This week, I’m reviewing The Human Son, by Adrian J. Walker. It’s published by Solaris, and this fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.
This review contains an affiliate link for Waterstones.
In the distant future, humanity is no more. The Erta, a genetically engineered race of super beings, are the custodians of Earth, and have succeeded in reversing climate change after centuries of work. But now, the time has come to reintroduce human beings. Will all their hard work be undone? As a way of assessing whether or not humanity deserve a second chance, the Erta decide to raise a single child, whose actions and conduct will determine the fate of his species…
A timely publication indeed, The Human Son takes the biggest problem faced by humanity at the moment – that of the climate crisis – as its starting point, which Adrian J. Walker (The End of the World Running Club) addresses by focusing on the relationship between a parent and child. It’s testament to Walker’s skill as a writer that he can take on themes as huge as climate change, legacy, nature versus nurture, and collective responsibility, then address them through such deceptively small-scale means. The situation itself is one that most readers will empathise with too; after all, even those who don’t have children (such as myself) can identify with narrator Ima’s tales of various child rearing catastrophes. As a narrator, Ima is instantly likeable, despite her detached tone. If anything, it’s this detached tone that lends the early portion of the novel much of its humour. Ima views the newly created human being with cold, Spock-like precision, treating him as the experiment that he is, which lends a hilarious, farcical tone to the proceedings – there’s a sense that her early observations are like lab notes, and when they’re describing something as mundane as a crying baby or his bodily functions, it would take a heart of stone not to smile at the intentional incongruity.
In an amusing added irony, Ima herself has spent hundreds of years repairing Earth’s atmosphere from her balloon, quite literally with her head in the clouds, but this isolation has actually made her more grounded than her fellow Erta. It’s crucial, in fact, that Ima is as detached and cold as she is at this stage, not just narratively (for the good of the experiment) but also stylistically – had she been cooing and gushing over the baby, things could have tipped over into being saccharine or humdrum. The perspective used in the narration is worthy of note too, as it is written as if directed to her son. I think I’ve only read one other novel which uses the second person all the way through, and that definitely didn’t work for me – here, it seems like the only way to do it, and is perfectly executed.
As things progress, we are treated to more deliberate parallels with real world child rearing, rendered equal parts entertaining and heart warming by the slightly alien way they’re played out. There are the awkward visits from Ima’s mother, skewed here in the sense that the Erta emerge fully grown, and she is her mother in the sense that she was the one to grow her and implant the information for her purpose. There’s baby’s first visit to the doctor, made weird by the fact that the “doctor” in question last worked with human beings hundreds of years previously and has heard of bedside manner but not quite grasped it. And, of course, that question dreaded by anyone who has ever had to care for a small child, “Why?” These parallels never feel forced, instead seeming like organic parts of the narrative, as well as natural steps and milestones in a child’s development. It’s totally believable that Ima the scientist would think them worthy of recording, then, as her attachment to him grows, that she would keep a record of events for her own more personal reasons.
But The Human Son is not just a novel that deals with the struggles of being a single parent. It’s clear from an early stage, for example, that others have their own ideas about what might be best for the planet when it comes to reintroducing humans, and this leads Ima into levels of intrigue she was hitherto unaware of. Those sceptics among the Erta would seem to have a point, as with the fate of the world potentially hanging in the balance we are frequently reminded how close to the brink humanity brought it once before. Walker does not pass up opportunities to criticise how things might ultimately be going if we don’t act now, but he definitely doesn’t browbeat either. It’s true that under the Erta’s clinical scrutiny of our species, it’s hard not to feel called out at times, for everything from our fundamental nature and sense of entitlement, to our warlike tendencies and our mistreatment of the environment. But we also see all that is best about humanity too. Our capacity for learning and growth. Our innate creativity. Our unique way of looking at the world.
Ultimately, The Human Son is a love letter to humanity, with all its foibles, quirks and imperfections. I found it to be a moving exploration of what it means to be human, and it took me through a range of emotions as I read it. I laughed, I cried, and I considered our place in the world. It’s beautifully written – surely destined to be a future classic – and I can’t recommend it highly enough.