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Book Review Population control in a terrifying novel proposition

LIAM SHAW is intrigued by a futurist novel in which population mumbers are controled by deadly sacrifice

The Offset
by Calder Szewczak
Angry Robot, £9.99

IS IT acceptable to have children? Many now feel uneasy about the prospect. But a few go further. Life — all life — contains pain. We surely have a duty to avoid causing pain. So how can it ever be right to create another person who will experience pain? Might we instead have a duty not to?

The belief that procreation is morally wrong is known as anti-natalism. The Offset from authors Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak (writing as Calder Szewczak) is set in a world where having children has become deadly.

This is a world of runaway climate change, with London still recognisable but hot and decaying.

Society struggles on, run by automated systems left over from a more affluent age. In the past, people began to sacrifice themselves to give their children a chance of a better future. This once-voluntary social contract has become rigid.  

The result is not strictly speaking an anti-natalist society but one with draconian population control: one in, one out.

For every child born, one parent must die before or on the child’s 18th birthday. This is the “Offset” of the title. It’s a gripping conceit.

The novel explores the hatred children can feel for their parents. The story is told from two viewpoints, parent and child. We follow Miri, a rebellious 17-year-old who mixes with anti-natalist activists, as she approaches her 18th birthday.

She plans to exact revenge on her scientist mother Jac, who has placed her work trying to reverse climate change ahead of her own child.  

The Offset bursts with themes, like the genetically modified plants that have obliterated its world’s natural vegetation.

The analogy between horticulture and child-bearing runs deep in this serious novel — are these noble or selfish callings?

This is the bind of ecological catastrophe: to save ourselves from the present our ancestors handed on to us, we cause more horrific damage as we reshape ecosystems for the future we want. Our descendants may not be grateful.

The Offset is a powerful debut. It is also unrelentingly grim. It explores how the Offset would morph from a pure sacrifice into another weapon of patriarchal violence. These are the most distressing (and believable) parts.

Calder and Szewczak have not only succeeded in creating a dystopia rich in scientific detail. They have plumbed its sociological depths.

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