The Testament of Jessie Lamb takes place, to borrow the subtitle from the Max Headroom 1985 television film, “twenty minutes into the future.” This is the future we could go to bed tonight and read about in the morning editions. One day no one bar a few scientists and a handful of generals knew anything much about nuclear fusion; the next day the bomb dropped and the world as we knew it changed. One day no one bar a few scientists and doctors knew what AIDS was; the next day the bomb dropped and the world as we knew it changed. Only nothing really changed. We shuffled about a bit and made room for HIV and the threat of nuclear annihilation and life toddled on. We accommodated them, handed out leaflets, stocked up on prophylactics, watched depressing TV dramas like Threads and basically got on with our lives. Nothing really changed. People didn’t change. Neither of these was a wakeup call any more than the news in 1985 that there was a dirty great hole in the ozone layer and that was something that affected every man, woman and child on the planet. Even today there are those who argue that anthropogenic (man-made) global warming is not an issue but then there are still people out there who maintain the earth is flat, so go figure.
In H. G. Wells’s future history The Shape of Things to Come he predicted a devastating plague, the "wandering sickness," which kills a large part of humanity and almost destroys civilization. He wasn’t the first to envisage something like this. That credit goes to Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man which concerns the survivors of a plague that is wiping out the human race. After August 6th, 1945 the fear of nuclear Armageddon was such that it was a while before writers started to imagine other ways in which life as we know it might end. But, in time, they did.
For the quote from The Herald to make sense you really need to know about the two books in question. You probably do but just in case…
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a racist, homophobic, male chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organised military coup has transformed the former United States of America into the Republic of Gilead. So neither bomb nor plague is responsible for this dystopia. There is, however, a marked increase in the levels of infertility—humanity’s reproductive ability has been severely compromised by nuclear disasters, chemical warfare, industrial toxins and contaminated food supplies—hence the justification for the creation of Handmaids, fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the Wives, the top social level of the six categories of “legitimate” women, who are permitted to marry the higher-ranking functionaries.
P.D. James’s The Children of Men on the other hand is set in England of 2021; it centres on the results of mass infertility. In this vision of the future in 1994, for some reason the sperm counts of human males plummeted to zero meaning that, by 1995, the last humans ever expected to be born have been born and all humanity can do is wait to die off one by one. The last generation are known as “Omegas” and enjoy certain privileges but there is nothing special about them otherwise. Amidst global apathy the rule of law has become harsh and unmerciful.
Needless to say neither of these quick summaries do either book justice.
The consequences of overpopulation have been dealt with by science fiction authors before—for example Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison—but infertility not so much. In Jane Rogers’s novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb there’s this new disease, MDS, which is only lethal to women. It doesn’t harm them though until they get pregnant. Then it kills them. Swiftly. And the baby obviously. Time to solve this problem is therefore limited. To one generation to be precise. The narrator in this book is a sixteen-year-old girl called Jessie and this is how her father who happens to be a scientist explains it to her:
‘In most normal pregnancies, the woman’s immune system does not attack the sperm or developing foetus. Her immune system takes a step back, in order to let the baby grow. And while the woman’s not being defended against the sperm, she’s also not being completely defended against various other nasties that might want to invade her system.’
‘And that’s why she gets MDS?’
‘So they think. The blip in her immune system, which allows her to remain pregnant, seems to make her vulnerable to Maternal Death Syndrome. That’s when it kicks in. It’s a freakish chance—whoever worked it out is either a genius or very lucky.’
‘So when they say it’s full-blown—’
‘They mean it’s triggered CJD. Prion disease. They’ve married the AIDS virus with CJD, that’s what researchers reckon. So the AIDS gets a hold and makes the woman vulnerable to everything going, and the first thing that’s going is CJD. For which we have no cure in sight—never have had, not since back in the days of Mad Cow disease.’
The public information announcements compare it to being HIV positive and says that most people should expect to live out their lives without ever getting ill; the trigger for it to become deadly is pregnancy.” In a recent interview the author had this to say about MDS:
I come from a family of scientists, and have two siblings in particular who specialise in women's reproductive health and ethics, so I was able to run my ideas past them repeatedly, and my brother provided me with a scientifically plausible potential biological threat. I should credit him with the genesis of the MDS virus, which would actually work in the way I describe, but I must confess I have simplified the science somewhat, in the interests of making the book readable!
In P.D. James’s novel she takes up the story twenty-six years into her crisis; Atwood’s story is set even further into the future. The Testament of Jessie Lamb—is sacrificial lamb too obvious?—Jane only deals with the first few weeks after the news becomes public. So we never get to see what the final solution is; whether artificial wombs are perfected in time or whether genetically-modified sheep can serve as surrogates. (Sally Adee’s article Motherhood: Immaculate gestation makes interesting reading on this subject.) All we get to see is how one young girl, her friends and family deal with the news.
On one level writing speculative fiction is great because anything can happen—aliens could appear at the end of the book and provide a cure (no that doesn’t happen)—and so most writers set out rules beforehand: this is how people (and the laws of physics) behave in my universe; just because they have transporters and holodecks in Star Trek doesn’t mean I’m going to have them in my book. Jane has kept things very simple for herself and for us: she has set all of this in the real world, a world where everyone imagines that scientists are going to swoop in at the last minute and save us from whatever mass extinction event is top of the list that week but which we all know in our hearts of hearts that they’re probably not going to be able to do. She wasn’t really that interested in writing a science fiction novel but found herself backed into a corner where it was the only obvious option. She told Torie Bosch of Slate, that “[i]nitially, she just wanted to write a story about a young woman ‘being heroic in some way’ while taking ‘the first step into being an adult’ with an act of rebellion against her parents. […] ‘I wanted something that was outside of a knee-jerk reaction, which is what made me realise I had to move into the future … It’s neutral territory.’”
The four-minute warning was great. It was a central plot and narrative device in dramas (both on stage and screen) and novels, often being the motor force of plays, films, novels and cartoon strips. We cracked jokes about it in the playground:
My wife once asked me what I would do if I heard the four-minute warning. “I’d make love to you of course,” I said, to which she replied a little too quickly, “And what would you do with the other three minutes?”
No one’s joking around Jessie but they are being quintessentially British about it, going through their humdrum lives, making an effort, planning holidays, talking about what courses they’re going to take at uni and drinking cups of tea. It’s early days. Plenty of time. The scientists’ll come up with something. That’s what the grownups are all saying. Jessie and her friends have been brought up in a world, though, whose resources are running out. And whose fault is that? They take environmental concerns to heart. They can’t afford to be blasé about their future because it’s their future and not their parents. At first Jessie doesn’t take anything too seriously. Her father is a scientist and so it’s probably not unreasonable that she might have double the faith in science since all dad’s are heroes who save the day. And this was the one bit of the book than annoyed me because her dad’s not a botanist or an astrophysicist, no, he’s a geneticist and it just so happens that his lab has come up with a radical solution to the problem: “Sleeping Beauties.”
What struck me when I first saw the film adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come was the shooting of innocent people in the street. These were not axe-wielding mass-murderers. These were sick people. You put sick people in hospitals, even terminally sick people. You don’t just shoot them. Something radical must have happened to get law abiding citizens to behave in that way. What happened, of course, was the will to survive kicked in. The will to survive trumps all other things. People have been amazed and shocked by what they’ve done to survive. For example the passengers of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 who resorted to cannibalism to survive. You do what you have to do and argue with your conscience later.
As in Children of Men all the women who were pregnant before the MDS outbreak carry their babies to term and both mother and child survive barring other complications. There is now only one safe source of uninfected eggs in the world: those in cold storage. Tens of thousands of human embryos lie in cold storage at the moment, as many as 60000 in the United States alone. They have long been a subject of much ethical debate and now Jane raises the stakes a big notch: what if these embryos could be vaccinated against MDS and implanted in a willing volunteer? This would ensure that human life would go on. Okay the host would quickly develop full-blown MDS but if she was sedated then there would be no problems keeping the body alive to serve as an incubator for the child. This is done even now where a mother is critically injured but her baby is too young to survive outside the womb. Well this is what the scientists propose in this book. But there’s a catch. The mothers need to be young, very young, no older than sixteen-and-a-half, to give the baby the best possible chance of survival. These women come to be known—not unsurprisingly— as “Sleeping Beauties.”
It’s not a pretty solution but it is a viable one. People are still working on alternatives but this one is the only one with any guarantee of success at the moment. What would you do, a) if you were a sixteen-year-old girl, or, b) if you were the parent of a sixteen-year-old girl? That is the problem Jane Rogers explores in this book. Needless to say Jessie decides she wants to volunteer—yes, that’s a spoiler but not much of one—but how is her father, who, because of his job knows better than anyone what the pros and cons are, going to react? Will he be supportive or not? Is it a good idea as long as it’s not your daughter? And what about less democratic countries? Would they simply round up all the young girls under sixteen-and-a-half capable of carrying a child full term to ensure the perpetuation of their race? Who owns the embryos anyway? What rights, if any, do they have? And what about the kids when they’re born? Whose are they? Should the parents of the mother (maybe ‘host’ would be a better word) be tasked with the care of the infant whose very existence caused the death of their child? They’re not technically the grandparents really, are they? The egg was not their daughters and it was not fertilised by any member of their family. It would be a stranger’s child they would be being asked to look after. But it would be something, not payment for the loss of their child but still some form of compensation. Questions, questions, questions.
The book ends before most of these questions can ever be answered. A solution has to be found. Attitudes have to change. The cycle of life as we know it will change. The perpetuation of the species depends on it. When I first read Brave New World I found the whole reproductive programme so alien but to those people living at that time that was the norm. Norms are not absolutes. Another book that jumps to mind when you read The Testament of Jessie Lamb is Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The film The Island (nothing to do with Rogers’s book of the same name) which came out about the same time covers similar ground, the rights of human clones. Emotive issues but it’s only time and medical expertise that stops us having to deal with those kind of issues in a real world setting.
When I first started reading this book I wasn’t sure if it was a YA novel or not. It’s certainly a novel that a lot of youths will appreciate reading. MDS may not exist but many of the other issues raised in the book do. They can all get lumped under a single heading: the mismanagement of the world’s resources by their fathers and their forefathers. People react to the crisis in ways I thought were a bit odd at first but I suppose the reason they throw themselves into things like environmental issues is because they can’t do anything to affect the big problem and yet have the need to do something worthwhile.
The book deserves to be read because of the questions it asks. These are big questions but if we put them to the side and consider the actual book itself it’s not outstanding. There’s really not much of a story. It’s more a string of conversation pieces punctuated by moments of typical teenage angst that reminded me of The Diary of Anne Frank. Despite all that’s going on around her she’s still struggling with growing up. Jessie is, as my own teenage daughter was, a bundle of contradictions. She doesn’t know her own mind yet. At times she can be quite childish. For example, at one point she wants to make a decision and this is how she goes about it:
If the key turns without sticking, I told myself, if I can get the stove to light, then it proves I should be here.
How different is that to a young girl plucking the petals off an oxeye daisy and going, “He loves me. He loves me not” until she gets to the last leaf when some mysterious force reveals the supposed truth of her beloved’s affection?
Jessie’s into environmentalism and vegetarianism—who hasn’t had a kid go through that phase and moan at us for using the car too much?—but is generally more idealistic than cynical. In the way that films have a terrible habit of doing to simplify matters, Jessie’s friends and close family are a cross-section of the new society that forms quickly after the news of MDS becomes public. So we have a member of ALF (Animal Liberation Front), members of YOFI (Youth for Independence), a member of FLAME (Feminist Link Against Men) and a Noah (religious fundamentalists against scientific research). Pretty much the kinds of groups one would expect to come to the fore at a time of crisis like this all wrapped up in their own issues and unable (or unwilling) to see the bigger picture.
Critics of the book say it lacks originality. Yes and no. Its premise is original. It is similar to others but it’s location in the stream of events makes it original. What happens because of the crisis is what one would expect to happen because, people being people, they react fairly consistently to crises. The rise of religious fervour, for example, is to be expected. We call it foxhole Christianity.
Reviews are mixed. Across the board. Some were shocked that it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. I can see why. I tend to associate that prize with writing excellence and not just a good idea competently developed which is what this is. The writing is clear and uncluttered but nothing special. Yes, I know a sixteen-year-old is telling the story this but it still felt like a sixty-year-old woman’s idea of what a sixteen-year-old would write and I know for a fact that I’m so out of touch with the youth of today that I would never have the nerve to have a protagonist that young in any of my books. One of the reviewers on Amazon said that Jessie “only intermittently sounds like a 16 year old, most of the time sounding instead like a creative writing assignment.” That’s a little harsh but I can see where they’re coming from. That said, I thought the relationship between Jessie and her father was believable and unlike many of her friends he’s a fully-fleshed-out character, wanting to respect his daughter as a young adult but struggling to completely trust her capacity to make such a life-altering—actually life-ending—decision.
Bottom line: I’ve probably done enough in this article to make you think about most of the issues this book raises, which I apologise for, but there isn’t a single review out there that doesn’t contain the critical spoiler and all you have to do is scan the book jacket and you’re there. It’s not a hard read but it’s not an exciting read either which might put younger kids off. Nothing blows up. I know Children of Men was a loose adaptation of the novel but that’s practically the first thing that happened and then there were all the car chases and the guns and I’m sure other things blew up on the way. This is a far quieter apocalypse but still one worth thinking about because maybe that is how things will look, as if it’s going to end with a whimper rather than a bang. It made me think and I appreciate writers who can do that.
In her author’s statement on British Council website she writes:
I write because it's my way of trying to understand things; each novel explores an area of ideas and experience which, for some reason, obsesses me. There seem to be recurring themes, although I'm not always conscious of them when starting a new book, because each book feels to me to be completely different. But these themes do seem to have cropped up more than once: an exploration of idealism and its effects, of people trying to create new and better ways of living (Mr Wroe's Virgins, Promised Lands); an interest in people whose way of experiencing the world lies outside the norm (Orph in Separate Tracks, Martha in Mr Wroe's Virgins, Daniel and Olla in Promised Lands, Calum in Island); and in women's lives and roles, with particular reference to motherhood (The Ice is Singing, Her Living Image, Mr Wroe's Virgins, Promised Lands, Island).
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a logical continuation of all these interests.
Jane has published eight novels, written original television and radio drama, and adapted work (her own and others') for radio and TV. She also writes short stories and was shortlisted in the BBC National Short Story Competition 2009. Writing awards include the Somerset Maugham Award, Writers' Guild Best Fiction Book, BAFTA nomination best drama serial, Guardian Fiction Prize runner up and Arts Council Award. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Work as an editor includes anthologies of new writing, and a reference guide to fiction. She has taught writing to a wide range of students, and is Professor of Writing on the MA course at Sheffield Hallam University, Course Leader in writing for the Open College of the Arts, and a mentor for Gold Dust.
Jane lives near Manchester and is currently working on a collection of stories.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2012 and has already been optioned for TV, by the film company RED.