Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2017

The Bonobo’s Dream, by Rose Mulready

Twenty years ago or so, after the international reading community discovered Danish author Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992),  I went on to read his Borderliners (1993) and The Woman and the Ape (1996).  Both these books were speculative fiction featuring outsiders challenging ideas about what humanity might mean, but it was The Woman and the Ape which I still remember vividly, because, as the blurb at Goodreads says, the woman, Madelene Burden is:

… lonely and disillusioned despite her upper-crust London existence, she’s a modern-day sleeping beauty drowsing gently in an alcoholic stupor. But the prince whose kiss brings her to life is not tall, dark, and handsome. He’s a short, dark, 300-pound ape named Erasmus.

What made the book memorable was the way the initially confronting idea of a woman in love with an animal was transformed into a parable about where the next phase of human evolution might go…

Rose Malready’s novella The Bonobo’s Dream is also speculative fiction exploring the random way in which privileged people meet outsiders and have to confront their denial of reality.   Likewise, it speculates about what the defining limits of humanity might be, but it covers territory both broader and less political in scope.  The book won the 2016 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and was a nominee for the Aurealis Awards, and it is also shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  It’s not easy to discuss without a –

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!

Part one of the story, titled ‘Fishbowl’, opens some time after the End of Days when a sophisticated, technologically advanced society lives in a dubious safety within a dome.  (There may be resemblances to a TV show that had a similar scenario, which featured in Masterchef ad breaks.  Since I never watched it, I leave it to readers to enlighten me).  Wisely, Mulready doesn’t bore with technical explanations: the reader simply accepts a kitchen with an obliging ‘smart waiter’ which hums to itself as it prepares foodshakes with the appearance of food; a ‘thankyou Jeeves’ which deals with their clothing; and a phone just as intrusive as the ones we endure today:

The phone is calling him in murmurs.  A sound like ebbing waves.  He turns his head reluctantly and waves at the lens.  Like everything else in the house it is meticulously styled, fashioned like pooled mercury, hanging on the wall like the cocoon of some high-sheened insect.  It clears to show the caller.

Aquila is an ageing sculptor as famous for his philandering as he is for his art.  His wife Suzanne has nothing much to do except to dull her senses with excessive consumption of The Dose (akin to Orwell’s soma in 1984).  Their young son James, like Aquila, must wear a polymer harness in order to produce art, but he makes drawings of the birch trees outside (which might not actually be there, just as his goldfish are not actually goldfish at all).  All of them are discontented and uneasy without really knowing why, except that strange memories are breaking through their otherwise sanitised existence.  Their relationships are distorted by forces outside their control.

As the story opens they are waiting with some trepidation for a visit.  Their visitor is their daughter Charity whose birthday it is, and who, we soon discover,  is an avalanche, […] a landmine.  You only have to walk near her.  It turns out that she is an athlete, and like athletes from the former communist states she has been ‘selected’ and doped to be spectacularly physically formidable in gladiatorial sports – but the effect of the drugs is to make her irritable and extremely violent (like people who overdose on steroids, I believe).   Imprudently Aquila has promised Charity a cake for her birthday, a real cake made with real ingredients, which Aquila has to source from one of his most demanding girlfriends.  A comic sequence follows which shows that both Suzanne and Aquila are so divorced from reality that neither of them have any idea what to do with the ingredients.

Charity brings her new boyfriend with her, who turns out to be an ape called Edward.

‘Edward is a bonobo,’ says Suzanne. ‘Primarily.  He was telling me in the kitchen.’  She rubs his arm fondly.

‘Primarily?’ says Aquila.

Edward touches his throat.  ‘Bonobo mainly.  A little gorilla.  A little homo sapiens.’

‘What’s a bonobo?’ says James.

‘It’s a simian.’ Charity leans back in her chair, her eyes watchful.  ‘Dwarf or gracile chimpanzee.’

‘Nothing dwarf about Edward,’ says Suzanne.

‘I get my height and heft from my gorilla blood.’  (p.95)

So the reader is confronted by the concept of a chemically engineered human called Charity being in a relationship with an ape genetically engineered to meet human needs.  The technology to do this probably already exists.  Which of them is human?

Before long the tone of the novel darkens and the dome begins to unform … and the reader becomes aware of the others, the outsiders, the people who have been expelled from the dome.

The house is silent.

When they reach the hall, Aquila staggering under the weight of Suzanne, asks Charity to try the touch lights.

‘Nothing,’ she says.  ‘The grid is down.’

‘But they must be doing something.  They must be fixing it.  How could this happen?’

‘There was always the danger that the dome could rupture.  It could be as simple as a container spinning off a ship as it comes into the atmosphere.  Smack.  Or it could be an attack.  Flungouts.’ (p.111)

Part two, ‘Black-beaked birds’ moves from the claustrophobic safety of the dome, to the uncertainties of life outside it.  And here we discover that the technological advancements that have distorted life as we know it, have also enabled an independent life for James which is now lost.  There are no simplistic answers in The Bonobo’s Dream, only compelling questions which most of us ignore.

I don’t read much speculative fiction, but The Bonobo’s Dream, like Jane Rawson’s fiction, makes reading out of my comfort zone worthwhile.

That fabulous cover art is by Sam Paine.

Daniel Young also reviewed it at All the Novellas.

Author: Rose Mulready
Title: The Bonobo’s Dream
Publisher: Seizure by Zoum, 2016
ISBN: 9781925143249
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Bonobo’s Dream: Winner of the 2016 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize or direct from Seizure

 


Responses

  1. […] Bonobo’s Dream” by Rose Mulready, see my review and Daniel’s review at All the […]

  2. I like speculative fiction but often the writing (I would say especially Australian, but that’s probably because I’m more likely to see younger authors) is unsophisticated – not Jane! – so I’m pleased you think this one is worth trying.

    • Well, according to the credits at the back of this one, Jane had a hand in encouraging this one. I went off sci-fi decades ago because it didn’t then explore character, (or else the ones I read, mostly famous ones, didn’t) but more recent offerings sometimes do and that sometimes makes them interesting.


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