Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

Joan Slonczewski’s 1984 science fiction novel A Door into Ocean is notable for its depiction of parthenogenesis.  Likely the first book to depict human reproduction without spermatozoa, the women of the planet Shora maintained peace and harmony partially through this form of genealogical and gender control.  The novel as a whole is a bit gimmicky, but a human society which can reproduce itself without a two-gender dichotomy is an interesting idea in the least.  Taking it and imbuing it with the verisimilitude necessary for achieving relevancy is Anne Charnock’s third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017, 47North).

Featuring generations of friends and family, Dreams Before the Start of Time is technically a saga.  Lacking the operatics the term is known for, however, the novel chooses instead to look into the human details of how pregnancy and realistic, alternate forms of reproduction might impact people’s thoughts and views about life, as well as the thoughts and views of the children and people brought to life through these non-standard means.  Each chapter told from a different character’s perspective, the narrative perpetually evolves through the personal reflections and social dynamics inherent to the scenarios.  Presentation more open-ended than manipulative, Charnock allows the potential of each scene and chapter to form its own thought flowers in the reader’s mind, the resulting worldview one balanced between Charnock’s and the reader’s perspective. 

Dreams kicks off with a woman in 2034 named Millie who is just beginning understand the full implications of being pregnant—a cycle of emotions hitting her as she looks at her friends and colleagues enjoying themselves around her at a party.  The desire for children stronger than the desire for sex or a partner, Millie had sought medical assistance for solo artifical insemination.  But it wasn’t until the party that the full weight of what she has embarked upon begins to sink in.  At the same time, Millie’s friend Toni learns, from her shower-mounted health monitor of all places, that she too is pregnant.  Conceived through standard means (the polite way of saying casual sex), the father is a man Toni is sleeping with but not serious about, and she faces some tough choices as a result.  The lives begun in these two women spinning beyond the sphere of their corporal influence, Charnock allows the friends and family most closely associated with the two women their views before accelerating to the next generation in Part II of the novel.  The choices for alternate parenting only increasing, Millie and Toni’s children face a bevy of options to care for and carry on the species like our ancestors never dreamed.

Indeed, the variety of alternate forms of parenting, the human reaction, and their interaction form the core of Dreams Before the Start of Time.  Not an ultra-liberal treatise on how stunted the forms of human reproduction have thus far appeared in human existence (for those concerned), Charnock maintains a grounded, human perspective throughout.  For better and worse, the options portrayed remain wide open.  It should also be noted the methods described are highly likely to be available in the next half-century, which adds a strong degree of cogency to the narrative.  One family, for example, has their first child naturally and the second through remote gestation.  The consequences are portrayed, thankfully in subtle form, the advantages and disadvantages both given page time as children birthed through a variety of “unnatural” methods and to a variety of non-standard parent arrangements.  Other ideas explored include: female eggs “enseminated” with their own genetic material and sperm being morphed into zygotes capable of producing fetuses are options for women and men who want to be parents without sex or a woman.  Co-parenting (an adult who signs a contractual agreement to share parenting duties) is likewise an intriguing idea.

If there are any complaints about the novel, they would have to be the relative flatness of tone.  The reader does finish the novel with a mid-level understanding of the human impact of said new reproductive technologies.  The viewpoints, even as they shift through time, dig into the human firmament behind the conception (no pun intended), but as a whole do not feel entirely complete. This is not say Charnock should have delved into every little nook and cranny and fully exposed the details hidden there, only that more variety to character and scene would have provided a richer, more consequential experience that might better complement the profundity of the ways in which the options for creating humans have so entirely altered human existence.  The novel has some of this gravity, but not the full weight. 

A secondary effect of the flatness is that the three periods of time feel very similar.  This is not to say there should be rocket cars and robot vacuum cleaners for the future scenes to jump off the page.  In fact, I love that Charnock seems to believe that life a century from now will not be radically different than today; this speaks to common sense where a lot of science fiction is pure fantasy.  That being said, there is only a minority of elements that distinguish the three eras depicted, which hinders, to a minor degree, the feel for the passage of time.

But don’t take my niggles wrong.  I would think Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind remains Charnock’s better novel, but what she has accomplished in Dreams should not be ignored, and in fact, is highly enjoyable and thought provoking in its own right.  The willingness to experiment with viewpoint through time, as well as present a human agenda (what little science fiction these days can say that), make the novel very worthwhile—much like Adam Roberts’ Gradisil.   Underlining this last statement is the fact that the futuristic technology depicted is extremely likely—in development as we speak—making the novel ground-breaking, at least certainly much more so than the rather fantastical, and therefore less relatable, visions of Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean

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