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.
Lauren McLaughlin is no stranger to hard-hitting, unflinching young adult novels: her debut, Cycler (and its sequel, Re-Cycler) was about a teenaged girl who turned into a boy for four days every month; Scored was a class-conscious surveillance dystopia; now, in The Free, McLaughlin sheds any fantastic or futuristic elements and mainlines a pure, angry, relentless and stripped-down story about a kid whose desperate circumstances become almost unbearable when he takes a fall for a car-theft and goes to juvenile prison.
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