The Human Son by Adrian J. Walker
Paperback 500 pages
Published April 2020 by Solaris
At the risk of sound hyperbolic, The Human Son is a beautiful example of powerful, thoughtful, and carefully crafted speculative fiction. It is kind of impossible not to think of this novel without taking massive swings at the nature of humanity, parenthood, and the existence of the species itself. On the surface, this novel is CLI-FI set five and a half centuries from now after the last breath of a single human was taken in Sweden.
Don’t be too sad about it this happening, it was the plan, besides you and I are not exactly doing enough to prevent this future. Are we?
The Human Son is the third novel I have read by Adrian Walker who I discovered like many other people - when Stephen King tweeted that he had a great find at the Toronto airport. That book was Walker’s novel End of the World Running Club. It is a nerve-racking suspense-filled novel that feels like a journey for the reader as much as the characters. The book is almost 500 pages but it is a quick read and the story cooks. Once the main characters take off on their run that drives the story, the journey not only explores survival but themes of family and the limits of endurance.
I also read Last Dog on Earth which I liked but I had a hard time with large sections of the book being in a dog’s first-person narrative. It pushed my suspension of disbelief a little too far. That said Walker won my attention fully with Running Club. Also, the elevator pitch of A Dog’s Purpose meets The Road is pretty crazy awesome.
Walker really enjoys the end of the world. Those first two novels are more fun suspense-driven but here Walker delivered a thoughtful masterpiece of Sci-fi. What Walker brings is narratives that are driven by deeply felt emotional moments. In Running Club, this really invested the reader. This story doesn’t have the action and suspense driving it, however, that doesn’t matter I was fully engaged. It could be that the themes hit my buttons but I was still very invested in the characters. The theme of family biological or otherwise appears to be the thread that ties Walker’s work together.
I do come to this book from a weird angle. In many ways, The Human Son is about parenthood, and environmentalism, as a person who did choose not to have children in part because of ecological reasons this book hit me differently than most. It is about parenthood and in that sense, I can intellectually understand but I am sure some of that feeling is lost. I think the balance of frustrations and joy that are the yin and yang experience of growing a human is a huge part of this story.
The majority of the characters are from a subhuman species the Erta who was genetically engineered by some of the last humans with the purpose of rehabbing the earth to make it livable again. The Erta is hyper-intelligent, strong, and don’t have to deal with as many emotions and hangs as we do. They specialize and over their long lives, they accomplished their goals.
For 500 years they lived in a small community in Sweden and managed to fix the climate crisis and now they have a dilemma. Should they reintroduce the human race? The test will be Reed one human boy and he will be raised by an Erta Ima. Her specialty was cleaning the sky, and now her work is done. After years of traveling by Balloon, her new purpose raises the lone human.
Thus begins a journey of motherhood that is at times both alien and very relatable. There are moments of very natural parental reaction. The conflict of the final act is unavoidable. Despite being predictable but since I was invested and into the story it still worked perfectly for me. Of course, some of Erta objects to the human child. After seeing the paradise earth has become it is not a surprise that some of Erta don’t see the value in the human race. Not to say there is not a twist or surprises but the path there is clear.
On a technical level, the prose of this novel is tricky, slipping naturally from second person to first person and back and forth. The reason is Ima is writing this book for Reed. Normally I am not a huge fan of first-person and one of those reasons is a bit of a problem here. We know Reed and Ima survive for her to write and for him to read it. That said the way the story is told to Reed and the reader by proxy is so wonderful I fell into the flow of the novel easily.
The debate over Reed bubbles up on page 336 when Benedikt who is Erta admits that the child was engineered with challenges that made failure more likely. Ima experiences the challenges most parents feel when their child faces natural challenges. The differences between the Erta and flawed humans because the basis of the debate.
“Don’t you see Ima? It had to be this way. You and I were born in clear tanks with clear minds and a clear purpose. Reed’s species crawled from the mud into a world that wanted to kill them, and no idea how to live in it. Utopia is no place for them to prove themselves.”
Every parent wants their children to have everything they want and need. The pain of seeing your kids struggle is hard. Walker also faced the trouble of how do you set a story in a utopia, well it has to fall. It is a sad narrative reality but Reed had to be the oil poisoning the clear water. With their mission done there is no place for Reed in the future of Erta who plans to leave earth and Transcend. The question is do humans deserve to live?
“I have spent my life planning transcendence, five centuries planning our escape from this rock. We don’t belong here, Ima, not in this place of beasts or hurricanes. But they do. This is where they thrive in dark places.”
There is a heartbreaking moment that is a bit of a spoiler so you might want to avoid this comment if you don’t want to know. In the last pages of the book (428) Reed learns that some of the Erta is determined not to let him survive. Early in the book, we know that the humans mostly agreed to the extinction in hopes the Erta would bring them back. That was the plan. One of the most heartbreaking moments is when Reed faced the end pleads with Ima that some humans must have survived, or hidden.
“What about underground? Or high in the mountains? Space? They had rockets. Maybe a different planet.”
“It is not possible.”
“It must be. I can’t be alone.”
All Ima can do at that point is say is that she is sorry.
The Human Son is a great example of cli-fi and an important entry in the subgenre. It is a novel about parenthood but also the weight of choice to have children in an overpopulated and resource stressed world. I don’t know if that was Walker’s intention but it felt that way to me.
“Like it or not Reed you are human.”
“I don’t feel human,” You sat up and pointed at the projector. “I’ve seen them on that thing. They were monsters. All those bombs and guns, all those wars.”
“All the fighting you mean?” Your eyes found a cornerin which to sulk. I walked to the window and pulled the blinds. “Anyway, that’s not the only thing they did.”
I could be wrong but it seems this debate is at the heart of this novel's mission statement. It walks the line like a tightrope between dystopia and utopia. At the heart is Science fiction at its best. Making us think deeply about the world today through the lens of tomorrow. Great stuff. Read it, please.