June 28, 2007

The Locus and the Aphis - Moving Towards Herland

"What strikes you as the oddest feature of your experience, so far?"
I considered. "There's so much—"
"Might it not be that you have not seen a single man?" she suggested.
I thought back. I remembered the wondering tone of one of the Mothers asking: "What is a man?"
"That's certainly one of them," I agreed. "Where are they?"
She shook her head, watching me steadily.
"There aren't any, my dear. Not any more. None at all."
-Consider Her Ways, John Wyndham

As news comes that scientists have created human embyronic stem cells from unfertilized eggs, the perennial dystopic fear of a world without men is once again racing through the media. Coupled with recent advances in creating sperm from bone marrow, and the assumption that it will be possible to use female bone marrow to make sperm, and we're on our way to Herland.

But the idea of a single-gendered society isn't new; in fact, it's a common science fiction trope that’s hauled out whenever reproductive advances (or discoveries, if you’re not so sure it’s an advance) are announced. And whether or not that fiction is dystopic or utopic probably depends on your point of view - or at least your gender.

Like most dystopic fiction, the single-gender society stories are warning stories about what’s going on in contemporary (for the time they were written) culture. Some, such as Herland, are making exaggerated arguments that woman can be equals to men, while others reflect the thinking behind separatist feminism. It’s actually in Wyndham’s short story, published in the 1950s, that I think we can see what the actual issue is behind these ideas of new reproductive methods.

So when the crisis came it turned out that scarcely any of them knew how to do any of the important things because they had nearly all been owned by men, and had to lead their lives as pets and parasites.
-Consider Her Ways, John Wyndham

I am not actually convinced that the issues behind any of the articles questioning the ethics of the research into “eliminating men” are actually ethical issues of medicine. I’m inclined to believe that they are ethical issues about society, reflecting anxiety about the social role of men, women, and the family unit. As we’ve talked about, the very basic notion of what a family is, is in flux - one mom, two dads, no dads? And with that flux, comes fear - fear of the unknown, fear of what technological potential is out there, and just maybe, the fear of not being needed at all.

In my previous musings on family, I said that what matters is not the genetic code tying us together, but the social construct that allows us to feel tied together. The logic seems to go, if women can do everything men can, without men, including creating a child, then what do we need men for? In other words, what happens if the social construct changes?

It’s a good question, and excellent fodder for science fiction stories. But personally, I don’t see it moving beyond a good story – not in any mass scale way that’s going to shake the very fabric of society. Certainly reproduction is being detached from sex, it has been and is becoming moreso as new ways of reproducing and assisting reproduction are being discovered. That doesn’t make sex any less fun, though – it just makes it not intimately tied to reproduction. And as technology continues to progress, we’ll need to continue redefining what it means to have children, and to be a family.

But short of a mass plague that wipes out most, or all of a gender, I simply have a hard time believing that we’re going to render man, or woman, extinct. Not necessary to reproduce, probable – but not necessary at all seems only the realm of fiction.

-Kelly Hills

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