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Dreams Before the Start of Time Paperback – 18 Apr 2017
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“Charnock pulls hard on the parent’s universal worry—that no matter what we do and how much we want the best for our children, somehow we aren’t doing it right—in a skillfully executed multigenerational saga that explores a potential future driven by rapid development of reproductive technologies…A story that feels personal and intimate.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Philip K. Dick Award finalist Charnock follows the progression of reproductive science across people in five generations…The reader will experience not only the changing views of society at large, but also the progression of the characters’ views as new opportunities arise for the next wave of parents. None of the technology seems far-fetched, leaving the reader to wonder whether this is predictive fiction.” —Booklist
“highly enjoyable and thought-provoking…The willingness to experiment with viewpoint through time, as well as present a human agenda (what little science fiction these days can say that), make the novel very worthwhile.…The futuristic technology depicted is extremely likely—in development as we speak—making the novel groundbreaking.” —Speculiction
“Reminiscent of Cloud Atlas...This is a novel about the evolution of family and humanity and how inextricably they’re tied together. It’s a unique, challenging, and immensely successful story.” —Tor.com
“Charnock explores what the family of the future will look like, as well as how society and pregnancy will change. Deceptively intimate, this is big-idea SF reminiscent of the societal changes mapped across generational sagas like [Asimov’s] Foundation or [Robinson’s] Mars trilogy.” —LOCUS Magazine
"Not a sequel to Charnock's previous novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind so much as its organic successor, Dreams Before the Start of Time is a luminous, deftly crafted and occasionally disturbing portrait of the future we may be entering. A novel that explores the notion of family in all its myriad permutations, Dreams Before the Start of Time is science fiction at its most contemplative, asking intriguing questions about human reproduction, gender identity and interpersonal relationships and providing thought-provoking answers on a human scale. Anne Charnock's third novel leaves the reader in no doubt of her evolving talent, and showcases all that is most imaginative and forward-thinking in British science fiction right now."—Nina Allan, author of The Race
“Charnock’s third novel is a beautifully nuanced exploration of future developments in fertility science. The science underpinning the narrative is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the novel to shine on the neuroses of its large, three-generational cast of characters as they struggle to come to terms with the decisions of their parents. As with her previous novels, Charnock is marvellous at communicating a huge amount in a short space.” —E.J. Swift, author of The Osiris Project series
“Charnock’s interest is always in the human aspect first: her characters are real, living, breathing individuals; lost in some ways, directive in others.…With Dreams Before the Start of Time already on my Best SF of 2017 list, Anne Charnock is now solidified as one of my favorite SF authors.” —From Couch to Moon
“This is an excellent novel, and a worthy successor to the very wonderful Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind.” —Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself
About the Author
Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism. Her articles appeared in the Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune, and Geographical. Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. Her second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, was included in the Guardian’s “Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2015.” Learn more at www.annecharnock.com, on Twitter @annecharnock, and on Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/annecharnock.
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In contrast to The Handmaid’s Tale, Dreams Before the Start of Time is not a dystopia. Instead, we have an objective, almost scientific distance where the developing ethical quandaries are presented as problems to consider, not crimes to judge. A number of them have stayed with me since reading this book. First and foremost, Charnock presents the problem of one naturally gestated son in the same family as a genetically improved son. The latter doesn't even look like his family; he is too perfect, strangely superior.
Charnock also speculates that pregnancy will no longer be socially acceptable. One of her characters has to stop working well before her maternity leave in order to avoid the disapproving looks and comments she gets from random strangers. Pregnancy is considered the shabby, almost irresponsible way of gestating a child when there are much safer, healthier facilities in labs.
Then there's the problem of the extremely unusual situation where babies produced in the lab become orphans. They can be adopted before they're born, if they're lucky. Others end up in a group home where they are treated to a luxurious upbringing, lacking nothing except parents—thanks to the extensive insurance requirements of labs in the baby growing business.
Dreams Before the Start of Time is a series of thought-provoking vignettes. It's a must read for anyone interested in science fiction or feminism and it's easy to see why Charnock has been nominated for so many awards. I think she may well be the most interesting and provocative writer of science fiction out there at the moment.
Toni was the teenage girl in ‘Sleeping Embers’ who lost her mother and went on a trip to China with her widowed dad. Here, she gets pregnant by accident in her early thirties, and because the novel begins three decades from now has even more choices than she would face in 2017.
The dreams of the title are those experienced by a baby before birth, regardless of whether the baby is inside a woman or an artificial womb in a lab. ‘Time’ then, is defined by experience of the outside world, which begins after birth. The title also hints at vast, even universal forces; however, these are filtered through the most intimate of human interactions, so if it’s a clone army you’re after best look elsewhere. Instead, the author uses a mosaic novel form to explore generations of the same family as they engage with different reproductive technologies, reframing each character over time as their choices are challenged by the next generation.
‘Dreams’ does not have the devastating inter-era drama of ‘Sleeping Embers’, but then Anne Charnock is too interesting an author to write the same book twice. Instead, the emotion of the story builds gradually via details like shared meals, holidays and, most of all, memories; those all-defining dreams we carry through life. You don’t have to have read ‘Sleeping Embers’ to enjoy this book, but I’d recommend that you do, simply to get a perspective that gives the quiet conclusion of the novel – in which an elderly couple go on holiday – a tension one normally associates with thrillers.
As in ‘Sleeping Embers’, the family is profoundly engaged with the redemptive power of art. Interestingly, their professions tend to be about preserving existing art rather than producing new, and it’s a telling metaphor about the preservation of identity in the face of radical technological change that so much effort is expended in this area.
Meanwhile, there are ambiguous, possibly even dark developments, not least the creation of a new social hierarchy. For example, a working-class woman gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to keep the child, because she knows the father started life as a hot-housed baby: gestated and screened in an artificial womb. The father himself has married ‘up the gene ladder’ to a sleek and brilliant lady who sounds sexy, but fearsome. Of the three characters, the working-class mother is the most sympathetic with her intense maternal love, lush hair and dreams of starting her own pancake business with a one-off maintenance payment.
Elsewhere, one of Toni’s descendents impulsively gifts her second son with an abundance of genetically engineered beauty and intelligence, then worries that he seems a bit ‘other’. Tellingly, the boy’s appearance is described as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, as if he is a work of art himself. However, such is the author’s moral generosity that when we get a chapter from the boy’s point of view he seems quite normal, as he sulks in the bathroom and won’t come out. The problem, it is implied, is not with him.
There are loads of deft, subtle touches like this; they make a close reading of the text very rewarding. Indeed, this author’s work is always worth looking out for because she has a unique ability to combine linguistic and narrative precision, relevant science-fictional ideas and a trademark slow-working emotional impact that is even more overwhelming if you’re a parent.
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