by Gemma Malley
304pp, Bloomsbury, £10.99
Any novel set in the future needs to work in two distinct ways to be truly successful. It has to reflect the here and now, as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four reflected the austere postwar world of 1948. But the future-world also needs to convince as somewhere that really could evolve, allowing the reader to relish the prophetic possibilities of the work. This demands a finely balanced combination of rational and imaginative projection. Gemma Malley's novel has a basic concept that satisfies these criteria. She conjures a world in the mid 22nd century where people have discovered the secret of longevity and children are outlawed. The question is whether the execution of the book lives up to the promise.
Anna is nearly 15 years old. She lives in Grange Hall, an austere boarding school where she and her fellow inmates are taught that their existence is a crime against Mother Nature and humanity. It is now 2140, and since 2030 the availability of drugs that prevent illness and keep death at bay has had a huge impact on the population. "If no one dies and people have more children, there's nowhere for everyone to go." And so, by 2080, citizens are required to sign the Declaration that prevents them from having children. There is an opt-out available to those determined to choose reproduction over renewal: you can embrace mortality and give up the drugs in order to have one child. But Anna's irresponsible parents, whom she cannot remember, did not opt out. They remained on the drugs and had her anyway, so making her an illegal "surplus".
This is why, as a little child, she was seized by the authorities and brought into the care of the draconian Mrs Pincent, who has trained her to become a "valuable asset", well equipped to service a future employer. Anna has climbed to the top of the surplus ladder in the school. She is a prefect and a "pending" - on the verge of entering the adult world, knowing her place, grateful for any scraps society might offer her. But, brainwashed though she is, Anna has an iota of self-determination. After a bout of work experience with a kindly employer she has been given a journal in which she starts to record her forbidden inner thoughts. And then Peter, also in his mid-teens, arrives at Grange Hall, bringing news of her parents. He urges her to escape with him to join them. Everything she believes about society and her place in it is about to suffer a mighty reinterpretation.
There is much in The Declaration to provoke thought. This is a mean world whose values are based on a sense of scarcity. The earth's resources are depleted. There is not enough to go round, and old are pitted against young in an insidious kind of immortal combat. There is a warning in this dystopian vision of where we might be heading: pillage natural resources, including your own life-span, and something intrinsic to your sense of humanity will wither. The more you grab, the less satisfied you feel. The plot is well-structured and engaging. This is a crafted story with a desire to tackle serious contemporary issues about humanity's relationship with death, nature, science and personal and social responsibility.
Where it falls short is in the writing, which tends to the prosaic, resorting to passages that tell the reader how it is rather than allowing the characters to live and breathe. The emotional depth of the work also suffers from the emphasis on issues, which leads to a lack of metaphor. Birth parents are idealised and the nasty nanny state is demonised. More complexity is needed to grapple meaningfully with the psychological impact of such a profound alienation between adults and children. By the end of the book some of the scenes read like melodrama. Indeed, it is reminiscent of a Victorian novel, evoking a society with the same old child-hating ethos that was depicted far more vividly long ago. Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby and the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang all foreshadow its world.
This could be interpreted as a homage to the classics, making the point that our future will only take us back with a vengeance to the cruelties of the past if we do not mind the present with far more care. Or it could be seen as falling back on old models when a more imaginative and unexpected vision would lead the reader to a new perspective.
· Diane Samuels's play How to Beat a Giant is showing at the Unicorn Theatre, London, from November 2 to December 2
It is the year 2140 and scientists have finally figured out how to allow people to live forever, with the use of a drug called Longevity. The only problem with living forever is that the planet simply can’t handle people constantly being born and nobody dying, so at the age of sixteen everyone must sign a Declaration stating that they will not have any children. Anna’s parents, however, disobeyed the Declaration and had Anna, and when the authorities found her hiding in an attic when she was two, they confiscated her and brought her to Grange Hall to live with the rest of the Surplus children. At Grange Hall, children learn how to be useful so that in their short lives they will become maids or nannies and not use up too much of the precious resources that really belong to the Legal people. Anna is fifteen and has spent the last thirteen years absorbing everything she’s been taught about her worthless existence, and her goal in life is to be as useful, but as invisible, as possible. But one day a new Surplus, Peter, arrives at Grange Hall and starts to fill Anna’s head with nonsense about the real world, about how it’s an atrocity the way Surpluses are treated, and he even says he knows her parents – and that they love her. Just when Anna starts to question her life up until that point, Peter asks her to run away with him. She has to decide who to trust – and fast, as Peter’s time at Grange Hall might be running out.
Wow. The Declaration is one interesting novel. I was inspired to read it based on my extreme enjoyment of both The Hunger Games and The Knife of Never Letting Go, and while the premise is very different from either of those two books, the science fiction/YA element is in all three and that’s what made me pick it up. And I loved it. The premise was interesting, the characters were believable, and the story kept me turning the pages constantly – I could not put this book down.
I really sympathized with Anna throughout the novel. She was basically brainwashed her entire life to believe that her life was pointless, she was wasting resources that “Legal” people have a right to and she doesn’t, and her parents were horrible, selfish criminals who deserve to die for their crime of creating her. And she believed all of this. She truly believed that she was a waste of space, and if she died tomorrow it wouldn’t be fast enough. She also knew that the only way for her to live with herself and her guilt for being born was to be the best Surplus she could – learning how to cook, clean, sew, garden, etc., so that she could be someone’s perfect maid one day. When Peter came to Grange Hall and told her that all these things simply weren’t true, her world was shaken. He told her that she does have value, that it’s the Declaration that is the problem, not her. That there’s no good reason to live forever, and that Mother Nature (pretty much the higher power that this society believes in) didn’t want people to live forever – Mother Nature values the cycle of life, which includes death. She had so much conflict within herself when Peter came, since he really seemed to care about her and wanted the best for her, and he was the first and only person to ever tell her that she was worth something. As much as she wanted to believe him, it was difficult if not impossible for her to undo years of indoctrination by the people of Grange Hall.
The ideas presented in The Declaration really made me think. It’s entirely possible that one day, scientists will discover a way for us to live forever. I don’t see that happening any time soon, of course, but in 150 or 200 years I suppose anything is possible. What would happen if this discovery actually happened? Would we shun it or would we be tempted to use it? I don’t know. One thing that I was surprised to see an absence of in The Declaration was any discussion of religion. I am a Christian and I can say with absolute certainty that from a Christian point of view, eternal life on earth is not what anyone would want because we are given eternal life in heaven. If you live forever here, you can never get there, which is of course where we as Christians belong. I just find it hard to believe that Christians (or other religions that believe in eternal life in some way) would support the idea of Longevity drugs, and I felt like it would have added an interesting element to The Declaration to discuss how and why the religious groups ended up on board with the idea of Longevity.
The Declaration is a fascinating novel with great characters and a fast-paced plot that makes it nearly impossible to put down. Don’t be turned off by the fact that I’m classifying this book as science fiction – it is a truly engaging and thought-provoking read that really goes beyond genre classifications. There is a sequel, thank goodness, which I’ll be reading this week, as I can’t WAIT to read what happens next. Highly recommended.