Sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian fiction has often run into girl trouble; in some worlds — Tolkien, Star Wars — the majority of the aliens and assorted fantastical creatures appear to be the product of some asexual cloning experiment that results in a single-sex species. When a woman does show up, she is often the sole representative of her kind, a lone Smurfette or Minnie Mouse lost in space, her gender underscored with drag-worthy props — extravagant eyelashes, complicated hairstyles, or the occasional metal bikini.
In other cases, as any Gene Roddenberry acolyte will tell you (and tell you and tell you and tell you), invented worlds have often outpaced actual ones in anticipating and depicting a more progressive world. Women have published some of the most complex (LeGuin, L’Engle, Atwood) and popular (Rowling, Meyers, Collins) fantasy and science fiction novels of all time.
But while virginity parables (Twilight) and gladiator matches (The Hunger Games) still dominate the young adult bestseller lists, this year brought us a cluster of speculative novels written for young adults, all of which begin with one of the most enduring plot lines in women’s lives, on and off the page: the fear that women and girls may not be valued primarily for themselves, but as a vessel, or an incubator to host another person. Mothership, the first in a series by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal, imagines a future in which unwed pregnant teens are sequestered in a spaceship and blasted into orbit until their due dates. Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst takes place in a nomadic desert clan who sacrifice certain children to be vessels, giving their bodies over to be used by their gods. The finest of them all is Lois Lowry’s Son, the final novel in a series of four to revisit the same world and many of the same characters she created in The Giver, first published in 1993, and since distinguished both by a Newbery Medal, and its place on the list of one of the most often banned books for young readers during the 1990s.
One doesn’t have to look hard to see the looming shadow cast by another frequently banned novel, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 modern dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a world in which women are divided into high-status wives and low-status breeders, both of whom lead lives in which their destinies are in grim servitude to their biology. But all three novels also call to mind a book that is neither speculative nor fiction: Anne Fussell’s The Girls Who Went Away, her 2006 non-fiction book, a quiet horror story of its own, based on more than one hundred oral histories taken from women who released their children into closed adoptions, often very much against their will, during the so-called “Baby Scoop Era” of the fifties and sixties.
The Hanover School for Expectant Mothers in Mothership may be orbiting the Earth, but its cargo holds the futuristic counterparts to the teenage girls who spoke to Fussell about their lives in the maternity homes of the 1950s: mostly good girls of whom much is expected, none of which includes young single parenthood. Elvie Nara, our heroine equipped with imaginative slang and a best friend named Ducky — apparently Pretty in Pink will endure as a classic well into the next century — fears her dreams of exploring Mars will be dashed by the toil of caring for an infant. Her fellow students include enough teenage archetypes to build an intergalactic Spice Girls — “the slutty one,” “the sporty one,” “the grammar girl,” and Elvie’s arch-nemesis, the pretty blonde cheerleader with whom she unwillingly shares a baby daddy, the dashing Cole Archer (Elvie’s ironic detachment from the whole high school mess reveals her own archetype — the cool outsider chick, the one most favored of all in John Hughes movies and — spoiler alert! — by dashing heroes in the third acts of young adult novels with wisecracking, self-deprecating narrators).
Abortion politics in the outer-space age are, apparently, less concerned with who can get an abortion and more concerned with how speedily the deed gets done — after “the Great Compromise,” Elvie tells us, “it was decided that anyone who wanted to could get a termination, but only for the first two weeks after conception.” (Fortunately for women of the future “it’s possible to find out if you are preggers in as little as two hours; unfortunately, “lot of girls don’t know until a month or so in, and by then, it’s tough luck, Charlie.”)
Elvie, who is planning an adoption, is subject to the same philosophies that ruled the closed adoptions of the Baby Scoop era: she is not told the gender of her child, because her social workers believe it would be “psychologically damaging to know the gender of a baby I would never form mother-child bonds with.” Complications arise when, in a stunning plot twist, the girls discover that some of them have been implanted with alien babies with whom they share no common DNA. The aliens helpfully explain the reasons why the birthmother has no legal rights to the child she incubates: “the host mother has the baby, but it’s not her child…She’s just sort of, like, the envelope. But it isn’t her letter.” Reproductive rights scholars and activists, be forewarned: It may be wise to put some laws in place that would prevent your great-great-granddaughters from being forcible surrogates for alien spawn.
The idea that one can just borrow a body to be used as an “envelope” to deliver a “letter” to be used in whatever way the rulers of a community deems fit, carries through to both Durst’s Vessel and Lowry’s Giver quartet. Vessel takes place in a pre-industrial, hunter-gatherer society that inverts the futuristic space age vision of Mothership; Lowry’s four novels alternate between both technocratic and agrarian dystopias.
Durst’s vessels, unlike the others, are not literally pregnant: the vessel does not host a child, but a god, and both men and women — more accurately, girls and boys — can be vessels. But in many ways, this just makes the metaphor more striking. When Liyana is selected to be the vessel of the Goat Clan, her friends and family bathe her in milk and honey, dress her in ceremonial garb, then gather around in a circle and watch her dance — with the expectation that she will die, thereby providing the sacrifice that will satisfy their gods and ensure food, water and prosperity for everyone else. When she does not die, she is deemed “unfit” and “unworthy,” and a woman shouts, “My children! My children! You have killed their future!” Thus, her shame does not merely disgrace herself and her family, but her entire clan; she has ruined not only her own future, but that of generations. What to do? She is abandoned by everyone, with the hope that she will finally die in the desert (a hope that goes unfulfilled due to the intervention of a young male god with matinee idol looks).
The inhabitants of Lowry’s rigorously civilized community would appear to be above such superstition and savagery, a place where even animals have been eliminated “because a healthy diet doesn’t include them” and “they detract from efficiency” (though the term is still used to describe someone “uneducated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in”). Every aspect of life is perfectly ordered: children are raised by a Nurturer in a communal nursery for their first year, where their personalities are observed and problem children culled; they then are equally distributed such that each family will be comprised of one man and woman, scientifically selected for maximum compatibility, and one girl and one boy, properly balanced by age and temperament. At age twelve, children are assigned to their life-long professions; once they begin to feel “Stirrings,” they are given a pill to quiet them. After their children have grown, parents live alone with other adults until they are ceremonially “released” — a term long used in adoption — a fate which may also greet troublesome new children or anyone who goes against the rules, and when used as punishment is known to be “a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure.”
In is, in other words, a society that has come to believe if no one speaks of birth, sex, death and difference, no one will experience their attendant troubles. And in some ways, it strives for and achieves a liberal utopia of sorts, before rushing right past to an absurd end: no notices skin color, and it is considered rude to call attention to a person’s attractiveness, but they have also eliminated the concept and perception of color altogether; children raised in the community have no concept of “men’s work” and “women’s work,” but they likewise have no concept of free will in deciding what work to do, whom to love, and when and if to have children. In their zeal to end discrimination in the prejudicial sense, they’ve also eliminated it in the positive sense, the ability to differentiate, evaluate and choose between multiple options.
Once you see that word, choice, you know what’s coming next. And yes, for all their technology, the community hasn’t quite figured out how to regulate birth itself, and must still rely on that troublesome figure, the vessel. The role of the Birthmother is introduced in The Giver, the first novel of the series, but she is seen through the eyes of Jonas, a young boy who is chosen to be the Receiver, the one person in the community who is allowed to ask questions and store memories. Birthmothers, we are told, have a role “with very little honor,”; they breed three times, then spend the rest of their lives performing hard labor, and are ineligible to have a spouse or children.
Son, the fourth and final novel, released this fall, is told from the perspective of a Birthmother named Claire, who “had never seen a Vessel until she became one. She had never known, until she had both experienced and observed it, that human females swelled and grew and reproduced. No one had told her what ‘birth’ meant.” Nevertheless, after giving birth to, then losing, her son, her lifelong sense of “contentment” gives way to a “yearning constantly, desperately, to fill the emptiness inside her.”
Jonas’ quest for knowledge and Claire’s quest for her child propel both of them outside the boundaries of their community, and into two others. One community is another version of the pre-industrial dystopia described in Vessel: a place where people rely on physical strength and the support of others to survive, and traditional families and gender roles are strictly enforced, mostly because people figure that without a strong father around to protect them, women and children will likely die off anyway. The other, called the Village, is described as a “gathering of outcasts,” a refuge for people escaping “cruel governments, harsh punishments, desperate poverty or false comforts” where “marks and failings were not considered flaws at all” and instead were “valued.”
Utopian scholars and political historians will likely be not surprised at all to hear that the Village goes through a period in which its citizens, once outsiders themselves, rally to “close the border to outsiders” who might “talk funny,” “marry their daughters,” or take their jobs. The final novel — a culmination to the series, though it can be read on its own — connects all of the characters from the three previous books, and brings them all to an emotional, satisfying conclusion that celebrates the diversity, decency and inclusiveness of the Village. While Lowry’s novel can’t by itself put to rest the recurring cultural fear that maternity may be used as a weapon, it does deliver a beautifully written letter in an envelope that suits it perfectly.