A review of How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness by Jessica Bell

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness
By Jessica Bell
Vine Leaves Press
September, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-925965-60-5 

Icasia Bloom is a “Tatter”, someone who gets by trading favours, “tit-for-tat” rather than a standard career. It’s a difficult way to live and one that almost guarantees she will not find true happiness. This is a big deal in the world of the future where not finding true happiness equates to oblivion for you and your family. In Jessica Bell’s sci-fi dystopia, the Jacobson Movement – a quasi religious government body exerts total control over the “Globe”. In order to keep the population down, people are euthanised at increasingly younger ages, with their souls held in limbo until their children find true happiness, thereby releasing their parents into Second Life – a heaven-like place where you re-unite with your loved ones for all time. The book explores many aspects of the Jacobson’s autocracy which includes forced reproduction, sterilisation, arranged marriages, enforced death, simulations, mind-control, and technology taken to its extreme while taking a deep philosophical look at how life can become meaningful. 

Icasia Bloom is a gutsy, compelling protagonist, and her first person narrative makes her immediately likeable as she puts herself on the line to support her only child Abel. Icasia is resigned to her fate until she meets the generous but troubled baker Selma Beyett, whose husband Jerome is about to begin DeathCare therapy as a precursor to his early euthanisation. If Jerome, who Selma has unusually married for love, doesn’t find happiness within six months, he will be put to death and his parents will remain in permanent limbo rather than progressing to the much nicer Second Life. Icasia narrates the story in a first person confessional to a mysterious “Eve” whose identity remains hidden until the end, though the reader is put in the position of confidante, effectively fulfilling the Eve role and thereby creating a playful intimacy:

I had never heard a stranger use the word “we” before in relation to something that involved me. And to be honest, Eve, the word “love” made me feel a little ill. Oh come on, Eve, why such an expression of shock? Can you blame me? I’d never been in love before. I loved Abel, but that didn’t count. That was a different kind of love, I was pretty certain of it.

The narrative is interspersed with official documents, including letters to those who have found happiness, and daily programming schedules broadcast through the ever-present surveillance systems. Though most of the characters in the book are human, officials taken on a robotic quality as they follow and enforce the Jacobson’s many rules, which has a chilling effect  The depersonalisation is taken a step further by the fact that all government employees have a utilitarian, rather than given, name, contrasting with the unusual names and growing warmth between Icasia and Selma:

All Jacobson representatives are referred to by their order of employment in each department, rather than their real name. An acronym plus a number. For example, all employees of the Neural Oscillation Registry will have a prefix of NOR. The number refers to their hierarchy status. Nor8, then…Nor8, Nor8, Nor8…

The determination of what makes for a truly happy life is a mystery that drives the book forward. Of course ‘happiness’ is a subjective notion, fleeting and abstract, so finding it is tricky. It is a given at the start of the book that happiness comes through positive career choices and a degree of conformity.  Jerome, Icasia and Selma try many different approaches some of which are quite comical in a black way, as Jerome’s impending doom comes closer.

Like the best sci fi writers, Bell doesn’t hesitate to draw out the parallels between her futuristic world and our own, using the imaginary to highlight the all-too-real.  What is also obvious is that there are some aspects of life that are core to happiness, no matter the context: love, empathy, and care. Bell teases out connections between genetic inheritance, family responsibility, loss and desire in ways that are both subtle and engaging. I won’t give anything away as the story has several unexpected twists, but the parable of How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness comes through strongly in this feel-good, deeply philosophical book with its echoes of Orwell, Atwood and Clayton and Nolan’s Logan’s Run.