With climate change increasingly dominating the news and contributing to a creeping sense of existential anxiety, it’s no surprise to see a rush of fiction grappling with our ever-warming planet. Yet though ecological dystopias are becoming more and more common, The Offset presents us with a unique concept: for every child brought into the world, they must, on their eighteenth birthday, choose a parent to die. The debut novel from Natasha C. Calder and Emma Szewczak—working together under the pen name Calder Szewczak—The Offset sets out to present its own disturbing vision for our tattered world.
Predictably, the world of The Offset has seen climate change wreak havoc across the planet, yet global temperatures aren’t the only world-altering shift presented by the novel; in our ham-fisted attempts to undo the damage and rebalance what’s left of the ecosystem, humanity has unleashed a series of genetic experimentations—not least the filterweed, an omnipresent plant species which was meant to sequester carbon, but which has become so prevalent that it’s even spreading indoors and becoming carnivorous. The abundance of man-made abominations presents a similarity with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13), yet Calder Szewczak uses them to form a setting all their own, one rife with vibrant—and often violent—colour. From fields of bright orange corn to neon dragonflies, the bright flora and fauna contrast starkly with their bleak social setting.
And bleak it is: technology may have run rampant across the ecosystem, but it’s no longer a part of most people’s everyday lives. With global supply chains and manufacturing having collapsed, machine parts are confiscated by the authorities in order to repair their own failing equipment:
The front of the oven has been ripped away and the grills and heating element have been removed from its blackened interior. The metal handles have been taken from some of the cupboard doors, half of the shelves are bare and, where once there stood a dishwasher, there is nothing but a gaping hole.
This presents the first of the novel’s challenges to misconceptions around climate change: that technological solutions will miraculously fix the situation. Yet, as we see from the glaring abominations roaming both the novel’s countryside and empty urban streets, technology will not save us. The “gaping hole” in The Offset’s world is both created by technology and maintained by its absence. This in turn creates a strongly medieval vibe, replete with guilds, stonemasons, and even a dungeon in the form of a repurposed London Eye. In fact, the London Eye forms one of the most memorable scenes from the novel, with its glass pods filled with dying and forgotten prisoners:
In one pod, glass speckled with condensation, there are no discernible shapes of people or their distinct parts at all, but only a thick fluid putrefaction. As the wheel sways gently in the wind, a shuddering ripple passes across the surface of the viscous matter and a few blunt knuckles of bone emerge.
The full horror of Calder Szewczak’s story is unleashed from the very outset, and we haven’t even begun to discuss the offset itself. Though the world is more fragmented than ever—it’s made clear that nearby France and Ireland may as well be on a distant planet—it has united in global agreement over the offset, which is designed to discourage reproduction and the resultant “overpopulation.” This norm has been in effect for generations, and forms a powerful ideological movement, one exemplified by slogans like “Say no to life.” Those who have children are derided as “breeders.”
This presents a somewhat ironic twist. “Breeder” is an anti-straight epithet among parts of the LGBTQ+ population, yet despite The Offset’s pseudo-medieval setting, homosexuality and queerness of all kinds are completely accepted, same-sex couples can genetically reproduce, and nonbinary gender identities are common (which means a lot to nonbinary readers such as myself, given the lack of gender-nonconforming characters in fiction generally). In fact, it’s a queer family that provides the protagonists of the story: the famous environmental scientist Jac, her wife Alix, and their surly daughter Miri.
Miri’s offset is due in a matter of days, and she must choose between her two mothers: the hard-hearted Jac, and the kinder, more maternal Alix. Having lived as a homeless runaway for the past two years, Miri begins the novel by finally returning home. With Jac away overseeing her life’s work—a vast forest of Arctic trees designed to save the planet from heat death—Alix is left alone with her daughter, and does her very best to convince Miri to choose her for execution. Alix’s lobbying for her own death is a fascinating circumstance, and it isn’t done for love: it’s a ruthlessly pragmatic decision, with Jac serving as humanity’s best hope for recovery. Miri, however, has other ideas—having long loathed Jac, she doesn’t consider it a difficult decision at all. At least, at first.
It’s Miri’s choice thatreates the central dilemma and source of conflict in the novel. Like many in her generation Miri is a staunch anti-natalist, and resents having been brought into a fading world: “They knowingly condemned her to life on a dying planet in full knowledge of what that would mean and the hardships she would have to face.” Yet this is diametrically opposed to what Jac and Alix intended; with the creation of the Arctic forest, they had a baby as a symbol of hope for the future. “Everyone who saw it still remembers the fire in Jac’s voice, and how her loving wife Alix stood by her side, a small bundle cradled in her arms.” The division between pro- and anti-natalism is also a divide between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair.
It’s in the offset that we find the counter-argument to another misconception around climate change: that it’s caused purely by overpopulation. In reality it is not simply the number of humans which matters, but the impact per person: for example, North Americans and Europeans each live in relative opulence, yet the average North American life has twice the environmental impact of a European. Meanwhile, wasteful Europeans have many times the impact per person as those in more modest parts of the world. They’re breeding too much is a common, racist response to our planet’s environmental issues, with the blame usually placed on regions with larger families. But there is no fixed amount of resources a single human requires; that’s determined by economic and societal factors. If we want to counter climate change, we need to deal with the situation honestly, so it’s of great importance that The Offset challenges lazy, simplistic arguments around overpopulation.
Which brings me to one of The Offset’s major themes: that of elitism and classism. The offset itself has perpetuated this especially British trait, with “Breed fewer, breed better” a popular self-serving phrase among the elite. Britain has long been a popular setting for dystopian fiction, and with good reason: as of 2021, my home country has a real problem with the unaccountable power of its aristocratic elites, the dominance of London over the regions, and the nation’s increasing isolation from the wider world. Such issues are even more prominent in Calder Szewczak’s novel, where we see three British locations: London, “the Counties,” and Alba (Scotland).
Though life is hard in London, it’s a luxury compared to life in the disease-ridden Counties and poverty-stricken Scotland. It’s even implied that Jac’s London-born scientist coworkers demean and beat the Scottish locals. Meanwhile, Brexit and the end of the freedom of movement granted to EU members have been taken yet further, to the extent that those from other parts of the islands need a visa simply to live in London’s slums. Though the United Kingdom has been replaced by the “Federated Counties,” we see little evidence of actual federalism—only the long, familiar supremacy of the capital, and destitution elsewhere.
Yet classism is prevalent even within the capital, with The Offset taking a swipe at the omnipresent hostility toward the city’s poor, directly citing the anti-homeless street furniture which is instantly recognisable to those visiting London: “Hard metal studs have been fixed to the pavement and every alcove and windowsill in sight sports wire spikes or shards of broken glass that cut upwards.” Though the novel’s world is very different to our own, in many ways it’s very much the same. It’s also made abundantly clear that Jac and her family’s success is solely down to their social status—because ordinary people don’t become famous scientists and respected surgeons. The family even lives in a sprawling mansion, which was once a London Underground station, their privilege in this way coming at the expense of public services designed to benefit the masses.
The Offset confronts us with several timely and important themes, and it does so in a highly compelling way. Yet it’s not a perfect novel. Despite the dark imagery, there are elements that feel like they belong more to Young Adult fiction, such as the pet rat Miri adopts—a genetic experiment with an ear grafted onto its back—or the two-dimensional thief she befriends. Then there’s the fact that Alix is given too few character details, with an over-reliance on describing her scent in lieu of real development (you’ll read “wild rose and poppy,” “wild rose and poppy,” “wild rose and poppy” over and over until it starts to feel like a mantra).
Yet the novel’s main issue is its brevity. It’s simply too short. In fact, it could easily have been twice as long, and still would have left me wanting more. There are just so many interesting issues to explore, settings to convey, and relationships to reveal. At its current length, the reader is rushed from one to the other, with little room for elaboration. This is especially apparent in the novel’s ending, which is extremely sudden, and somewhat unsatisfying as a result: Miri reaches her decision, but how and why is left frustratingly vague. In its later stages, The Offset actually feels like it’s missing whole chapters. And I want those chapters!
Of course, there are greater criticisms than being left wanting more (especially as I recently complained about Doctorow’s Attack Surface being far too long); but it does mar an otherwise excellent novel. That being said, The Offset is a genuinely enjoyable and timely book, and after my last few, rather negative, reviews I’m especially relieved to say so—because I genuinely love speculative fiction, and it breaks my heart to see well-established, talented writers putting so little effort into their latest works (I’m looking at you, Max Barry). We need more fresh, new voices in the genre, and with their debut novel, Natasha C. Calder and Emma Szewczak seem to have arrived just in time. I only hope their second novel has a higher wordcount, so their ideas and characters can be more fully explored.