Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review - The Testament of Jesse Lamb by Jane Rogers

Short review: The population of the entire world is stricken with a disease that causes pregnant women to die horribly, but the most important thing to focus on is the adolescent angst of sixteen year old Jessie Lamb.

Pregnant women die
Teenagers are activists
Suicide by birth

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb was the winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award and was also long-listed for the Booker prize. It features a near future story in which the entire world is stricken by the boringly named "MDS" (for "Maternal Death Syndrome") a bioengineered disease targeted at pregnant women that proves to be 100% fatal to expectant mothers. Needless to say, this is a crisis of epic proportions and heroic research efforts are made to try to keep the human race alive. Despite the momentous events that form the background of the book, the entire story is told from the perspective of an attention-seeking self-absorbed sixteen year old as she agonizes over which meetings to go to in order to best reduce her carbon footprint. After reading this decidedly uninspiring book, I can only conclude that 2012 was a weak year for British fiction.

The story is set in a very near future Britain which is essentially the same as current Britain except for the introduction of the MDS virus. MDS has spread throughout the world and infected everyone on the planet. When a person is infected, the disease lies dormant in their system until they become pregnant (hence, the disease is harmless for men). Once pregnant, a woman's brain begins to disintegrate, at one point an affected expectant mother's brain is compared to Swiss cheese. Once triggered, the affliction is irrevocable, not even termination of the pregnancy can save the victim, and the end result is always death. Understandably, this makes women reluctant to become pregnant, and because the mother dies well before delivery of the baby, if MDS is not cured or otherwise dealt with, the run of humanity will come to a close with the current generation.

Having set the stage for the destruction of humankind, Rogers decides to focus on a petulant, self-absorbed teen who feels smugly superior to her parents because she attends political meetings at which she and a collection of other adolescents can voice their concerns about global warming and animal welfare. With millions of women worldwide dead from their brains turning to mush as they gestate, Jessie and her friends spend their time worrying about whether or not their parents recycle enough. When faced with human extinction, I suppose that some people would choose to focus on tertiary concerns such as these, but why anyone would think that this would be the compelling story to tell is somewhat mystifying.

The first half of the story meanders through Jessie's adolescent angst, her struggles with her parents, the mind-numbingly numerous political meetings she attends, and the supercilious arrogance she displays. Interwoven with this tedium are some snippets here and there that give frustrating hints of the much better book that The Testament of Jessie Lamb could have been - Jessie's struggles with her budding sexuality in a world where an unintended pregnancy is not merely a social faux pas, but a death sentence. The reaction of the world to MDS, and how it affects perceptions of sexual interaction. The research attempting to find a cure, or find some non-deadly way to bring babies into the world. The religious hysteria sparked by a species-ending plague. But all of these elements are cast in the background of the trivial doings of a teenager.

The second half of the book takes a left turn into bad science and lunacy as the interstitial pieces that have been woven through the book are explained and the central choice in the book is revealed. It turns out that while Jessie has wallowed variously in perpetual youth activist meetings and self-pity engendered by her parents marital difficulties, her father and other researchers have been working on finding a solution to the difficulties posed by MDS. We find out that they have created a vaccine for MDS, but because everyone is already infected the only potential recipients of the vaccine are frozen embryos. This seems to be one of the developments that makes it appear that Rogers grasp on the science that she has used as a vehicle for her story is kind of weak, because one has to wonder why anyone would actually be working on producing a vaccine under the conditions Rogers has established. It seems almost like Rogers thinks that scientists throw a bunch of effort into a big bin called "research" and out pops random discoveries.

Another development explained in the book is the development of "sleeping beauties", the nickname given to women who become pregnant and who are placed into a medically induced coma and kept alive on life support for the duration of their pregnancies. This process allows the child to be brought to term, but normally the child is already infected upon conception, having gotten the disease from its parents. Marrying these two possibilities might allow for children free of the disease to be born, but at the cost of the lives of those women who become surrogate mothers to bear them. And the younger the "sleeping beauty" is, the more successful the process is. Which leads Jessie to conclude that she wants to kill herself and have a baby. (In another example of a weak grasp of science, Jessie is concerned over who the sperm donors are for the frozen embryos, and figures out that one is her father, who works at the clinic. But if the embryos were frozen as embryos, then they don't need sperm donors, and if they had sperm donors then they would become infected with MDS. This entire plot thread makes no sense when one stops and thinks about the science involved, which is yet another example of a "mainstream" author dipping their toe into science fiction and discovering that it is not quite as easy to write as they might have thought).

In some ways, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the misogynistic antithesis of Margaret Atwood's story The Handmaid's Tale. While Atwood's protagonist Offred was struggling against a system that saw her as nothing more than a baby-making machine, with hopes, dreams, and aspirations that were crushed and swept aside by a patriarchy that devalued women, Jessie seeks to throw away everything except her potential as a donor uterus. Those around Jessie push her to realize more than pregnancy and death - her father suggests that she continue her apparently promising study of biology and join in the effort to find a real solution to the MDS problem that doesn't involve sacrificing the lives of women. But unlike Offred, Jessie doesn't want to be more. She aspires only to have her womb filled and put to sleep. She has adolescent fantasies that her child, who she names "Rae" or "Ray" will be adopted by her parents, who will love her child and think she made the right choice. Her fights with her parents make her choice seem like a way to gain petty retribution against her parents, and also a childish fantasy equivalent to writing "Mrs. Jessie Bieber" on her notebook with hearts over the "i"'s. One might expect that an adolescent's motivations would lurch back and forth like this, but in Jessie's case, her justifications for her suicide are so shallow that one wonders why we should really care about her.

And the main failing of the story is just how shallow so much of it is. The culmination of Jessie's exploration of her own nascent sexuality is a meaningless encounter with a boy she has had a crush on, whereupon that thread is abruptly dropped. The resolution of the evolving societal attitudes towards sex is the gang rape of one of Jessie's friends, or rather alleged friends, since Jessie more or less decides that her friend had it coming. Her friend then joins FLAME, a radical feminist group that is protesting the use of women in the "sleeping beauty" process and demanding that alternatives be found. But because FLAME takes a number of somewhat extreme other positions, the entire agenda of the organization is dismissed as the ridiculous ravings of lunatics. Once again the contrast with The Handmaid's Tale is stark: in Atwood's fiction FLAME would have been used as a vehicle to highlight the injustices towards women. In Rogers fiction, they are treated as the moral equivalent of ELF, and women are treated as the moral equivalent of sheep.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a deeply flawed book that could have been a much better book with more attention to detail, a more sympathetic and less self-absorbed and childish protagonist, and a protagonist that didn't extol the virtues of treating women like mindless wombs. Rogers does manage capture the struggle of growing from childhood to an adult perspective, but then throws away all of the worthwhile elements of the book by having her allegedly grown up main character throw her life away based upon childish reasoning. Not only that, the entire book has a strange myopia in which the only research that is apparently happening, and the only political upheaval that is apparently taking place is in Britain. We never get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere, or what effects this worldwide crisis is having outside of Jessie's immediate neighborhood. Her father never comments on research being done elsewhere, and when FLAME and ELF protests the various efforts being made, no one ever notices that even if such research is stopped in the United Kingdom, that it will probably still take place elsewhere. In short, while Rogers probably did succeed in telling the story she wanted to tell, the story is so incomplete, and so frustratingly tied to a childish vision of the world that it simply doesn't rise above mediocrity.

2011 Arthur C. Clarke Winner: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
2013 Arthur C. Clarke Winner: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

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  1. I was going to say - sounds like a rotten version of Margaret Atwood and P.D. James, The Children of Men.
    Yuck. Thanks for the review. This is why I don't like to read books with teenage protagonists, at least not recent releases.
    The older work is a world apart.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Exactly. And I would also point out that James' book wasn't even the first to delve into the idea of a world in which humans are no longer able to have children. You can go back to (for example) Brian Aldiss' mid-1960s book Greybeard which explored this idea, and did it fairly well.

    Books like The Testament of Jesse Lamb always strike me as examples of mainstream authors deciding to "slum" in the science fiction genre because they assume it will be easy. After all, they seem to think, it's only science fiction. It doesn't have to make sense, or so they assume. But writing good science fiction is harder than they think, and the rend result of their efforts is usually mediocre at best, and almost always a rehash of something an author who works in the genre got to a decade or more earlier.