Science Fiction Studies

#149 = Volume 50, Part 1 = March 2023


Anna McFarlane

Maternity and Motherlessness

Wendy C. Nielsen. Motherless Creations: Fictions of Artificial Life, 1650-1890. Routledge, 2022. 262 pp, 13 b/w illus. $170 hc, $48.95 ebk.

Renae L. Mitchell. Maternity in the Post-Apocalypse: Novelistic Re-Visions of Dystopian Motherhood. Lexington, 2022. 162 pp. $95 hc, $45 ebk.

There has been growing interest in the figure of the child in recent engagements with sf and the possibility of a future, especially in the age of the climate crisis and particularly influenced by Lee Edelman’s polemical contribution to queer theory, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Rebekah Sheldon’s The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe (2016), for example, works from Edelman’s arguments to claim that the figure of the child is used to shut down the possibilities for political change in conservative ways that amount to an emergency in the face of a climate crisis that remains unaddressed by our contemporary political inertia. Sheldon mobilizes science fiction to make her point, as does Heather Latimer,  whose 2021 reading of the film Arrival (Villeneuve 2016)as a text that queers pregnancy and maternity makes a valuable contribution to these discussions. Maggie Nelson’s queering of her own pregnancy in her memoir The Argonauts (2015) also contributes to contemporary discussions about maternity and how its heteronormative and restrictive connotations might be read and overturned in literature and in public life. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that the figure of the mother and the life stages of pregnancy and maternity continue to be analyzed from new perspectives in sf studies. Two new monographs—Wendy C. Nielsen’s Motherless Creations and Renae L. Mitchell’s Maternity in the Post-Apocalypse—tackle these issues from the perspectives of posthumanism and psychoanalysis respectively.

Nielsen’s book starts with a story and a question. The story goes that René Descartes once set sail accompanied by a figure whom he claimed to be his daughter Francine, but who looked wrong in the light of day; this caused fellow passengers to cross themselves and blame the poor weather on the supposed automaton until it was tossed overboard, to follow in the ship’s wake like a bad omen. Nielsen tells us that the story was a fabrication (1), but this did not stand in the way of its longevity: the desire to frame Descartes as the father of artificial intelligence meant that the tale was repeated, and the truth—that the story had been concocted to hide the fact that Descartes fathered an illegitimate child—was lost in the process. Nielsen sees this story as emblematic of a common narrative of artificial intelligence as the being that is produced by a man, thereby eliding the role of the mother and the role of women more generally. She asks, “Why does early speculative fiction eliminate women’s roles as mothers?” (1), and her book is a series of examples and attempts at explanation. She also asks, “In what ways do beings created without mothers sustain or challenge traditional concepts of gendered or racial identity; what it means to be a mother, father, or creator, and the nature of birth, imagination, and creation?” (1-2).

Nielsen takes her examples from English, American, French, and German literature. She differentiates the (potentially) bodiless programs of Artificial Intelligence from the embodied, anthropomorphic Artificial Life—or ALife—that “has emerged as a discipline in robotics and as an area of critical inquiry of the posthuman in philosophy, literature, and gender studies” (2; emphasis in original). Nielsen’s rationale for the historical sweep of her subject is that she dates 1650 as a time when automata, and therefore ALife, became the subject of science rather than magic, as androids with the potential ability to mimic humans entered the market for the first time (2). Nielsen argues that “in Western literature before 1890, the recurring figure of the motherless creation represents a desire to create the perfect child and sustains pseudoscientific beliefs about the birthing body” (3)—for example, that a man’s production of new life will be a safer and more rational process than the chaotic danger of old-fashioned women’s labor.

Nielsen also connects her work to more recent issues, referring to the later movements of twentieth-century eugenics, posthumanism, and transhumanism. In reading early speculative fictions such as E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman (1817), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Goethe’s Faust (1829) as examples of transhumanist thought, Nielsen pitches reproductive rights as a precursor to human rights, given that the creation of new life, if by a mother, confers human rights, whereas the creation of ALife (most often by a man) does not, bringing to the fore the ways in which “reproductive rights inform readers’ sense of who counts as human” (6). In this way, while Nielsen ostensibly deals with cases in which the mother is notably absent, her work does deal directly with reproductive rights and the history of gynecology that has sometimes inhibited those rights even while intending to improve maternal outcomes.

Nielsen approaches her material chronologically, finding convincing rationales for her periodization that produce distinct and meaningful interventions in each section of the book. First, she considers the “pseudoscientific justifications” (6) for creating life without mothers during the period 1650-1800. This section of the book is perhaps the most interdisciplinary, considering as it does the medical literature and philosophy of the period. Medicine imagined women as passive vessels for the male seed, but with the ability to deform and corrupt through the womb as a hostile environment or through the impact of the maternal imagination. Spermatozoa were often depicted in this period as transferring a perfectly formed homunculus to the womb, where the womb’s material might either passively sustain the fetus or corrupt it. Nielsen connects this with Marilyn Francus’s observation that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the disappearance of the good mother from literature, replaced by “wicked mothers, pushy mothers, and evil stepmothers,” figures who “dominated the cultural landscape in ballads, fables, novels, plays, and court records” (Francus 10). Once the negativity of the womb and the figure of the mother have been established, the desirability of male midwives bringing children into the world through obstetric automata or producing life ex utero becomes apparent.

Part two deals with the Romantic period (1800-1832) and opens with Nielsen’s reading of the myth of Pygmalion that gives special attention to the versions by André-François Boureau-Deslandes (1741) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1770). The story of a statue brought to life by her creator concerns, in Nielsen’s view, the power of man and a narcissistic mirroring of man’s power, “an allegory for a self-reflexive creative process that valorizes the agency of the artist” (58). Romanticism, however, developed a critique of male creation without women. In this view, “life, artificially created, is a farce, an inversion of the human condition that nonetheless represents a critical model of the human” (70). Nielsen reads the motherless creations in Frankenstein, in Faust (the artificial Homunculus embodies a critique of academics: “they fail to bring true life into the world and only make more versions of themselves: cynical scholars” [85]), and in Hoffman’s The Sandman (Olympia) to argue for a transhumanist through-line from these texts to the concept of the technological singularity (as coined by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil). The reading of Faust is wide-ranging, drawing on biographical detail (the possible influence of the death of Goethe’s son on the finished text), the homunculus as a figure for Goethe’s ideas on morphology, the comparisons with academics and the Illuminati, and the student fraternity movement. The proliferation of ideas here sometimes means that the focus on the motherless nature of the ALife creations is lost, but that being said, the academic rigor here cannot be in question: Nielsen makes detailed references to Goethe’s other literary works, including his novel Elective Affinities (1809), his published conversations, and relevant historiography.

The linchpin of the book, and an opportunity that Nielsen takes to draw connections between these motherless creations and the discourses surrounding chattel slavery at the time, comes in part three. There she turns to American and French literature of the period 1850-1890 to tease out the interwoven threads of motherhood, fatherhood, and slavery. This focus on race can sometimes distance the book from the importance of gender and the focus on women that one might expect from the book’s title; this might perhaps have been addressed through the inclusion of some Black studies texts focusing on motherhood. Nielsen focuses on the creation of metallic men in Melville’s “The Bell-Tower” (1856) and Edward S. Ellis’s The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868). The latter is a dime store young adult novel that Nielsen describes as “a divisive fable that sustains the notion of white supremacy” by coding the titular steam train as Black, a mechanical replacement for slave labor that, in Nielsen’s view, highlights the ways in which Black people in the US of the period were already coded as machine-like.

Nielsen’s range of languages, cultures, and time periods makes for an eclectic book. She writes that focusing on motherless creations, as she does here, “represents an attempt to reorient tales about creation around male imagination and control. Thus, the relegation of the birthing body to an external mechanism naturally entails the silencing of female voices” (220). In combining this study with issues of race and transhumanism, those female voices are not significantly represented here (Mary Shelley is the only female author in the study), but Nielsen’s attention to some under-analyzed texts and her close attention to the details of each text’s production means there is some real value in bringing these texts together and reading them alongside each other, despite their significant differences. Nielsen’s book does two different things in different places—sometimes it has a gender focus about the treatment of women, particularly in the first third of the book, but more broadly it deals with its texts as examples of nascent transhumanism inflected with racial narratives (for example, in the figure of the golem or the iron automaton of “The Bell-Tower” that ultimately kills its creator). This is a significant contribution, as Motherless Creations speaks to a wider trend in posthumanism and artificial intelligence (AI) studies to look at longer histories for our understanding of these phenomena. Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter have argued for a posthumanism “without technology” (2007), and projects such as Cambridge University’s AI Narratives Project and the resulting collection (Cave et al., AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines [2020]) look to figures of both ancient and modern history to trace origin stories for our philosophical and cultural understandings of artificial intelligence or artificial life and how this new kind of life might change our societies and our definitions of the human.

While Nielsen’s work ranges from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and considers literature from multiple geographical areas, Renae L. Mitchell’s Maternity in the Post-Apocalypse focuses on contemporary fiction from North America to trace an alternative route through the ruined landscapes of dystopian literature. Mitchell rightly points out that dystopian imaginaries tend to depict societies where the worst excesses of patriarchal domination are left to run riot and women are often enslaved for their sexuality and maternity. In seeking a counter-narrative, Mitchell looks beyond the typical example of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1984) to a series of texts that she argues encapsulate different stages of maternity and its treatment in apocalyptic literature. Mitchell traces a path from the portrayal of gestation and pregnancy in Louise Erdrich’s The Future Home of the Living God (2017), to depictions of birth in Meg Ellison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (2016), to depictions of new motherhood and breastfeeding in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1999). She concludes by looking to the maternal futures envisioned by Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (2014) and Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Talents (1999).

The journey Mitchell traces from gestation to maternal futures has a pleasing arc, and bringing these texts together under the rubric of motherhood in the apocalypse is a move that brings less obvious readings to the fore; particularly successful is the book’s engagement with theology, both in identifying the Marian imagery that infuses Erdrich’s and Ellison’s depictions of maternity, and in analyzing the importance of writing as a source of religious authority in Okorafor and Butler. These theological readings form a convincing thread among the novels, and one that potentially speaks to the eschatological nature of postapocalyptic fictions.

Bringing this theological reading to the fore might have strengthened the book as a whole, but instead Mitchell focuses on the psychoanalytic idea of the Symbolic, which she takes primarily from Judith Butler’s account in Gender Trouble (1990). Butler describes the Symbolic as “the paternal law [that] structures all linguistic signification ... and so becomes a universal organizing principle of culture itself” (qtd. in Mitchell 10). Mitchell discusses whether situating maternity as a site of key importance in postapocalyptic societies might undermine or do away with the Symbolic in some sense. In doing so, Mitchell aligns the Symbolic very closely with the patriarchal power structures associated with it in psychoanalysis, sometimes to the detriment of a clear understanding of the concept and the role it plays in psychoanalytic theory in terms of structuring language and culture. A clearer engagement with the idea of the Symbolic from the outset would have clarified Mitchell’s position. Her commitment to intersectionality is clearly of great importance to her but is not analyzed or theorized with any rigor until her discussion of Hopkinson’s work over halfway through the book.

Mitchell starts some important conversations about the visibility of maternity in contemporary culture, though her claim that “perceptions of maternal characters in post-apocalyptic novels are changing from victim to protagonist, reflecting the growing view of mothers as decreasingly defined by subjection or perceived social abjection to embodying a formative role in which the maternal is a means of empowerment ... and the primary driver of the narrative” (3) is perhaps a bit of an over-stretch. The texts here are drawn from the last 25 years and represent only a tiny minority of the wider genre, and at times the book is at risk of forgetting more established depictions of pregnancy and the figure of the child in its insistence on the novelty of this phenomenon and its desire to situate this “maternal turn” in terms of contemporary political issues such as the rise of Trumpism and the COVID pandemic. For example, in the book’s afterword Mitchell claims that the 2021 winner of the Nebula Award for best short story, Rae Carson’s “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse,” points to a “growing attention to an undercurrent of anxiety that seems to be embodied by fictional apocalyptic events” (144), thereby overlooking the long history of the figure of the child in the zombie narrative that stretches back at least to George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968). There are also some places where the scholarship does not appear as up-to-date as it could be, such as when Mitchell describes Okorafor’s work in terms of Afrofuturism, overlooking the author’s move towards Africanfuturism in 2019 and subsequent discussions about Africanjujuism. Mitchell does stipulate in her introduction that she sees post-apocalyptic dystopian literature as situated within “speculative” fiction, “a genre that lends itself to imaginative conjectures about the future” (6) rather than science fiction (which is not defined here), so perhaps some of these gaps in the scholarship and generic context might have been aided by closer attention to the viewpoints of sf studies. 

Taken together, these monographs do some major work to situate reproduction and maternity in terms of key contemporary debates surrounding posthumanism and transhumanism, intersecting with both comparative studies and dystopian studies. Both bring together texts that are read in a very different light when placed against each other under the guiding themes of reproduction and the maternal, and I do not doubt that they represent helpful forays into this territory that will serve future scholars well as they build on these foundations, perhaps even signaling the emergence of a “maternal turn” in science-fiction studies.

Callus, Ivan, and Stefan Herbrechter. “Critical Posthumanism, or, the Invention of a Posthumanism without Technology.” Subject Matters 3.2/4.1 (2007): 15-30.

Latimer, Heather. “A Queer Pregnancy: Affective Kinship, Time Travel and Reproductive Choice in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.” Feminist Theory 22.3 (2021): 429-42.

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