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.


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