There comes a point in the lifecycle of every budding, SF-loving feminist when she realizes how little the genre has to say about pregnancy and childbirth—how clearly it (and its authors) assume that this is a field in which there is no innovation to be made, and no changes that might be worth exploring. Like the now-infamous red pill from The Matrix, once you realize this, it can’t be unseen. In the 2009 Star Trek, James Kirk’s mother gives birth vaginally even though the ubiquitous use of matter teleportation in her society would seem to suggest a very obvious alternative. In 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, Padmé Amidala, a wealthy, educated, powerful politician in a spacefaring society, does not realize that she is carrying twins until the very moment when she starts pushing out the second one. And those are still works that see pregnancy as something normal and largely benign—more commonly, when SF treats with reproduction, it’s in the terms of the Alien series.
In this, as in so much else, science fiction’s invented futures reflect the concerns of the present, or rather its lack of concern. Our society’s approach to the entire field of female fertility is characterized by ignorance, indifference, and often outright fear. Many women are pitifully unaware of the workings of their own bodies, and the medical establishment does little or nothing to help them. Common gynaecological ailments like PMS or mastitis are under-studied, and often brushed off as “just the way things are.” More serious conditions such as endometriosis or PCOS, whose symptoms can be life-altering or even debilitating, are severely underdiagnosed, with patients often told that they are imagining things. And when fertility does become a subject of public policy and debate, it’s usually in a way that downplays, if not outright excludes, the voices of the people whose bodies are the subject of discussion, whether it’s doctors who bully patients during childbirth into accepting procedures they don’t want, or politicians without even the most basic understanding of biology making decisions about birth control and family planning.
All of which is to say that there is a need for fiction—and particularly science fiction—that acknowledges the current state of the field of fertility as something more than an immutable, natural condition—as a product of social, scientific, and political choices about which it might be interesting to talk, and to speculate on the ways in which it might change, for better and for worse. It’s a need that, for the most part, is not being met. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Ken MacLeod’s 2012 novel, the Clarke-nominated Intrusion, as a novel that discusses the role that developing technology might play in altering the experience of pregnancy—though even there MacLeod’s interest is in using this specific case as a springboard for a broader discussion of government intrusion into our personal choices. At the other end of the realism scale, most of the popular, frequently gender-bending space operas of the last few years, such as Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, or Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, are largely silent on the subject of reproduction. (An intriguing exception is Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, in which an all-female society exists in symbiosis with the living ship they inhabit, and propagates by parthenogenesis, giving birth to both babies and machine parts.)
So Anne Charnock, when she set out to write a book about the changing face of pregnancy and family over the next hundred years, was stepping into a significant void, and it is thus not at all her fault that she has failed to fill it with only a single work. But Dreams Before the Start of Time nevertheless feels smaller and more self-involved than it should be, focusing on its characters and their relationships much more than it does on their society. Charnock might argue—with no small amount of justification—that the decision of whether and how to have a child is one of the most personal and private that a person might make. But as we see every day in the real world, it is also a decision that is influenced by public policy and social attitudes, and whose outcome is affected by them. These forces feel muted in Dreams, occasionally referenced but only rarely brought into focus, and as a result the book feels less essential than its subject matter had led me to hope it would be.
Dreams takes place in three different time periods, jumping between different characters whom we sometimes follow across time, and sometimes meet for only a chapter before moving on. In 2034, we are introduced to two friends, Millie and Toni, who decide to become mothers. Millie is uninterested in sexual relationships, and hopes that her friend Aiden will be willing to parent a child with her. When Aiden decides that he isn’t ready to be a father, she opts for an anonymous sperm donation. Toni is considering co-parenting as a business agreement when she finds herself pregnant from a recent fling. She convinces the father, Atticus, to enter into what is essentially a friends-with-babies arrangement. In 2084, Millie’s wide and their son Rudy are considering adopting an orphaned fetus—a child left to gestate in an artificial womb, whose mother died in an accident. Toni and Atticus’s son, Marco, meanwhile, has “gone solo,” creating a daughter, Amelie, from his DNA alone. In 2120, Gerard, the child Rudy and his wife opted not to adopt, is dismayed to discover that a one-night stand ten years ago produced a child, who has not benefitted from the genetic screening and prenatal improvements that people of Gerard’s class now take for granted. At the same time, Amelie is obsessing over the differences between her two sons, one conceived and carried naturally, and the other in an artificial womb, and with a suite of genetic improvements that have left him looking like an interloper in his own family.
The thing that Dreams does very well—enough to make me wish there had been more of a focus on it—is to chart the changing attitudes towards new fertility technologies, and how those attitudes are inextricably bound up with class. In the 2080s, when the technology is still new, artificial wombs are seen as selfish and potentially dangerous. When Rudy and his wife Simone are considering adopting a fetus, the doctor they speak to opines that “the risk of maternal death is higher when the mother opts for remote gestation. They live a little more recklessly, go skiing and so on.” (p. 94) Which seems implausible, considering the health risks posed by pregnancy, but is also quite clearly judgmental. In another chapter in this segment, two sisters, Nancy and Nicol, have a passive-aggressive, not-quite-argument over their pregnancy choices, with Nancy feeling judged for opting for the artificial option.
Thirty-five years later, however, when Toni muses about her granddaughter’s decisions, she observes a very different dynamic:
Amelie convinced Nathen and the wider family that she could carry her pregnancy without any problem; at the time, her work at the museum was solitary—she didn’t meet the public, she could avoid the patrons’ monthly visit. But Amelie’s journey to work every day proved another matter—the withering glances started to get her down. She came home in tears one day after a woman, bold as brass, told her, "If you can afford that bracelet, you can afford to look after your child better." (pp. 221-2)
Unaddressed by any of the middle-class characters in the book is the fact that relegating pregnancy to the lower classes also makes it easier to police. The same people who feel justified in humiliating a woman of Amelie’s class for carrying her baby will happily do much worse to lower-class women. When we meet Freya, the woman whom Gerard impregnated, and who carried her baby because she couldn’t afford to do anything else, we learn that, even ten years on, she still has lingering PTSD from the reeducation she underwent after being caught having a beer while pregnant.
She sometimes wonders if she was brainwashed during her three months in the correctional unit; she hasn’t touched alcohol since her incarceration. She hadn’t argued with the instructor during her first reeducation lesson—drinking alcohol was bad for pregnant women. She accepted she’d been stupid. But that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted self-examination, from every angle. What was she thinking in the moment when she accepted the bottle of beer? How did she feel as she took the first swig? How did she feel as she drained the bottle? What was the scale of her regret when the police arrived? And when she entered her cell? Was her own childhood a possible cause for her transgression? What were her self-diagnosed personality flaws? Writing, writing, more writing. She had to demonstrate self-loathing, it seemed, before they attempted to fix her. (p. 214)
As interesting as these observations are, they shine through, in part, because they’re not the book’s main concern. That is more often the inner thoughts and feeling of its characters, who tend towards the unusually unengaged, seldom seeming to notice the world around them, or the greater forces at play in it. (Again, no one in the book observes that what happened to Freya would almost certainly never have happened to Amelie). Freya, who is easily the book’s most engaging and likable character, only appears for one chapter, near its end. By that point, she is an almost physical relief, after having spent hundreds of pages in the heads of people who are so relentlessly, neurotically obsessed with rethinking their lives and rejudging the choices of others.
To be clear, the contrast Charnock draws between middle- and working-class characters is reductive—a long tradition of the bourgeois novel—but the relief it brings in getting away from the former is real nonetheless. Freya—pragmatic, goal-oriented, and hard at work trying to make a better life for herself and her son—is sympathetic in no small part because her definition of “better” rejects the respectability-obsessed norms of so many of the other characters. It is darkly funny to discover, for example, that the money she asked Gerard to contribute to their son’s education is meant to pay for surfing and guitar lessons, so that the boy will have skills he can use to make money in the tourist economy that is his and his mother’s entire world: “As she sees it, there’s little point in Skye’s studying hard. It’s anyone’s guess which occupations will exist in ten years’ time.” (p. 213)
Pretty much everyone else in the novel is breathtakingly self-absorbed, and—what’s worse—obsessing about the things that we might consider most abnormal about them, but which to them should probably feel normal and even unimportant. It’s perhaps understandable that a thirteen-year-old Amelie would be fascinated with mothers, since she doesn’t have one of her own, but realistically this should be a relatively small component of her personality—children are more strongly shaped by what’s there in their childhood than by what’s absent. Given that this is our one and only interaction with Amelie in the 2080s segment, and when every other character in the novel who was conceived outside a nuclear family norm seems to have similar obsessions, her fixation can begin to feel quite wearying, and eventually unsympathetic. When Rudy meets his biological father, he spends much of the meeting fuming over Millie’s choice not to wait and have a baby with Aiden:
He said he was young for his age, immature, and couldn’t understand why my mother was in such a rush. He didn’t even object when she went for treatment at the clinic. But when she announced she was pregnant, it seems he went into a tailspin. Realized he’d been stupid. […] I’m not angry, exactly. I’m sad, because Aiden’s explanation made a barrier between me and my mother. She couldn’t see past her own needs—what she wanted. (pp. 155-6)
Bear in mind, Rudy is fifty in this scene, married with a child of his own, and his mother has recently lost her sister, with whom she lived for most of her life. And yet he continues to resent her for not making a decision that would have obviated his own existence. He is, in short, a complete asshole. But while Rudy is by far the most unsympathetic character in Dreams, he is emblematic of most of the others’ attitude, that they are somehow entitled to normalcy, whatever that means, and that not having gotten it is something they are allowed to resent their parents for and constantly dwell on. Dreams Before the Start of Time is not a long book, but, nevertheless, spending two hundred and fifty pages with people so consumed by an exaggerated sense of their own importance is a bit of a challenge.
I suppose the simplest way to explain my frustration with Dreams is to say that I’m not interested in the story that goes: “my mother had me in an artificial womb and now I’m scarred for life.” We spend far too much time as a society making women feel guilty for their childbearing choices—whether to have children, how to behave while pregnant, how to give birth, how to raise their child. In fairness to Charnock, she is clearly aware of this, and makes reference to it at various points in Dreams. But it’s also a dynamic that she indulges in, too much for my tastes. I’m more interested in the story about how we as a society construct our ideas of motherhood, and direct women towards behavior that they will then conceive of as their private, individual choice (which will inevitably turn out to have been the wrong one). There are hints of this story in Dreams Before the Start of Time, but not enough.
To be clear, this review is me criticizing Dreams for not being the book I wanted it to be; but given how few works of science fiction even bother to engage with this topic, and given how toxic our culture’s relationship with pregnancy and childbirth is, I can’t help but feel that the book I wanted was the more urgently needed one.