Expiration Day is simply an amazing book. It is science fiction as it is meant to be: full of big ideas, grappling with tough issues, finding the mundane humanity in the extraordinary and the extraordinary humanity in the mundane, simultaneously optimistic about and frightened of the future. It’s hard to grasp that this is a debut novel. I feel like I should be looking for a giant of the genre behind the curtain.
The world of Expiration Day is not so different from ours. It is set 35 years in the future, but society has suffered a bit of arrested development due to a fertility crisis that struck just a few years from now. Faced with the population dropping off a cliff and no prospect of children, society in the not-so-distant past had flirted with a disastrous return to a life nasty, brutish, and short. It was saved by only two things: a very heavy-handed government and the invention of incredible life-like robots. Those incredibly life-like robots are sold at considerable cost to infertile parents to allow them the illusion of raising a child. It’s strictly a lease, however, and the children must go back at 18. The story, then, has a very central an BIG IDEA premise—we can’t function without children. They are so important to our society that even an illusion—an illusion that can bring life-shattering ramifications when it pops—is preferable to life without it. More on that in a bit.
Expiration Day is told entirely through the diary entries (dictated to a smart phone, of course) of one young girl, Tania, over several years, interspersed with wonderful interludes from “Zod” the alien being thousands of years later finding Tania’s diary. Tania is 11 at the beginning of the story and lives in a village in England, the daughter of a vicar and a homemaker.
Expiration Day is a difficult book to talk about. There is a spoiler, relatively minor I think, well telegraphed, and to be expected, that comes quite early in the book (a book written without the weight of decades of science fiction behind it might have saved that particular reveal for the end). It’s hard to talk about the book without admitted to that particular spoiler. So buyer beware.
Tania believes herself to be a real girl at the beginning of the story, despite casually dismissing her classmates as robots (including her friend Sian). The story really begins when she (early on) discovers that she is not, in fact, a real girl. She is a robot, as are the vast majority of children. The story goes from there to concern itself with how she copes with being a robot in a human world. There is of course some human-on-robot bullying (albeit mostly robot-on-human bullying), but it’s mostly Tania acting as a normal girl and experiencing the same panoply of emotions and experiences as anyone else.
Expiration Day is ultimately an exploration of humanity. It does so through familiar AI tropes, albeit in a fresh way, but also by being an intimate family drama. It is ideas science fiction, not hard science fiction. The world hasn’t progressed much in 35 years—everyone is either trying to cope, trying to solve the fertility crisis, or building awesome robots, after all.
Powell’s debut effort isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough for government work. The prose flows easily (the prose must flow), the story has depth on both a societal and individual level, there is a unexpected and very good bit of legal drama, and the ending builds upon and confound expectations in equal measures.