Future Tense

The Remarkable Sci-Fi Novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb Tackles Reproductive Technology

When the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction was announced in March, sci-fi author Christopher Priest was upset. The selection was “dreadful” and the judges “incompetent,” Priest declared on his blog. Of the six titles-shortlisted, he thought only one was worthy: The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, an engrossing work of speculative fiction.

In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which will be released Stateside on Tuesday, the human race faces potential extinction as a virus turns pregnancy into a death sentence for both mother and fetus. The premise allows Rogers to explore the ethics—or perhaps more accurately, the human tolerance for—reproductive technologies like artificial wombs.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb also raises questions about what these technologies would mean for women’s roles in society. If women can no longer—or no longer must—bear children, how does their value diminish for men?

Rogers also portrays the broader conflict between a suspicious public and scientists. In the novel, the main character’s scientist father speaks optimistically about his work on reproduction technology and its potential to save humanity. But others in the titular heroine Jessie Lamb’s world speak dismissively of science, even angrily, saying that such research that not only allowed for the creation and spread of the life-ending virus; it also degraded the environment, imprisoned animals, and otherwise removed the humanity from man. (“[M]ost [scientists] are researching microbes or subatomic stuff, or genetic mutation. Just for the sake of knowing more—trying to control everything,” one character says early in the novel.)

This battle, says Rogers, is one that she sees in real life, where “tabloid” coverage of new technologies, like genetically modified foods, can scare people without giving them proper context. She and others see fiction as a way to explore these topics in a realistic way that allows the public to understand and debate ethical issues without being frightened unduly. She has contributed to a forthcoming short story collection called Bio-Punk: An Anthology of Bio-Engineered Futures, for which writers and scientists were paired to write about scientific frontiers, a project paid for by the U.K. organization the Wellcome Trust. To keep Jessie Lamb rooted in real research, she spoke with many scientists, including her brother, who works in reproductive technology.

Rogers did not set out to write her first sci-fi novel, she tells me. Initially, 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. But she worried that if the novel were set in the past or present, when her previous novels have taken place, readers would already have well-established thoughts about whatever self-defining action her character might undertake. Most readers already have established points of view in favor of or against extreme animal rights activism, for instance. “I wanted something that was outside of a knee-jerk reaction, which is what made me realize I had to move into the future,” Rogers says. “It’s neutral territory.”

Rogers ended up winning the Clarke award. Not bad for her first foray into the future.

(For an intriguing look on the state of radical reproductive technologies, like artificial wombs and fetus transplants, see Sally Adee’s recent post on the Last Word on Nothing.)