Charles Feynman Rutherford, the son of scientists, was named after scientists, and was expected to become a scientist. But Charlie is growing up in a world were science is being taught less and less. Science is being replaced by Christian Living classes, “… all about fear and flat earth, and we were taught that evolution and dinosaurs were dangerous theories”. And he is growing up in a world where people are changing.
His father has been investigating the changes to humans, the accelerated alterations to their DNA which is making them muscle-bound, smelly, and keen on physical sports and evangelical church meetings. But when Charlie’s father dies under suspicious circumstances, Charlie is left alone with his distraught mother. School is a nightmare, home is bleak. And then his mother disappears.
His mother’s disappearance isn’t that unusual; people are disappearing all over the place. Charlie decides to keep his head down and carry on alone. But then he is visited by Ngaire, a woman who claims to have been friends with Charlies’ parents. She persuades him to go and stay with her and her husband, Alan, and two other rescued teenagers; Ivy and Pru. Charlie once again experiences a kind of family-life. He starts surreptitiously making notes from Alan’s computer, trying to continue his parents’ work working out what is causing the changes in humans. He feels paper will be a more reliable record, as electronic information about the human change is disappearing, with the Internet getting smaller by the day.
Charlie, Ivy and Pru find that school is a nightmare of violent bullying, and there are fewer and fewer human kids to blend in with. Charlie sees that when change happens relatively slowly, odd things can start to feel normal. At his old school people were in denial about the human change, in his new one there is open talk of ‘the Neanderthals’. And it isn’t only the outside changes in Charlie’s world that are bothering him, his hormones are getting jittery, as he is constantly near two young, interesting, women.
The world keeps changing for the threesome, they consider ‘passing’ as Neands to be less of a target, they even wonder if just giving up and becoming Neands might be that bad. They experience the most heart-breaking incident at a zoo. Charlie realises that if you don’t intervene as soon as you know something is wrong, you start being part of the problem, and “I got that if everything went wrong, sometimes it stayed wrong”. But they also become aware that there are still people secretly working to rectify the changes. When things take a turn for the worse with Ngaire and Alan, the three take off together.
As well as the genetic changes around them, the kids are also in the world of devastating climate change, and while sheltering from a violent storm they end up in a church offering food and shelter to the needy. They start running with a couple of boys from the shelter, and Charlie has a chat with an artist who finds himself in a world with no art, and Charlie starts to think that human DNA might be the culprit as much as any remnant of Neanderthal DNA: “How did we come to this – the species that gave the world Shakespeare and space travel and sour worms”. Charlie’s notes are interspersed through the narrative and give a picture of human-caused disasters.
The reader of Neands (unfortunately) recognises the Neands’ behaviour: bullies at school, Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol, idiots taunting animals incarcerated in zoos … The teenagers are great characters, especially Charlie. He is angry that he must grow up so quickly, angry at adults “I was only fourteen. We were only kids. Where were all the bloody adults?” – angry at them for leaving their kids, for creating the ecological mess that is his world. He has a conscience, always arguing with himself and others about the right thing to do.
Neands is a debut novel, and is a cracking adventure story, and a scientific mystery, and a moving read about a group of lovely teenagers: “Before things changed, we would have been the type of kids who did well at school, the science monitors, library assistants, drama club or band members; a bit geeky, but the cool geeks”. There is a glimmer of hope; the teenagers are good in water, and the Neands hate water. And there is also a glimmer of a sequel! Neands is a YA novel but would be enjoyed by all ages.