For seekers of a quiet future–away from watching the US government antagonize and bomb other places to bits–Anne Charnock’s latest novel brings a kind of serenity to near future Western life by focusing on the not-so-nuclear… family. In three parts, from 2034 to 2084 to 2120, Dreams Before the Start of Time examines on-the-horizon socio-industrial advances and their implications on some of the most important parts of daily life: romance, family, and childbearing.
Picking up from her previous novel, the subtle and smoldering Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, the Toni strand (my favorite strand) continues its trajectory into the next century, as we get to see Toni the teen emerge into adulthood as she encounters ever-evolving approaches to family systems. Cushioned by semi-connected, tangential stories of family, friends, and barley-linked strangers as they pursue various gestational options, Toni’s life is the guidepost for the story, but far from being the only thing going on.
Scientific advances like artificial insemination, unplanned pregnancy, external wombs, sperm donation, and parthenogenesis spawn branches of possibilities for each succeeding generation, while human choices impact family design, establishing unusual, nontraditional systems: siblings as co-parents, boyfriend as godfather, natural father as absentee father, romantic suitor as psychological profile match. While still leaning more toward the cis-hetero side of the spectrum, characters with ace, nonbinary, and open lifestyles are included (though, this is less a story about romance, and more a story about alienation, so be aware that no lifestyle is necessarily promoted). Each variation of family life brings its own benefits, disadvantages, and neuroses, as families are wont to do.
Charnock’s novels are chattier than I normally like, but it’s a different kind of chatty, where empty words host all kinds of subtext, nontext, and unsaid things. While I love all this subtext, this is where I think Charnock’s novels lose favor with pop-SF audiences: by capturing the quotidian in this way, it might be all that some people see. Her depictions are holistic, atmospheric, forest instead of trees; not something popular SF writers are encouraged to do. With Charnock’s work, the best advice is to take nothing at face value.
Along those lines, like any story about birth, this is also a tale about death. The tragic loss of Toni’s mother from the previous novel haunts Toni’s life, influencing her decisions, her fear of commitment, her stubborn practicality, and even how she approaches adventures at the sunset end of her own life. It’s not only about family, but social influence, even from beyond the grave. Because of that specter of death, this is a novel that ends with a genuine poignancy that is often absent in SF—especially when the story is predicated on technological advances—but 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. I’ve previously criticized awards programs and sci-fi fandom for ignoring her work, and I hope this novel, being more direct in theme than her last, won’t suffer the same fate. Passing over Charnock’s work is negligent, plain and simple.
As a side note, reading this novel reminded me of a wonderful chat between Anne Charnock and Nina Allan last year. Being a reader who is weary of a publishing climate that encourages hefty plotting and contrivance, it’s refreshing to see two SF writers surrender to the organic and human process of thoughts-to-words, and allow their instincts to shape those thoughts into something remarkable and transcendent.
I received this book as an Advanced Review Copy in exchange for an honest review (…which is an arrangement I have actually never agreed to before because it has always smelled a bit funny to me when both sides of the arrangement benefit from positive reviews and sales, but I broke my resolve this time because I’m frustrated by the lack of attention Charnock gets, and I don’t know her well enough to feel compromised). It’s also fair to mention that my Sleeping Embers review is blurbed in the blurb pages of this novel.
Dreams Before the Start of Time comes out today, Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Audiobook, too.
And congrats to my good friend and fellow Exegesis combat vet, Gray Cope (@copygram13) of Who’s Dreaming Who, for winning my Guess the ARC contest! If he isn’t already, he’ll soon regret the weird psi vibes I’ve been sending him all day.