The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Sandstone Press, 2011, 240 p.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb cover

It’s nearly Clarke Award time again so I thought I’d sample last year’s winner.

While having some of the trappings of Science Fiction and a scenario which would appear to be genre The Testament of Jesse Lamb doesn’t read like SF. The experience is more like that of a literary novel, the treatment focuses on Jessie rather than on the Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) that is the SF element. While there is no sense of wonder here it is nevertheless easy to see why the Clarke judges might choose it. And the Clarke Award has a history of rewarding the “bordering on SF.”

The viral disease MDS – an apparently terrorist-disseminated sort of hybrid of AIDS and CJD for which no-one has claimed responsibility – has spread all over the world and means pregnancy is a sentence of death for the mother, whose brain spongifies over the nine months gestation. Despite there being those who think humanity should accept its fate various avenues are being tried to find a cure or remedy in an attempt to ensure live births but the main one focused on in the book has volunteers known as Sleeping Beauties kept in a coma throughout their pregnancies, incubating frozen embryos which have been vaccinated against MDS. But, of course, these hosts will die after the birth.

Narrator Jessie Lamb is a teenager with bickering parents and the usual adolescent angsts. Her fretting about whether her friend Baz likes her or not and her fears about his dealings with another girl called Rosa are well handled and utterly convincing. This feels like the memoirs of a teenager in a terrible time.

We first meet Jessie while she is being held captive, this segment being printed in a sparse sans-serif typeface. While incarcerated she starts to write down her backstory, the chapters of which are rendered in a more reader friendly font. The reasons for Jessie’s plight become apparent long before they are revealed in the narrative. Captivity segments and their typeface pop up irregularly throughout her story until the envoi.

The ramifications of MDS for society and the future are explored through Jessie’s father, a scientist at a Research Clinic, her Aunt Maddy, lovelorn and childless, and her relationships and interactions with her friends and those she meets.

The circumstance of Jessie’s father being a scientist at a clinic researching into MDS and its alleviation was a bit too pat. There was a sense of targets being set up only so they could be knocked down, tinged with more than a dose of anti-Science.

There was a “Scott” free. Isn’t that normally rendered with one “t”? (It is apparently from the old Norse skot, a tax, via Middle English scotfreo, exempt from royal tax.) Rogers also has a habit of writing “to not” rather than “not to.” And she renders email as e mail. Also strange in a book so otherwise steeped in Britishness is the use of the Usian “different than” at one point rather than the more usual “different from.”

Notwithstanding these quibbles, Jessie herself and her feelings, the awkwardnesses of adolescence, are beautifully conveyed. This is undeniably a superior read.

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