Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Book Review: Master Class

By Jami Deise

One of the drawbacks to releasing a new book during a pandemic is that it’s hard to find traction when everything else in the world is going crazy. This is especially true for speculative fiction, which relies on the comparison and contrast between today’s world and what the future might look like if the worst aspects of today’s society were amplified. For Christina Dalcher’s second novel (her first, Vox, was widely acclaimed speculative fiction as well) Master Class, the issues it raises seem out of step with a nation that is now stuck in a “master class” of what happens when an infectious disease runs through a country where medical care is a for-profit industry.

The protagonist of Master Class is Dr. Elena Fairchild, who lives in a version of the United States where the country’s obsession with testing its schoolchildren has gone to the extreme. In this America, babies are given a prenatal “Q-score;” children are tested monthly and sorted according to their results. The best go to elite “silver schools;” the middle to neighborhood “green schools,” and the failures sent off to state schools, their parents forbidden to contact them. And the parents also get a score that determines their fitness; their scores decline for events like divorce or part-time work.

Elena teaches at the silver school that her older daughter Anne attends; she’s married to an Education Department proponent of the system, Malcolm. Elena has always known her younger daughter Freddie might have issues—she refused the in-utero test and forged the results for Malcolm—but when Freddie fails her test and is sent to a state school, the drama goes into high gear. Unwilling to be separated from her sensitive nine-year-old, Elena flubs her own test and arranges to be sent to Freddie’s state school in Kansas. What she finds is worse than her darkest nightmares.

Master Class is an overtly political book, but it will be equally offensive to conservatives and progressives alike. The novel is a not-so-subtle warning against eugenics; Elena even has a German grandmother to act as a constant, obvious reminder that sorting people into categories can lead to killing people who fall in certain more vulnerable groups. Progressives will be annoyed at the book’s regurgitation of classic anti-choice dogma that birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger supported eugenics and the implication that abortion on demand morphs into state-mandated abortion. Conservatives will chafe at the one-dimensional portrayal of villains like Malcolm, who seems like a Stephen Miller clone, and Education Secretary Madeleine Sinclair, a Betsy DeVos/James Dobson hybrid.

Underneath the over-the-top plot points, though, lies a very real commentary on our current educational system and the priorities the country places on academic achievement. Especially in the Washington, D.C. area, where the story takes place and where author Dalcher studied and taught for many years, the pressure for children to achieve scholastically and athletically is relentless. The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal shows that even rich celebrities resort to cheating to ensure their offspring gain places in prestigious colleges. In this light, it’s not so far-fetched that society could evolve to ensure that parents would no longer face the burden of children whose achievements might not mirror their own or that society would no longer be required to support them.

It remains to be seen whether the current pandemic will leave in its wake a kinder, gentler nation, or whether this crisis is just a hiccup on our road to a permanent ruling class of the one percent. Hopefully books like Master Class and Vox will one day serve as a reminder of the road not taken, and not as a warning for a winner-take-all country that society did not heed.

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

No comments: