The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
10 October 2011
We begin in Jessie Lamb's head, present-tense. She is locked in a room. A man has just left. Her legs are chained with bike locks. He's left her with cheese sandwiches and orange juice, and a bucket, and a pencil and paper. Look on the bright side, find the dark humour: "At least there's space for my own thoughts now," she thinks. So she starts to write, to set out her case, "so there can be no doubt in anybody's mind, least of all mine, about what I want to do and why" (p. 3).
Most of the rest of The Testament of Jessie Lamb is in the past tense, Jessie Lamb's record of what happened to the world and to her. "I thought it was normal," she explains. "When you're little you think everything is normal" (p. 6). But the world in which Jessie is growing up has gone horribly wrong. There is a new plague. It can't be natural: a modified airborne form of HIV that infects everyone, but is triggered by the onset of pregnancy to produce prions that lead to full CJD and, inevitably, death. It spread fast, and with a deeply improbable totality, around the world. By now, Maternal Death Syndrome has killed a lot of women, and no more children are being born. "We thought it was normal for women to die," Jessie writes. "I thought that if you died it must be at least a tiny bit your fault" (p. 7).
In the UK, at least, the government issues contraceptive implants to all women, and cooperates with a global research effort. But it's not the government response that Jane Rogers is interested in, and it never becomes an active presence in the novel: no top-down dystopia emerges. Our focus is Jessie's experience—much of the novel, set just outside Manchester, has a very lived-in, everyday texture—as she tries to find meaning in MDS, and meaning for her life. Her friend Baz suggests that "something bad was bound to happen sooner or later" (p. 17). In his eyes, the twenty-first century was heading for apocalypse anyway, so fixing MDS won't fix the root problem. At Baz's invitation, Jessie attends a political meeting and is seized by the zeal of activism, becoming briefly part of an ecological-youth movement certain that it's the adults who ruined the world, and the young who must remake it. The trouble is that in Jessie's time, as now or ever, nobody can agree on the nature of the catastrophe, and in the absence of a claim of responsibility, explanations proliferate: it's a judgement on the adults, say Youth For Independence; or it's the revenge of nature, say the Animal Liberation Front; or it's a message from God, say the Children of Noah; or it's the atom bomb of the sex war, say the feminist group FLAME. Clumsy though some of these names are, the conflicts that arise between their disparate agendas feel plausible, and before too long Jessie has quit the whole scene more or less in disgust. She resists affiliation for the rest of the novel—although a number of her friends remain involved in one way or another, and there's a persistent undercurrent of social unrest—but without letting go of the belief that something must be done, that she personally must make her life count.
Enter the Sleeping Beauties. The first fruit of the research programme is a vaccine; not much use on its own, but as Jessie's father—a researcher himself—excitedly explains, full of potential for the future, because there are hundreds of thousands of clean frozen IVF embryos to use it on. What's needed is a way of bringing those embryos to term. Right now, of course, that only means women, young women with strong immune systems, maintained in the comas that give them their fairytale nickname to maximise their chances of bringing the pregnancy to term. (Supported, of course, by their own political group, Mothers For Life.) This, then, is the thing that Jessie wants to do, the reason that in the novel's frame she has been locked up: she wants to volunteer as a Sleeping Beauty, to help save the world.
Narratively, the second half of The Testatment of Jessie Lamb describes the events leading up to Jessie's confinement. Beneath that surface, Rogers examines the many components and consequences of Jessie's choice, the evolution of her certainty that this is what she wants to do and has to do, with impressive precision and thoroughness. This is an angle missing from earlier SF novels about childless worlds, notably Brian Aldiss's Greybeard (1964) and P. D. James's The Children of Men (1992), which present more worn-down, exhausted worlds, with rumours of children arriving like rumours of a miracle. Here there is the vigour of youthful immediacy, and if Rogers's initial description of the science underlying MDS is a little too superficial to convince (she insists she was given a plausible mechanism, but even if the biochemistry can be made to work, the epidemiology is suspect), the fact that she provides a scientific rationale at least establishes the novel in a firmly, hard SF idiom, one in which the virus is a problem to be solved, not a rigged ultimatum.
Jessie's father is, unsurprisingly, less than excited about the possibility of his own daughter becoming a Sleeping Beauty, and it's the realist setup that enables him to be devastatingly sane about the illogic of volunteering now: transgenic animal research is ongoing, as is research into artificial wombs; even in women there are all sorts of things that can go wrong; why not at least wait a year, for a second trial, which can incorporate the experience of the first? Meanwhile Jessie's position puts her at odds with her friends, as well; her friend Sal takes the FLAME line, which is that Sleeping Beauties are either "brainwashed" or "like any other suicide . . . a cry for help" (p. 117). Both seem plausible, particularly given the rhetoric of Mothers For Life and the Children of Noah, but neither seems to fit Jessie's mindset as we experience it. The alternatives don't work for her. She is appalled by a video of animal research obtained by ALF, showing "sick dull-eyed monkeys" and "naked sheep wired up and strapped in place like astronauts"; "You couldn't believe human beings were responsible for this," she writes (p. 155). For Jessie, the question increasingly becomes one of sacrifice: she might be like a soldier, laying down her life for her country, her world. When she visits the clinic to register her interest, she thinks her Dad will be proud of her.
There is a nearly unbearable tension in play here: we want Jessie to choose, we do not want to deny her the right to choose, but we don't want her to choose this. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a test for us, filtered through what is, despite its plainness, one of the most challenging young adult voices I've encountered for some time. Nor, for the most part, does Rogers descend to caricature of the people surrounding her. The staff interviewing Jessie about enrolling in the trial, for instance, are painstakingly conscientious, "very grave, with a flat unemphatic way of talking" (p. 141), determined to ensure she is not being pressured into her choice. (Some of the feminists of FLAME are less convincing, admittedly.) So while at times it's easy to be convinced by Jessie's urgency, by her sense that something must be done now, and to see her as heroic, at other times that same urgency, Jessie's inability to imagine a life or a purpose for herself in a world without MDS, seems to become messianic fanaticism, to the point where we can look at the novel's frame and understand, without condoning, why Jessie's parents (her mother is in on it) have taken the step of locking her up. When, near the end of the testament, Jessie's father takes her to see some Sleeping Beauties in the flesh he is astounded that she can see peacefulness, because all he can see are zombies. In the end, I see zombies too; but for a moment, I was able to see both.