In Theory of Bastards, a Misanthropic Scientist Sees Humanity in Bonobos’ Sexual Exploits

Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards (Europa Editions, 2018) uses a scientist’s relationship with bonobos—and her struggle to keep them alive following a civilization-shattering dust storm—to explore climate change, overdependence on technology, and the challenge of a body that produces more pain than pleasure.

The novel–which won this year’s Philip K. Dick Award and Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction–was almost never written. Despite the fact that her four previous books had been well received, Schulman found it a continual challenge to get published and was on the brink of abandoning writing altogether. But Kent Carroll, the editor at Europa Editions who oversaw the publication of her novel Three Weeks in December, reached out, saying he wanted to publish a new book by her.

“I’ve always wanted to write—there’s nothing more I’ve wanted—and so given the opportunity, I couldn’t say no.”

Schulman’s work returns again and again to a few themes. “I feel like every writer—if they’re very lucky—figures out the themes that allow them to do their best writing. And I seem to have very, very narrow themes: some large, charismatic mega-fauna, a hint of possible violence, a different climate, some possible scientific research, and the main character has to be in a body that’s somehow physically different from most other people.”

The main character in Theory of Bastards, Frankie Burk, an evolutionary psychologist and recipient of a MacArthur genius award, has endometriosis, a painful condition that limits her activity and fuels her misanthropy. As the book opens, the 33-year-old Frankie is arriving at the Foundation, a zoo for primates where she can observe bonobos to research her hypothesis about infidelity—the eponymous “theory of bastards”—which postulates that the reason 10 percent of human children are produced through affairs (a number Schulman encountered while researching the book) is because the mothers have an impulse—regardless of the strictures against infidelity—to have sex with men whose genes will improve the child’s immune function.

“You have to wonder why there is such a huge percentage of children who are not related to their fathers,” says Schulman, who was raised by her father after her own mother had had an affair. “There has to be a big benefit because the dangers are so big for getting pregnant illegitimately, for having a bastard. And so the theory that my character comes up with is that that it offers genetic benefits.”

The plot takes a sharp turn when a dust storm knocks out the power and information grid. To keep both themselves and the bonobos alive, Frankie and her colleague David Stotts, free the animals and lead them on an expedition across rural America, where the primates show that they might be better suited than humans to survive in what appears to be a post-technology world, and Frankie starts to shed her misanthropy, even as society is on the brink of collapse.

“I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic novels, but it’s almost always only able-bodied humans that survive. Nobody ever pulls their pet corgi out of the rubble and marches on. And I just thought it would be really interesting to play out what would happen if a relatively capable, somewhat-similar-to-human species survived with humans, post-apocalypse.”

Schulman is working on a new novel featuring dolphins.

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