Tuesday, 6 March 2018

BROKEN BRANCHES by Ben Ellis

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
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How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: UK dystopian, futuristic

The basic plot:
In the future, all men in Britain are sterile. Fertility drugs for procreation are given only to couples whose genetic matches are approved by the state. Those without a family history to prove their genetic heritage are known as broken branches, treated as inferior citizens and not allowed to breed, so that the genetic purity of the National Family Tree will be preserved.  On presenting an application to have a child, each case is decided upon by a jury of over forty people, randomly chosen from the genetically approved public.

The novel contains some feasible ideas about the not too distant future: compulsory DNA sampling at birth, genetic enhancement of a foetus being the norm, and, of course, the necessity for health insurance, usually provided by an employer, which some say we are heading towards sooner rather than later.  Mr Ellis shows some nice turns of phrase and imaginative metaphors, and I liked some of the philosophy (often inner dialogue) about the human race as a whole.

On the whole, though, I felt the finished article needed a bit more thinking through. I needed to know straight away why all the men were sterile, but it is not revealed until half way through.  Several generations before, a male contraceptive pill had been introduced in order to control population, that ended up causing sterility.  Hmm.  I'm not convinced that many men would take it in the first place, given that virility is an important element of the masculine identity.  A character called Maiya doesn't know she is infertile until told by a doctor that she was the victim of a government sterilisation programme, but neither we nor Maiya are told what this programme was, and for some reason she doesn't ask.  I had too many unanswered questions, generally. 

Other stuff I liked: early on, the 'pub culture' scenes are well done and authentic.  When protagonists Grace and Tom submit their application to become parents, we are shown snapshots of the conversations between couples chosen as the 'jury', to show how they arrived at the decision, an inspired touch which made for an entertaining and revealing sideshow about human nature; I would have loved more like this.  Alas, though, there was a lack of individuality in the dialogue, generally; practically all couples call each other 'love'.  Almost all the characters have short tempers and say 'fuck' a lot.  Sometimes the technology appeared not to have moved on as it might; it's meant to be several generations into the future but people still talk about their 'mobile' phones, a phrase that's started to sound a little outdated even now.

Interspersed between the main chapters are some curious short ones written from the point of view of someone who turned out to be a computer programmer (I think).  Some of it is a bit 'fourth wall', about the writing and publication of the book itself.  He talks about a new programme called 4cast which can programme futures according to DNA and data collected all over the world ~ another of the great ideas present in the novel.  Again, though, it all seemed a bit haphazard.

To sum up: an original story containing imaginative, unusual concepts.  I read all the after-book acknowledgements, etc., and must thank the author for the Wikipedia entry about the Tasmanian aboriginals ~ fascinating stuff, it led me to look up more.  Ellis thanks his beta readers for 'getting through the third draft' ~ speaking as a writer who still finds dodgy bits as late as the fifth draft, I felt it could have done with another one or two.  The grammar and punctuation (copy editing) is mostly fine, but I think some professional content editing would make this book as good as it could be.




4 comments:

  1. As usual, a thorough and competent review, Terry. I often have trouble with these genetically-oriented sci-fi novels because I find the science to be wobbly. Does this author have a background in genetics and populations studies?

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    1. I don't know much about it myself, Noelle, but I found the genetics type stuff to be pretty convincing; he seems to know his stuff, and clearly has the sort of interest in it that meant he knows a lot about it. It was the other technology that seemed as if it hadn't been thought about at all - we are not told when in the future it is, though I gather at least 4 generations on. But people are still using 'mobile phones', web-based technology is not a massive part of everyone's daily life, and one guy actually found stuff out by breaking into someone's office, looking it up on someone's computer and printing it out - it was outdated even for now; he'd copy a file to whatever device he'd be constantly using, surely??!! And there was no background, which there needs to be, for dystopian future type novels - we need to know WHY.

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  2. Good, balanced review. Considering what you liked about this, you might enjoy The Johnson Project.

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    1. Thanks - it is now on my TBR list! :)

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