Dystopian fiction based around childbirth and women’s bodily autonomy is a powerful literary niche, including books like The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men, and Polly Ho-Yen’s, Dark Lullaby. One by Eve Smith can be added to that canon. A powerful novel set in a near future United Kingdom, where eco disaster and over-crowding have forced the government to implement a draconian one-child policy.
Note: The themes in One could be distressing for readers who are struggling to have a family, have suffered the loss of a child, or put up a child for adoption.
What Is One by Eve Smith?
Kai works for the Ministry of Population and Family Planning. She’s a “baby reaper;” a government official charged with ensuring none of her assigned families break the one-child rule. The consequences of doing so are brutal. The government will stop at nothing to ensure that the population is kept under control.
Alongside a draconian birth control policy, immigration policy is equally unforgiving. Some immigrants are allowed into the country but most are kept out, or held in camps before being removed.
One day, Kai finds an unexpected update to her records on the ministry computer system. She has a sister. Something that is unheard of. How did this information get there, who else knows? Is it true? How have her parents kept it a secret? If the revelation proves true Kai’s parents will be incarcerated for the rest of their lives.
Using her position to investigate, Kai tries to discover the truth of the allegation. In pulling that thread, she unravels a whole lot more than she intended. One is the story of this unraveling. What follows is a tale of freedom fighters, layers upon layers of secrets, and a cover-up that goes right to the heart of the all-powerful “ONE” government.
Why Read One by Eve Smith?
One is a broad-brush strokes, state-of-the-nation novel. Yes, it’s science fiction, but it is easy to see that it is rooted in the current political trend for populism and division. Media bias, othering, and an absence of compassion underline the ONE government’s philosophy. Scarily so. Yet I write this shortly after the U.K.’s immigration minister ordered the painting over of Disney murals in a child immigration center so that it wasn’t “too welcoming.”
The central themes of One are uncomfortably familiar. ONE is a fascist government, but it often feels barely two steps to the right of the UK’s current political leadership. Eve Smith has been clever with her creation, however. ONE is not a caricature of evil; it is not a monolith of evil and bad ideas.
Under ONE, the UK is governed by strict climate control guidelines. Climate disaster has ravaged the country’s coastland, as well as much of the rest of the world. Much of ONE’s philosophy is aimed at reducing carbon use to a bare minimum. Travel restrictions are imposed, great tracts of land are given over to rewilding and citizens are encouraged to grow as much of their own food as possible. Personal allowances for travel and food are imposed.
The path to hell, however, is paved with good intentions. Whilst the intention is to be self-sufficient and reduce the nation’s impact on the environment, the strict control of the population requires excessive curtailing of civil liberties. Much of this is supported (or at least not protested against) by a docile population, because the policy did successfully bring back the country from the brink.
One is an examination of government control. How divide and conquer sets up walls between people. How fear and mistrust can be used to control. (Similar themes are explored in another Orenda Book, The Forcing. A novel that examines climate catastrophe in the USA.)
Set against the backdrop of this realistic authoritarian regime, is a tale of freedom fighters and the mystery of Kia’s sister. As Kia digs deeper into the society in which she lives, the scales fall from her eyes. We see a deeper, much nastier, undercurrent, hidden for decades. The book can make for some disturbing reading and, in theme, is worthy of being placed next to The Handmaid’s Tale.
One is a book that asks us to consider our current predicament, both in terms of being on the brink of climate collapse but also about the governments we elect and what we allow them to get away with. In this polarised world, I imagine that the people who really need to read and understand the message of this book will dismiss it as “woke-tosh,” whilst those who do read it, may well see it as a disturbing but inevitable prediction of our future.
If you’ve read this far, it’s obvious I’m in the latter camp. I’d like to think it “could never happen here,” but as I enter my sixth decade, I can’t help but feel pessimistic. Hopefully, the younger generation of policymakers and thinkers can navigate a way through the post-truth, populist mire.
Books like One show us what can go wrong when the destination is divorced from the path taken. It’s a powerful modern dystopia. Depressing, yes, but it does also offer us hope. The human spirit is not easily overcome. Eve Smith’s previous novels focus on an antibiotic research crisis and genetically engineered children; two more hot topics for the future of the planet. Based on the strength of One, I’ll definitely book looking to pick those up soon!
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I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.