Book Review: Ghost Species, by James Bradley

In a change to the advertised Sci-fi Month schedule I have a bonus review today, for James Bradley’s Ghost Species. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received. This review also contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a small commission if used, and will earn independent bookshops a whole lot more.

With ambitious plans to save the planet, a social media billionaire enlists a cadre of brilliant scientists in the hope of reintroducing long extinct creatures back to the world. With the clock ticking, it’s potentially the last throw of the dice for humanity – but can it work, or have we already lost too much?

Very much the man of the moment, social media entrepreneur Davis is equal parts Zuckerburg and Musk – chillingly distanced and almost at a remove from humanity in his mannerisms and personality, whilst seemingly driven to solve the world’s problems through the judicious application of technology. He’s a character who is creepy not just because of how he acts, but because he feels both believable and relevant. His explanation for why extinct species need to be resurrected seems entirely justifiable too, and despite the presence of a little jargon, easy to follow. Unlike the scientists in Jurassic Park, who “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should,” here it seems as if resurrecting these creatures is not just plausible, it’s necessary; urgently so.

But comparisons to Jurassic Park are misleading. This is a much more intimate and personal tale, one of loss, family and humanity, and especially of what that last word means. Recruited by Davis to serve as project leads, Kate and Jay can barely believe their eyes when confronted with the living, breathing proof of concept. For Jay, the possibilities clearly set his mind whirring, but Kate has reservations – Davis intends to “de-extinct” Neanderthals, and not only does Kate have moral and ethical concerns over this, she has deeply personal emotional ones too.

Once the initial, exciting concept has been outlined, the story becomes far more focused on Kate and Eve, the Neanderthal child the programme has successfully created. At times, it might seem like the bold, high concept ideas have fallen by the wayside slightly – certainly the middle third or so of the book is very much focused on the developing relationship between Kate and Eve – but they are never far from Bradley’s mind. References to the progress of the other experiments are dropped in throughout, and the changes being wrought on the world by climate change are also mentioned frequently. Without getting lost in endless extrapolation and exposition, there are some extremely sobering moments with regard to some of the potential effects on society; Bradley has clearly given ample consideration to just how things might look in a few years, and it’s not good.

What is good though – or rather, beautiful – is the relationship between Kate and Eve. While it might at first seem like Kate doesn’t always behave with the clear-headed rationality or logic of the scientist she’s supposed to be, the reasons behind this are addressed more than adequately. The way her own experiences and troubled childhood play on her mind and inform her decision-making mean that her maternal instincts feel hardwired, inevitable even, her fierce and unconditional love for Eve a natural result of the events in Kate’s life that led up to her birth.

Eve herself is a completely beguiling and utterly charming character, her development (both mentally and physically) differing from her peers in such a way that it’s easy to become invested in it. Kate often finds herself wondering just how different Eve might be in the way that she thinks about the world, and it’s likely you’ll find yourself wondering along with her, curiosity at the person Eve might become pulling you along.

The prose itself also adds to that feeling of momentum, the use of present tense imparting a wholly appropriate transitory feeling to events. The writing style mirrors the reality of our current situation, in essence, as we circle the drain and spin ever faster toward the point of no return. In this way, Eve acts as a totemic reminder of our destructive nature; her ancestors long wiped out by Homo sapiens, she is an unwitting witness to our desperate attempts to undo our past mistakes, the ghost species of the title haunting us unknowingly.

An engaging premise and propulsive narrative make Ghost Species very readable, with the surprisingly affecting emotional beats elevating it and giving it more staying power than might be anticipated. A cautionary tale that can take its place alongside recent climate fiction highlights such as John Lanchester’s The Wall or Ben Smith’s Doggerland.

Ghost Species will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 16th February 2021. You can pre-order your copy here.

Currently reading: The Actuality, Paul Braddon
Currently listening: Reluctant Hero, Killer Be Killed

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Ghost Species, by James Bradley

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