Going Ape 

Environmental activist Kelpie Wilson envisions ape-human hybrids.

Sarah Carrigan is pregnant with a bonobo's baby. After being fired -- in the first pages of Kelpie Wilson's novel Primal Tears (Frog, $13.95) -- for teaching evolution at an Oregon high school, Sarah joins an experimental program that aims to boost the endangered apes' gene pool by incubating bonobo embryos in human wombs. Along with the two embryos inserted in Sarah, a bit of spare jism sneaked in, stowawaylike. It fertilized her egg, so after a sixteen-hour labor, amid talk of goddesses, a furry, flat-faced child is born with big buttocks, handlike feet, and a "slight brow ridge, like a baby Neanderthal." Raised in rural seclusion, far from prying eyes and from a hostile posse calling itself the Kristian Kommand, little Sage grows up into an animal-rights activist who might just save the world.

"I've always been an avid reader of anthropology and biology," says Wilson, who was the first female auto mechanic in Austin, Texas, before becoming a Berkeley mechanical engineer. She designed cryocoolers on a government defense contract before quitting to join Earth First!, whose Exxon Valdez cleanup campaign in Alaska she helped direct.

"With all the new information coming out about our genetic closeness to chimpanzees" -- data that puts humans and chimps as close as donkeys and horses -- "I started to wonder ... why can't we interbreed?" A real live ape-human hybrid, she thought, would shake up Homo sapiens' assumptions that our species is superior. "From there I went through a brief -- very brief -- personal fantasy about trying the experiment on myself. Luckily I then had the idea that I could just write about it."

Writing good fiction means inhabiting imaginary characters' heads. But how to inhabit the head of someone who isn't all human? Sage swings from trees, nurses an "endless" sexual craving, sports vaginal lips that are swollen and "hard with tumescence," and is mistaken by a grizzled miner for Bigfoot. Wilson says Charles Darwin helped. Noting that the London Zoo's orangutans displayed the same facial expressions as his own children, the famous evolutionist concluded that similar emotions drive both species: "So I found that the best way to approach Sage's frame of mind," Wilson says, "was to sit at my computer and make faces corresponding to the emotions she might feel in a particular situation."

Such as when the Kristian Kommand comes after her, feds in tow, ranting that "humans were made in God's image" while "Satan was a hybrid" -- half beast. Sage seeks shelter first with friendly Yuroks, then a kindly professor who studies sexual bonding among orcas -- his boat is called the Orcasm -- then a family of bears in the woods, with whom she eats carcasses and ant larvae.

As her mother Sarah notes, "Sage had become a woman. She had also become an ape." And what an effect she has: "Everyone who hangs around you gets really horny," notes Sage's disabled boyfriend. He's jealous because she also sleeps with a female member of their radical confab, Tree Nation. And with his best friend. And with some other guys. But she's soaring toward fame, lecturing about bonobos and swinging on ropes in a sequined bikini as the opening act for a half-British, half-Pakistani pop star who plays the marimba while screaming, "I am a Pict! A Fairy, a Leprechaun! I am one of the little brown people. We were in England first. We were in America first."

Writing about the fictional Tree Nation, whose teenage members plan actions while living on platforms poised in forest boughs, wasn't such a stretch for Wilson. After organizing Redwood Summer antilogging protests in 1990, she became executive director of the Siskiyou Project, an Oregon eco-defense group. In the process, she grew outraged at the popular concept that humans are "somehow immune from the law of nature. ... I ran smack into the cruder form of this attitude on the part of loggers who just could not understand how a stupid owl, a lower life form, could threaten their livelihood."

Less drawn from experience was a scene in which pregnant Sarah tenderly embraces a bonobo named Dexter, her babydaddy. Their chests meet: "The long hair on his back was like rough silk in her stroking hands." His erect organ pops through the mesh of his cage, "brushing her thighs. She felt a warm flood of arousal between her legs, gasped and pulled away from him, but his eyes drew her close again."

"Well," Wilson muses. "What can I say? I came of age in the 1970s. My friends in high school were passing around copies of The Happy Hooker. There was a scene where [author Xaviera Hollander] makes it with a German shepherd. It was both funny and gross. But the scene with Dexter and Sarah is more like what anyone might experience who has a loving relationship with a pet. You can express love and affection with a dog, for instance, and suddenly find the animal is humping your leg. He has a different idea about the interaction than you do, but since dogs take sexuality less seriously than we do, for him maybe it's not that much different from any other expression of affection."

Bonobos are the beasts du jour. Social critics laud them for having so much sex, some of it bi, much of it face to face, and for being a female-dominant species whose males would rather boink than fight. It's not the boinking that matters most to Wilson. "The big news about bonobos is not the sex but their peacefulness. People crave peace and bonobos show us how one peaceful primate society is organized. Human aggression is destroying the planet. Bonobos are a brand-new story."


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