Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: Experiment at Proto

Book Review: 'Experiment at Proto' by Philip Oakes

3 / 5 Stars

Philip Oakes (1928 - 2005) was a UK reporter, poet, and writer; 'Experiment at Proto' was his only sci-fi novel. 'Experiment' first was published in hardback in 1973; this Avon paperback was published in April, 1975. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel is set in rural England in the early 70s. Mark Barrow, a zoologist, and his wife Biddy have just arrived from California; Mark is taking a position at the Proto Animal Nutrition Corporation. Although Proto's profits come from sales of its animal feeds, Barrow's job is to assist with Proto's distinctive research unit, labeled 'Contact', which enjoys private  funding by a wealthy widow named Monica Deely. 

Widow Deely, it seems, is obsessed with teaching chimpanzees to speak, particularly her former pet, an older male chimp named Otto. With Deely's bankrolling, the Contact group is a recognized world leader in research into the nascent field of human - animal communication.

The narrative, while easily moving from one character to another, primarily focuses on Mark Barrow's adventures working under the direction Contact's esteemed director, Dr Francis Hoover. As Barrow begins experiments to determine if the chimps housed at Contact are indeed capable of speaking, he finds himself drawn into administrative rivalries and office politics, endeavors that are passionately pursued by Proto's senior personnel.

The narrative spends nearly as much time covering the domestic dramas endured by Biddy Barrow, who, as a new, 'stay at home' mother, is obliged to interact with the wives of the other Contact researchers.

As the plot unfolds, Mark Barrow discovers that his predecessor, a man named Ryman, was dismissed from Contact under mysterious circumstances. Ryman, however, is not content to go quietly into the night, but in fact may be deranged, introducing an element of danger into the goings-on at Contact. 

Complicating matters is the antics of a crusading Member of Parliment, who seeks to investigate accusations of animal abuse at Proto. 

Mark Barrow finds himself having to put out figurative fires both in the workplace and in his home life. But the biggest drama of all has yet to play out, for it seems that Otto may not be the ordinary chimp everyone assumes him to be...............  

I finished 'Experiment at Proto' with mixed emotions. The sci-fi elements of the novel are superficial, and the Big Revelation that is promised by the cover blurbs is underwhelming. 'Experiment' is at heart a melodrama about the wives and lives of research scientists and company adminstrators; it's not a subject I would find particularly engrossing. However, author Oakes writes about these topics with a smooth, sophisticated style that mixes in enough glimpses of dark humor and (later) sharp violence to keep the narrative from becoming overwrought.

Summing up, if you're willing to read a character-driven novel that adroitly captures life in the UK in the early 70s, then 'Experiment' is reasonably engaging. Those hoping for a UK version of Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States, or Michael Stewart's Monkeyshines, likely will want to look elsewhere.

2 comments:

Deepak Yadav said...

I read your blog post and it sounds good for me. I am excited to read full story of novel. So I will download eBook copy for me and read the story when I got spare time.

Deepak Yadav said...

I read your blog post and it sounds good for me. I am excited to read full story of novel. So I will download eBook copy for me and read the story when I got spare time.