If there’s one thing humanity has fund itself particularly adept at, and this is not a cause for blue ribbons or backslapping with gusto, it is placing itself on a gleaming pedestal and fancying itself as some sort of nature-ordering deity.
You can trace that god-like fascination to religions like Christianity which place us, rather handily if you’re an avid, all-conquering 18th century colonial power or a capitalist bend on avariciously-using the world’s resources to your inestimable benefit, at the very centre of creation; or perhaps, we simply looked around a while back, saw no one else was grabbing tools or speaking with quite the alacrity we were, and erroneously concluded we were IT.
Whatever the cause of our ample self-confidence as a species, we’ve ended up full of our own self-importance, a state of being which Amy Lilwall, beautifully and damningly, in prose that hides its damning iron fist of judgement inside a gorgeously-written velvet glove, explores in ways intimate and confronting in The Biggerers.
What makes her take on the hubris of humanity so palatable, if you like, is the way she introduces a thoroughly-unique idea into her narrative, one with roots in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series, in which near-future people in the early 22nd century have acquired “pets” that look just like us, only much smaller (about 1/3 metre tall).
“He’d felt strange that time when she talked about his thing like that. He didn’t like talking about what was different about them, but at the same time, he did like to think about it. And look at it. She wasn’t allowed to know that he liked that. He didn’t know why she wasn’t allowed to know; but she wasn’t.” (P. 47)
Released to an eager public as companions for the old or for children as instillers of all kinds of good, life-affirming values, the Littlers as they’re known to each other and to society as a whole – we are, not unreasonably, and rather accurately, known as “biggerers”, hence the playfully-evocative title – they are treated with varying degrees of humanity by people who either seem them as pets, with the deeply-lamentable range of responses that concept engenders, or as surrogate family members.
In other words, they are considered, for better or worse, and there is, just as there is now with dogs and cats, as much abuse as there is selfless love, mere playthings, non-speaking, dumber creatures who make for ideal companionship and momentary diversion but who are ultimately not our equals.
How could they be?
Well, the dirty secret uncovered by central protagonists Susan and her emotionally-diffident psychologist boyfriend of five years Hamish, who is finding himself falling for his patient Emma, is that they are far more human than the company who released them to the world would care to admit.
In fact, it’s not a slip of the PR tongue or some blunder by the blab that makes this patently obvious; rather it’s the growing self-realisation of the Littlers, such as Susan and Hamish’s Bonbon and Jinx (and her boyfriend Chips), heartwarmingly devoted to each other, that they might be just as human as us, only smaller.
It’s the emergent self-knowing humanity of the Littlers that give The Biggerers so much of its considerable intellectual heft and every bit as importantly, it’s huge, enormous heart.
Lilywall seemingly effortlessly creates an awareness, both within their ranks and ours that the Littlers are delightfully, disarmingly and joyously human – possessed of the capacity not just for speech and reasoning, which they possess in abundance despite supposed programming to the contrary, but for love, sexual desire – this discovery in particular is presented as a thing of sweet innocent fun rather anything grubbily prurient – and connection, the likes of which we think, once again, are our sole preserve.
As our idea of what the Littlers are, and what they increasingly know themselves to be, come crashing into each other, again in the most exquisitely-lovely but richly and intelligently-explored of ways, Lilywall examines some fairly of-the-moment issues such as whether our ability to genetically play around with creation as a whole, and ourselves particularly, is something we should do just because we can.
“She stopped rubbing her eyes and squinted up at him. The night before he’d seemed disappointed with the lack of information she had for him. He did ask some pretty good questions like: did you ask if they’d had any demonstration of communication since taking the two littlers? Did they realize that Jinx hadn’t actually communicated? It was only a squawk, really …” (P. 397)
The Biggerers is not exclusively some sort of treatise on the ability of technology and human advancement to both bless and curse as one, but it is definitely, and how could it not be in the right hands (Lilwall’s are most definitely the right ones, trust me), an issue ripe for dissection as we hurtle, most safeties off, into the Moreau-like waters of genetic possibility.
For what is often left out of discussions such as these, save for the ethicists and moral philosophers around us, is what comes unknowingly from playing god?
Snug and secure, so we think, atop our long-assumed ivory tower of Homo Sapiens superiority, we often fail to understand the effect we have on the natural world around us, or that other creatures such as dolphins and cousins like the chimpanzee may be closer to us in spirit and execution than we are willing to admit.
Lilwall takes this idea and runs with it, crafting a story ripe with ethical dilemmas aplenty and judgement copious – again, she writes with such accessible sophistication and elegance, that you never feel as if you’re in the midst of a literary polemic – but also one that grabs the heart in ways that you simply don’t see coming.
The Littlers, who are the heart of this story in ways that far belie their diminutive stature, will win you over near-instantly with their guileless innocence and trust, the possessors of every last bit of the best parts of ourselves who come to understand that their lot in life, is far more profound that they have known up to this point.
It’s their journey towards self-knowingness and understanding, and that of the enlightened, caring people who choose to come along with them and aid them, that invests The Biggerers with an emotional resonance so big and arrestingly-beautiful and deeply-engaging that you will come to understand that our self-placed assurance that we are the kings and queens of the hill may not, in fact, be the full story, especially when it is one, in our arrogance, that we have written ourselves.