This post will contain spoilers for Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, and minor spoilers for Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb.
Sixteen-year-old Lalla has grown up in a London that is slowly falling apart. Her father finally decides to launch his ambitious and audacious escape plan; a ship that will not just take himself, his wife and Lalla away from the chaotic mainland, but also transport 497 other people, handpicked as deserving of rescue. Lalla is unimpressed by her father’s ingenuity, and rapidly disconcerted by life on the ship. Everything that its inhabitants could possibly need is provided for them, but what happens when its massive stores eventually run out? And where is the ship going, when the sun always sets on a different side of the deck? The reader works out these answers much more swiftly than Lalla; this huge ship is sailing in circles, with no intention of ever making landfall again, and when its supplies finally diminish, no-one currently alive on the ship will be around to worry about it. The ship itself is the new world that Lalla thought she was travelling to.
As this implies, Lalla’s naivety is the first reason why many might find her a difficult heroine, but Antonia Honeywell’s choice to depict her in all her stroppiness, impulsiveness and relative ignorance is ultimately very brave. Lalla is not easy to like, but her insistence on making her own life, and her fundamental belief that a true life cannot really be lived in a place that never changes, demands at least some respect from the reader. At first, Lalla’s objections to the ship seem childish, and her desire for particular objects she has never seen, like an apple, monstrously selfish in light of the terrible suffering that is happening elsewhere in the world. But we gradually realise that, for Lalla, a living apple is the symbol of the type of life that she will now never have. As she says to her father, ‘What is being alive if it is not to grow? And what is it to grow, if not to make something new.’ Threatening to leave the ship, she ultimately configures it as a mass grave: ‘I would rather die out there, looking for a future, than die here, knowing there is none.’ For Lalla, being able to contribute to the world that she lives in is fundamental to a meaningful existence. By imprisoning her in the ship and choosing her a suitably-vetted romantic partner, Lalla’s father has created a situation where he can actually fulfil the natural parental desire to forever protect a child from venturing out into a hostile world. But his fantasy only allows Lalla to be a passive, happy object.
Lalla’s relationship with her father has strong parallels with another recent piece of speculative fiction, Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which I reviewed here. In sixteen-year-old Jessie’s world, all pregnant women are dying shortly after conceiving their children from a fictional disease called MDS. The only way to ensure that any children are born at all is to seek teenage volunteers to get pregnant and be put into comas so their child at least might be carried to term, even though they sacrifice their lives in the process. Jessie decides that she wants to be one of these volunteers; her father is, unsurprisingly, horrified, and imprisons her in her own home so she can’t put herself forward. Like Lalla, Jessie can be a frustrating heroine; her decision to die for her child feels hasty and unnecessary, and not a little anti-feminist; but we are forced to accept her argument that she deserves agency in her own life, even if the choice she makes is not one that we would want for her. Both girls could be speaking when Jessie says ‘You have to allow me to choose what to do.’ And both Honeywell and Rogers depict realistic adolescent girls that nevertheless are allowed the same depth of respect and understanding that we would afford to an adult character.
Nevertheless, the significance of both Lalla and Jessie reaches beyond what they choose to do as individuals. Both girls represent the importance of the future – the human impossibility of settling for a life without creation and work. As adolescents, the girls will be living in their dystopian worlds long after their parents are dead, and the pressing needs of their generation cannot be forgotten, even as older cohorts naturally seek safety and security after painful, active lives. As Lalla’s father tells her, ‘This ship is for the children’. ‘And their children?’ Lalla responds. ‘A beautiful life makes a present of death’, he tells her. ‘I have given you all a beautiful life.’ Lalla is unconvinced that what he is offering is anything more than a beautiful death.
Similarly, for Jessie, the promise of a good life on other people’s terms is not enough. Her father tries to talk her out of her decision: ‘The future is an abstract concept, Jess,’ but Jessie can’t believe this: ‘No, it’s my child and my child’s child’. Both girls are concerned not only for their own generation but the generations that they will bring life to, understanding more clearly than their parents that the current situation is no sort of world for children to grow up in. It’s fitting that both girls’ stories revolve so closely around pregnancy, and that they both profess their intentions not to smother their children in the way that their fathers have tried to smother them. As Lalla tells her unborn child: ‘When you are born, little one, I will never say that I did this for you.’