Eliminating the Womb in Feminist Science Fiction

Louisa Allen

I got my English Literature degree from Loughborough University in 1996, so I'm what you might describe as a Mature Student, though I don't feel particularly 'mature'. After a very unsatisfactory career in Market Research in London, I moved back to my university town and promptly got bored. A few years in human resources left me with my brain threatening to run away to join the circus. I then discovered the relatively new Creative Writing MA at Loughborough, and enrolled in 2006. Things have moved pretty fast since then.

I began my PhD in January, and I'm studying part time and aiming to complete in 4 years unless I get funding (we live in hope). I'm feel like I haven't really done very much yet – so speaking at this conference is somewhat of a challenge! I’m just going to outline my project and where I hope it will take me.

My PhD is part creative and part critical. My main aims are:
1. To write an original work of feminist science fiction of publishable standard that will challenge current gender conventions
2. To critically evaluate current creative and critical work in the area of feminist science fiction
3. To keep a self-critical development diary in the form of a weblog
4. To examine the process of writing both creatively and critically simultaneously, and the relationship between the two.

Feminist science fiction writers have been studied before, most notably by the writers themselves, for example Joanna Russ who wrote How to Suppress Women's Writing as well as feminist science fiction classic The Female Man. I will combine a critical study with a creative project, identifying issues in the existing texts and attempting to address them in my own.

The definition of science fiction I’m using is 'hard' science fiction; The Left Hand of Darkness of Ursula Le Guin rather than the Earthsea novels, science-speculative rather than fantasy-speculative. That is, the story will contain plausible scientific elements with regard to off-world travel, alternative energies and with particular focus on reproductive technologies. Though plausible, these elements may not necessarily be possible. For example, in the film The Island, the main characters are clones. Clones appeared in science fiction stories well before Dolly the sheep made animal, and therefore human, cloning a completely possible process – although not, currently, an ethical one. However, the concept was accepted as plausible by readers – for example The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt, first published in 1945. And Star Trek was possibly the first appearance of the ‘flip’ mobile phone, with fewer irritating ring tones.

Feminist writers have embraced science fiction as a genre to experiment with alternative politics, in both utopias and dystopias. Margaret Atwood, writing about her own writing in Curious Pursuits, states:

"I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia [a reference to Orwell’s 1984] as it were. However, this does not make The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist dystopia’, except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered ‘feminist’ by those who think women ought not to have those things."

She also states that ‘to move us towards the improved world – the utopia we’re promised – dystopia must first hold sway. It’s a concept worthy of doublethink’ (p339, ibid.). Utopia, of course, means ‘nowhere’.

Joss Whedon, on one of the extra features on the DVD of Serenity (a film which, it has been argued quite ferociously on the internet, has strong feminist characters – though on the same discussion thread, it has been argued they are not!) states that ‘whenever you create some kind of utopia, you find something ugly working underneath it’ 1, so however idyllic my future society may seem, a corrupt system of privilege must operate below, for the reader to become fully aware of.

Shulamith Firestone states in The Dialectic of Sex that ‘it was women’s reproductive biology that accounted for her original and continued oppression’ 2. In some feminist utopias, the fundamental reproductive difference between men and women is removed in that either artificial uteruses are used to ‘grow’ children, or both sexes can bear children. With gender difference removed, people who identify as ambigender, androgyne, intersex, non-gendered, agendered, intergendered, transgendered, cisgendered, gender-queer, bigendered, gender fluid or two-spirit, pan-sexual, asexual, bisexual, gynephilic or androphilic are equal. In feminist dystopias, women are often portrayed as greatly disadvantaged; women are enslaved as baby-making machines, their power is taken away, and if they are unable to reproduce, they are discarded. It could be argued that this is the situation many women already face.

In utopias such as the one portrayed in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, women and men are equal in all ways. Both participate fully in society and family life is a communal affair. Infants are grown in artificial wombs, and both males and females breastfeed and raise them in teams of three. Individuals are free to have sexual relationships with whomever they choose, and differences are settled by committee. Some utopias are separatist, with no males at all, or if there are any men, they are the enemy, as in Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas. In the Culture novels by Iain M Banks, individuals can change sex and carry and impregnate as they wish. Perhaps the most well-known line from The Left Hand of Darkness is ‘The king was pregnant.'3

Full control over bodies is a theme common to both utopias and dystopias. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is perhaps the most well-known of these, though many other futuristic novels could be said to disadvantage women as they simply perpetuate the patriarchy – plucky heroines still have soft sides and require rescuing, and conform to heteronormativity - however much they seem to resist.

In both utopias and dystopias, the 'nuclear family' does not seem to exist – children are brought up communally, and do not have any particularly 'special' relationship with their birth parents. Mothers are distanced from their children, either very early on in dystopias like The Handmaid's Tale, or by ritual at puberty in utopias like Woman on the Edge of Time, or even earlier as in Motherlines. Of course, children born from artificial wombs are even more separate from their mothers.

My novel’s main storyline is the first creation of a fully functioning artificial womb, with society somewhere along the road to achieving equality for all, regardless of sex or gender. The proposed ectogenesis is a step along that road.

Ectogenesis has serious ethical implications which are explored in feminist science fiction. In Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue, ‘tubies’ 4 as they are referred to have fewer human rights than naturally born children, and are freely experimented on. Would babies gestated in artificial wombs experience a disadvantage socially, biologically, emotionally? Would they be considered a form of cyborg? Would only the very rich have access to this technology? What happens to the role of the family and the mother? I expect to face issues on what it is to be human and concerns over how the technology may be abused to reduce abortion rights and women’s access to their children. Rather than freeing women, would it reduce them to being ‘just men’ – an opinion shared by Connie in Woman on the Edge of Time – she cannot understand why the women of that future would want to share their children so fully. Just because it was possible, is that a good enough reason to try it? The potential for abuse and corruption is very high – and I suspect that my novel would be quite dull if there were no abuse or corruption to uncover.

I intend to explore gender performativity in science fiction and its role in maintaining gender discrimination: perhaps if women were female and feminist but not feminine, many gender differences would be eliminated. Or if all aspects of masculinity and femininity on the whole spectrum could be adopted at will by anyone, and changed whenever they wished, this could also bring about equality – and I’m not just talking about pretending to be someone else in Second Life.

If the full range of the gender spectrum were available for all to use regardless of X or Y chromosome combination, would all people be equal, ‘realized consciousness[es]’? The more one tries to define what is male or female, the more difficult the definition becomes. As well as people identifying as male, female or transgender, there are people who are physiologically ‘other’ genetic identities (for example, a person with XX chromosomes but without a womb or ovaries). There are also others who have had a gender status thrust upon them; a literary example is Frank in The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. 5 My research will include texts which have won the annual James Tiptree Jnr awards, given to novels which challenge gender conventions.

I am interested in the way feminist writers use language, in particular gendered and non-gendered pronouns. For example, Piercy’s ‘per’ and ‘person’ in Woman on the Edge of Time, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where all people are referred to as ‘he’ .6 Le Guin later criticised her choice of the male singular pronoun 7, stating that at the time she felt made-up epicene pronouns were awkward. In the screenplay of the novel, the invented pronouns a, un and a’s were used; though ‘these would drive the reader mad in print, I suppose’.8 I would suggest that a reader can get used to anything, as anyone who has read Iain M Banks’s Feersum Endjinn9 will appreciate. A more recent example of gender-free pronouns is Greg Egan’s Diaspora, which uses ve, vis and ver.10 I will attempt to experiment with my own epicene pronouns; my novel will include a section of society which uses such pronouns.

I’m aware that I’ve spoken a lot about the critical side of my PhD and not much about the creative side. This is mainly because I am more worried about getting the critical side wrong! I spent a long time deciding whether to do a purely creative project, but chose instead to have my own critical framework for the project, and also keep my options open. I really enjoy working on the novel – though I’m trying not to get ahead of myself and write it before I’ve fully explored the problem areas I need to address. People I talk to often say ‘I’d write a book if I had the time.’ I nod politely and say that doing the PhD allows me that time.

I am interested in creative writing as a growing discipline, its legitimacy as a subject and how it can interact with other disciplines such as biology, physics, sociology and criminology. For example, I will need to understand what attempts have been made so far with regard to artificial wombs and perhaps contact with university biology departments would give me access to that knowledge. If anyone has already done something similar with one of their own projects, I would be interested to hear about your experience.

So, that’s my project, and I reserve the right to change my mind several times before I’m done. The one comfort I have is that eventually, even if a commercial publisher will not take it, as long as I pass, the university will publish it!

As far as engagement with my institution goes, my first supervisor [Imelda Whelehan] took me on as her research area is feminist writing, and the university have recently taken on more staff for creative writing, including an author [Kate Pullinger] who is my second supervisor. Although both will have the delight of reading all my work, one will be advising on the creative side and the other on the critical side (as well as keeping me on track!). It was no small relief to all of us that they did not instantly hate my writing style! I hope to begin teaching in the next 12 months.

Fairly recently, I received an email from a new tutor (not my current institution) who was offering writing advice to students. The email stated that appointments could be booked to discuss essay planning and structure and so on, with the following statement:
I will also consider creative writing, but the academic side has to take preference.

I understood that the tutor did not want to be bothered with pages and pages of undergraduate angst that had nothing to do with their course, but nevertheless, I was affronted on Creative Writing’s behalf!

Notes and References

1 Joss Whedon ‘Future History: The Story of Earth That Was’ on Serenity, 2007.
2 Firestone, Shulamith, The Dialectic of Sex, The Women’s Press, 1979, p74.
3 The Left Hand of Darkness, p89
4 Hayden Elgin, Suzette, Native Tongue, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2000.
5 Banks, Iain M., The Wasp Factory, Abacus, 1995.
6 Le Guin, Ursula, The Left Hand of Darkness, Orbit, London, 2004.
7 Le Guin, Ursula, Is Gender Necessary: Redux in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 7-16.
8 Ibid, p.15.
9 Banks, Iain M., Feersum Endjinn, Orbit, 1994.
10 Egan, Greg, Diaspora, 2008, Gollancz (first published 1997).

Copyright Louisa Allen 2008



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