Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 18 Jun 2020 in Fiction |

JAMES BRADLEY Ghost Species. Reviewed by James McKenzie Watson

Tags: / / / / / / / /

Ghost Species, James Bradley’s terrifyingly relevant seventh novel, is On the Beach for a globally warmed generation.

Its proposed roadmap of where humankind’s false belief we’re in control will lead us is bleak but beautiful, its climate mayday embedded within a profound and provocative parental love story.

The novel begins with geneticist Kate Larkin meeting tech billionaire Davis Hucken at his secretive headquarters in the Tasmanian bush. Davis, an Elon Musk-esque internet entrepreneur, is working clandestinely to reconstruct extinct species, such as mammoths, thereby slowing the thaw of arctic permafrost and preventing the looming climate catastrophe. He’s started by successfully breeding thylacines, but now wants to return the planet to its former balance by bringing back entire ecosystems. Most alarmingly to Kate, this plan includes ‘de-extincting’ Neanderthals, a project fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas.

While this premise might prompt comparisons to Jurassic Park, Bradley’s book is a different beast. It took Michael Crichton more than a hundred pages to reach the scene Bradley opens with – the megalomaniac entrepreneur revealing his creation to the scientists whose cooperation he seeks – and this in itself is telling. Jurassic Park was written in 1990 for a world just beginning to understand how radically the natural environment might be manipulated with technology for human gain. Bradley’s novel takes place in a world ravaged to the brink of destruction by that same ability. The simple recreation of extinct animals is no longer provocative; in 2020, the more pressing question is how close humankind’s need to play God is pushing us to climate annihilation.

Bradley knows this. He doesn’t linger on the how and why of Davis’s efforts, but instead propels us headlong into a story of its implications, both for the world at large and for his protagonists. Kate, deeply uncomfortable with the ethical implications of raising a Neanderthal baby in a laboratory environment, steals the infant and flees into rural Tasmania. In grappling with the morality of such a creation, she’s forced to examine her relationship with her own mother, exploring what love and motherhood look like in desperate, morally ambiguous circumstances:

On the third day a truck arrives with their possessions. Arrayed in the house they look mean and cheap; seeing them Kate feels ashamed of them, of her own decisions. But as she tries to arrange them in Eve’s room she finds herself growing angry, irritated by the unthinking superiority of Jay and Mylin and the others, their incomprehension of the contours of other lives. Love does not only happen in nice homes, between nice people, it is not always expressed politely.

The story of Kate and Eve’s relationship plays out against the backdrop of a worsening climate disaster. Given its slim dimensions, Ghost Species contains an incredibly dense narrative that describes the climate’s collapse from a multitude of perspectives. In the hands of a more florid writer, it could have stretched into a sprawling, multi-volume epic. However, Bradley writes at breakneck speed, his beautiful description limited to succinct, needle-sharp language. By keeping it brief, he conveys a terrifyingly visceral experience of climate collapse. The path he illustrates from our current crisis through to full-scale apocalypse is frighteningly plausible:

That year it feels as though winter will never arrive, the autumn lingering, unbroken, through May and June and into July. The plants and birds are thrown into confusion: in the branches, parrots and pardalotes cry plaintively into the darkness of the evenings instead of heading north to their winter homes; in the trees near their house rosella chicks call urgently in their nests, a late brood that will surely die when the cold eventually arrives, as it must. Even the trees react unpredictably, the natives flowering spontaneously, months out of season, the exotics either keeping their leaves or turning in the most half-hearted way, their confusion lending the wooded approaches to the city a curiously piebald look. In the mountains, fires smoulder, the smell of smoke and ash never far away.

Perhaps most unsettling and effective are Bradley’s constant reminders that time is not on our side:

Each week brings worse news about the hastening changes in the north, images of sinkholes and rivers collapsing through the earth, of the melting corpses of ancient animals rising from the ground, as if the past is intruding, ghostlike and uncanny, into the present, and time is hastening, hastening, hastening.

Passages such as these are enhanced with interwoven descriptions of current aberrant climate phenomena: fires constantly burn on the mainland, once-in-a-lifetime tropical storms decimate coastal communities on an annual basis. Bradley transitions from present-day Australia to one on the brink of apocalypse with shocking ease, mirroring the unfocused chaos of reality as he does – characters drop in and out without a word, grand plans come to nothing without sentimentality or fanfare. The sickly, nauseous dread aroused by much of Ghost Species is as intense as anything inspired by Neville Shute’s seminal work of Australian apocalypse literature, On the Beach.

Bradley and Shute also share an ability to evoke the Australian landscape with stunning clarity. The Tasmanian setting gives the novel a harsh and rugged character, its position at the bottom of the world providing both a haven and a trap for his protagonists amid the ensuing disaster:

Once, years ago, she read a poem about the islands to the south – Macquarie, Heard, Kergelen – and was brought to a halt by the description of them forming ‘full stops to sentences about the end of the world’. Perhaps something similar is true of here, she thinks, this place suspended at the end of things. Or perhaps everywhere is like that now, as the world rushes on, towards disaster.

Ghost Species develops into a series of little narratives that at times appear disconnected, but whose themes ultimately lie flush with the bigger picture. It’s a story of extinction and control on vastly different scales – Kate and Eve navigate the impossibility of their relationship as humankind has the climate steering wheel yanked from its hands. Penguin has marketed this book as a sci-fi/coming-of-age drama, but that’s underselling it – it’s an exceptionally effective and motivating illustration of the impending climate calamity. It’s a cliché, but reading it is like watching a car crash, except the car contains not just the book’s protagonists, but the rest of humanity. Start this book because it’s an absorbing and highly entertaining work of speculative fiction. Finish it because it will shake from you any residual apathy about what’s currently happening to the planet.

James Bradley Ghost Species Hamish Hamilton 2020 PB 288pp $29.99

James McKenzie Watson writes short and novel-length fiction. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. Find him at and follow him on Twitter @JamesMcWatson

You can buy Ghost Species from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.