BOOK REVIEW / Another modest proposal: Game control - Lionel Shriver: Faber pounds 14.99

THEY say death is the last great taboo, and they persist in saying it, even though in doing so they add to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Similar claims are made for the population question, and similarly seem to undo themselves in the act of being made. You may hear the mutterings in various nooks of the Green movement, for example, asking when the nettle will be grasped. But it has been positively embraced by Paul Ehrlich for decades, and his warning cries now are no more arresting than a car alarm that won't shut down.

Why have we learned to stop worrying and become complacent about the population bomb? Part of the answer is that economic and social liberalism have converged to neutralise the issue. Liberal economics accustoms us to think growth is good per se, and also that more people will mean bigger markets; the liberal consensus argues that population growth - not populations themselves - will slow down as poor people become less so.

Lionel Shriver's novel suggests another part of the reason. It is that we cannot really comprehend strings of zeroes, and we have become inured to images of Third World poverty. When Shriver's heroine Eleanor Merritt, a family planning worker, is confronted by the beggars of Nairobi, it's a familiar scene. Indeed, the inhabitants of most large Western cities nowadays encounter less extreme versions of it on a daily basis.

Enter Calvin Piper, the black sheep of the demographics community, who dismisses the individuals and contemplates the numbers. His business is shaving off some of those zeroes, by whatever means necessary, and he has a Big Idea about those means. Between these two representatives of the stereotypical male and female ways of seeing the problem, there is, inevitably, a spiky chemistry.

It's a scenario with some promise, but although Shriver can spin an imaginative yarn, she is just too pleasant and airy about it. The last thing a modest proposal like Piper's needs is a modest treatment. To believe that Merritt would fall in with Piper's schemes, even conditionally, demands that we both accept the terms of the problem and grasp the horror contained within it. If those requirements were met, we'd be seduced, like Merritt, into thinking the unthinkable, and the potential for a

monstrous comedy could be unleashed. But the tone would need to be closer to DeLillo or Heller than, as it is, to Lodge. The trouble with Game Control is that it's funny, but not appallingly so.