Sunday, April 17, 2011

Birth in sci-fi

I'm a lifelong fan of the fantasy genre, and a more recently-converted fan of science fiction novels. Since I haven't read so many, I don't have a great basis to draw from. That said, I find the topic of gestation and birth in science fiction very interesting. Often, science fiction consciously or unconsciously makes a statement about the present; it is always a product of the hopes, fears, and technologies of the time of writing.

One example that springs to mind is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. In those books, the more advanced civilizations have created artificial wombs: the fetus is grown in a tank, and is decanted instead of being born. Everyone is very happy about this since, after all, it means no maternal mortality! When one character finds herself in the position of being pressured to actually get pregnant and carry a child in her own body, she's horrified. I won't say anything about what happens with that situation because it would be a big spoiler.

More recently, I read some books by Charles Stross, Accelerando and Glasshouse. I'm going to throw in a minor spoiler for Glasshouse in the next line - more a spoiler for the type of world it is, but also a bit of a plot hint, so if you're planning to read it and haven't yet, skip the next paragraph, I guess.

Ready? Spoiler ahead! Okay! So in one of these books, technology eventually reaches the point where they have these devices that are like the food replicators in Star Trek, only they can replicate anything. It's not stated explicitly, but based on (again) horrified reactions to the thought of pregnancy and physical childbearing, it's pretty clear that these replicators are where babies come from in this vision of the future.

I think that both of these examples are quite interesting. In a way, they're very optimistic: they imagine a world where not a single woman has to die in childbirth. They're the ultimate dream of medicalized childbirth: a world with no discomfort, pain, injury, or death at all associated with childbearing. It sounds pretty good! There is, at times, a poignant sense that something good has been lost, but there's also a powerful sense that something bad (barbaric, violent, backwards) has been happily done away with.

One could argue that books that portray childbirth this way imagine the future as a place where humans are not made to be the best that humans can be, but rather as a place where science and technology allow humans to become something better than humans. Those stories also express a deep fear of childbearing, I think, and a wish that women could be freed of that fear by science.

I wish that I had some good counter-examples. As it is, most sci-fi novels don't concern themselves much with these types of things! Also, I just haven't read enough sci-fi novels to be able to think of a lot of good examples. I can think of some sci-fi TV shows and movies that depict natural, physiological birth in a neutral or even positive way (a variety of Star Trek series and at last one movie; Farscape; Battlestar Galactica; etc.). However, I'm not sure that it's fair to compare novels and TV. Birth is great for big, dramatic TV moments; audiences are going to be much more entertained by a screaming woman in an escape shuttle than they are by a baby being mechanically replicated along with the morning coffee. Choices are being made there for entertainment value, not just for message. Of course, I think that the childbirth elements of Star Trek do fit with its message as a series, but still, not a fair comparison.

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