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Finding Inspiration for Speculative Fiction in the History of Reproduction


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Though the idea for my second novel came to me while I was earning my MFA in creative writing, it didn’t start in a writing workshop. At Washington University in St. Louis, we filled our schedules with the mandatory workshops, but had two other courses that were entirely our own. Some of my peers chose independent study or specialized workshops to incubate their baby novels; at the time, I had no novel, couldn’t imagine stringing together more than fifteen pages. An English major, I retreated into the familiarity of humanities courses with provocative names and required readings so dense that they brought me to weekend panic attacks.

In my second year, a seminar called History of the Body drew me with its siren song. For one thing, the poetic course name could double as a novel title: maybe something shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999? And in my mid-20s, I was grappling with an ongoing eating disorder. Since I thought about bodies almost constantly anyway, I figured I could leverage that fixation into college credits.

At the time, pregnancy felt as remote as another planet. I struggled to allow my body to house even my own needs, much less a whole second presence. The reproduction section of the course was something to wade through to get to what I considered the good stuff, the Victorian corsets and self-denying mystics. But once I began tracing the history of reproduction, I was totally hooked.

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This was the first time I’d stopped and seriously thought about our understanding of reproduction, and how it changed over time. I grew up in a world in which the nitty-gritty of reproduction was widely understood. I’d been acquainted with the general idea of the birds and the bees. I watched science documentaries, saw squiggling fleets of sperm; I knew I had eggs inside my own body, little flatpacks of potential future people, in the same vague way I understood my kidneys. Even as a homeschooled child, I knew significantly more about the basics of reproduction than a celebrated scientist in the 1800s. Just in my lifetime, reproductive technology has made huge, consistent jumps forward. Procedures like IVF have gone from groundbreakingly rare to so commonplace that, on the forums I frequented, more mothers-to-be seemed to use assisted reproductive technology than not.

This is how human knowledge develops, of course: each generation a little more enlightened than the previous one, myths turning into scientific explanations. Even with the Internet at my fingertips, I’m regularly stumped by my kids’ questions. So I can’t be too harsh on the 18th and 19th century researchers who were flummoxed by the delicate, interior mechanics of the sperm meeting the egg.

And yet, back in 2008, as I pored over the course’s assigned readings, I noticed a trend. Often, the (male) scientists and philosophers researching reproduction were going at things from a distinctly self-serving angle. Their question could’ve been “how does reproduction work?” Instead, it often seemed to be “how, precisely, are men the most important part of reproduction?”

Even without advanced medical technology, certain aspects of reproduction seem obvious enough. The person with the uterus (often, though not always, a woman) is the one who does the lion’s share of the work. Pregnancy and childbirth aren’t exactly subtle biological processes in their final stages. It seems hard for anyone to miss the mother’s contributions, while the father’s role is fleeting, private. And yet, scientists were almost admirably determined to prove that the father was the true life-giver, while the mother got only a grudging, conditional second-place role.

In his book Making Sex, Thomas Lacquer summed up the dilemma that early philosophers faced: if women could produce a seed of genetic material as powerful as men’s, why would they even need men? To address this anxiety, philosophers including Plutarch, Galen, and Aristotle reasoned that men must provide the humanizing essence of a baby. The soul, the intellect. A woman’s inability to get knocked up with a viable fetus all by her lonesome was just proof that she was inferior, weak, needing a second ingredient to elevate her.

That’s not to say that women couldn’t self-conceive at all. If a woman got too caught up in thinking her own thoughts, without the orderly influence of her male partner, she might just get pregnant by herself. But without the male influence, that conception would be (literally) misconceived. Soulless and half-formed, the resulting child wouldn’t be quite human.

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When readers ask how writers get their ideas, I both love and hate the question: love, because I wonder, too. And hate, because it’s usually hard for me to pinpoint where, exactly, my ideas came from, since they’re Frankenstein’s monsters, taking on lives of their own. But in the case of Girl One, I do have a single moment that started it all, and as with most of the best things in my life, it happened in a library.

This was 2008, the Twilight craze still swirling, and though I was self-conscious enough to not fall under the Cullens’ spell, I wasn’t immune to the allure of supernatural thrillers. My brain was all monsters, all the time. I watched movies like Ginger Snaps, devoured Angela Carter novellas. Plutarch’s observations about mola, the supposed products of parthenogenesis, almost definitely referred to molar pregnancies, birth defects incompatible with life, or other conditions that lacked a clear medical explanation at the time. But my paranormal-obsessed brain took the idea and ran with it in entirely different directions. Plutarch couldn’t have imagined that, roughly eighteen hundred years later, a young woman would encounter his general idea and instantly feel inspired to write a thriller about virgin birth.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened. I’m a sucker for a good origin story, and this one felt big. What if Plutarch was right, and women who strayed too far from a rational male influence—women who thought for themselves—could literally imagine their own children into being? What if a woman’s unruly brain gave rise to an unruly child, conceived without the “soul” that a father would imbue? Monsters have haunted us for as long as there’ve been humans to contrast themselves against something inhuman. My mind spun out an all-encompassing creation story. Witches and werewolves, blood-slurping vampires; or superheroes and supervillains, born with the ability to control minds, break steel, twist reality to their choosing. What if this is where they all came from—not a curse, or a radioactive spider bite, but stubborn, independent women, spinning life on their own?

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That spark of an idea flickered in my brain for many years. I graduated from my MFA program, studied library science, got married, had two entire kids, wrote and published a debut novel … all before I felt confident enough to tackle the parthenogenetic thriller in my head. I worried that it was too weird an idea; I tried and tried to find an entry point that made sense. My first attempt was claustrophobic, a (not especially good) retelling of a Shirley Jackson novella, but with virgin birth tacked on tentatively.

But I felt in my bones that the story could be bigger. It could involve a huge cast of characters; it could have a sweeping range. I tried again; I failed again. I started writing another book, washing my hands of my unwieldy idea, but virgin birth wouldn’t leave me alone. It was my own odd and independent child, my strangely conceived darling, begging for attention.

As part of my research, I delved into the autobiography of Louise Brown, born in the U.K. in 1978, only six years before I was born under more boring circumstances. Brown’s the product of the first successful IVF procedure, and though IVF is commonplace now, it was considered suspicious and unnatural as recently as the late 1970s. An American tabloid piece claimed that Brown had telekinetic powers, chucking her baby toys around with her mind alone. My vision shifted from old-fashioned monsters to superheroes: human beings who might’ve evolved differently, whose genetic makeup might be bolder, weirder, allowing for traits that standard-issue humans don’t have.

Slowly, Girl One came to life. My goal was to reward readers who embraced my unusual premise by bringing in suspense, action, a sense of adventure. I spun out an alternate history in which a controversial scientist managed to induce parthenogenesis in human women in the early 1970s – a fictional echo of real scientists such as Gregory Pincus, who infamously induced “virgin birth” in lab rabbits and suffered professionally. I wanted to see what it would look like for the whole world to react, publicly, to the news of parthenogenesis: if an IVF-born child could trigger protests, what would happen when science took men completely out of the equation?

After Girl One found a home with an editor who instantly, perfectly grasped what I wanted to do with the story, my understanding of these parthenogenetic powers deepened again. My editor encouraged me to explore the ways each woman’s superpower, her strange and monstrous ability, played into the stereotypes and rumors that’ve haunted women’s bodies for generations. One of my protagonists has the ability to spin bodies apart with a single touch, taking away life as easily as women are capable of producing it: another can control minds, a dark twist on the idea that women, though powerless on their own, are constantly manipulating others.

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Of course, the scientists of old were correct that human conception requires both a biological father and a biological mother—it does take two to tango. Their fault comes in thinking that this makes the mother a mere incubator. Both parents are genetically necessary, for now, and on top of providing half the DNA, the uterus-having parent also provides a cozy (and as-yet-unreproducible) environment for all that merged genetic material to blossom into an eventual human being. Hardly a second-place role.

But the understanding of women as vessels is a widespread one, and it has continued long after Plutarch. According to the excellent Like a Virgin by Aarathi Prasad, the scientist Paracelsus devoted himself to achieving a live birth from an artificial womb – quite the feat for the sixteenth century. Paracelsus’s methods involved putting sperm in a bottle, then burying the bottle in warm horse manure. Paracelsus was so convinced that sperm was the essential ingredient that a mother’s role could be reduced to literal manure. It was an obvious inversion of men’s anxieties about not being strictly necessary – what if women could be easily replaced by fertilizer?

Over a hundred years after the bottle experiment, Nicolaas Hartsoeker would insist that sperm held tiny, fully formed human beings, requiring only a welcoming spot to grow to a full-sized infant. Even now, in the twenty-first century, politicians like Oklahoma senator Justin Humphrey refer to pregnant people as “hosts,” and the very men who create laws meant to corral and control women’s bodies often have a vague, almost mystical understanding of what, precisely, goes on during conception and gestation. Nearly two thousand years after Plutarch, the notion of women’s bodies being both powerful and generative, capable of producing monsters out of mere thoughts, isn’t as distant as it should be.

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In the final version of Girl One, there’s a line of dialogue I especially loved writing. Josephine Morrow, my “Girl One,” the oldest of the parthenogenesis-born women, is reevaluating her mother’s role—learning to see her mother as more than a passive test subject.

“I might be Margaret’s daughter,” Josephine says, “but I was never her idea.”

But of course, as Josephine finds out, she was her mother’s idea. Always.

Although this book has evolved in dozens of ways, over the course of a decade, that line points to the moment in a sunny library when an idea—unruly, wild, and beautifully monstrous—took hold in my brain.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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