Samira Ahmed: Rage against the baby machine
Why does some science fiction still chill and engage us while other works are obsolete almost before they are finished? Take two tales of aliens landing on the village green and, after an eerie silence, wreaking havoc on Middle England.
HG Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds sees Martians landing on Horsell Common in a perfectly evoked late-Victorian Surrey. What is timeless and haunting is the horror of humans finding themselves puny against cold and ruthless invading forces, the evocation of mass panic as tens of thousands of Londoners attempt to flee the city under aerial bombardment, and the rapid collapse of civil order in wartime.
Despite its almost identical premise, The Midwich Cuckoos, written some 60 years later by another prolific science fiction writer, John Wyndham, proved obsolete within a decade of its 1957 publication because of its central message – that a pregnant woman in the modern world could under no circumstances have an abortion.
In the novel, aliens land, wipe the memory of the entire village before they depart and leave every fertile woman – to their extreme distress – impregnated, from the middle-aged lesbian to the youngest teenage girl. Once born, the alien offspring, acting with a hive mind, quickly reveal terrifying powers.
The book is superficially full of challenging moral dilemmas. Much of it is taken up with the male authority figures – doctors, generals and government officials – debating at great length the ethics of murdering the growing children, or bombing the whole village, including the innocent locals. The intended shock is, to a modern reader, completely undermined by the characters’ inability to consider the more obvious and, in some ways, simpler ethical dilemma of abortion.
Ten years after the publication of the novel, the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. Political pressure for the change would have been building for years. Safe abortions were available to the rich and privileged. Sympathetic critics say censorship at the time meant Wyndham has to bury hints in the text – a couple of women clearly attempt to harm themselves to abort the foetuses.
But overall the book is trapped within the rigid social framework of its time. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of The Midwich Cuckoos is its cold vision of a Britain in which middle-class male bureaucrats do the thinking, while women are regarded as helpless incubators who must carry their alien brood to term. They are watched by a collection of scientists and government officials who seem more concerned with the Official Secrets Act and keeping it all out of the papers.
Wells, by contrast, was uniquely aware of the dangers of people being trapped in the ideological mindset of their time. He invented ‘futurology’ in a famous 1932 BBC radio interview. Instead of the academic obsession with history, he called for universities to appoint “Departments and Professors of Foresight” to ponder every possible impact of scientific advance – the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it.
Many moralists warned of disaster where many other Britons saw benign progress in abortion rights and the world’s first ‘test tube’ baby. Could professors of foresight have helped us avoid some of the uglier results?
What would Wells and Wyndham have made of a world in which the opening up of communist states to free markets often coincided with a drive to crack down on abortion rights, as in Poland? A world in which ageing couples from prosperous nations such as ours buy eggs and rent wombs off poorer younger women (often in less regulated countries, such as Russia and Spain) in pursuit of a ‘natural’ family of their own.
The backlash in the UK against ending sperm- and egg-donor anonymity revealed the power of the adults who feel human rights apply only to them or their patients, not the children created by such technologies. This technology’s ability to keep alive foetuses as young as 22 weeks has also created ethical challenges to the term-limits of legal abortion, as well as the ethics of ‘saving’ extremely premature babies left brain damaged or disabled as a result.
I imagine Wells, a prominent feminist, would probably have noted with a wry smile the hypocrisy of the north’s obsession with the ‘right’ to have children while fretting about the ‘overly’ fertile south.
The respected naturalist David Attenborough is only the latest public figure to express his grave concern at overpopulation. Educating women in the developing world is welcome, he recently told one interviewer, because they will have fewer children. One way or another, women’s role as incubators seems to be an enduring scientific obsession.
Samira Ahmed will be presenting the ethics discussion programme Sunday Morning Live on BBC One from June 10. If you have any comments for Samira, tweet @SamiraAhmedUK