Sunday, October 30, 2011

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (13)

At first glance, the 1963 Penguin edition of Roy Lewis’s first and best-known novel is science fiction. After all, it says so on the cover: it was selected by Brian Aldiss, who in the early 1960s was editor of Penguin’s SF series. But The Evolution Man was first published in hardback as a non-genre novel with the title What We Did To Father, and its last reprinted edition wasn't labeled as SF either. Permeable things, genre boundaries.

Narrated by one of the sons of a Palaeolithic mad scientist, the eponymous evolution man, this short and wickedly funny novel compresses the story of the development of the technological and cultural inventions that shaped the evolution of Homo sapiens into the history of a couple of generations of a family in Palaeolithic Uganda. A good deal of the novel’s comedy springs from farcical scenes generated by compression (‘Good Gracious!’ [Father] gasped. ‘While I have been talking to you and not even thinking about it, I have made a most important invention: the heavy-duty hunting spear with the fire-hardened point!’) and the atemporal knowledge and speech patterns of the characters (‘The carnivora had turned on us because of a shortage of ungulate game in the region.’), but it’s also a pitch-perfect parody of the drawing-room novel transposed on to a vividly realised stone-age milieu. Like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Evolution Man belongs to the very English school of deadpan (and often deeply black) absurdist humour, and as in many great English comedies, the narrator, like Mr Pooter, William Brown, and Captain Mainwaring, has absolutely no sense of humour.  The novel’s best set-pieces, such as the narrator’s thorough besting by his future wife during his ham-handed attempt at courtship, turn on the refusal or failure of the object of the joke to see the funny side.

Although implacably opposed by the tree-dwelling Uncle Vanya (‘There was nothing wrong with the old Miocene’), Father institutes a programme of self-improvement with implacable logic and level-headed ingenuity.  He works out how to steal fire from a volcano, and in short order he and other members of the family invent cooking, spear-hunting, animal traps, representational art, the afterlife, and (when Father bans incest) courtship. As Father succinctly puts it, ‘ . . . nature isn’t necessarily on the side of the big battalions. Nature is on the side of the species with the technological edge on the other fellow.’

But progress isn’t without cost. Globe-hopping Uncle Ian is killed when he decides to imitate the efforts by one of his nephews to domesticate animals: ‘the horse he had tried to ride - to get to America the quicker - proved not to be a horse at all; it was a hipparion.’ Father’s enthusiastic application of his discovery of how to make fire causes a conflagration that burns out the horde’s hunting grounds and forces them to move. And his sons are dismayed when he starts to give away their technological edge to all and sundry, and decide that he and his latest idea must be suppressed. As in so many science fiction novels (to borrow a phrase from Brian Aldiss), hubris is clobbered by nemesis. Father becomes a victim of his most deadly invention: the Arms Race.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean Captain Mainwaring, don't you? Not Mannering.

October 30, 2011 8:29 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

oops. Yes, it should indeed be Mainwaring.

October 30, 2011 11:01 pm  
Anonymous Lee McAulay said...

I first read The Evolution Man at University when I was studying Human Origins; there seemed to be a copy that was passed around the Archaeology department every year, and I went out and bought my own copy from a second-hand bookshop because I couldn't stand the wait.
It's one of those stories where the reader plays the fact-spotting game with the author, a bit like the vampire cameos in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula. Great fun.
I bet Aldous Huxley wished he'd written it. Before he died, obviously...

November 07, 2011 10:59 pm  

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