What would you do for money and health insurance? It’s the kind of question that makes terrible sense in contemporary America. So many of us work hard for low wages to keep ourselves in shelter, food, and health care. It’s also the question that, in part, fuels Lakewood, by Megan Giddings. This novel is disturbing and infuriating, in the way that only really good satire can be.
At the beginning of Lakewood, Lena Johnson is in a tough position. Her grandmother has just died. Her mother is unable to work due to an undiagnosable condition. Lena is trying to work and go to college, but there’s just not enough money to make that possible. When she gets word of a lucrative research study that also offers health insurance for participants and their families, Lena can’t pass up the opportunity. The red flags about the Lakewood project—scary NDAs, no informed consent document, no declaration of who is in charge, barely any information about what the study actually entails, the elaborate cover story Lena is supposed to use if anyones asks—would have scared off anyone who wasn’t as desperate as Lena.
Lena would’ve been better off, in the long run, if her desperation hadn’t outweighed her sense of self-preservation. The experiments of Lakewood’s “memory” study are bizarre, unsettling, and often dangerous. All questions are deferred and, curiously, Lena notices that almost all of the subject participants are people of color. Later, Lena manages to get around the firewall she discovers on her phone to learn about studies like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and about the laws and codes of ethics that are supposed to keep participants safe. After that, Lena pushes even harder with her questions. What exactly is Lakewood up to?
Lakewood is not a thriller. Lena does not rally a band of quirky allies to take Lakewood down. Rather, Lena and her experiences bring up a series of uncomfortable questions for us to think about. What would we be willing to do for financial security and health care? Why are all the researchers white and almost all the subjects people of color? How far can companies and governments go with human subjects of research studies? Who is enforcing those regulations? Most of all, Lakewood asks, how on earth are we supposed to overturn an unfair, unjust system as entrenched as one that can house something like the Lakewood experiments? Book groups that enjoy satire will have plenty to talk about and readers of science fiction that deals with social justice should have a great time with Lakewood.