The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Submitting InstitutionSheffield Hallam University
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
Summary of the impact
This case study is based on the impact from the research constituted by the writing of this novel
and on the wide discussions of science and genre arising from its reception. The impact consisted
of enhancement of cultural life and public critical discussion, especially by:
1) raising questions in narrative about the politics and ethics of scientific research in
relation to identity, power, gender and reproduction
2) enriching debate about possible differences and similarities between `literary' and
'science' fiction and how these are valued.
The research begun as an Arts Council Fellowship project at Banff Writing Centre, Canada in
2006, and was completed during 2006-10. The research was carried out by Jane Rogers through
the drafting and completion of the novel itself and in the exploration through writing of how a novel
drawing on both mainstream fiction traditions, combined with more popular science-fiction genres
could bring together areas of knowledge (contemporary scientific issues, literary craft, narration) in
an original manner which would be widely-accessible, while also having literary merit. The basic
concept of the novel was that a teenage girl should volunteer her life to help save the human race.
This is based on the plot of Iphigenia in Aulis and also has parallels with the story of Christ.
Research into first-person voice involved systematically examining a range of voices (especially
first-person teenage voices) in recent literature, in search of a model which would allow the
protagonist to speak in a way which is convincingly teenage and yet able to be articulate about
complex ideas; a voice which is accessible and yet at a slight remove from today's idiom. The most
helpful model turned out to be The Diary of Ann Frank (as discussed in Guardian interview
The concept of the novel also necessitated gathering information on two areas. First, exploring
scientific evidence into viruses which might be engineered to suppress or destroy female fertility,
and also an examination of alternative options for bringing a baby to term. And. second, ideas and
projections about the future in general, looking at topics like climate change and the exhaustion of
fossil fuels. The process of gaining insight into the necessary scientific background began with
exploratory reading on the subject of IVF developments and procedures, artificial wombs, and
other options for ectogenesis, such as the use of sheep. Advice and suggestions on reading came
from Peter Rogers, Professor of Women's Health Research (Dept of Obstetrics and Gynaecology,
Melbourne University). In discussion he helped develop the idea of a biologically plausible virus
which could be released by bio-terrorists and would lie dormant in the entire population but which
would kick in (like pre-eclampsia) during pregnancy. Research included visiting an IVF clinic,
where part of the novel is set. Wendy Rogers, Professor of Clinical Ethics (Macquarie University,
NSW) gave valuable medical advice. Gathering ideas about possible near-futures consisted of
reading popular science on ecology, subsistence farming, genetic research, animals in science,
and reproductive technology, plus a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth.
This background information continued to be drawn on in the process of drafting and redrafting the
novel, helping to inform its plot, and to make events and characters more convincing. The
transforming of the scientific ideas and background into a novel which explores form, content and
genre, and focuses these through an idealistic, uncompromisingly self-centred teenage voice
constitutes the originality of the project.
The key researcher (Jane Rogers) was Professor of Creative Writing (0.3 fte) at SHU during 2008-2013, having been first appointed in 1994.
References to the research
1. Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, 2012, Canongate, (Authored book) ISBN
9780857864185. Entered as output in RA2. The novel itself is the main research output of the
project; it was first published by Sandstone Press (2011), then by Canongate Press (UK), and
Harper Collins in the US and Canada (2012).
Evidence of quality of the research
• Winner — Arthur C Clarke Award 2012; Long-list — The Man booker Prize 2011
• It has sold 10,000 English-language copies. Translations have been published during 2013
in German (Heyne / Random House), Hungarian (Nebali Kft) and Swedish (Ordfront).
Completed translations into French (Presses de la Cite), Japanese (Hayakawa), Korean
(Viche / Gimm-Young) and Turkish (Cakiltasi) will appear in 2014.
2. Five part serialisation for BBC Radio 4 broadcast June 24-28, 2013 as part of the major
Dangerous Visions season of Dystopias by seven contemporary writers.
1. Jane Rogers, Arts Council International Artists Fellowship 2006; award to work on this book for a
3 month period at the Banff Centre in Canada.
Details of the impact
Beneficiaries were `literary'and `science-fiction'novel-readers, radio-listeners, and blog
contributors. The Testament of Jessie Lamb was long-listed for the 2011 Mann Booker and 2012
Portico Prize, and awarded the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction Prize. The BBC Radio
dramatisation extended the reach of the novel, as did a BBC blog about the adaption by the author
and her discussion of scientific and ethical issues in the narrative on `Start The Week' (17/6/13) (for
both see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02zc0160). Rogers appeared at numerous literary
events where she read from and discussed the novel. Events in 2011 included those at Newcastle
University, Ilkley Literature Festival (reading with Tessa Hadley), Calderdale Writers' Roadshow,
Fiction Writing Day (Halifax Central Library), Halifax Readers Groups (Northowram Library,
Halifax). Events in 2012 included `Time to Read' events at Wigan and Trafford Libraries (for
National Libraries Day), Edinburgh Festival, public reading at Octagon Theatre, Bolton (with Gwen
Riley), and Manchester Children's Book Festival, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester,
which included a reading and discussion with 100 teenagers from Manchester schools. She
discussed the novel as a panel speaker at the Write the Future conference on the relation of
science and science-fiction organised by the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Royal Society,
London (1/5/13) for an audience from 'the creative industries, publishers... and science
communication' (http://writethefuture.eventbrite.com/), and in her keynote at the Contemporary
Women's Writing And Literary Prize Culture conference (Leeds Metropolitan 24/6/13) which
addressed an academic and public audience (http://www.the-cwwa.org/). Press reviews and
individual readers' responses in blogs show the novel's national and international impact (for
example, 212 reviews and 791 ratings, as of 31/6/2013, on the GoodReads site
Examples of discussion (referenced in section 5) are given below, focussing on the two impact
topics identified in the Summary above. Items a, b, c, h and j are reviews in newspapers or
periodicals, items d, e, f, g are individual reader's blogs.
1) Raising questions in narrative about the politics and ethics of scientific research in relation to
identity, power, gender and reproduction
a) `Rogers raised eyebrows in the sci-fi community... with her first shot at speculative fiction. But
it's based on a premise so terrifyingly plausible you're half-afraid the book might fall into the hands
of some ruthless bio-terrorists with the keys to an IVF lab. Set in what feels uncomfortably like the
day after tomorrow, the human race faces being wiped out within a generation by a deadly virus
that kills women in pregnancy. Sixteen-year-old Jessie is determined to do something about it,
volunteering for the sinister Sleeping Beauties programme in which women give birth in an
artificially induced coma ... Rogers brilliantly characterises the self-centred logic of an obstreperous
teenager' (A. Hickling, the Guardian 3/7/2012).
b) `Rogers has captured Jessie's voice brilliantly, alternating a teenager's solipsism with a growing
awareness of the wider world. Jessie's self-conviction is both admirable and infuriating, and the
reader is torn between her clear, unequivocal conclusions and the intricate, heartfelt compromises
of her parents. The Testament of Jessie Lamb opens with a quotation from Euripides' Iphigenia at
Aulis, and although we are left to draw our own conclusions, the hint would seem to be that a
society ready to sacrifice young girls, willingly or not, does not end well (L. Dallas, TLS, 6/ 5/ 2011)
c) `The scary thing about this novel is that the questions it raises are so close to home. Must
women always be the victims and the fall guys? Are Sleeping Beauties really so different from
young men volunteering for war? What happens, as Jessie's Mum asks, once we accept that
individuals can be sacrificed?' (K. Guest, Independent, 20/2/201).
d) `This book was thoroughly thought provoking. The premise is unsettling and was well presented
by Jane Rogers. Jessie Lamb is a normal girl growing up in a world that is changing. Women can
get pregnant, but they die. The babies too. Scientists are trying to figure out what is going on and
how to stop it, but at what cost? Girls. Girls are either volunteering or being coerced into becoming
"sleeping beauties" and thus basically killing themselves for the good of human kind' (goodreads)
e) `The book is supposed to be about the ... struggle of a teenage girl trying to find her own voice
and make her own choices separate from her parents in a post-bio-warfare world and yet the
choice she ultimately makes and her reasoning for it remain firmly adolescent ...This would make a
very good book to study with a group of young women with regard to the way that women are
viewed, making choices and their dreams (goodreads).
2) Enrichment of debate about possible differences and similarities between `literary' and
`science' fiction and how these are valued
f) `Jane Rogers is best known for her mainstream novel Mr. Wroe's Virgins, but I get the impression
that her work has often teetered on the edge of the genre, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb is
certainly sf. I was really impressed with it; it felt in some way to be a response to the Wyndham-esque cosy catastrophe, in that it is a story of an ordinary middle-class girl in Manchester and what
happens to her when catastrophe strikes. In this case the catastrophe is that the entire of humanity
becomes infected with a condition where pregnant women die; Jessie Lamb volunteers to be part
of a scheme for ensuring that the human race survives despite the appalling consequences for
g) `An interesting book that raises a lot of ideas without pretending to come up with answers. Could
prompt an entertaining discussion on any number of topics, not least on whether it actually counts
as science fiction' (goodreads).
h) `Anyone who came of age amid the AIDS crisis of the 1980s should have a direct line into the
existential funk of the title character in Rogers's futuristic novel: a 16-year-old whose sexual
maturation is muddied by the emergence of a virus fatal to pregnant women. While scientists
(including her father) recruit teenage guinea pigs for deadly antiviral research, a competing circus
of protesting social extremists and religious fundamentalists vie for center ring. The brouhaha
becomes a catalyzing agent for Jessie as she transitions from adolescent self-absorption into the
idealism and self-empowerment of young adulthood. "People will change the way they live if they
can see there's hope," she insists. Second-guessing the motives of the bioterrorists who
engineered the virus, she tries to get at "what it was about now, about us that made it able to
happen?" ... The answer that drives Rogers's fleet but intermittently enigmatic tale is that everyone
is too constricted by the tunnel vision of faddish ideologies to catch the warning signals. Echoes of
Kazuo Ishiguro's stealthy novel "Never Let Me Go" abound, but Rogers works with a more populist
tool kit'. (J. Stuart, New York Times, 22/8/2012).
i) `In part, this is a coming of age novel, wittily observed but heartbreaking, enchantingly garrulous
but deeply unsettling. It deals with notions of identity and belonging with the conviction, passion
and flair of Iain Banks' The Crow Road, David Mitchell's Black Swan Green and J.D. Salinger's
Catcher in the Rye. Jessie could rival Holden Caulfield as a caustic observer of the inauthentic
and insincere. But sadly for her, and everyone else in her world, there's more to this story than
teenage angst and alienation...The existence of the Sleeping Beauties highlights not only clashes
of value and ideology, but also our tendency to adopt hypocritical positions in relation to notions of
sacrifice and the collective interest. Jessie's emotional journey also encompasses reflections on
consumerism, global warning, male violence against women, commercially driven genetic research
and, of course, eco-terrorism. These are issues of tremendous urgency, not just for politicians,
scientists and campaigners but for all of us. Rogers' key concern, however, is the way women and
men relate to each other: the wedges our consumer-driven society drives between `us' and `them'
and the way power is allocated on the basis of sex and sexual identity. It is no exaggeration to
suggest the way the sexes interact impacts on the way we organise ourselves, the work we do, the
things we buy and the morality we adopt. For me, in addition to focussing our thinking on the
abuses of science, MDS provides a metaphor for the objectification of women and the
commodification of sexuality brought about, at least in part, by the cultural and aesthetic hegemony
of the porn industry.
Few contemporary writers could tackle these issues with the forensic clarity of Jane Rogers. And, I
would argue, a key factor in her ability to illuminate the themes other writers of serious literary
fiction fail to explore lies in her willingness to use the tools and tropes of genre to augment her
rigorous observation of the nuances of character and behaviour.
Which brings us to two key questions. Where should this book should be shelved? And who
should be reading it? Rogers uses an sf premise to explore urgent issues with a collective impact.
There's a self-limiting tendency in mainstream literary fiction which makes it comparatively poor at
reflecting the rapidly changing nature of modern life. For example, it tends to ignore the
increasingly fragmented nature of our social networks and the increasingly diverse and significant
threats to our survival. These are issues novelists can no longer afford to ignore, and the
extrapolatory and speculative nature of sf makes it ideally suited to tackling them. Some critics will
assert that Rogers' book is literature, not sf, because of its focus on character development and
the psychological make-up of an individual. But, in this respect, it fits firmly into a tradition
established in the 1950s by books such as James Blish's hard sf novel A Case of Conscience, and
reinforced in the 1970s by dystopian classics such as Thomas Disch's 334.
The quality of writing and subtle observation in The Testament of Jessie Lamb means it deserves
to be treated as serious literary fiction. The apocalyptic central premise and the sheer
inventiveness of the author's investigation of science, society, ideology and morality should earn it
a place on every sf bookshelf. This is a book that explores important ideas without sacrificing
psychological depth and characterisation. Profoundly enjoyable and deeply unsettling, it opens
minds and stomps on genre boundaries: Jane Rogers deserves the widest possible audience.' (A.
Hedgecock, Interzone, 236, 2011).
Sources to corroborate the impact
For audit / corroboration purposes of impact claims we can supply details of 5 discussions in
newspapers / periodicals and 5 individual users/beneficiaries as follows:
a) A. Hickling, the Guardian 3/7/2012, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/03/testament-jessie-lamb-rogers-review
b) L. Dallas, TLS, 6/5/11: SHU can provide a copy on request
c) K. Guest, Independent, 20/2/2011 http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-testament-of-jessie-lamb-by-jane-rogers-2219823.html
d) M. Caldwell, 22/4/2012, http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/317012048
e) Jessica 1/2/13 http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/523577445
f) N. Whyte, 6/6/2012, http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/349670812
g) Jacinta 4/9/2012; http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/406965079
h) J. Stuart, New York Times, 22/8/2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/books/review/new-books-by-sadie-jones-simon-mawer-and-more.html?_r=2&
i) A. Hedgecock, Interzone, 236, 2011 http://ttapress.com/1127/interzone-236/