “pornographic Garden of Eden” within the city walls. Paradise does not last, of course. It never does. Adam is on their trail, and Erasmus is not the only ape around… and he and his kind are getting just a bit fed up with humanity.

Slowly Madelene finds that the self she had constructed, the self that she resurrects every day, is insufficient for this new life. Its use as a tool is too limited. Adequate for her previous life, its careful incompetence, cultivated expectations, and determined conformity is wholly unsuited for the present.

To begin with she persuaded herself – half in anger, half in panic – that the animal was retarded or at any rate that its language skills were at too low a level for it to understand all the cunning little ways in which human lovers are forever reassuring one another…. after a day or two it dawned on her that this was not because Erasmus could not. It was just that it never occurred to him. And what was more she did not want it either.

Madelene can no longer hide behind a facade of irresponsibility, any more than Adam can maintain a gentleman’s exterior to the public and simultaneously engage in smuggling and illegal experiments within the shady underbelly of London’s zoological community. New masks, new identities, are required for her to navigate through this new world. Yet this relatively straightforward uncovering of character within a protagonist is not terribly surprising in any book, any genre. What makes this theme stand out so here is not the uncovering itself, but the thoroughness of the masks presented, their ubiquity throughout the text, and the horrible fact that even these new, superior apes – so much more admirable than Homo sapiens sapiens! – are working with masks of their own. Erasmus may be attractive for his emotional honesty – such a contrast to Madelene’s training in the bribery of love – but his people are not so different from ours.

It’s possible that the true sting in the tale of this evolutionary fable is not the abandonment of humanity by Erasmus and his kin. In one form or another, this leave-taking is a relatively common science fiction trope. However, the frantic response of the public to the unmasking – the sheer emotionalism of it – is further proof that the masks of The Woman & the Ape are characters in their own right.

When the vice-president of the Royal Zoological Society unmasks herself, “out of the auditorium came a scream, heart-rending, imploring. It came from her husband.” Seven million Londoners are thrown into panic:

They could not be certain of the identity of their bosses, or their friends. They eyed one another fearfully, tried to remember how their children and their spouses looked naked, wondered when exactly they had first met their wives, frantically they wondered whether she might be an ape, or the daughter of an ape.

This reaction can be partially ascribed to the social stigma of having an ape in the family, of course (Wilberforce is never truly gone!), but this misses the wider implication. The unmasking is a betrayal, an abandonment. Entire relationships are shown to be founded on a lie; deceptions from the beginning. The husband of the RZS vice-president has been used and thrown over, his emotions vivisected as thoroughly as Erasmus would have been vivisected biologically. The boundaries between the natural and the unnatural, between love and duty, between human and ape, have again been blurred.

In the end, we are all responsible for our masks. They take a deal of construction, a continual resurrection. If we are careful, and clever, the masks we show to the world are indistinguishable from a true face. And if others believe that mask to be real, are we not responsible for them falling into the lie that we have so carefully and cleverly created? The grieving husband loved something that did not exist – but he loved.

Can one say the same for his wife? And on their separate islands, separated by space and species, what faces will these two see when they look in the mirror?

Who knows. But as apes ourselves, we know what it is like to look into a mirror and see the masks that we’ve made… masks that are more real to us than our true natures.

Unaccountably (to me at least) The Woman & the Ape was not positively received by critics, who may have been expecting something more along the lines of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Høeg’s extremely eclectic style, changing from book to book, is a warning against any such assumption. Personally, despite that reception, I can only say that after The Woman and the Ape, I am sure that, decades in the future, if Høeg keeps writing and doesn’t get hit by a bus, the Nobel Prize for Literature is coming his way.

You heard it here first.