Pregnancy is always popping up in science fiction, like “Children of Men” or “Alien,” where pregnant women need saving, or worse, unwanted pregnancies are forced upon them — but now there are are some new works of fiction that portray pregnant women as unambiguous heroes, battling dystopian conditions to protect themselves and their babies.
When she was pregnant with her son, Megan Hunter found the entire process to be an “endlessly fascinating thing to me … so it’s not really a surprise that I’ve written a book about this in the end.”
In Hunter’s book, “The End We Start From,” a new mother and her infant son find themselves on the run from a massive flood that has created a refugee crisis across Britain. The flood occurs at the same time the mother’s water breaks: “I was interested in the image of the amniotic fluid that the baby is growing in and the links between those, really. There’s a certain quality in which the whole book is about the motherhood experience, but within this particular context,” Hunter says.
She says the main plot provides a new twist to the intrinsic urge for a mother to protect her children.
“That sense of needing to survive, of needing him to survive, is all the stronger,” she says.
Although Hunter enjoys adding elements of science fiction to her writing, on several instances she has been floored by the actual reality that takes place during a pregnancy.
“I remember being really shocked when I read that the cells of fetuses were found in the mother’s brain,” Hunter says. “I found some scientific article about that. So, when the baby is in the womb the cells actually go up into your brain. I just thought, ‘What? Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this?’ That is just a kind of really shocking fact.”
“Pregnancy is science fiction. It’s the idea that you have your own body and all of the sudden you’re sharing it with an alien,” says Boswell, who also serves as a professor emeritus of English at Eastern Illinois University.
“Something is in there that’s making you throw up or making you sick, that’s changing the shape of your body and you have no control. … ‘Oh my goodness, I’m sharing my body with someone I don’t know. And he’s not giving me much sleep and I’m losing my life.’ It’s very frightening and it’s difficult in ways that we don’t ever talk about except in science fiction.”
In Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, “Future Home of the Living God,” the protagonist, Cedar Songmaker, faces a reproductive crisis fueled by a reversal of evolution and a totalitarian regime that imprisons pregnant women for close observation.
“In a way, your first pregnancy is an incredibly abstract, strange process,” Erdrich says. “So everything inside her is changing and it makes women intellectually precocious at the time because we have to try and absorb this very abstract thing that’s happening. How can you believe there’s another entire individual that you are forming inside of yourself? You know it’s happening all the time, but it’s crazy.”
In both of the novels, the pregnant women are left to fend for themselves after being left by husbands who caved under the pressures of societal collapse.
“Pregnancy narratives — especially those generated by women — are about pregnant women as warriors,” Boswell says. “What is more difficult than giving birth? Nothing. And women are heroes. We are the warriors, the ones who give birth. And, of course, women become heroes of their stories. Pregnancy allows that.”
Several works of fiction over the centuries have painted many pictures of pregnant woman being tethered by male control — even enslaved, in some instances — and altogether helpless. “The End We Start From” and “Future Home of the Living God,” though, go against that idea — showing how the pregnancies actually create an inner strength in the new mothers that empowers them through their perilous situations.
“When men write about [pregnancy], it’s interesting to me because they are almost in awe of what women can do, and when women write about it we are terrified of what men can do,” Erdrich says. “It’s about being controlled almost always. When women write about it and when men write about it, it’s like the women have this enormous power that nobody can figure out. And it makes complete sense that our sense as women is we are going to be controlled and we can be controlled because we become less and less physically agile we become more helpless. And that’s maybe the most frightening thing about being pregnant. It’s something that men don’t experience.”
Boswell predicts that in the not-so-distant future more television shows and films will focus on theme of the “whole idea of pregnancy as fundamental to our nightmares and our hopes and our dreams.”
Hunter and Erdrich have chosen to focus on the more optimistic vision of childbirth, that of hopeful possibility no matter the difficult circumstances.
“A baby brings the presence of the future into the present,” Hunter says. “There’s a hope that things are open and that things are possible and that things are always changing and that we don’t know [it]. And that uncertainty holds a trace of hope.”
Says Boswell: “Pregnancy becomes the seed of hope in a world gone mad. Pregnancy becomes the hope of the world, in a world where we don’t understand what’s going on or it’s falling apart. … Pregnancy becomes the only thing that makes sense.”