Author: Gwyneth Jones
Genre: Science Fiction (Philosophical/Literary)
Spanning almost two decades, Life tells the tale of Anna Senoz from her first year of college up though a handful of post-doc and professional positions and on to a life-changing discovery in the field human genetics. Along the way, a handful of friends come and go in Anna's life: her first boyfriend (and later husband) Spence, her first intellectual foil (and radical "feminist") Ramone, and a smattering of lesser characters (including peripheral friends and research mentors). The story focuses on gender identity, feminist issues, and blurring of traditional male-female roles. Ramone pushes the boundaries and opens Anna's mind to a well-spring of post-modern feminist thought. Spence is much more easy going; he's interested in their relationship, but he's not altogether averse to shirking traditional definitions of male-female relationships. Anna constantly struggles to define herself as a student, a lover, a wife, a breadwinner, a mother, and a scientist within the context of her womanhood. Weaving itself through this philosophical examination of sex roles is Anna's scientific drive to understand a genetic phenomenon she dubs 'Transferred Y', a genetic anomaly (possibly viral in nature) that threatens to blur the lines between male and female sexuality not just on a philosophical level but on a physical level.
Geographical Setting: in and around London, England, and Sungai, Malaysia
Time Period: late 1980s - 2008-ish
Life is a very character-driven novel. The characters of Anna, Ramone, and Spence are explored in detail and the reader begins to understand how their experiences and lives (and genes) made them who they are. There are many tangential characters including old college friends and scientific colleagues that are also described well. The storyline is very complex yet engaging, weaving throughout time and place as relationships evolve and change. The story is based mainly in England, but there are brief jaunts to New York and Malaysia. The setting is relevant because some of the language and ideas have a distinctly British feel to them, but the frame is distinctly within an academic setting, following the character through college, grad school, and jobs as a researcher. This book has a very narrative tone, exploring the stories and ideas behind the lives of the main characters. The tone is often tragic but it leaves room for a sort or redemption or reimagining of the future. It is very feminist and futuristic in its thinking, encouraging all of us to think about what gender is, how we become who we are, and if/how the world would change if gender and sex was turned upside down. Themes of identity, feminism, sexuality, and loss permeate the book. The writing style is literary and rather dense because the author packs a lot of characterization into each chapter. Despite the dense complexities of the story and the relationships within it, the pace is very compelling. The lives and struggles of the characters become important and the reader is compelled to keep reading. The science is important to the main character (and to the story) but it isn't overwhelming, and a non-scientific reader could easily understand the significance of Transferred Y if not the science behind it.
Read-alikes: Readers who enjoyed Life might want to check out P.D. James' The Children of Men. It deals with the idea that the human race is becoming extinct due to the infertility of all men. A historian teams up with revolutionaries to try to save society. Like Life, The Children of Men features intense characterization, themes about gender and sexuality, driving narration, and a literary writing style. Life has the potential to appeal to those who do not particularly enjoy science fiction because the science is not featured heavily. Readers who want to explore other books that go light on the science may wish to read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale about a near-future society where women are forced into one of several classes: the chaste, wives who don't bear children, housekeepers, and handmaids who are responsible for reproduction. This is the story of how the handmaids are forced to bear children for the upper classes. The Handmaid's Tale has a literary writing style and a feminist voice. For more feminist perspectives, readers might explore James Tiptree Jr.'s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree (a woman writing under a male pseudonym) has written a collection of 18 short stories and novellas that have the same sophisticated writing style and complex characterization and storyline reflected in Life. Several of the stories have also won awards. For a more severe perspective of what the world might become, readers should explore Carol Emshwiller's The Mount. In this book, humans have become transportation for weak-legged alien invaders who ride on the shoulders. This book shares Life's tone and focus on relationships, but it features a power shift of humans and aliens instead of men and women. For those who liked the heavy literary writing style and minimal science, David Lodge's Thinks… is a good choice. It focuses on an academic frame like Life and deals with complex characters, a man and a woman exploring the possibilities of marriage, adultery, and connection.
Red Flags: This book includes strong language and drug use. There are also sexual situations (including two rapes) but these are not particularly graphic.