Books

Ramona Koval
A Letter to Layla

Ramona Koval’s latest work opens with the journalist and broadcaster realising she hasn’t needed her winter coat in several years – it hasn’t been cold enough. It’s a small but personal hammering home of a wider truth: the Earth is warming up. “Once in a lifetime” weather extremes are now becoming par for the course. And she’s starting to wonder what kind of world her grandchildren – including her youngest, Layla – are going to inherit.

Part of the problem is that things are moving very quickly for the human race – possibly the fastest they have gone in our relatively short existence as a species. Where once the changes between generations were only slight, that transformation has accelerated over the past few hundred years, as technology has advanced and our impact on the world increases. We now can’t rely on the wisdom of elders the way we once did because the world they lived in is all but gone. And so Koval takes the unusual approach of looking to the past while also trying to see where we might, as a species, be heading.

It’s a difficult thing to predict. The situation is fragile. “If we are to last as long as the average ‘bog-standard mammal species’, about one million years, we have at least half a million years left. But we are now tinkering with ourselves more than any other species has ever done,” she muses.

A Letter to Layla is a weird journey in the best of ways. In a book of two parts, the first looking at the past and the second into the future, Koval travels across the world to try to find out what it is that makes us human, and how our future might look.

She throws herself into the quest with remarkable zeal. There are interviews with experts who have spent a lifetime studying chimps and ape behaviour. She goes to the country of Georgia to learn more about an almost two-million-year-old skull. There is an in-depth exploration about cave paintings and what they say about our ancestors. Koval gets in the middle of academic battles between the physical and the spiritual. She finds herself at a conference filled with people dedicated to the idea of living forever. The book clips along at an incredible pace, and yet never feels overwhelming or cramped.

Koval dusts every interaction in A Letter to Layla with her own feelings and insights, and draws on her early university science studies – undertaken before she turned to a career in journalism and writing – to clearly lay out what could otherwise be complex scientific and philosophical concepts.

Her commitment is endlessly impressive – if there’s a relevant scientific study, she’s read it. If a pop culture comparison can be drawn, it’s included. She signs up for an intensive five-week course in osteoarchaeology, which she calls doing things “the easy way”. At one point, Koval and her husband spend a quiet afternoon attempting to make stone tools out of flint, drawing inspiration from Homo erectus, one of modern man’s now-extinct early ancestors.

In another writer’s hands this book could have been a mess. The potential for it to dip irreversibly into doom and gloom is high. Or it could have been just a disparate series of interesting interviews and vignettes with no central message. Koval, however, has a firm grasp on how every section, every word, feeds into the bigger picture.

One of the book’s biggest grounding forces is the titular Layla. For all the lessons Koval learns over the course of her research, she brings them back to her interactions with her youngest granddaughter. As Koval teases out what – if anything – separates us from the great apes, she has Layla as a comparison. Layla, unlike chimpanzees, wants to know why something is the case. She learns to mimic and speak. She will (even if she is sometimes unwilling to) share food and resources. The book would have still been engaging and informative without the inclusion of Layla, but Koval’s technique of bringing things back to her granddaughter adds an extra dimension to the book’s ideas – it provides a point of comparison, and a reminder of why battles about issues such as climate change do need to be fought.

For the most part, A Letter to Layla gets the balance of information just right. The cross-section of experts is inspired and quite balanced, while the personal and scientific elements mix seamlessly. Yet there are one or two ideas that feel oddly truncated. At more than one point, Koval raises the topic of identity politics as something dividing up the world at a time when there is an “urgent need for a more co-ordinated response to the biggest problem of our time”. Near the conclusion of the book, she states: “Identity politics often devolves into a waste of human energies that otherwise need to be marshalled for the task ahead.” For something she clearly feels strongly enough about to describe with such impassioned words, the brief inclusion of this topic – as only a sketch rather than a full image – feels a bit hit-and-run.

Similarly, there is a short discussion about the transgender people who were pioneers in transhumanism – a movement that looks at the current human form not being the end stage of our development, and includes people looking to prolong human life. Koval refers “to the transgender people in the [transhumanist] movement as ‘gendernauts’, in a nod to the use of ‘cryonauts’ at ALCOR [a cryonics life extension foundation]” and wonders, specifically about people in the movement, “Could we draw a line from the nineties trend for plastic surgery to the millennial openness towards gender reassignment to the coming transhumanist era?” It’s strange to see this question left hanging, especially without the perspective of one of the transgender transhumanists themselves.

Ultimately, A Letter to Layla is a thorough and urgent book that offers more questions than answers – because there are no solid answers – but in reading it you fill in gaps in knowledge you didn’t know you had, and form a fuller picture of the world.

Elizabeth Flux

Text, 304pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Ramona Koval, A Letter to Layla".

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Reviewer: Elizabeth Flux