Wow, a Dystopian Coming-of-Age Novel With Actual Real Science

Illustration for article titled Wow, a Dystopian Coming-of-Age Novel With Actual Real Science

At this point the glut of novels about a young person growing up in a fearsome dystopia has become kind of insane, especially as the dystopias have gotten more and more far-fetched. So it's refreshing to read a novel like Jane Rogers' Testament of Jessie Lamb, where the dark future involves actual science. And real speculation.


Spoilers ahead...

Testament of Jessie Lamb came out a year ago in the United States, and longer ago in the U.K., but I only just managed to read it. Jessie Lamb was one of 13 books longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Rogers is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Britain, but what's striking about Jessie Lamb is how much like classic old-school science fiction it feels.


Rogers adapted John Wyndham's The Crysalids for the radio. And in the little author Q&A at the end of the book she talks about her love of the "New Wave" science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. She comes from a family of scientists, and enlisted a lot of help to make sure the science in this book is absolutely plausible and thought-out. And it shows.

Jessie Lamb takes place in a near future when some terrorists have engineered a disease called Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) which infects the entire human race, without exception. And this virus ensures that anyone who becomes pregnant first becomes demented, and then dies. In a nutshell, MDS is a freakish combination of AIDS and some kind of prion disease, like Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease or "Mad Cow" disease.

And as one character explains in the novel, pregnant women's immune systems don't attack their new fetuses, or nobody would ever be able to have children. And MDS exploits this temporary weakness in the mother's immune system to infect her with the prion disease, eventually killing her as well as the unborn child. In other words, this is an ingenious disease that prevents the human race from reproducing.

Illustration for article titled Wow, a Dystopian Coming-of-Age Novel With Actual Real Science

The novel's main character Jessie Lamb is 16 years old, and facing the possibility of eventually growing old in a world without children. It's sort of similar to the scenario in Children of Men, except that MDS is clearly artificially engineered and there's a lot more focus on the possible scientific and medical solutions to this challenge. And the young protagonist, who is writing about her experiences in the first person, in a room where she's being kept prisoner (for mysterious reasons) lends the whole story a more personal, rite-of-passage feeling.

And like all good "coming of age" stories, this is very much about finding your place in the world, and seeing how adults have made a ginormous mess of everything, in a way that's hard to wrap your mind around — much less find a solution to. Jessie and her young friends see MDS as a kind of punishment for the way that humans have mucked up the world, and at times they're not even sure if humanity really deserves to survive.


In fact, the first half of the novel involves Jessie getting involved in radical politics — a lot of which seems incredibly pointless, at a time when the human race is doomed to extinction. Or even counter-productive. Like, who cares if people are sorting their recycling when humans are unable to make any more children? Some of Jessie's friends are fanatics about animal rights, to the point where they sabotage experiments that could help to cure MDS and save humanity. Others blame scientists for MDS, and want to do away with science altogether.

It's kind of silly — intentionally so, apparently — and yet it perfectly captures the sense of young idealism and outrage, which doesn't always have a worthy target. And it sets up the second half of the book, when Jessie does actually get involved in helping to save the human race, in a way that puts her into conflict with most of the people in her life.


And that's what I really loved about Jessie Lamb — not only does Rogers spend a decent amount of time making the virus scientifically plausible, but there's also a lot of attention to the potential solutions to the virus. Including transgenic gestations, where genetically altered animals are impregnated with human fetuses. Or artificial wombs. Or the "Sleeping Beauties," women who have been put into comas to arrest the progress of MDS, so that the baby can survive but the mother will still die. And eventually, another solution is developed, which is where the novel really kicks into high gear.

The central relationship in Rogers' novel is between Jessie and her father, a scientist who's tangentially involved with the effort to solve the problem of MDS. They have a close but thorny relationship, in which Jessie's father calls her his "Nut Brown Maid" (referring to her brown hair and eyes, I guess) and "Jesseroon," and they have a running contest to invent the perfect murder. Theirs is a father-daughter relationship built on geeking out about stuff. And watching their relationship deteriorate as Jessie starts to make her own choices — and Jessie's father is revealed as a bit of a hypocrite — is a major highlight of the book.


And that's the other thing that Jessie Lamb does really, really well — it's a nice, subtle way of handling the youthful quest to define yourself and try to make a difference in a broken world. Although Jessie has a love interest and rivalries with other girls, the book never devolves into a clichéd love triangle. Instead, it's a beautifully written look inside the universal process of growing up and learning that your parents don't have all the answers — but neither do you.

This is a science fiction book that puts speculation and problem-solving front and center, but intertwines them with the classic "growing up" scenario of coping with the fundamentally insoluble things in life.


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Genuine curiosity: But why does such a (seemingly) large segment of fandom care so much if the science in a story is "hard?" I come from a more literary/artistic background, although I do have a heavy interest in the sciences. I keep up with science news; I read scientific academic papers (for fun!). But I've never been able to muster up much more than apathy for whether my scifi is hard or literary. I enjoy a fair amount of both, but the reasons have never had much to do with how accurate the science was portrayed.

So I ask, sincerely, why is it important? Is it because you have trouble suspending disbelief if you see something glaringly wrong/impossible? Is it more along the lines of science evangelism? Is your interest more along the lines of speculation? Is it the technological window dressing that rankles your pedantry? Is it something else entirely?

I've never felt inclined to make a distinction between science fiction and "science fantasy," so I'm willing to accept I may not be as big a scifi fan as I think I am.