Of the writers shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke award for best British science fiction novel, Jane Rogers was the outsider amongst established names like Greg Bear, Charles Stross and one of only two people to have won more than once, the powerhouse of China Miéville. As a literary novelist moving peripherally into the genre for the first time, Rogers had struggled to get the novel published before it was picked up by Sandstone Press, not normally known for their genre output other than Ken Macleod’s novella The Highway Men, yet it was Rogers who took the prize.
Jessie Lamb lived the relatively secure life of a teenage girl in the north of England, with bickering parents and a Bohemian aunt and friends at school and worries over boys, until maternal death syndrome changed the world. Incurable and inevitably fatal, some theorise that MDS is an engineered bioweapon, targeting pregnant women. In order to tolerate the foetus, their immune systems are diminished, triggering the infectious agent which causes an accelerated decay similar to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, killing the mother before she is able to carry the child to term.
As the scale of the pandemic becomes apparent, everyone is affected: widowers find themselves coping alone with motherless children, and professions where women dominate, nursing and teaching, are initially hit hard, but realisation dawns that after the maternity wards close the schools will follow as there will be no children. Mass funerals are held, and with a lack of information, the viewpoints of the angry bereaved become polarised into extremism, a blossoming need to blame someone regardless of evidence.
Though better informed than some as her father is a scientist researching embryology, Jessie still feels the need to do something, anything, no matter how foolish or desperate rather than stand idly by when the world is tilting off its axis; only by clinging onto some form of hope can you stop yourself from sliding off, because the alternative is to lie down and accept that civilisation will end with this generation. As her friends are drawn in different directions, she tries to find her own way, one voice in a dwindling seven billion, trying to save the planet.
The premise of the novel is enthralling, setting up the initial conditions within a few chapters, but once there it spends too much time refining details, moving pieces around without advancing the game, with the framing story where Jessie looks back upon what has brought her to impasse sufficient to obviate continued establishment. For all the setup, we never arrive, never feel the unyielding need to make the world a better place, the desperate yearning for that would make someone willing to endanger themselves for an abstract possibility. Jessie makes her decisions calmly, but the book ends ambiguously, running out of narrative rather than resolving.
Many of the arguments are intellectualisations of extreme idealisms, lacking the admission of compromise that reality requires, that in times of crisis, bad things may sometimes have to be done in order to survive. The viewpoints must be necessarily blinkered to serve the narrative: the women who claim the disease was crafted by men as an attack on their gender to seize control of reproduction never consider that many women work in those very fields; the animal liberation activists attack the labs where tests are performed, blaming them for the creation of the disease and ignoring the lack of evidence and the fact that animal research may also hold the first steps to a treatment or even a cure.
Jessie herself, initially a warm and strong voice, is secondhand to much of the story rather than participatory, never experiencing or conveying the depth of conviction to make her profound decisions seem honestly felt or considered, and her inability to consider the feelings of others beyond how they relate to her makes her seem selfish at times, but perhaps the deeper real world analysis that is lacking is where the importance of Jessie’s testament lies. Readable and accessible to a younger reader, the book opens doors to a lot of issues that should be discussed by teenagers, parents and teachers, modern issues that aren’t addressed by the classic novels taught in schools because the world that created those didn’t exist then, and in order to understand them, a new dialogue has to be created. If Jane Rogers has succeeded in opening that door with this book, she should be justifiably proud.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is available now from Sandstone
Jane Rogers will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday August 25th