No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, October 13, 2007

#65: Orphan of Creation -- Roger McBride Allen

I read this novel soon after it was published (1988) and remembered one aspect of it very well, and other aspects not at all. Title and author eluded me for years, until some random googling turned up a reference that led me, in turn, to a discussion of the book. And that's ironic, because one of the things that really struck me is how dated the setting feels. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with it: the blurb mentions 'the day after tomorrow', and it's pretty clearly set in the mid-to-late Eighties. It seems odd, though, to read of scientists who don't have access to their own computers; of research done entirely in libraries, of people being out of touch because away from their telephones ...

The story is deceptively simple. Dr Barbara Marchando, an American paleoanthropologist, stumbles upon an intriguing rumour whilst visiting the family home. Her ancestor, Zebulon Jones, was born a slave but ended up owning the estate and having slaves of his own -- but it sounds to Barbara as though the 'slaves' purchased by Jones might've been gorillas. Maxing out her credit card and enlisting her young cousin Livingstone, she begins to excavate the area where she suspects the bodies might have been interred ... and finds something that nobody could have expected. "Doctor Marchando discovered a burial site, approximately one hundred and thirty seven years old, in which no less than five extremely well-preserved and complete specimens of the genus Australopithecus were found."

Cue scientific uproar, with some thoughtful (and still timely) vignettes concerning Creationists, cryptozoologists and the whole issue of slavery. The australopithecines were slaves, but was that somehow better than humans being slaves? And what is a human being, anyway?

The answer that Barbara finds to that question is what stayed with me. Revisiting it many years later, I still think it's what makes this book something out of the ordinary. I'm less sympathetic to Barbara, though, and I have more sympathy for the unwilling accomplices to her plan -- who don't really get a say in the matter, and whose futures are left as an exercise for the reader.

Another thing about this book: I did find the writing pretty clunky in places, and there were passages I would have edited down (Barbara's early experiences with hamster-burial). But science fiction is the literature of ideas -- and in this case, though the literature wasn't as literary as I've come to expect, the ideas were enough to keep me reading and draw me in.

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