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"Lucy," a half-ape/half-human thriller by Laurence Gonzales

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By Michael Sims
Saturday, October 2, 2010

LUCY

By Laurence Gonzales

Knopf. 307 pp. $24.95

Clunky naivete is the hallmark of generic science fiction such as Laurence Gonzalez's novel "Lucy." The title character is the offspring of a human father and a bonobo mother. Gonzalez spends little time explaining how this technological miracle came about. The publisher describes the book as a "biotechnical thriller," but it's as short on biology and technology as it is on thrills. What it's best at, unfortunately, is doing exactly what you expect it to do, chapter after yawn-inducing chapter.

When her father is killed in a guerrilla raid in the African jungle, 14-year-old Lucy survives by hiding in a tree. What's the jungle like in Africa? "Morning came slowly. A mist began to rise." That's about it. Oh, and there's a deadly cobra that sends Jenny Lowe into "a Tai Chi move," but she's saved by a timely mortar shell. Perhaps to aid the casting of a movie adaptation, Lucy looks exactly like a full-blooded human being except that, up close, she has downy dark hairs on her limbs. She is, of course, beautiful. Jenny, a primatologist, joins forces with the girl and takes her home to the United States; no doubt Sandra Bullock is already auditioning for the role.

The predictable things happen: People find Lucy strange but don't know why. She decides that American society is loud, smelly, confusing, coldhearted and unnatural. (This was the point at which I felt most sympathy for her.) She has superhuman strength that enables her to triumph in her high school wrestling team. She falls for fellow student Amanda Mather, who is, of course, beautiful. When Amanda's mother learns that her daughter's strange pal is rumored to be half ape, she shrieks -- wait for it -- "You can't have a monkey as your best friend."

Amanda is just as unconvincing as the rest of this cast. When Lucy makes the cover of Rolling Stone ("in torn jeans, her hair slightly spiked out, standing in a sort of rock-and-roll pose holding a banana and slouching"), the allegedly high-school-age Amanda casually remarks, "It's this, like, Orwellian grope through all the political and sociological and ethical issues that they could sweep out of the gutter." Throughout the book, the dialogue is inept. Couldn't Gonzalez have visited a high school or a primate lab with his tape recorder? The obligatory scene of a congressional hearing about Lucy reads like a dashed-off memory of a bad TV show. Wacko creationists chase Lucy. Wacko government agents chase Lucy.

I'll be getting popcorn if you need me.

It's a shame that this book is so bad. Western culture has a noble tradition of primates in fiction. Women have ape lovers in "Candide." In 1817, Thomas Love Peacock wrote of an orangutan that ran for Parliament. A century later, Edgar Rice Burroughs plunked another noble savage into pop culture with Tarzan, who is fully human but reared by apes. In 1930, John Collier published the saga of Emily, the chimpanzee star of "His Monkey Wife." ("You've married me to a chimp!") Three decades later, French novelist Pierre Boulle published "Planet of the Apes," whose heavy-handed satire (the apes drive cars and drink in nightclubs) inspired an American franchise of action movies.

But Voltaire was brilliant and Boulle at his best had a wicked sense of humor. In his topsy-turvy world, one ape scientist explains how they outpaced human evolution: Humans were handicapped with only two stubby hands instead of four nimble ones. Don't look for such wit in "Lucy" -- or much excitement.

Sims writes mostly about the cultural response to nature in books such as "Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form" and his upcoming book about E.B. White and "Charlotte's Web."


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