Monday, September 4, 2017

Parthenogenesis in Sci-fi

When I get a raging fever, I usually end up lecturing myself on a topic I know little about. If I'm lucky, it won't be out loud. Yesterday, the topic was Parthenogenesis in Science Fiction (???). I had three nice examples which, on reflection, I do actually remember watching or reading at some point. I believe the overall point of the lecture was to extract attitudes on a gender's contribution to society from the books.

1. Herland by Charlotte Gilman. This was a serial novel published in a 1910s magazine entirely written by the author and probably distributed to her mom and a stack in her mom's basement. The basic gist is that three Men are wandering lost in the jungle when they suddenly come upon (you know the drill) a Lost Civilization of Astoundingly Pale People for the Latitude. Once upon a time, they were a lost band of all women who suddenly found they could have babies. Now they experience times of "great joy" and know they could be pregnant soon, but if they concentrate hard on their work instead of thinking about a baby, they will not have one. The less desirable specimens in society are encouraged to do this. Meanwhile, all the women live collectively. The men explain that in their society, women do not work, but the men are not able to convince them of this because it does appear to them that the women work at caring for children. The men say that's different. The women do not understand anything that is important to men, their "hallmarks of civilization," in fact. Three women pair off with the men, who begrudgingly agree to try an "equal" marriage. It appears this is intended to mean a platonic relationship because apparently married sex isn't equal or something? Eventually (off-screen, it was the 1910s, so just heavy implication), one of the men tries to sleep with his "wife?" who reacts like she's been assaulted but cannot articulate what's happened to her. The other men say, "Well, she's his wife after all." Other women in the society are horrified and drive them off. I believe one of the woman is willing to give the "unequal" marriage system a try and goes with them back to "the world of man." I read this book in college. My primary reaction to it at the time was befuddlement at the attitude of the men for trying to pair off with the women, who appear to be a different species. Why would they even be attracted to alien creatures with inhuman biology, I would wonder over and over.

2. The Female Man by Joanna Russ. This is an experimental novel from the 1970s (ohgod). There are three or four plot threads involving alternate versions of the main character, I think. The narrative is non-linear and non-just about every element of fiction. In one of the versions, there was a catastrophic failure of the Y chromosome leading to the extinction of men. The women had to quickly become expert geneticists to save themselves and were able to make themselves parthogenetic, though I believe they also do some genetic mixing. Now women divide their lives into age categories. As young children, they are cared for by a family of women. Then, as teens, they form roving bands who wander the earth to explore ancient sites of beauty (uh-huh). As adults, they are assigned a job (work is universally thought to be odious in any form) and form a family group. As is usual in 1970s fiction, everyone is nudist, atheist, and pansexual. Their basic society unit is a work/family group. One of the women from the women timeline travels to 1970s earth and says, "I saw a woman, grossly thickened through the shoulders from years of labor, possessing a grandmotherly mustache." Then she realizes she is looking at a man. That made me laugh. But my primary reaction to the book was, as for every 70s scifi I've tried to read, wonderment that it got published. I was impressed that it managed to convey any impressions whatsoever with such convoluted text, though.

3. No Men Beyond This Point. This is a recent scifi mockumentary. It follows the youngest man on earth around for a bit and gives the history of the ongoing extinction of men after women became parthogenetic AND unable to reproduce with men. This began in the 1950s, and the documentary is set in the present day, with the last man being born in the late 70s. The men are mostly seen to pitch big fits about how they aren't important any more. Remaining groups of them go on "hypothetical" hunger strikes, as in they could go on a hunger strike, but they women are feeding them so they might as well eat but be mad about it. Most men live in Man Preserves, which are depicted as having lavish restaurants and golf courses, but some work in menial jobs. Religion has entirely died out except for a reverence for nature and a monthly 3-day holiday (uh-huh). Women pair off after the start of childbirth, which is called "calling" and starts in the teen years. The pairs of women are just friends. Societal pressure is against any kind of sexual urges, which are seen as being rendered obsolete by "nature," but there is a heavily stigmatized subclass of women who fall in love with men, or even admit to falling in love at all. Some parts of the documentary speculate on "what might have been" (AKA make jokes on what actually is). NASA, the military, and the team that developed the internet were all shut down in this time line. "The moon is an important cultural symbol, but that doesn't mean we need to go and stand on it." That made me laugh. The movie reaaaally gets some important science about reproduction wrong (not every sperm has a Y chromosome), which irritated me.

I find it amusing that the female-only worlds of the Edwardian age and the modern age are so similar in terms of women avoiding sex and not making the things that are considered important contributions by the prevailing society.

There are a scant few man-only worlds in fiction, too. Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold has a planet of men that in the distant past was colonized by group of Catholic monks, who, for reasons best known to them, brought with them donated ovaries and artificial wombs to continue the species. Thousands of generations later, many of the men are celibate, but marriage is also allowed. The men work hard to earn Social Credits (unpaid labor for the good of society, such as childcare for another man) enough to pay for the right to be a Father and grow themselves a son and the Beard of Manhood. Only highly-educated doctors know anything about women, and then only in clinical terms.

Cordwainer Smith wrote a short story about a planet of men. There was a plague that killed females of all species for generations, until the men developed a bizarre, violent fanaticism centered around destroying anything female. I believe they also wore dresses and makeup and went around attacking spaceships. It was a short, weird story.

Should I mention Lord of the Flies or Ender's Game? Both societies of boys. Both extremely violent. Both good books. Eh. Okay, I've had enough awake for today.