In a near-future London, Millie Dack places her hand on her belly to feel her baby kick, resolute in her decision to be a single parent. Across town, her closest friend—a hungover Toni Munroe—steps into the shower and places her hand on a medic console. The diagnosis is devastating.
In this stunning, bittersweet family saga, Millie and Toni experience the aftershocks of human progress as their children and grandchildren embrace new ways of making babies. When infertility is a thing of the past, a man can create a child without a woman, a woman can create a child without a man, and artificial wombs eliminate the struggles of pregnancy. But what does it mean to be a parent? A child? A family?
Through a series of interconnected vignettes that spans five generations and three continents, this emotionally taut story explores the anxieties that arise when the science of fertility claims to deliver all the answers.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
Anne Charnock takes a look at how scientific advances lead to the technological cure for infertility and birth defects. With the introduction of the artificial womb and genetic engineering, anyone can become the parent of a healthy baby. But rather than dwell on the tech itself, Charnock chooses to write about the impact of these developments on the very definition of family.
The novel follows a pair of families across five generations and is told through a series of vignettes. Each one is a snapshot into a character's life when familial decisions are made or pivotal character development is revealed. There are arguments across generations regarding the nature of relationships and reproductive choices. There are contrasting scenes where sperm donors are forced to confront the fruits of their offerings. There are passages where genetic tinkering beyond curing maladies is debated. But all of it is coaxed in the language of everyday life.
While Charnock's characters treat these choices as eyebrow raising, we don't get to see the public's reaction to the technology's development. The whole of society is largely kept in the background, but every now and then there are hints and passing mentions of rules and regulations meant to maintain reproductive integrity. Again, this is all kept in the family as it were. I don't know if this is an American vs. European cultural difference, but I believe that there would be a raging wildfire of debate in the States over this development along the lines of the decades-long argument over reproductive rights.
But that's not the point of this work: Charnock is here to focus on the impact on families. She plots a course straight down the middle, neither praising nor condemning choices. Pros and cons to the choices her characters make are deftly shown and presented without judgement. That is left up to the reader to make. Some characters only have one or two opportunities have their stories told before retreating to the background, but other characters in the spotlight refer to them and how they've fared.
Pacing may come as a surprise to some readers. There is no dramatic rise and fall. Instead, the book moves steadily through the characters lives like a river, the occasional dramatic point emphasized like rocks in the riverbed. One generation after the next, families go on. They change just as a river meanders through different terrains, but on it goes.
We've already seen how the definition of family has changed over the last several decades, Charnock suggests that it will continue to evolve as science comes to a greater understanding of how human reproduction works. All in all, there's plenty of food for thought on how it could all play out in Dreams Before the Start of Time. If you're looking for a book that makes you contemplate how breakthrough technologies could affect our lives, then this is the book for you.
This review initially appeared on Goodreads.