“Bottleborn monsters” and utopian futures

Biofutures I teach a course called Century of the Gene, which looks at the cultural impact(s) of biology in the Twentieth Century. As part of my homework for revising the course, I’ve been reading an old collection of SF stories called Bio-Futures, edited by Pamela Sargent.[1]

I have been particularly intrigued by one called “Emancipation: a romance of the times to come”, by Thomas M. Disch (an author whose name is vaguely familiar, but I can’t think of anything else by him that I’ve read). It deals with themes that I think of as a characteristic of feminist SF from the Seventies, that are rather unusual to find in a male author of this period (or, indeed, of any period), but perhaps my surprise simply indicates I need to read more.


  • [Spoiler alert: if you like to read a story before reading about it, go and find a copy before going further, since I am about to give away plot details.]

The story is narrated by Boz, a bored house-husband living uptown in a future New York. As the story unfolds, we gradually get glimpses of a very sexually liberated society in which masturbating to “erotic” movies on television, along with homosexuality and bisexuality are all totally accepted. (Rather entertainingly, the society’s euphemisms for gay, straight and bi are Republican, Democrat and Independent; at a party, Boz is asked “how are you registered?” by a handsome “Republican” man who’s trying to pick him up.) More surprisingly, children are taught about sex in schools by ”hygiene demonstrators”, like Boz’s wife Milly, who earns her living having sex in schools (thankfully, the story does not specify whether the students are participants or observers, nor what ages they are). There’s no jealousy and the story is, especially by 1970s SF standards, sexually explicit (it includes a rare, detailed, male’s-eye view of why Boz enjoys cunnilingus so much, as well as several uses of a word for the female genitalia that I cannot bear to type, much less say, which is one reason this story won’t be going on my syllabus).

And yet, in this future where there is no guilt, no inhibitions and no jealousy, Boz is unsatisfied and he and Milly fight constantly. At one point, he leaves and goes home to his mother for a few days and through the older woman’s complaints about the way the world is changing, we get glimpses of how this future came about and how recently it has evolved. The handsome Republican, with whom Boz goes home but for whom he cannot get it up, advises Boz and Milly to go to see a counsellor, who tells them the solution to their problems is to have a child. Milly – the driven, career woman – realises that that is what she’s always wanted, she just didn’t know it. So far, so predictable. But we then discover that in these “times to come”, all babies are gestated in artificial wombs (ectogenesis) and while his daughter is growing “in her bottle of brown glass, as pretty as a water lily”, Boz has implants and hormone treatments so that he will be ready to breastfeed her while Milly carries on working. At first, he has some doubts:

“Every hour of that first month was an identity crisis. A moment in front of a mirror could send Boz off into fits of painful laughter or precipitate him into hours of gloom”.

Yet, when breastfeeding he experiences the most intense pleasure, emotional and physical, that he has ever known. The story ends with the family on the balcony of their apartment, Boz and Milly completely happy with their daughter and relationship.

According to Bio-Futures, “Emancipation” was first published in 1974, but the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (I love this site, as only a geek can), says it first appeared in 1971, in New Dimensions 1: Fourteen Original Science Fiction Stories, (ed. Robert Silverberg). Either way, the date is interesting because the themes of the story are so similar to those in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), which I teach as part of Century of the Gene.

Woman on the Edge of Time

  • [Same spoiler alert]

Piercy, M Woman on the Edge of Time Piercy’s novel, a recognised classic of SF that is (understandably) much loved by feminists, concerns Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Latina woman from the Seventies who, like many women of the period, has become what Phyllis Chesler (then Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at City University of New York) described as involved in a “career” as a psychiatric paitient (Women and Madness, 1972; Piercy acknowledged Chesler in her novel).

At the beginning of the novel, Connie is once again imprisoned in a mental hospital, where she is subjected to abuse, enforced administration of sedatives and other drugs, and (eventually) experimental brain surgery. During this ordeal, she is contacted by Luciente, a time traveller from the future, via a form of mental telepathy. Connie gradually learns how to visit the future, where she gets to know the village of Mattapoisett and experiences a utopia of complete sexual equality (including complete tolerance of all varieties of sexuality), where there is neither economic inequality or racism. Connie is initially appalled by the seemingly primitive lifestyle of the future; everyone lives in small villages and spends much of their time on agriculture (at one point she contemptuously derides Mattapoisett as a “podunk utopia”), but the society’s egalitarianism gradually wins her over.

However, Connie is briefly repelled when she discovers the biological/technological basis of this new society:

“He pressed a panel and a door slid aside, revealing seven human babies joggling slowly upside down, each in a sac of its own inside a larger fluid receptacle.

“Connie gaped, her stomach slowly also turning slowly upside down. All in a sluggish row, babies bobbed. Mother the machine. Like fish in the aquarium at Coney Island. Their eyes were closed. One very dark female was kicking. Another, a pink male, she could clearly see by the oversize penis, was crying. Languidly they drifted in a blind school”.

Connie, whose own child has been taken into care, weeps:

“She hated them, the bland bottleborn monsters of the future, born without pain, multi-colored like a litter of puppies without the stigmata of race and sex”.

[“Stigmata” is an interesting word here; stigma comes from the Greek, στίγμα “mark made by a pointed instrument”, originally a brand applied to slaves. According to the OED, its earliest use in English (1596) referred to circumcision as “impressing a painefull stigma, or caracter in Gods peculiar people”. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day…]

Connie is initially repelled by these “bottleborn monsters”, especially by the revelation that each of these babies has three “mothers”; some of them are male, others female, but none are genetically related to the child. The implications of this use of bio-technology to break the genetic/parental link become obvious when one of the men picks up a crying baby, and:

“He sat down with the baby on a soft padded bench by the windows and unbuttoned his shirt. Then she felt sick.

“He had breasts. Not large ones. Small breasts, like a flat-chested woman temporarily swollen with milk. Then with his red beard, his face of a sunburnt forty-five-year-old man, stern-visaged, long-nosed, thin lipped, he began to nurse. The baby stopped wailing and begun to suck greedily.

Luciente explains the decision to use ectogenesis:

“It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally that was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.”

Babies in bottles and breastfeeding men are only two of the similarities: Luciente is confusingly androgynous, (Connie initially thinks she’s a man, largely because she moves and sits with so much self-confidence), as are Boz and Milly in “Emancipation”. Their counsellor explains that automation has destroyed the need for male physical strength:

“What this meant, in psychological terms, was that men no longer needed the kind of uptight, aggressive character structure, any more than they needed the bulky, Greek-wrestler physiques that went along with that kind of character. Even as sexual plumage that kind of body became unfashionable. Girls began to prefer slender, short ectomorphs. The ideal couples were those, like the two of you as a matter of fact, who mirrored each other”.

Ectogenesis, breaking the link between women and reproduction, is part of wider erasing of the differences between men and women that each of these authors approves of, either explicitly or implicitly.

The Dialectic of Sex

Firestone Dialectic of Sex The rationale for ectogenesis in “Emancipation” is not explained, but presumably – like Piercy’s use of the fictive device – it was inspired by Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: the case for feminist revolution (1970). Firestone (who died in 2012) proclaimed that “pregnancy is barbaric” and argued that ectogenesis (and other technologies, particularly reproductive ones) would be a key part of the solution to gender inequality; once women were no longer defined or limited by their biology, they would be free to be full citizens of society, pursuing every opportunity on an equal basis with men. She argued for what she called “cybernetic communism” (which is a pretty good description of Mattapoisett; despite their rejection of consumerism, small wrist-worn computers called Kenners are another advanced technology the inhabitants rely on). Piercy’s novel may well have been inspired by Firestone’s observation that:

“We haven’t even a literary image of this future society; there is not even a utopian feminist literature yet in existence”.

That, of course, isn’t quite true. Firestone clearly hadn’t read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), but perhaps she’d finished writing her book before LeGuin’s came out. And she can be forgiven for not having read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic Herland (1915), a “lost world”-style utopia inhabited only by women who reproduce asexually (i.e. by parthenogenesis, like some insects). Herland first appeared in serial form in a short-lived magazine called The Forerunner (which Gilman edited, published and largely wrote) and would not be re-published as a book until the late Seventies. There had been a few earlier feminist utopias (such as Mary E. Bradley’s Mizora: a prophecy, 1880–81), but all were long out of print. However, second-wave feminism in the Seventies led to many more (such as Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, 1975, and of course Piercy’s works).

SF has often provided a means for writers to imagine an alternative future that was better than their own, but it was comparatively unusual for men to write post-gender utopias in the Seventies (and there haven’t been very many since). The only other example I can think of (and it may not even qualify) is a short story called “Manikins” (1976) by John Varley, about Barbara Endicott who, like Connie Ramos, is a mental patient. The story is narrated by Evelyn Burroughs, a young female psychologist (Endicott won’t even speak to men), who is trying to find out what is “wrong” with the patient. Endicott is clearly crazy, since she believes that humans – and, it would seem, all the Earth’s other organisms – are all female and men are alien parasites who have infected women (semen passes the infection from generation to generation) in order to reproduce themselves. The offspring of these alien cuckoos are too big for the female body, hence the pain and danger of childbirth (so that’s why “pregnancy is barbaric”). Endicott argues that if women never had sex with men, they would revert to reproducing asexually (parthenogenetically, like the women in Herland), producing tiny female offspring easily and without pain. The story ends with an enigmatic haunting vision (in the mind, perhaps?) of Burroughs of just such a parthenogentic birth, which may be her own or perhaps her daughter’s, or perhaps of some past or future (race?) of women.

It is hard to say (it’s a pretty short story, just 13 pages) how “Manikins” is meant to be taken by the reader, which – I would argue – is what makes it a good story.[2] However, it’s clearly another rare example of a world without men, but it feels remote, perhaps impossibly remote, from the world we live in now. The same is true of Piercy’s novel (and Gilman’s), whereas Disch’s imagined future feels much closer to the world we live in now. Boz and Milly are city dwellers who look looking across a NY skyline that hasn’t changed from our day (in fact, given that the story was written in 1971, the future envisaged is roughly now). There are no SF trimmings or technologies (apart from ectogenesis) and familiar trademarks like Boeing and Pepsi get a mention. Married couples and nuclear families are (in part at least), still there norm and there is certainly economic equality (Boz’s mother lives downtown, which is still characterised by the poverty Boz has escaped by marrying Milly and moving uptown). So, if this is a utopia at all, maybe it’s just for a few; those with the money to live uptown. By contrast, Piercy envisions a much more radical change, in every sense, but perhaps that’s why I found Disch’s story curiously compelling. It feels like a world we might actually be living in before too long. Whether such a world would be utopian is much harder to imagine, but these are interesting stories to think about.

[1] Bio-futures is out of print, but I found it on the excellent Biblio website, and – no – I don’t have any affiliation with Biblio. BTW, Sargent, in addition to being an SF author herself, also edited two collections of SF by women, Women of Wonder (1975) and More Women of Wonder (1975).

[2] As I am not in the English Literature business (although many of my best friends are), I feel entitled to give rather simple-minded readings of stories and to use straightforward adjectives like “good”, but feel free to add more sophisticated ones.