Expiration Day, by William Campbell Powell

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 22, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) What happens when you turn eighteen and there are no more tomorrows?

It is the year 2049, and humanity is on the brink of extinction….

Tania Deeley has always been told that she’s a rarity: a human child in a world where most children are sophisticated androids manufactured by Oxted Corporation. When a decline in global fertility ensued, it was the creation of these near-perfect human copies called teknoids that helped to prevent the utter collapse of society.

Though she has always been aware of the existence of teknoids, it is not until her first day at The Lady Maud High School for Girls that Tania realizes that her best friend, Siân, may be one. Returning home from the summer holiday, she is shocked by how much Siân has changed. Is it possible that these changes were engineered by Oxted? And if Siân could be a teknoid, how many others in Tania’s life are not real?

Driven by the need to understand what sets teknoids apart from their human counterparts, Tania begins to seek answers. But time is running out. For everyone knows that on their eighteenth “birthdays,” teknoids must be returned to Oxted—never to be heard from again.

Thoughts: Expiration Day is written diary-style from the viewpoint of Tania Deeley, starting from her pre-teen years and continuing to roughly when she turns 18. Tania lives in a world where human fertility has fallen drastically, resulting in less than a 0.1% chance of a woman even getting pregnant in the first place, let alone carrying the baby to term. To provide the illusion of normalcy, couples can apply to purchase teknoids, advanced robotic children that serve as stand-ins for biological children, occasionally returning to the Oxted corporation for upgrades and refinements that allow them to look older and maintain the social illusion. The teknoids are unaware of the nature of their existence. Each one is programmed with a personality, adaptive responses, fully functioning AI that mimics a real person pretty much perfectly. The whole story is near-future, with the history of the infertility problem starting right now, in the past few years, which sets things in a good position to seem very believable and relatable.

The story starts awkwardly, and for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I do urge you to push past the initial awkwardness, because it does get a lot better as it goes. Part of the problem is that it’s all written as though it’s a series of diary entries, and in the early entries, Tania is supposed to be 11. She neither writes nor talks like an 11 year old child. it’s childish without being childlike, and that starts a huge disconnect between the reader and the story. As Tania ages, the childish tone slowly vanishes and the entries sound far more like what a 15-18 year old would say and do, sliding the book back into the real of the realistic, but admittedly it does take a while.

It comes a little surprise to the reader to discover that Tania is, in fact, a teknoid herself. But rather than have the knowledge wiped from her mind she instead owns that part of herself, incorporates it into her identity and in so doing makes this uncomfortable for those around her who would rather turn a blind eye to the issue. It’s one thing to know, purely academically and logically that any child you meet is a teknoid. It’s another to be confronted with the issue day in and day out by somebody who is unapologetically themselves and isn’t going to hide it for the comfort of others who would prefer the illusion to reality.

And that’s the real reason why it’s worth pushing past the initial awkwardness of the early parts of the book. What the author gives us is a novel that’s deeply concerned with exploring some big issues. The nature of humanity. The definition of worth. The value of illusion. Society’s collapse. The important press of teen sexuality. Do perfect-AI robots have souls? Does it even matter? Is it more important to be yourself or to maintain social cohesion? And all of these issues from the other side, the side of the robot who isn’t human but behaves and thinks like one in every way that counts. Usually such stories are told from the human side of things, taking up the cause of championing the rights of a sentient robot, with the robot being a metaphor for any Other you can think of at the time. But here we’ve got Tania arguing her own case for her own reality, trying to walk that fine line between “this matters” and “this doesn’t matter.” Expiration Day is a smart book that has a lot of worth in its pages, not just for teens but for all ages.

The areas in which it fails to shine quite so brightly are the beginning, which I already mentioned the issues with, and the ongoing in-joke about how Tania is writing her diary entries to some far-future alien being she names Zog. Early on, the joke makes more sense, since that’s a childlike thing to come up with and to play around with, but Tania continuing the joke across the years fell flat with me. The pseudo-character of Zog seemed like a bit of a cheap way to drop backstory and explanations every now and again without making that info’s presentation seem pointless and redundant. It also created moments that sounded on the surface like she was trying to justify her thoughts or actions to someone else, rather than herself.

Add to all that the fact that there was a Zog, of sorts, who was reading Tania’s diary all along in the very distant future and relating to her, Other to Other, and the whole subplot was more than a bit odd. I thought it was a needless thing to insert after a few entries, a child’s game gone too far, like an imaginary friend that one still has when they’re an adult.

But aside from that, Expiration Day was a terrific read, intelligent and thought-provoking, with only a few stylistic issues standing between it and being something utterly amazing. Ignore the fact that the summary of this book sounds like it’s about a girl at a fancy school trying to come to grips with the fact that her best friend is a robot. Ignore that it’s presented like some deep dark mystery about why teknoids have to return to the manufacturer at age 18. Love this book for the fact that it’s a beautiful exploration of humanity and consciousness and sentience, of discovery and realization and the boundaries of the self. Love this book for the way it will make you think and reconsider and explore your own perceptions of who you are and what that means. Love this book for the true story it tells, and the journey on which it will take you.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

10 comments on “Expiration Day, by William Campbell Powell

  1. Now this sounds rather good. An interesting concept and twist to the world. I like the sounds of this. Thank you!

  2. Your review makes this book sound a LOT more interesting than the blurb did–and now I’m mad that I passed up the chance at an ARC! Bah!

    • Yeah, the blurb and the summary that I’m seeing on sites like GoodReads and Amazon really don’t do this book justice. It sums up the first, what, maybe 7% of the book. Then the story keeps building and expanding and goes so far away from that description that I can’t figure out who thought describing it that way would be a good idea.

      Admittedly, revealing much more of what the book is actually about would give away a fairly major spoiler, so maybe that was the reason. But still, it sounds, on the surface, like the book is about a girl at a fancy school trying to save her robot friends from having heir memories wiped or something. I’m hoping that such a description doesn’t turn more people away from what turns out to be something really awesome!

      • I completely understand not wanting to reveal spoilers in a blurb, because that ruins the reader’s enjoyment. But if artificial children are so common, why would the MC be so shocked to find out that her best friend might be one? It just doesn’t make sense. Ah, well… Thanks again for a great review. :) YOU should have a job writing blurbs, because I’m sure that you’d make more sense than whatever chimps are currently doing it.

  3. Ria, have you read The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Pearson? Because that is similar in some important ways and possibly better. No Zog, for one thing, and no initial clumsiness with the voice, but dealing with similar questions.

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  5. *salutes* I solemnly swear to look past the initial awkwardness :D. I love sci-fi that gets at Big Issues, so I’m looking forward to this one! Now to fit it in with all the April reads D:

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