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Questioning the limits of science and science fiction

Jane Rogers’ research, constituted by the writing of science-inspired novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb, led to widespread discussion of issues surrounding both science and genre, online and in traditional media. In particular it raised questions in narrative about the politics and ethics of scientific research in relation to identity, power, gender and reproduction. By combining elements of literary and science fiction it also enriched the ongoing debate about possible differences and similarities between literary and science fiction and how these are valued.

The research

The research by Jane Rogers began as an Arts Council Fellowship project at Banff Writing Centre, Canada in 2006 and was finally completed in 2010. The project took the form of drafting and completing of a novel and the exploration through writing of how a novel drawing on both mainstream fiction traditions and more popular science-fiction genres could bring together areas of knowledge in an original and accessible way. The basic concept of the novel was that a teenage girl should volunteer her life to help save the human race. This is based on the plot of Iphigenia in Aulis and also has parallels with the story of Christ. Research into first-person voice involved systematically examining first-person teenage voices in recent literature, in search of a model which would be convincingly teenage and yet able to be articulate about complex ideas; a voice which is accessible and yet at a slight remove from today’s idiom. The most helpful model turned out to be The Diary of Ann Frank.

The concept of the novel also necessitated gathering information on two areas. First, Rogers explored scientific evidence into viruses that might be engineered to suppress or destroy female fertility and conducted an examination of alternative options for bringing a baby to term. Second, she explored ideas and projections about the future in general, looking at topics like climate change and the exhaustion of fossil fuels. The process of gaining insight into the necessary scientific background began with exploratory reading on the subject of IVF developments and procedures, artificial wombs, and other options for ectogenesis, such as the use of sheep. Advice and suggestions on reading came from Professor Peter Rogers, (Dept of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Melbourne University) and Wendy Rogers, Professor of Clinical Ethics (Macquarie University, NSW). Gathering ideas about possible near-futures consisted of reading popular science on ecology, subsistence farming, genetic research, animals in science, and reproductive technology.

It's based on a premise so terrifyingly plausible you're half-afraid the book might fall into the hands of some ruthless bio-terrorists with the keys to an IVF lab.
Guardian 2012

The impact

Beneficiaries were 'literary' and 'science-fiction' novel-readers, radio-listeners, and blog contributors. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the 2011 Mann Booker and 2012 Portico Prize, and awarded the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Science Fiction Prize. The BBC Radio dramatisation extended the reach of the novel, as did a BBC blog about the adaption by the author and her discussion of scientific and ethical issues in the narrative on 'Start The Week'. Rogers appeared at numerous literary events where she read from and discussed the novel. Events included those at Newcastle University, Ilkley Literature Festival, Calderdale Writers’ Roadshow, Edinburgh Festival and Manchester Children’s Book Festival, which included a reading and discussion with 100 teenagers from Manchester schools. In 2013, she discussed the novel as a panel speaker at the 'Write the Future' conference on the relation of science and science-fiction organised by the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Royal Society for an audience from 'the creative industries, publishers...and science communication', and in her keynote at the 'Contemporary Women’s Writing And Literary Prize Culture' conference. Press reviews and individual readers' responses in blogs show the novel's national and international impact.

One theme that was repeatedly raised in reviews was the politics and ethics of scientific research in relation to identity, power, gender and reproduction. For example, The Guardian described the novel as ‘so terrifyingly plausible you're half-afraid the book might fall into the hands of some ruthless bio-terrorists with the keys to an IVF lab...the human race faces being wiped out within a generation by a deadly virus that kills women in pregnancy. Sixteen-year-old Jessie is determined to do something about it, volunteering for the sinister Sleeping Beauties programme in which women give birth in an artificially induced coma...Rogers brilliantly characterises the self-centred logic of an obstreperous teenager' (March 2012). Other newspapers including the TLS and the Independent praise Jessie’s voice as a compelling gendered narration of this ethical landscape from the near future.

The novel also served to enrich debate about differences and similarities between 'literary' and 'science' fiction and how these are valued. This included discussion on social media book site Goodreads and in international media such as the New York Times and in specialist magazines such as science fiction and fantasy magazine Interzone, the latter coming to the conclusion that the novel ‘opens minds and stomps on genre boundaries: Jane Rogers deserves the widest possible audience'.

Awards

  • Winner of the Arthur C Clarke award 2012
  • Longlisted for Man Booker prize 2011

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