The Testament of Jessie Lamb has everything a good science fiction novel needs without any of the distractions. Author Jane Rogers doesn’t include any explosions or aliens. She doesn’t build any new or strange worlds. Instead, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is somewhat sparsely written with few details about time or place. The setting is uncomfortably familiar—this world, Jessie’s world, still has Facebook, laptops, websites, and cocoa. Teenagers, like Jessie, still sneak off to parties, drink too much, and think about sex.
But, of course, there are some notable differences.
In Jessie Lamb’s world, everyone has MDS—Maternal Death Syndrome, an incurable disease that turns pregnant women’s brains into “Swiss cheese” before eventually killing them.
How MDS came into being is unclear—some in the book believe it was bioterrorism, others blame the scientists, and some, including many teenagers, think all of humanity is to blame. One of Jessie’s friends relates “I was thinking that maybe we deserve it… something bad was bound to happen sooner or later. People have messed up the world so much…” People, in this case, translate to parents: “they’re the ones who’ve messed things up”.
Regular parent/teen relationships are often dicey enough. Throw in the idea that parents (and grandparents) have ruined the world and that the environmental damage they caused is the reason for MDS, and teenage angst rises to a whole new level. Anyone over the age of 35 should probably be concerned by many of Jessie’s thoughts: “But I still quite liked the idea of it all falling to bits and coming to an end. MDS was like a punishment, and I thought people did need punishing—especially old people…”
The generational divide is particularly strained because young women may provide the only way around MDS. Naturally, scientists are looking for a solution, beginning with mandatory implanted birth control for all women. But of course, the ultimate goal is finding a way to save humankind, and the Sleeping Beauties are one of the initial steps toward this goal. Quickly, it’s discovered that a teenage girl, preferably no older than 16, can be artificially inseminated, be placed into a coma (hence the term Sleeping Beauty), and give birth to a child. The girl will still die, her brain will still turn to mush, but a new baby will enter the world (if nothing goes wrong). Even better, the embryos can be vaccinated against MDS, so these new babies will be disease free.
Enter Jessie Lamb. Her life—with feuding parents, a confused aunt, mixed up friends, and the usual raging teenage hormones—is complicated enough, even without MDS. But these complications seem to pale after Jessie volunteers to be a Sleeping Beauty.
The book opens with an imprisoned Jessie; her father has locked her away because, not surprisingly, he doesn’t want her to die. Trapped, and with nothing else to do, she decides to write down her story: “I’ll set it down exactly, everything that happened, I’ll set it down perfectly honestly, so there can be no doubt in anybody’s mind, least of all of mine, about what I want to do and why.” She sounds so grown up here—unlike a few lines earlier when she’s debating with herself about where to begin her story and states “No way am I writing 16 years”.
That’s part of the beauty of Jessie’s character. She oscillates between regular teenage girl (the kind with just a little bit of selfish brat in her) and seemingly rational adult. Which one wants to become a Sleeping Beauty? Is it the bratty 16-year-old Jessie who is having trouble finding her place in the world and is suffering from feelings of hopelessness? Or is it the more adult Jessie, who wants to help save the world? It’s tough to tell.
The book also alternates between the present—Jessie’s comments while she is imprisoned by her father—and her narrative of the recent past, which provides background relating to her current situation. Less than 250 pages long, the story weaves the complexities of a pretty average modern family with issues related to woman’s rights, genetic research, animal rights, and the environmental. The result is a compelling, page turner of a novel.
At the end of the book is a brief Q and A, and Rogers is asked whether or not she sees her novel as science fiction (and I should note that this interview took place before The Testament of Jessie Lamb won the Arthur C. Clarke award). Her response: “It is mainstream fiction, I hope, but I would be proud to have it described as science fiction in the mold of 1960s New Wave sci-fi, with its interest in inner space as opposed to outer space. I also love earlier dystopias like Brave New World...”
I consider The Testament of Jessie Lamb to be science fiction because it’s what I want science fiction to be: thought-provoking, smart, real, disturbing, and well written (and of course, it includes believable science). The Testament of Jessie Lamb doesn’t have a lot of flash, and I suspect fans of the more world-ending-alien-invading-but-everything-turns-out-okay-in-the-end kind of science fiction may not be satisfied with this story—and in particular with its ending—which is decidedly indeterminate.
Is Jessie a hero? Is she “impressionable, innocent, and incapable of understanding where her actions will lead”? Rogers may be leaving that for her readers to decide, which to me only makes the book more interesting.