Longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011 and winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a literary work that feels more “female friendly” than many other examples of science fiction I have read in the past. But that is hardly surprising given that the whole story is based around what is happening to women in a world that feels uncomfortably close to our own. Although the narrative is undated, this is something that could be happening the day after tomorrow and is so terrifyingly plausible that you could all too easily imagine it (or something very similar) happening in our own world.
Jessie Lamb is a 16 year old college student in northern England. She hangs out with her friends, studies, secretly hopes to go out with her mate Baz, nags her parents to drive less and recycle more. So far, so ordinary. But Jessie’s world started to seriously unravel in the year prior to when we first meet her, for a new virus has spread throughout the world: MDS, maternal death syndrome. Nobody knows where this virus originated from, but an act of bio-terrorism is suspected. By the time Jessie’s testament starts, everyone in the world has become a carrier of MDS. Once a woman becomes pregnant, the virus activates and behaves like an aggressive form of CJD (“mad cow disease”), killing the woman and her child long before it can be safely born. With pregnancy now a death sentence and no new babies being born, the human race is suddenly faced with the spectre of extinction within seventy years or so.
The world starts to fall apart. Families break down and children are orphaned as huge numbers of women die. Despair and suicide are on the rise. Science and religion argue against one another to apportion blame and find a way forward. New protest groups spring up. Gangs of confused and angry young men roam the streets. Researchers – including Jessie’s father – controversially propose to use pre-MDS frozen embryos from fertility clinics as a way forward until a cure can be found (if it can be found, of course). The idea is to vaccinate the virus-free embryos against MDS, and then implant them into sedated young women who can be kept alive in hospitals as living incubators until the hopefully healthy babies can be delivered. In effect, young women are being asked to volunteer their lives to try and save the human race – and the younger, the better.
It will come as no surprise to the reader that Jessie volunteers for this so-called Sleeping Beauty programme, and that her father loses his scientific objectivity and reacts by trying to stop Jessie by imprisoning her. This much is apparent very early on the in the book. It is on the surface a fairly straightforward and quite predictable story – but it is what is happening beneath the surface that makes this an interesting read. For a start, is it moral to ask teenage girls to sign their lives away for a shot at saving humanity, when there is no guarantee of what they are doing working and a cure could be developed in the near future? Do these youngsters have the maturity to make such a decision? Jessie herself is clearly an intelligent girl, but her voice wavers between stroppy self-obsessed teen and rational adult making a carefully reasoned decision. On the one hand she seems mature enough to understand the implications of her volunteering, but one the other you can see the child still in her: when she hears that thousands of girls in China are volunteering for similar programmes, she doesn’t stop to consider just how voluntary such acts may be there. We are left trying to consider who is right – Jessie in wanting to try and save the world (or escape from it: some passages make you wonder if she is trying to find a noble way to justify suicide) or her parents in trying to stop her becoming a Sleeping Beauty.
Regardless of what your opinion is, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a well-written and thought provoking read. Jessie is a realistic character, the more so for the oscillating between child and adult that we see all too often in 16 year olds. Which part of her wants to become a Sleeping Beauty? It is tough to tell, but the journey she takes us on over the 300 pages of her testament is certainly an interesting and unusual one. This is what good science fiction should be: smart, realistic, engaging. Although some readers may well find the ending frustratingly indeterminate, I personally enjoyed it and would highly recommended it both to fans of science fiction and those new to the genre alike.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Published by Canongate, August 2011
With thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy of this book.
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