Books

James Bradley
Ghost Species

While we are all currently distracted by the threat of Covid-19, the environmental crisis remains front and centre in James Bradley’s new novel, Ghost Species. Earth is “past the tipping point” and entering a phase called “the Melt”. Sea ice has vanished, even a northern summer lasts for six months, the ground is sinking as permafrost melts, forests are on fire and two-thirds of all wildlife has become extinct. The situation is becoming desperate. Enter a renegade, megalomaniacal tech billionaire, Davis Hucken – described by one character as “Doctor fucking Evil in a hoodie” – who believes the answer to the world’s problems lies in resurrecting extinct species. Having already revived mammoths and thylacines, he hires two young-gun Australian scientists, flies them into a luxurious facility in the Tasmanian wilderness and tasks them with reanimating Homo neanderthalensis.

The sensational plot and the hackneyed nature of the set-up, in which the attractive scientists rehearse the usual reservations about “playing God”, bring to mind various Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters. There are echoes of Jurassic Park, as the young scientists, Kate (“black shirt and dark jeans … emphasising her lean figure”) and Jay (“slim, handsome, his thick black hair stylishly cut”), get on with the business of creating a Neanderthal from DNA “extracted from a tooth recovered from a cave exposed by a retreating glacier in the French Alps”. Indeed, when the scientists first observe Tasmanian tigers miraculously gallivanting in the Australian bush outside the laboratory, Bradley seems to reference the Spielberg film: “Kate cannot take her eyes off them. Although they are right in front of her, her mind rebels at the sight of them, their presence weird, unnatural, like glimpsing dinosaurs or aliens.” 

However, Ghost Species refuses to reduce its story to cheap effects. The horror in Bradley’s novel isn’t primarily about prehistoric species and the threat they represent to modern humans, as in sci-fi predecessors such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Planet of the Apes, King Kong or Trog. Instead, the horror centres on the destructive capacities of Homo sapiens, whose evolutionary ascendancy can be linked to the extinction of megafauna and other species of humans, and who continue to wreak devastation into the present day. This is, according to the logic of the novel, why Homo neanderthalensis needs to be revived. In Hucken’s words: “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.”

This central premise, however, is flawed in a way never acknowledged by the ostensibly intelligent characters or by the author. First Nations peoples all around the world, including in this country, already provide sustainable models for inhabiting the Earth, which is to say that Homo sapiens could simply learn from other Homo sapiens, rather than going to the trouble of orchestrating the de-extinction of Homo neanderthalensis. Indeed, First Nations peoples are peculiarly invisible in the novel, mentioned in passing only as a ghostly people who may have inhabited a cave in the Tasmanian wilderness.

The plot is also rather contrived. Kate and Jay are partners who have just lost a child. Predictably, when the Homo neanderthalensis child is born, crying with “a sound not heard for forty thousand years”, Kate finds herself bonding with the infant. She suddenly takes an ethical stand, declaring that the child, named Eve, “deserves parents” and a normal childhood. Kate kidnaps the child from the facility, raising her herself in a country town, where “she keeps Eve hidden behind a shawl in her pram when they are outside the house”. Not that Eve is a monster. While she has a heavier brow that makes strangers “freeze or look away” when they glimpse the child’s face, Kate – and other friendly characters – frequently declare her beautiful. Eve also develops, as Kate reports, “within the normal sapient range”, acquiring language and social skills, though she has trouble learning to understand Homo sapiens’ tendency to dissimulate. Eve, as her name suggests, is an innocent, “happiest outside, moving through the trees … attuned to her surroundings”, as fitting the romantic trope of the wild child.

Soon after, the novel settles into a kind of bildungsroman of a Neanderthal childhood, even switching to Eve’s point of view. One of the chapter headings, “I was a teenage Neanderthal”, which references the 1957 horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf, suggests Bradley’s awareness of the potential absurdity of the narrative. Tonally, however, the chapter title is an anomaly. Bradley otherwise plays the story straight, even when Eve, after discovering the truth of her identity, seeks out movies “not just about cavemen but about robots and monsters and patchwork people, all the uncanny golems of the Gothic imagination”, including Frankenstein. But if the novel isn’t a parody, neither is it realism. Eve, even though she is by now an adolescent, never menstruates or reflects on her developing breasts or has lustful thoughts – though she shares a chaste kiss with a male friend. And even on those rare occasions when Eve gets angry and exerts her Hulk-like strength, we are always on her side.

This is a strange beast of a novel, but ultimately Eve’s and the novel’s innocence are consistent with the romance of primitivism – though here the “native” of traditional primitivism is uncomfortably replaced by the Neanderthal, which may account for the occlusion of First Nations people from the book.

Putting aside my consternation about this, I am not convinced that a primitivist romance – or the heterosexual family romance thrown in by the novel’s conclusion – is a satisfying response to the apocalyptic scenario, involving the imminent extinction of Homo sapiens, so powerfully established as the context for this novel. Nor am I convinced that it is possible to produce a story about a prehistoric human that can entirely escape a tradition of B-grade silliness.

Maria Takolander

Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "James Bradley, Ghost Species".

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Reviewer: Maria Takolander