SF Sunday: reproduction

I’ve been thinking of various books I’ve read where a pivotal part of the Strange Land aspect of the narrative has been a style of reproduction that varies from the human norm – either technologically transformed human reproduction, or else an entirely alien style of reproduction displayed by the Strange Creatures in the narrative.

I’ve read about artificial uterine devices, about systems where humans use a computer program to combine personality features to create a new personality in an artificial intelligence environment (one which may be granted a corporeal body of their own design at a future date), a gazillion and one explorations of various aspects of genetic engineering and many more (mustn’t forget the clones). I’ve read about the variations in reproductive patterns between aliens from K-selected species and from r-selected species, species with three or more individuals needing to combine genetic material to propagate offspring, hermaphroditic species, species where only one body in a family group has a conscious mind (and sometimes these species take turns in hosting the mind), species who don’t mature to social adulthood until they’ve finished their reproductive years, and many many more.

Most of these stories are, in some way, an exploration of the way our own reproductive patterns have shaped our social roles and expectations, especially with regard to gender apartheid.

So, this week’s question: what’s the most fascinating exploration of reproduction you’ve read (or seen in image-based media)?

Two for me:

  • Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which attempts to show both how biology shapes us and how we build our own social systems on top of actual biology through events in a hermaphroditic society.
  • David Brin’s Uplift series, where a broad array of species with different reproductive patterns and strategies strut their fretful hour upon the stage at various moments

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11 replies

  1. In Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, which is a huge history of the human race, from beginning to end (told from the viewpoint of a ‘Last Man’ who has travelled back in time to present-day earth to inform present-day men of their ‘future’ history), there’s some speculation about this sort of thing.
    Apparently mankind goes through several separate species; I think the third are genetically engineered to have ‘large brains’. The fourth are essentially giant brains (again, genetically engineered). And there’s another genetically enginered species of man in there as well, the ‘flying man’.
    By the time the last men roll onto the scene, some kazillion years into the future – they’ve gone back to the old way of reproduction, perhaps with some scientific assistance. Apparently pregnancy last for three years rather than nine months, the baby emerges being able to speak, and sexual relationships have changed from being strictly two-person into a variety of multi-personal relationships. I can’t remember if the reproductive process itself is a strictly two-person thing.
    How are the babies born in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘Herland’ again (a feminist novel about a land without men)? Is it a form of spontaneous conception? I can’t remember.
    TimTs last blog post..Animals that work with humans!

  2. Herland women reproduced through parthenogenesis, but I’m not sure how the parthenogenesis was stimulated.

  3. Definitely definitely the most interesting is Octavia Butler’s trilogy Xenogenesis the first volume of which was published in 1987. It’s now published, I think, as Lilith’s Brood – the three vols in one?
    We, humankind,have obliterated ourselves. A few remnants have been rescued by the Oankali. Genetic traders who wander the universe, genetically engineering their own immediate environment, and weaving what they collect into something altogether the other.
    It’s pretty confronting at times as the main character Lilith Iyapo fights and struggles through all the implications of the Oankali’s actions. And Butler offers no easy answers. In fact she wrote about reproduction in most on her work. Parable of the Sower from ’94 is also a fine fine work.

  4. Seconding the Xenogenesis trilogy.

  5. Less with the different-types-of-reproduction, my two faves have to be Children of Men for exploring a human world sans reproduction, and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids for a world where the main concern with reproduction is avoiding genetic mutation, and how to then deal, when your obsession is centred on physical details, with mental mutation.

  6. I third Xenogenesis, mostly because my thinker is still slow this morning. In terms of childbirth and upbringing, I think Bujold explores that really well in terms of Mark Vorkosigan and the Cetagandan technology–attempting to make a true clone via not just DNA.

  7. I also agree with Xenogenesis series, and actually I’m right in the middle of a reread of the first book. But I would also say Octavia Butler’s short story Bloodchild – where humanity ends up on a planet under the protection of alien beings who use them to hatch their larvae. In this story she explores male pregnancy and interspecial love.

  8. Another interesting trope are the ghola in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and how/why they’re created.

  9. David Brin’s Glory Season described a planet dominated by clans of female clones. Men were needed to stimulate parthenogenesis at certain times of the year and spent most of their time exiled to the sea as sailors. I can’t quite remember why but sometimes new unique female children (rather than clones) were born at a different time of year and these had a much harder time of life trying to find a niche for themselves and start their own dynasties. This all seemed a bit narcissistic and odd but Brin had envisaged a very complex society that was stratified in accordance with these gender roles. Men were limited to certain types of economic activity. Only clones could only land and pass wealth on to their daughters.
    I have a vague recollection of an Asimov story about a pilot landing on an island where the inhabitants had been engineered to have both sets of organs. Couples would decide to breed and both would end up carrying a child. It was about trying to engineer sexual equality but it wasn’t really very good.

  10. ‘Course, there’s always the Paul Jennings/Round the Twist universe, where babies are found in veggie gardens – or pregnancy happens when young boys kiss tree-fairies and blerk the babies out of their mouths a day after conception occurs.

  11. Ethan of Athos, Falling Free and the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold.
    All three mention uterine replicators which can incubate a child injured in pregnancy (Miles) take the place of women (Athos is an all male society) or give rise to new races of humans (quaddies in Falling Free, who are humans evolved to live in free fall, and hermaphrodites who live on Beta.)

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