Wed
Sep 2 2009 2:19pm
The wisdom of the apes: Peter Dickinson’s Eva

Eva (Laurel Leaf Library) is the best science fiction novel nobody has read. These days, YA books get a lot of attention, they’re reviewed where adults see them, they get nominated for adult awards, they may still be a bit of a ghetto but they’re in people’s awareness. In 1988 when Eva came out they were utterly ignored. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been in conversations where the themes of Eva are relevant and I’ve asked “Have you read Peter Dickinson’s Eva?” Very few people have even heard of it. It wasn’t totally ignored. It was “highly commended” for the Carnegie Medal. It had great reviews. But it’s still one of those books that nobody I know has read so I can’t have conversations about it.

The “elevator pitch” summary of Eva is that it’s about a thirteen-year-old girl who has her memories and personality re-created in the body of a chimpanzee after an accident. It starts off being that book, about how Eva adapts and copes with being in the body of a chimp instead of her own body, how her parents react. What that book would be about is what it means to be human. But Eva is actually about what it means to be a chimp, and what we as humans owe to other animals. Eva doesn’t shy away from the realities of chimp life, dominance hierarchies, grooming, eating bugs, sex. It goes through and beyond what you’d expect from a book like this. It’s set in a detailed future where the planet has pretty much reached carrying capacity for people. (Dickinson wisely doesn’t give a figure.) The whole world is city and factory farms. Chimps are one of the few large animals left, and they exist in urban quarters for research and exploitation in ads.

Eva has to come to terms with being a chimp as well as a thirteen-year-old girl, with being a hybrid, and having a human mind in a chimp body which has chimp instincts. She thinks of her human self as a ghost. This is a very moving book—indeed, I don’t re-read it as often as some other Dickinson because it’s never a comfortable book. It isn’t misogynistic, it isn’t like Tepper’s Family Tree in saying “and only man is vile.” But it looks hard at the way people act around animals and nature and extrapolates this in uncomfortable directions. These days it’s practically obligatory for a book to have an environmental message, but in 1988 it was unusual, and the message here isn’t simplistic and pastel-coloured. This is a book about a girl in a hard place making difficult decisions.

Spoilers in this paragraph: The progress of Eva’s experience of being a chimp and interacting with people is very well paced. The funding of the experiment, her career on talk shows, and her eventual repudiation of all that and escape is all remarkably realistic—I can’t think of anything that uses the interaction of media for exploitation and focusing attention. Eva’s eventual escape with the chimps, and her decision to elect to be a chimp, to find a way for chimps to live apart from humans and pass what memetic legacy she can to them, makes this something entirely out of the ordinary.

This is a moving and thoughtful story, one of the best novels from one of my favourite writers.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

10 comments
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
"What that book would be about is what it means to be human" Seems to me any number of Peter Dickinson's books are about "what it means to be X" for various values of X from green to royal.

I've seen Peter Dickinson more on library shelves than on my friends' shelves but they've often read many of his books from the library.

I suspect without really knowing that his market (on the U.S. of A. side at least) for many years was the somewhat limited guaranteed library sale market rather than the "store staff suggests this" which moves a lot of the genre market.
Megan Messinger
2. thumbelinablues
Eva was one of those books I read when I could technically read and understand what was going on, but I was young enough that I got stuck on the idea of SHE'S A CHIMPANZEE AHHH and (if you couldn't tell by the caps) got a little freaked out about the whole thing. I'd be interested to re-read it now for the themes you mention, except I'm still kind of, um, scared of it.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Thumbelinablues: She really is, and it's brilliant, but also yes, I can see getting freaked out.

Clark: I've read him from libraries a lot myself. I've also bought his books a lot when I've seen them. I don't know about other people.
Foxessa
4. Foxessa
Peter Dickinson's books are brilliant.

I discovered him sometime back in the early 90's, I think, and read all of his books published up to then, one after the other.

I'm not, generally, a YA reader.
Foxessa
5. Farah
it’s still one of those books that nobody I know has read so I can’t have conversations about it.

Read it, recommend it. Bemused that piece on Animal Studies in the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction doesn't mention it. IMHO one of the best YA sf novels ever written, and quite probably one of the best sf novels, period.
Elizabeth Adams
6. ehadams
I read it when I was a kid and loved it. I should read it again now as an adult.
Sarah Hale
7. shale
I read this when I was a YA; I got it from the library. It is definitely a story pretty much unlike any other that I have read. I also remember it making me a little bit uncomfortable... which maybe is the point.
Mary Aileen Buss
8. maryaileen
I read it when it came out and recommended it to my mother, who is not normally an SF reader but is open to suggestions. (I had previously given her Dickinson's Tulku, which she enjoyed.) She in turn recommended it to her church book group, also mostly not genre readers. (They usually read books with either religious or racial themes, both fiction and nonfiction.) As far as I know, they had a great discussion.
Foxessa
10. Intertext
I read it as a YA and recommended it to everyone who would listen. Peter Dickinson gets so many mentions for the Changes trilogy, but I think that represents the weakest of his work. Eva is an astounding book; I also love The Seventh Raven, Tulku, and The Gift.
Foxessa
11. cyborgsuzy
I found this book in the school library when I was in fifth grade. I read it 3 times in a row. I think it changed my life. It certainly changed my reading habits. I think I've been looking for books like it ever since.

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