Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is the first (and probably only) book I’ve ever read that was narrated by a microorganism. Funny enough, this isn’t the strangest thing about the novel. This novel imagines a world in which animals, from lions and house cats to mice and badgers to flies, start to behave like humans. They stop hunting each other (except for some hold out species) and start social networking, data-mining, building homes, breeding hybrid, species, running food stands, suing each other, and other activities. Downdrift is very much a thought experiment and, while it probably didn’t have to be as long as it is, still offers plenty to intrigue readers.
Our narrator is an Archaeon, a very old type of single-celled organism. Because it has colonies across the planet—and because connections between animals species are rapidly growing during the downdrift—it is able to follow two cats as they wander the world on their way to meet up. Only Callie the house cat has a name. The other cat, a male lion, ends up traveling across oceans to briefly meet Callie. The meeting isn’t really the point of this book; it really just gives the rest of the narrative something to hang on to as it primarily consists of vignettes.
In short scenes, most only a couple of paragraphs long, the Archaeon, the lion, and Callie encounter species from bacteria to elephants in the grip of downdrift. No one knows what caused so many species to start adopting the behaviors of humans that aren’t essential for life or reproduction. Callie and the lion frequently have to fight against their biological needs to adapt to the fact that prey species can no longer be hunted without serious social and legal repercussions. They’re hungry a lot of the time in this book and, being cats, they’re not temperamentally suited to work. (A brief scene about archivist cats sleeping on piles of unsorted documents made me laugh.) So, they wander and observe and steal food when they can.
One of the main characters in this book is an East African lion.
(Image via Wikicommons)
Seeing all these animals trying to adopt law, clothing, and the rest highlights how strange most of human behavior really is. More, it shows how unnecessarily complicated and dysfunctional our ways are. We’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days. Downdrift doesn’t argue that the animals—including Homo sapiens—need to revert to the old ways. After all, nature is red in tooth and claw most of the time. But I think it argues for an examination of these activities to see if they’re beneficial or not.
It’s hard for me to see Downdrift as anything other than a slightly overgrown thought experiment. Unlike most thought experiments that I’ve read, however, I genuinely enjoyed this one. It’s probably best read in small doses, so that readers have time to ponder the many ideas this book touches on. Reading it all in one go risks catching a dose of the melancholy that infects the elephants and tigers. Because, if nothing else, Downdrift forces us to ask questions about how much our ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed, and whether it’s possible to put things right again.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.