Expiration Day: YA coming of age novel about robots and the end of the human race

Expiration Day is William Campbell Powell's debut YA novel, and it's an exciting start. The novel is set in a world in which human fertility has collapsed, taking the birth-rate virtually to zero, sparking riots and even a limited nuclear war as the human race realizes that it may be in its last days. Order is restored, but at the price of basic civil liberties. There's a little bit of Orwell (a heavily surveilled and censored Internet); but mostly, it's all about the Huxley. The major locus of control is a line of robotic children -- all but indistinguishable from flesh-and-bloods, even to themselves -- who are sold to desperate couples as surrogates for the children they can't have, calming the existential panic and creating a surface veneer of normalcy.

Expiration Day takes the form of a private diary of Tania, an 11 year old vicar's daughter in a small village outside of London. Tania's father's parishioners have found religion, searching for meaning in their dying world. He is counsellor and father-figure to them, though the family is still relatively poor. Tania is a young girl growing up in the midst of a new, catastrophic normal, the only normal she's ever known, and she's happy enough in it. But them she discovers that she, too, is a robot, and has to come to grips with the fact that her "parents" have been lying to her all her life. What's more, the fact that she's a robot means that she won't live past 18: all robots are property of a private corporation, and are merely leased to their "parents," and are recalled around their 18th birthday, turned into scrap.

This identity crisis is quite a nice twist to the usual coming-of-age story, and it adds a wonderful sense of intensity and urgency to Tania's normal drama of making and losing friends, being bullied, discovering sex, forming a teenaged band, dealing with school and teachers. Against all this is the many mysteries of Tania's world -- how bad has the birthrate crisis become, really? What is happening behind the new iron curtain that separates Africa from Tania's world? Who of Tania's schoolmates is truly a human, and who is a robot?

It all builds up to a powerful and deeply moving climax, which I won't spoil for you. Suffice it to say that if you're not in tears by the last chapter, you've got a harder heart than me.

Powell's novel isn't perfect by any stretch. I was very uncomfortable with the free ride he implicitly gives to paternalistic authoritarianism as a necessary and unavoidable evil in times of crisis; I also felt like his future was only sketchily defined, with many niggling contradictions lurking in the background. But the fact that I fundamentally disagreed with some of this book's message and still enjoy (and recommend) it is a mark in its favor -- as one of Powell's characters points out, an endorsement from your opponent is worth much more than one from a friend.

I'm told that Powell's novel is also one of those rarest of books: a novel that came into Tor Books's "slushpile" -- the mountain of unsolicited, unagented manuscripts sent by the bushelload to major publishers -- and ended up in print.

Expiration Day

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  1. All of these latest YA novel features have reaffirmed one thing to me: American book covers are the worst.

  2. Editz says:

    ""leased to their "parents," and are recalled around their 18th birthday, turned into scrap."

    Aw, where's the grimdark robotic black market or the DIY crowd when you need it? Also, why scrap the models after 18 years? Are newer ones even better or something?

  3. Books often get marketed as "young adult" when they deal with a teenage protagonist and have a coming-of-age themed story. Tom Sawyer and Jane Eyre would probably get marketed that way today.

    I tend to ignore the whole dividing line because a) I'm picky about what I read in general, and b) I was reading Lord of the Rings at 8 so I'm not really sure where the lines are drawn anyway.

  4. The laserfoil proofs weren't back yet, so they just had some matte art and an animated infographic full of logo art and startup confab names to pick from...curse you Matte Trope Baron!

  5. There is someone who probably spent a year or more writing this book and the publisher can´t be arsed to pay a halfway decent designer to create a cover that doesn´t look like a vacant collection of every ugly photoshop cliché from 1995. It´s shameful.

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