Friday, April 20, 2012

An old favorite...

Carnegie Medal Shortlist

Eva by Peter Dickinson


Future world, grossly overpopulated. A girl, horrendously injured in a road accident, is given the body of chimpanzee to replace her human body and let her continue living. But her new body brings with it elements of the chimpanzee nature to which she then has to adjust, and at the same time cope with the attempts of powerful commercial interests to exploit her unique status. (1988)

Eva is the winner of the 2008 Phoenix Award.



80% of my mail, almost all of it from the USA, is about this one book. This baffles me.
I had no intention of writing Eva when I fed the first blank sheet into my typewriter. After my failure to do what I'd originally intended with Merlin Dreams (see below), I still wanted to explore the development of one of our major myths, and thought I'd try and do something with the various First Women that people have imagined at different times — Eve of course, and the shadowy figures of classical myth, and as many of the other cultural traditions I could find and work in, as well as "African Eve", the single unknown ancestress whom mitochondrial research suggests must have existed in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago. (This was news at the time, and the papers were full of her, though of course they got a lot of the science wrong.)
I set my framework story in the future, when the Eve myth would have dwindled to a cheap TV cartoon. My heroine was going to have to time-travel to meet these women, (one woman, really, repeated and repeated) but I didn't want a time machine because they tend to take over. Dreams are unsatisfying, so the best I could think of was a coma. A scientist talked me out of the bit of fake genetics I'd dreamed up, about the human genome starting to break down. I now wish I'd stuck with it, but perhaps the car crash was simpler to handle. My heroine needed to be familiar with apes, so that she could relate to the proto-ancestress she was going to call on, millions of years back. And so on.
I had very little by way of plot, so to start myself thinking about it I settled down to get the set-up written, this kid waking up from her coma...
I'd done about half a dozen pages, messing around, waiting for something to suggest itself, when my body gave a violent physical twitch, and my hair seemed to stand on end. My God, I thought, I know what they've done to her! And from then on I was writing Eva.
After that my whole attention went into getting the story and idea to work. The stuff about animal rights, for instance, is there because it is necessary to the story and so has to be honestly dealt with, because it's a subject of serious moral importance. I agree with the line I took, though I'd like to have given the other side a bit more of a say, but it isn't why I wrote the book.


The door opened and shut, and Mum was standing by the bed. She was pale. Her mass of hair was a mess, with a lot of grey showing in the glossy black. There were hard lines down beside her nostrils. She looked as though she hadn't slept for a year. Her smile wasn't real.
"Hello, my darling," she whispered. "I'm sorry I'm late. How are you today?"
She bent and kissed Eva on her numb forehead. A strand of her hair trailed across Eva's face. It didn't tickle, because the face was numb too, but Eva automatically closed that eye to let it pass. Mum turned away to fetch the tall stool so that she could sit by the bed where Eva could see her direct. Eva's eyelids still moved rather sluggishly, so she didn't open the shut one at once.
She opened it and closed the other one. Then the first again. Mum had come back now and slid her hand under the bedclothes to grasp Eva's own hand.
"What are you doing, you funny girl.?"
Eva answered the cool grip with a squeeze, but she could feel Mum's jumpiness, and hear the false note in the lightness she tried to put into her voice. Her hand was wrong too. Too small. Deep in the nightmare now Eva stared up into Mum's questioning eyes. They were wrong too, something different about the colour. She forced herself to close one eye again, and then the other, squinting inwards as she did so.
Her nose was gone.
Most of the time you don't see your nose at all, but if you shut one eye and look sideways there it is, that fuzzy hummock, too close to focus. It was gone. At the lower rim of vision she could see the vague blur of a cheek and at the top the darker fringe of an eyebrow, much more noticeable -- much more there -- that it used to be...
Mum wasn't even pretending to smile now.
Eva closed both eyes and willed the nightmare into day. The accident. Her whole face must have got so badly smashed that they couldn't rebuild it, or not yet, anyway. They were keeping it numb so that it didn't hurt. Her jaw and mouth must be so bad that she wouldn't be able to speak properly for ages -- never perhaps -- so they'd made her her voice-box instead. They didn't want her to see herself in the mirror...
She wriggled her fingers out of Mum's grip and slowly found the right keys. No point in fussing with tones. She pressed the "Speak" bar.
"Let me see," said her voice, dead flat.
"Darling..." croaked Mum.
A whisper rustled in the speaker by her ear. She stopped to listen. Eva pressed out another message. "Let me see. Or I'll go mad. Wondering."
"She's right," said Mum to the air. "No, it's too late... No."
The murmur started again. Eva gripped Mum's hand again and closed her eyes. Why was the hand so small? Had her own hand... The thumb was all wrong! Why hadn't she noticed? It was...
Without her touching the eyes the mirror-motor whined. She kept her eyes closed until it stopped.
"I love you, darling," said Mum. "I love you."
Eva willed her eyes to open.
For an instant all she seemed to see was nightmare. Mess. A giant spider-web, broken and tangled on the pillows with the furry black body of the spider dead in the middle of it. And then the mess made sense.
She closed her right eye and watched the brown left eye in the mirror close as she did so. The web -- it wasn't broken -- was tubes and sensor-wires connecting the machines around the bed to the pink-and-black thing in the centre. She stared. Her mind wouldn't work. She couldn't think, only feel -- feel Mum's tension, Mum's grief, as much as her own amazement. Poor Mum -- her lovely blue-eyed daughter... Must do something for Mum. She found the right keys.
"OK," said her voice. "It's OK, Mum."
"Oh, my darling," said Mum, and started to cry. That was OK too. Mum cried easily, usually when the worst was over. Eva stared at the face in the mirror. She'd recognized it at once, but couldn't give it a name. Then it came. Carefully she pressed the keys. She used the tone control to sound cheerful.
"Hi, Kelly," said her voice.
Kelly was -- had been -- a young female chimpanzee.