Monday, February 8, 2010

The First Century After Beatrice Amin Maalouf

Maalouf's tale of science and superstition is both speculative fiction and elegantly written dystopian fiction. I would hesitate to call it science fiction as I do not want images of aliens and star systems to intrude but science fiction it is. Set in 2034 the novel is the memoir of a French entomologist and narrates the events of the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.

Whist at a conference in Cairo the narrator discovers Scarab Beans sold at the local market that promise to increase a man's fertility and guarantee the birth of sons. Subsequently, the narrators partner (Clarence) discovers that such beans are being sold not only in Egypt but also India, all over Africa and the Third World. Further research reveals that a synthetic drug had been manufactured which would guarantee the results the beans promise and that sales had made the developing scientist rich. When Clarence, a journalist, tries to write about the issue in her paper she is met with indifference, her employers consider the matter a Third World problem and an ideal solution to the overpopulation and food shortages that are it's perennial problems.
'If tomorrow, or even today, a method could be found to reduce the birthrate without violence, without force,with the free consent of the parents....'
But what, asks Maalouf, are the consequences of such a policy of positive discrimination. As the number of female births decline and the numbers of men increase, men who have no hope of a normal family life, suspicion and paranoia between races, cultures and tribes increase with inevitably violent results.

The novel deals with themes of gender bias and selective birth and illustrates the power of fiction to make global issues immediate and real for the reader. My only criticism is that the tone of the narrator, the retelling of events rather than the immediacy of living through them, puts the issues the novel explores at a distance. The events are narrated too calmly and therefore loose their ability to engage, you can admire the writers style and argument without getting caught up in the drama as there is no real drama.

Maalouf is a Lebanese born writer living in Paris, he believes that

'the level of civilisation of any society can be determined by the place of women'.

He is not hopeful if we are to take his conclusions from this novel.

Never has the Egyptian prayer

May your name live forever and a son be born to you

sounded so chilling.

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