Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2022

Ghost Species, by James Bradley

James Bradley OAM is a novelist, essayist, anthologist and critic.  I was prompted to buy his most recent novel Ghost Species after hearing him speak at the 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival, the one that pivoted online during Lockdown.  He spoke with Irish author Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter, see my review) on the topic of Crisis Literature, and their divergent views were interesting.  Hughes, writing about the GFC in Ireland, thought that time was needed in order to take a long view of events. Bradley, whose preoccupation with climate change features in Ghost Species as well as his other novels, said that it’s not possible to reflect on the past in the same way because things are changing all the time.

So Ghost Species is a novel ‘of the moment’ which also anticipates a dystopian future. I think I read it too soon after Sally Abbott’s debut novel Closing Down, (see my review) because I found myself comparing the two and finding the former more accomplished. I had also read Donna Mazza’s Fauna (see my review) which also explored the complications of bio-engineering when a commercial company, Lifeblood(R), offers incentives for women craving motherhood to join an experimental IVF genetics program using non-human DNA.  With the final elements of Ghost Species reminding me of the apocalyptic violence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I read ages ago before I started blogging, see a synopsis here), I didn’t feel that I was reading original ideas.

It might just have been my timing.  Readers whose reviews I follow at Goodreads think highly of this novel.

Ghost Species starts out with an Elon-Musk type of character called Davis Hucken setting up a secluded lab in Tassie.  His ambition is to reverse extinction in the hope that restoring the ecosystem with thylacines, mammoths and aurochs can reverse climate change.  He hires scientists Kate and Jay to assist with another project, which is to breed a Neanderthal in the hope that it might be possible to learn something from them.

Bradley doesn’t dwell on the technicalities of the project, and it all seems credible enough — except for the people involved.  Jay is keen from the outset while Kate is dubious.   Distrusting Davis’s charm, Kate asks why:

‘Because we can.  Because it gives us the chance to undo the wrong that was done when they were wiped out.  But also because we need them; the world needs them.  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 from other eyes to see the world. Think what we could learn from them, from their minds.  Imagine speaking to another species!’

Kate shakes her head in disbelief.  ‘Without an evolutionary context, a community, they wouldn’t be another species, they’d be an exhibit, an experiment.  All we’d see when we looked into their eyes would be a reflection of our own hubris.’

Davis gives her an oddly blank look.  ‘Perhaps at first.  But you know as well as I do that the nature of life is to adapt, to change.’

‘Even if you could reassemble the genetic material, you would require human surrogates,’ says Jay.  ‘As well as human eggs. And I can’t begin to imagine how you’d get ethical clearance.  Human cloning is banned in almost every country in the world.’ (p.26)

So, credibility problem No 1: why would career scientists put their entire future employment at risk by getting involved in a project that is bypassing all the usual ethical research and IVF protocols for an outcome so flimsy, i.e. that they might learn something from a Neanderthal.

Credibility problem No 2 is the surrogate, again bypassing all the protocols and caricatured as having no feelings and taking no interest whatsoever in the baby she is carrying.  She vanishes out of the story as if she were no more than an incubator. (I kept expecting her to come back and demand to see the child.)

CAUTION: SPOILER ALERT

Credibility problem No 3 is that Kate unexpectedly bonds with the baby girl, (imaginatively named Eve) and because she is dubious about its future with the Foundation, she kidnaps Eve and hides out in a secluded shack where their isolation means little contact with anyone who might be suspicious.

Bradley solves credibility problem no 4 (why would the resources of the Foundation not be deployed to track down their very expensive investment?) when Jay turns up as Eve, apparently developing normally and achieving the usual milestones, nears school age.  It turns out that they were monitoring her all the time anyway, content to leave things as they were until now.  What’s different now is that the Elon Musk type character is becoming more erratic and the Foundation wants to avoid any scrutiny.  So Kate and Eve are set up in a congenial house where they live almost normally, with a little playgroup for Eve and lessons so that she learns to read. Nothing untoward happens except that the climate crisis escalates, and (sorry, this is a #Spoiler) Kate gets a brain tumour and dies.

So, now there’s a teenage Neanderthal behaving a lot like any normal teenager and refusing to cooperate, and the climate crisis has reached a point where societal norms are breaking down.  Does anybody learn anything from her?  Not that I can see, so what is the point?

Other reviewers were more impressed. See James McKenzie Watson at the Newtown Review of Books. Closer to my reservations about the novel is Roslyn Jolly at the Sydney Review of Books. 


I like Book Twitter: there are interesting bookish people there (though it still requires rigorous curating).  Last month I had a brief conversation about the limits of dystopian cli-fi with @MegBrayshaw (John Rowe Lecturer in Australian Literature at USYD) and @frippet a.k.a. Jane Rawson a.k.a. Queen of Australian Genre-bending Fiction.

Meg: I think we might be turning towards more experimental forms for the climate novel, and a less didactically hopeless model for representing it. We’ll see!

Jane Rawson: straight-up dystopias are over and things have to be more interesting in some way.

Jane and Meg know much more about dystopian fiction than I ever will, but it seems to me that in the 21st century it’s a problematic genre in a way that it wasn’t in the 20th century when dystopias were focussed on the problem of totalitarianism.  Ghost Species romps along, it’s easy to read, it has engaging characters and the settings in the Tasmanian bush are a reminder of what there is to lose.  But because none of the characters behave ethically, the novel doesn’t ever address the ethical questions that bedevil the whole problem of climate change (or potential nuclear annihilation).  Ghost Species doesn’t follow through to the logical questions that emerge from a rich man’s vanity project.   When we already know the solutions that could ameliorate the risk to our planet, and have known them for decades but have chosen not to act — ethically speaking — what is it that we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do in this existential crisis?

James Bradley blogs intermittently at City of Tongues.

Author: James Bradley
Title: Ghost Species
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9781926428666, pbk., 272 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99


Responses

  1. I have yet to read James Bradley, but keep feeling I ought. One day, but for many reasons of which your review is only one, I don’t think it will be this one.

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    • I hope I haven’t been too hard on this book, but it was a letdown after the talk at the MWF, too many holes in it, I felt.

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      • What you said made sense to me, though of course I haven’t read it.

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  2. Very interesting point about dystopia fiction & one I hadn’t previously considered; it’s logical that speculative fiction of this type would reflect the overriding anxieties of the age in which it was created.

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    • Yes, I’m not sure where the cutoff point is, probably around the fall of communism and before the rise of China…
      It would be interesting to know what speculative fiction focusses on in China. I’ve heard somewhere that SF is very big in China, so I’d love to know if it’s allowed to be Orwellian!

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  3. Interesting post, Lisa, and I can’t say I’m drawn to the book. It’s tricky with dystopian fiction nowadays, as we’re probably living in one already, so I’m never sure where that kind of writing is going. Speculative fiction, maybe, but just dystopian – not for me right now, particularly with the issues you identify with this one.

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    • Perhaps that’s why there’s a ‘thing’ called comfort reading, and also such enthusiasm for crime novels. They feature a nasty problem to be solved, which is solved one way or another, and the world is restored to its certainties?

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      • Absolutely – a good crime novel (particularly GA which I love) usually ends with the world put to rights, which is very reassuring…

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  4. I certainly agree that rich men’s vanity projects are not going to solve the climate crisis (my own thought is that it is beyond solving and that there will be a ‘Malthusian’ population crash within a century). I do think though that it is inevitable and perhaps even desirable that dystopian fiction concentrate on today’s problems, though that nearly always looks odd a decade later (eg. William Gibson’s early concentration on the economic dominance of the Japanese in the late 1980s). I have read a little Chinese SF and I would say it had Orwellian elements, though I’m not sure they are unique either to China or to ‘Communism’.

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    • I haven’t read much Chinese fiction, and no speculative fiction, but I have read satirical novels by Yan Lianke in which he skirts around the government’s responsibility for “past” policies such as paying impoverished peasants for blood during the HIV epidemic. He ‘gets away with’ critiques of China’s get-rich-quick entry into capitalism; the disaster of The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; the absurd idol-worship of Mao; the cataclysmic effects of political corruption and the nation ‘dreamwalking’ through everything because they are powerless. But unless I’ve read his novels naively, I can’t think of anything suggestive of criticism of totalitarianism itself, only its consequences. Some of his books are banned in China, but he hasn’t had to go into exile like Liao Yiwu, who was imprisoned, subject to travel bans and finally fled to Germany.
      If we in the west are concerned about a future where societies break down because the climate makes them unmanageable, what are Chinese SF writers preoccupied with if they can’t tackle the totalitarianism they’ve got, much less the one they might have in the future?

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      • Good question. I’ll check Audible for something that might help me answer you (might also ask my son)

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        • It’s frustrating that we have so little access to their books. It took me ages and ages to find a contemporary woman writer who actually lives in China (Sheng Keyi) and bravely writes about it.
          WP says her Death Fugue is an allegory recalling Huxley’s Brave New World, but again — my naivete? — I read it as an allegory for the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath.
          There’s no shortage of disaffected Chinese writing from the US, and some here too (see the entries under China in my diversity index in the top menu) but by definition, they aren’t living the situation in China.

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  5. I bought this when it first came out and it’s been sitting in my TBR ever since, so I will come back to your review in about five years’ time (!!) when I have actually read the book.

    As to Chinese fiction about Orwellian/political stuff, surely only exiles could write because they’d be imprisoned if it was published in China? Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is a good example – a fictionalised blow-by-blow account of Tiananmen Square and the student protests. The author has been a vocal critic of China’s Communist government and has not been allowed to return to mainland China since 2011.

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    • Well, that’s the thing I was (rather clumsily) getting at. Yan Lianke’s satires seem to get by, the books are banned but he’s not in prison. Maybe other less famous are, and we just don’t know about them.
      But because I have somehow got the impression that Chinese SF has a huge following and not just in mainland China, I’m curious about what they do write about. Surely not just technological wizardry and gizmos like the pulp SF of the C20th century in the west?

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      • Well, not being much of an SF reader I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question. There’s a good crime fiction scene happening there and I have read a few, but what I have read has been a little nihilistic and I often feel Chinese fiction — even the literary stuff — is very misogynistic. I do love Ma Jian’s work and have read a handful of his books, but I don’t much appreciate his attitude – or his character’s attitudes – to women.

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        • Yes, well, that’s been the subject of discussion before. As a result of the One Child Policy, there’s a disparity in the male-to-female ratio in the population, and someone once said, here on this blog, that it’s quite possible that some Chinese men just don’t have much contact with women. They don’t have sisters, and because of the preference for male children, they don’t have girl cousins or nieces, and the probability is that they may not have any female colleagues either. Depending on their circumstances — it’s probably worse in the countryside but overall it’s worse for teenagers (see https://www.statista.com/statistics/282119/china-sex-ratio-by-age-group/) they can be like those stereotypical boys from British boarding schools who just have no idea what girls are like or how they think or what they’re interested in, much less have any idea about their human rights as women. (Here in Australia we have our own variation on that theme with single-sex boys schools that have been in the news for their deplorable behaviour, clear evidence that they don’t even know how unacceptable it is.)
          This is why I’m always on the lookout for fiction from China from women.

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          • Yes, I think we may have had this conversation before. I remember going to China and seeing “love match” cards stuck up all over a city park … basically mothers advertising their sons to single women looking for a husband.

            Fiction by Chinese women is becoming increasingly more available. Ten years ago I couldn’t find a single translated Chinese novel by a woman but I’ve seen a few lately. I recently read one … although I was shocked that it was written in English even though the author lives in Beijing. Maybe she figured it would sell better in the English language market.

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  6. I bought this for the same reason but haven’t read it yet.

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