What if you could guarantee the birth of a boy? Would you?
Some of the best science fiction starts out with a simple premise, like the desire to have sons, and spins it out to its disastrous end. Throughout history, throughout most of the world, sons have been desired over daughters. This is still the case in much of the modern world and has been the theme of many novels. Science fiction makes it possible to look at the consequences of getting our collective wish, of being able to guarantee the birth of sons.
Amin Maalouf’s novel, The First Century After Beatrice centers on a French entomologist who finds a curious kind of bean in a Cairo market while attending a symposium on scarab beetles. Swallow the bean, and your children will all be boys. The entomologist wants nothing more than to marry his love Clarence and for her to give him a daughter, so he has no interest in the bean. However, while on assignment in India for the Parisian newspaper she works for, Clarence discovers a local clinic that has seen the birth rate of girls drop to nothing. She begins to connect the dots and discovers that the properties of the bean have been mass produced and marketed to growing numbers of communities where sons are still greatly preferred over daughters.
She explains the problem Europe will eventually face. Most people in Europe don’t care one way or another what sex their child is. Those who do care are evenly split between wanting boys and wanting girls. Those who don’t care will continue to have both sons and daughters as will those who want daughters. Those who want sons, however, can take a pill that will guarantee the birth of a boy. This means that the next generation, instead of being close to 50-50 male to female, will be 68-32 male to female.
Be careful what you wish for.
The First Century After Beatrice is a warning, a parable much like P.D. James’s book The Children of Men. I suspect the medical technology necessary to pre-determine the sex of a child is probably not all that far in our futures. Should it become available to the entire population before we all reach a point where neither sex is favored the results could certainly be disastrous. In this sense, The First Century After Beatrice is a useful warning. But The First Century After Beatrice is also a love story. The entomologist narrator is in love with his wife and devoted to his daughter Beatrice. For the first 50 pages or so of the novel I thought I was reading a romance. A darn good one, too.
I may have an issue with the translation. It’s very difficult for me to judge the writing when reading something in translation. Is what I find problematic the result of the translator’s lack of ability, or is the translator simply doing her job, conveying both the content and the style of the original? I found the narrator’s English to be awkward. He is a professor, a scientist, an entomologist who sometimes speaks in ways that don’t ring altogether natural. He narrates as though he is performing the story, delivering it as a lecture instead of just telling it in a natural voice. This could be Mr. Maalouf showing us an aspect of his narrator’s character. That’s how I’m choosing to view it.
Maybe you’ll see what I mean in this wonderful passage describing his godfather’s library.
I remember, as a matter of fact, that at the end of my very first visit, he walked over to his bookcase at the other end of the sitting-room. All the volumes were in antique leather bindings and from a distance all looked alike. He took one down and gave it to me. Gulliver’s Travels. I could keep it. I was nine years old, and I don’t remember whether on my next visit I noticed that there was still a gap where the book had been. Only, over the course of the years, the bookcase was studded with similar gaps until it resembled a toothless mouth. Not once did we remark on this, but I eventually realized that these places would remain empty; that for him they were now as sacred as the books; and that these phantom volumes, carved out of the buff-coloured leather, represented all men’s unspoken love and the pride they took in plundering their own collections.
See what I mean? Not once did we remark on this. This does not sound like natural language to me at all, but the image is so wonderful that I’m willing to excuse the faults I find in it. I feel the same way about the book itself.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010. In the years since then I recall reading an article about sex-choice based abortion rates which showed they tended to favor girls over boys, though the difference was slight. If I’m recalling it correctly, the study looked at Europe and America, not the entire world. It’s still a very interesting, very uncomfortable issue and something that we’ll probably have to face at some point in the very near future.