I have a habit of putting a book on my “To Read” list, and then maybe forgetting what it’s about or why I wanted to read it. I also often resist reading the book jacket once I’ve forgotten what exactly a book will be about. So, Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards threw me for a loop as I was reading it.

Essentially, the book is about Dr. Frankie Burk who, having just won a MacArthur, goes the The Great Ape Foundation to continue her work on understanding mating habits. The story is set just slightly in the future, when humans have become more technology dependent and have implanted bodyware that interacts with all the devices around them. Also, global climate change has resulted in more intense weather — a huge dust storm features prominently. Some of this is not so far removed from us:

Since ok had become the vocab that activated so many devices, the word had fallen out of use in normal human conversation, for fear a nearby oven might click on or a garage door shut.

I have a friend (“friend”?) who is always telling my Alexa to order 10,000 cans of creamed corn. Thankfully, so far he has not succeed.

The book taught me a lot of fascinating things about bonobos — did you know that they are like, the kindest of the animal kingdom? And incredibly smart, some of them understand thousands of English words. I did not. But now I can tell people about fascinating studies of how bonobos will cooperate with one another, how if you lock up two, and put food out, and then let one out, he will let the other bonobo out before then sharing the food. I think I may prefer bonobos to people…

The book also taught me a lot of terrible facts about endometriosis. I sort of knew that it was a really painful disease, but I had no idea how much it could destroy your life, or how life threatening it could become, or how few (none?) treatment options there are. Frankie has severe endometriosis, and just before the book opens she uses part of her MacArthur grant to pay for her hysterectomy, which does finally give her relief. I’m just not going to detail all the fun endometriosis facts here okay?

I should also say, the bastards in this title are literal bastards — Frankie develops a theory about the evolutionary benefit which flows from sex outside marriage and the bastards that result. (Although legally, if the mom is married, those kids aren’t bastards, they’re presumed children of the husband. Also, we should really get beyond putting labels like this on kids, but Frankie is obviously not using the term in a pejorative manner).


The twist comes a little more than halfway through the book, as this turns into more of a sci-fi novel. After the dust storm, things never go back to normal. All the bodyware ceases to work, all the technology. It started to feel a bit like Station Eleven, which I loved. Although Station Eleven also takes place partially decades after the killer flu, when civilization is just beginning to rebuild a bit. Theory of Bastards kind of leaves you in the muck. And of course, Frankie and another scientist are walking through this dystopia with 14 bonobos that they’re very attached to (as will you be dear reader) and trying to keep safe. Which is a fun twist on dystopia to be honest. The bonobos, and all of their personalities, were really what kept me reading the book.

Also Frankie, despite being left by the reader in a dystopian waste land, is pretty upbeat:

Throughout her life she’d been accustomed to waking each day in her own bed, knowing she would be warm and dry, assured of her morning shower and time on the toilet. Now without any certainty, each object she passed became worth noting, worth exploring. … She knew now the experience of loss was a prerequisite to holding anything tight enough to feel it.

I don’t know if I totally agree with this sentiment. Certainly, if you never experienced loss, you might appreciate your blessings less, but sometimes, things are just so terrible it’s hard to feel like, wow this will really help me appreciate things later… I would sort of think this would be especially true in a world without ready access of clean drinking water. Not sure how much I’d be walking around thinking about how great it is to really feel the things I still have. But, the human experience, life it is about adversity on some level. Hearkening back to my Happiness discussion now I guess. I think Frankie and Attila might be friends.

Currently reading: Debating between The Maze at Windemere and A House Full of Females… probably just going to start both.