Dreams before the start of time by Anne Charnock (Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist and Winner)

It was my original intent to read all the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees prior to the final judging and despite some diligent reading I failed in that regard, in fact, I didn’t start the last book until the day after the winner was announced.

It was ironic that the book I had left to read was Anne Charnocks ‘Dream before the start of time’ and that this was the winner, so it was with some excitement that I delved into the book.

The book is more a collection of connected short stories that explore the morals that arise when science enables people of all genders, ages and social status/position to have babies either in vitro or ex vitro in special artificial wombs. The narrative is tied together using a family to follow over the course of 100 years as these technologies warp what we might consider ‘normal’ family arrangement.

At every step, Charnock challenges the reader to understand the position of the protagonists and to consider the rights of the child and the ethics behind the science being developed. As the back of her book guides, what does it mean to be a parent? a child? a family?

The science in the book is disappointingly brief and the technicalities are glossed over to focus on the dilemmas and emotions and I feel the book is poorer for it. As a biologist myself, it is this kind of detail that would draw me in deeper but I completely why it was left out. This is not a book with aliens, battles or spaceships, in fact, the technological advanced shown sticks closely to the realm of pregnancy and only offers glimpses of other changes as the story plods along into the 2100’s.

And plod the story does I am afraid. Charnock’s narrative style is descriptive, but for me not always engaging. This could be due to the subject matter or the fact that we do not really spend enough time with each character to really develop an attachment.

I like thoughtful books but this seemed a little too one-note, more like an ethics book that a science fiction one. The ideas in the book are not necessarily new, ‘Dune’ spoke of artificial wombs, but Charnock’s focus is definitely on the rights and wrongs and not the science and for me, this lowers the quality of the book as a ‘science’ fiction novel.

It may not surprise you that I am disappointed that the book one the award. Yes, the book is challenging but for me, there wasn’t enough science in the novel to make it work. For me, the better ethically challenging novel in the line up was ‘Gather the Daughters’ and it runs neck and neck with ‘Sea of Rust’ as true winner.

Despite my negative comments the book is worth a look and is a quick read at only 212 pages.

You can find ‘Dreams before the start of time’ at all good booksellers. More information can be found at 47north

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