With the success of The Hunger Games, female protagonists in dystopian works have taken on a certain aura. Yet as Jane Rogers demonstrates in her award-winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb, not all teenage girls must assume a mantle of public hero to confront a dysfunctional society.
Jessie Lamb and her world, a near-future England, confront a commonly imagined catastrophe – a virus. This isn’t a virus that spreads an Ebola-like plague or kills those who are infected. It is far more shattering for the future of mankind. Although this virus, created by unknown bioterrorists, has infected everyone on the planet, it is activated only by pregnancy. Pregnancy triggers Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a variant of which is commonly called “mad cow disease.” Before the child comes to term, the disease destroys the mother’s brain and she will not survive, giving the condition the name Maternal Death Syndrome.
Not only does the virus kill every woman who becomes pregnant, the mother passes it along to the child. Because of that, women face the choice of childlessness or having one child and certain death. The effect on the human psyche and the future viability of the human race is devastating. This is the England in which Jessie and her friends are coming of age. Yet Rogers ups the ante with a twist.
Science has not found a cure, only a vaccine, which does little good when everyone alive is already infected. Yet scientists – who include Jessie’s father – realize that vaccinated embryos frozen before MDS appeared will be immune from the virus, providing a way to perpetuate the human race. One concept is "Sleeping Beauties," young women who are implanted with vaccinated embryos and, after becoming pregnant, are placed in a coma and on life support until the fetus is brought to term. Upon birth, the mother’s life support is unplugged and the child goes to adoptive parents.
Not surprisingly, this creates a national uproar. So scientists also experiment on creating artificial wombs, as well as transgenic wombs in sheep or potentially other animals that can bring a human fetus to term. These proposed “solutions” result in religious and political battle lines being drawn among a wide variety of interest groups. There are activist groups who contend there would be more focus on a cure if were men were dying instead of women. There are animal rights groups confronting scientists and those who believe animal experimentation is preferable to human experimentation or the Sleeping Beauties program. There are the legal and social issues of who has rights in a frozen embryo and who are the parents.