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Book Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time

15 October 2018
Appeared in BioNews 971

Dreams Before the Start of Time

By Anne Charnock

Published by 47North

ISBN-10: 9781503934726, ISBN-13: 978-1503934726

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Dreams Before the Start of Time', a novel by Ann Charnock, 2018 winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for SFX Book of the Year, begins in a not-so-distant possible future. In this world, humans exert so much control over reproduction that, over the course of just 100 years, the notion of gestating a fetus in its mother's womb comes to be viewed with pity if not downright hostility. 

Babies are incubated in glass receptacles in spotless clinics; prospective parents choose from a bewildering array of 'upgrade' options, designed to remove the possibility of genetic problems initially. As the novel travels further into the future, upgrades also enhance desired physical attributes in the child. 

With the eradication of genetically transmitted conditions, humans live longer, more fulfilling lives, free from the stresses and uncertainties of traditional pregnancy and birth, which is outsourced to the clinic. Being humans, however, each of these future generations find a way of replacing these stresses with other familiar existential neuroses set around the notion of identity, memory and belonging.

The narrative follows a family and its descendants through three generations in a series of interconnecting vignettes, as they plan and choose their preferred methods of procreation (or, in one case, creation). The science has the ring of plausibility about it; at the time of writing, partial ectogenesis has been successfully tested on lamb fetuses (see BioNews 898). 

From here, it is only a small leap of the imagination to envisage a future where gestation can be fully achieved outside the womb. The science in the novel is lightly drawn, through the faintly sinister clinical director's smooth pitch to a couple adopting an 'orphan embryo' and casual references to movement-enhancing 'exo-skels', holograms and robot hosts. For all of its science-fiction credentials, however, this is a novel about relationships, memory and identity.

The novel opens in 2034 with middle-aged Betty's musings about the dwindling apple harvest (a fertility metaphor if ever there was one) and her persistent, unwanted thoughts about a putative forthcoming apocalypse. 

Indeed, 'Dreams Before the Start of Time' offers plenty of anxiety and tension, though it is inward-looking and feels self-indulgent. Reproductive choice has enabled and paralysed the characters in equal measure: free to procreate with as little disruption as possible to daily life and career, they endlessly obsess over the minutiae of daily lives to the point of irritation. 

I wanted to know how this British society of the near and far-future was faring politically. I wanted to understand how the characters fitted in – with the exception of the sympathetic single-parent Freya, trapped in a penurious waitressing job in Cornwall (in 2130), no-one seems to worry about money or work. Engagement with the world at large is strangely lacking, despite a recurring thread about going to China either as tourists or to work. All the characters far in the future inhabit a recognisable version of Britain, but if they are ever worried or concerned about war or climate change or carbon footprints, they do not appear to show it at all.

Fertility is not the only human function to have been outsourced. The messy and uncertain business of partnership is also assisted, leaving so little to chance that the characters can be free to spend the resulting downtime considering endless scenarios and rehearsing mental arguments about these very same relationships. A couple who have had one child genetically enhanced now spend every waking moment considering how its lack of familial resemblance has disrupted the balance in their family even though they themselves, 'going too far – paid for aesthetic tweaks'. 

I found this exasperating and self-indulgent, given that the original motive was that a first child, Seb, had not reached developmental milestones at the exact proscribed stages. In this world, it seems, 'why take the risk of having two children with learning difficulties?' In a rare ironic twist, two-and-a-half-year-old Seb's 'first utterance was a complete sentence'.

The twin spectres of commercial pressures and the compulsion to have exactly what they want reduce and infantilise some of these characters. The only character that felt fully formed was Freya, who back in Cornwall was trying to build a stable future for herself and her son, born after a one-night stand, based on hard work and careful planning of a small-scale tourism enterprise – a creperie. Her story also provides one of the few sinister allusions to the kind of society she lives in, having spent a mandatory three-month term in prison for having been caught drinking a beer while obviously pregnant – strongly echoing the Handmaid's Tale. 

And poor Betty, back in 2034, goes quietly mad as she contemplates her son's girlfriend's decision to have a baby alone using assisted technology because he isn't ready to have a child, ostensibly. Betty is a more familiar depiction of the kind of bewildered character that feels left behind in a world where 'progress' might just be an emotional own-goal.

Ambitious and overarching, this isn't a particularly easy read, with its temporal shifts and myriad cast of characters. But then it surely does not set out to be a lightweight holiday novel. The book is obsessively detailed, which would appeal to those who want to examine the impact of future technologies on human relationships; it cannot be faulted in its ambition to chart these. 

It is however the lack of personal challenge faced by some of the characters that makes them hard to identify with. We are not told how, in the face of technological advances and automation, they can support themselves in their comfortable middle-class lifestyles. Reading this in 2018, when assisted conception is still a postcode lottery, climate change is a thing and the trains don't even run on time, it feels like an unlikely leap of the imagination.

Buy Dreams Before the Start of Time from Amazon UK.

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