⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
(This review contains spoilers)
Kott Bridget’s new novel is terrifying. Terrifying not only in its subject matter, but also in just how tenable the moral dilemmas it presents.
Intellectually and physically neutered “drones” ie laboratory-born lifeforms are eventually created to replace the human workforce. These drones are highly effective workers with little to no individual personality or social interaction beyond the demands of their task; they don’t need supervision or days off; they don’t ever get paid and never get sick; in the extremely rare instance where a worker does malfunction, they are easily replaced; basically as close to perfect employees as possible. There’s some resistance at first, but less than you’d think because, well, think about it: most citizens could now do whatever they’d be doing if they didn’t have to work.
So all this free time with our loved ones leads to a population explosion which puts a strain on infrastructure, causing those in charge to resort to ever more drastic measures to control the boom. First, a military solution: The self created civil wars that followed the cancellation of all television, film and sporting events were then directed toward an imaginary opponent with no other aim than to kill as many adult males as possible.
Then, the misuse of science led to even worse societal atrocities. Unable to stem the flow of babies with tainted drinking water, eventually authorities issued warnings of a pandemic: a mutated strain of SIDS is killing 70% of newborns, a shocking proposition to be sure, but not as alarming as the reality. Instead of a lab-grown workforce, it’s cheaper and easier to use the populace’s own babies as drones, aging them in hidden stasis tanks before installing them into society.
A myriad of lies deceive the public: with much of the air poisoned as a result of centuries of strip mining, viable pregnancies have become increasingly rare; to counteract this, fertility boosting vaccinations are recommended but they’re designed to do the opposite. Drinking water’s toxicity levels are increased along with poisoning under the guise of inoculation and improved chances of fertilization. Newborns that aren’t vaccinated are systematically targeted and “corrected” by a ubiquitous network of government spies and drones to reinforce the lie: nanny assassins.
One young couple have their suspicions and plan a secret pregnancy with her gaining weight months before conception. Seeing the child remain healthy after several years of home schooling pass without vaccinations, they decide to tell their closest friends who are themselves expecting. The final third of the novel follows other young couples enlisted to lead a revolt that sees the curtain pulled back on the ugly truth.
With only the elite born growing up to reproduce, a thinning gene pool is inevitable, a fact not lost on the architects of Bridget’s future. Several scenes midway through the novel certainly shock but they also reinforce the clinical indifference to their fellow humans those in power exhibit in their attempts at longterm rule. The suffering of the few is but nothing compared to the satisfaction of the elite’s hierarchical goals. That the majority of people they basically breed and harvest should benefit in any real way is an unintended side effect. The asocietal implementation of technology represents the scientific community at its worst: concerned only with results and damn the means.
This coldness is made all the more so by the interactions between the “drones” and the humans who employ them. Both mere pawns in a game they not only don’t understand but don’t even realize they’re playing, while both believe in the purity of their efforts neither realize they’re only perpetuating their own oppression. The innocent, like good pets, try to fulfill their roles and make their handlers proud; those tasked with their supervision can be less than patient but, like most pet owners, at least try to act responsibly. For the most part. There are always abusive types but don’t worry: comeuppance is in no short supply here.
Nor are questions. Are lab grown “drones” really humans with rights? How much individuality/personality can be stripped away before what remains can no longer be considered human? If those who rule provide for their subjects and keep them safe, how much of a levy is too much? In the world of the novel, when citizens publicly question the ethicality of using “drones” to do tasks they themselves used to do their neighbors are quick to point out that even the “drones” are well cared for. For most, the ends have already justified the means.
Bridget’s last novel, Off Menu, was an uncharacteristic departure that, while commercially successful, seemed more a lateral move artistically as its admitted strengths were its sense of humor and comfy pacing. Making the tale of a love starved food critic who meets the cannibal of his dreams an affecting, (mostly) serious look at two damaged people was probably no easy task; making it resonate certainly harder still. But I found it all a bit too cutesy and precious- I could almost hear the indie soundtrack playing as I read it. Contrast that book with its predecessor, My Name Was Alison, an extremely cathartic blend of violence and revenge, and People Maker and one has to wonder if Bridget lost a bet or maybe put out some fondly held pet project. Her knack for rousing righteous indignation combined with a pull no punches narrative style suit the darker worlds her characters usually inhabit so it seems like back to business for the author. And that suits this reader just fine.