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One people December 29, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, meta, reviews.
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[Spoilers for Victor Kelleher’s book Parkland.]

‘We are all one people,’ Cassie tells her friends, Ralph and Boxer, repeatedly throughout Victor Kelleher’s book, Parkland. This would be unremarkable, except that Ralph is a half-human, half-gorilla much more comfortable with the gorilla side of his nature, while Boxer is a human-chimpanzee hybrid who struggles against his society’s dismissal of him as an animal not worthy of the human consciousness he possesses.

All three are inhabitants of Parkland, a future vision of our Earth made more chilling by its very plausibility. Parkland is a zoo whose inmates are all apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons – and humans. The keepers are humanoid but not human, and they keep the zoo’s population in check with the aid of leopogs, vicious dog-leopard hybrids. The visitors to Parkland are all animals – tigers, giraffes and so on – but they have a strangely human consciousness behind their eyes. The human residents of Parkland are, for the most part, content. The walls of Parkland provide them with food, medicine, clothing and every other material comfort. In Parkland, they are safe and civilised, unlike the savage humans of the BC (‘Before Cage’) era.

Cassie and her friends reject Parkland and everything it stands for. When they discover the keepers wrestling an unknown boy into the enclosures, they realise that they’ve been lied to all their lives: there is a world beyond Parkland’s walls, and there are free people living there. They become determined to escape.

But the feral humans are not the answer to their prayers. They are violent, harsh and believe in survival at all costs, a reflection of the savage, hunted lives they must live. The ferals reject Ralph and Boxer as abominations. And Cassie and her friends have other problems: Leon (as the feral boy is called) was implanted with a tracking device by the Parkland keepers as a means to signal the leopogs, which are to cull the feral population. Cassie, accompanied by her friends and Leon, realises that she must return to Parkland and confront its keepers. It is at this confrontation that she realises the true history of Parkland. Its keepers are aliens who view themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance of life on every planet in the universe. They have visited Earth twice: once to annihilate the dinosaur population (‘an evolutionary cul-de-sac’) and once to prevent human beings from destroying all other life on their planet. The result of that second visit was, of course, Parkland. After many tribulations, the worst of the keepers are killed, leaving Edwards, one of their ‘scientist class’, to work with the humans and the other apes to make Parkland a place of harmony, where the old human knowledge is retained but not abused.

Parkland is absolutely ruthless in its exploration of Kelleher’s main concerns: humanity, responsibility and freedom, and it’s worth examining just what conclusions the book reaches in terms of these three main themes.

Humanity. At its heart, Kelleher’s concern here is with what exactly constitutes a human being. Ultimately he leaves us with a definition of humanity that is quite fluid. Cassie, with all the zeal of an activist, passionately believes that all apes are ‘one people’. In her worldview, there are the people – the inhabitants of Parkland – and the others, the keepers who oppress and imprison them. In thinking thus, she is actually strikingly similar to the keepers themselves, who view all the inhabitants of Parkland as ‘the apes’, and think of themselves as elevated beings. (These two viewpoints consciously evoke colonialism to a great extent, of course.) Clarke, one of the keepers, even accuses his fellow-keeper Edwards of ‘going native’.

‘You’ve been in this body too long, d’you know that? It’s getting to you. You’re beginning to think like the apes.’

‘Maybe I am,’ Edwards conceded, ‘but then maybe that’s not the worst thing that can happen to us while we’re here.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning it’s a pity you haven’t been affected by the body you’re in.’ […]

He [Edwards] was standing at the gallery railing, holding both hands up before him as though studying them. ‘Me?’ she [Cassie] heard him murmur. Next he ran his hands slowly down his face, like a blind man examining his own features. ‘Me?’ he murmured again. ‘Me?’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 204 and 206.

 

The ferals, on the other hand, have a harsh, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ view of humanity. Apes are certainly not human beings. And human beings are not compassionate. They are Darwinist, survive-at-all costs, brutal individuals. The humans in Parkland are little better than collaborators in their own oppression.

Responsiblity Ultimately, although the ferals believe the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to survive (they take this to extremes, abandoning the weak members of their society in the face of attacks), Kelleher is arguing here that the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to be humane. Like most dystopian science-fiction, Parkland is written with a very strong warning to contemporary society in mind: maintain a balance, rein in our destructive and consumerist impulses, or suffer the horrific consequences. We can see, with the ferals, how strong the human urge to dominate and destroy can be. Even in the face of obliteration at the hands of the leopogs, Leon is still talking about the BC age as one of achievement and mastery:

‘But there wasn’t any civilisation,’ she [Cassie] objected. ‘Not until we were taken into Parkland.’

‘They probably told you that to keep you quiet,’ he [Leon] sneered. ‘I’d rather trust the stories, about how we could fly and build things, and how we could live in one place and didn’t have to run all the time. That was before the coming of the leopogs.’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, p. 127.

 

Freedom In Parkland, as in the other books of this trilogy, Kelleher links the concepts of responsibility and freedom together very tightly. This makes a lot of sense, as these are, of course, the impulses in humanity that constantly war with one another. The ostensible message of the book is that we are not free to do what we want, because the darker aspects of humanity would cause us to destroy ourselves. However – and this is what makes Kelleher truly remarkable as a writer for children, especially in the late ’80s – the book is more ambiguous than that.

It’s about cages – both physical and metaphorical. Who is more free – the Parklanders, who are secure, comfortable and safe, with every physical need taken care of – the ferals, or the apes, who lack a human consciousness and thus bear no responsibility for their actions? The book ends with Cassie and her friends poised on the brink of a new future, with Parkland a haven, rather than a prison, with the knowledge of the old times available to all who seek it, including the chimp-human hybrid Boxer. But Cassie’s qualms about Boxer’s enthusiasm for the old human knowledge (and the rapacious nature that bent it to destructive ends) undermine the book’s hopeful ending. Ultimately, Kelleher seems to be saying that to be truly responsible and free, to be truly human, is to be free to make mistakes.

Kelleher’s concern with maintaining balance and harmony on earth, as well as between the warring human impulses to create and destroy, finds further expression in the next book of the trilogy, Earthsong, which I will be discussing next. I look forward to seeing you all soon for the next installment of Victor Kelleher Week!

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