Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] But it is also a book that clearly demonstrates how the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ reading, the fact that “bearing an infant “for someone else” is always a fantasy, a shaky construction,” is not attributable to the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy, but rather to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19). In this way she articulates clearly that “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat,” (56) any more than the anarchism of Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

This is a text which includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, but it is also a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7, emphasis in original)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously and reciprocally birthed.

The bulk of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of those gestational workers who are currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—in order to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. Rather than positioning gestational work as an inviolable sphere determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129). In this way her book makes a significant contribution to the pressing political project of advocating for the rights of those workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited and criminalised. Full Surrogacy Now joins such texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018) in combating the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position in which gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42, emphasis in original).

The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods. (41)

In contrast, her approach—where the lives of gestational workers from the Global South are centered—provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’ determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers—in what might otherwise be a theory-dominated intervention into contemporary feminist discourse—should be noted. The emphasis which she places on the working conditions of surrogates themselves is of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). By reintroducing the voices of those who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives, Lewis demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless “technology” component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology,” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

The prime example of a pregnancy dystopia in which surrogacy is, traumatically, centered is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing. As Lewis argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14, emphasis in original). Lewis is not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness,” but nor is she willing to accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) as texts which engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts within, and as part of, her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker and adrienne maree brown who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. However, as Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and her focus on surrogacy is specific, I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (19, emphasis in original) within feminist SF: a field which is deeply invested in the ethical manipulation of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where, as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry, gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo [and] the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism,” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini, to whose work I am very grateful to have been introduced. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158, emphasis in original).

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique to transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony, many people on earth are putting something like “full surrogacy” into practice every day, cultivating non-oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations” (147). Reciprocal baby making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others/ Come together to be with their brother,” or, in this case, with their multiply-parented, surro-sibling.[4]

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.








[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.

Maul – product placement

… she kept shooting, taking out pyramids and columns of fragrance and colour. Estée Lauder, Nina Ricci, Lancôme, Gucci, Calving Klein, Clinique, Chanel, Ralph Lauren … a crystalline gazz of the highest order for Suk Hee. (Maul, 2003 Orbit edition, p. 34.)

Many commentators, most recently Sebastian Faulks, have noted the manner in which Ian Fleming validated James Bond as a character through the brands he used.  It was important to Fleming to know, and to let the reader know, what cigarettes Bond smoked, what vodka he drank, what golf balls he used.

Something similar is going on in Maul.  The bloody gunfight that precipitates much of the action in the maul occurs not just in an upmarket clothes boutique, but in Lord & Taylor.   Sun and Alex have sex in the stockroom not just of an electrical goods store, but of Sharper Image.  Other shops are mentioned – Godiva, Toys-R-Us, etc.  Sun’s existence seems defined by the brands she uses – she doesn’t wear perfume, she wears CK1.  When she finds a packet of cigarettes what registers is Benson & Hedges.  The only significant thing that is not referred to by its brand, interestingly, is Sun’s gun.

Sullivan does this for authenticity.  This may not be a mall in our world, but it is a mall in something that is a close enough approximation of our world to be recognisable.  Americans, and most Brits (certainly anyone who’d ever seen The Blues Brothers or Dawn of the Dead) would have an idea of a mall in which trading names are prominent.  Sullivan herself, who grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, no doubt spent some time herself in such places (though hopefully she never ran into a running gun battle). So Sullivan’s maul needs to have same quality of commercial branding – anonymous stores or invented ones just won’t cut it.

Something similar is going on in the future strand.  Of course, there the  brands are made up, but commercial interests clearly still loom large in this world.  The Mall  game Meniscus is a product of NoSystems.  Madeleine Baldino works for Highbridge.  Some of the names, however, are not invented.  Dunkin’ Donuts is still going, as is Play-Doh.  Clearly, Meniscus’ world is not that far into the future.

I’ve talked in the previous post about how Maul is a novel about violence and gender roles.  But the use of brand names suggests to me that it is also a novel about commercialism, and the way that can wreck lives.  It is not just about the fetishisation of violence, but its commodification.  It truly is an SF novel for the way we live now.

You can find my first post on Maul here, and my second here.

Maul – “the new face of Feminist SF”

For so states Cheryl Morgan.

It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. On the day I bought it, I had to test out several models before I found one that fitted, and Suk Hee’s gangster cousin Woo kept trying to look around the side of the van to see what I was doing. Woo was afraid someone would come and he’d get caught with the van and everything. I came. It was the only way to be sure I had the right one.

And so begins Maul.  The passage, I think, deliberately sets out to shock.  It becomes more shocking still when, after our narrator Sun Katz has achieved orgasm (in what, by the way, is one of the best come scenes I’ve read in literature), it turns out that she is describing not a penis, as one might have thought at first, or a dildo, as one might conclude by the end of the paragraph.  No.

Even a hypothetical boyfriend wouldn’t understand.
How I feel.
About my gun.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a gun.  Guns are very important to Sun and her Korean girl gang pals.  (Another point to note in passing is how understated Maul is about Sun’s ethnic identity.  It’s there, but Sullivan feels no need to have Sun explicitly state at the beginning “Oh, by the way, I’m Korean.”)  Sun wears her gun strapped under her skirt, not coincidentally close to her genitalia.  The link between femininity and weaponry is underlined by the UK cover, as noted by Martin Lewis; a lipstick in a bullet cartridge.

If written by a man, this could be seen as misogynist claptrap, or at the very least wet-dream wish-fulfilment.  But Sullivan’s point is that women can be as interested as men in the fetishization of guns and violence – they just have to be given a chance.

This is emphasized even more in the future Meniscus strand.  There, the Y-plagues have eliminated  most males.  The few that remain fertile are locked away in “castellations”.  The majority of the population are women, and they are running the planet.  Does this mean that there is a feminist Utopia?  No.  In Sullivan’s vision, women have moved into the niches vacated by men, to the point of some becoming burly butch truckers.

Most women have children through cloning.  But the sperm of the men in the castellations, the “pigs”, is there for those who can afford it.  And what are the qualities that are valued in those men?  Not sensitivity, but athletic ability, fighting prowess, heroism, the same old macho bullshit.  As prominent pig Arnie Henshaw says, “Nowadays, no matter how skinny, a really good hacker is worth ten guys who can impale a mammoth with a spear, but you chicks would rather have a hacker with muscles, wouldn’t you?”  The main female protagonist of this strand, Madeleine Baldino, knows this, and hates herself, and Henshaw, for it.

Some women in this world think that the exploitation of men is wrong.  Their underground terrorist activities drive the plot.  In a neat reversion of the feminist slogan “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, their movement is called Bicyclefish.

But there is a cost, and that cost is the validation of the actions of a man like Snake Carrera, a violent and arguably psychopathic male who carries out Henshaw’s stunts for him, and who ends up in Meniscus’ cell as part of a plot to murder him.  He is, also, the most imposing male character in the book, far more so than any man in the Maul strand, where males are either authority figures like policemen or security guards, or feeble and less than they appear on the surface, such as Sun’s lust object Alex, who takes her virginity but soon proves to be not the person she needs or wants. The interesting characters in that strand, Sun, her friend Suk Hee, her antagonists 10Esha and KrayZglu, are all women.

Maul rightly made the 2003 Tiptree Award Short List, though it didn’t win. It certainly explores gender and feminism in a way that challenges long-held certainties on all sides. Indeed, I feel it explores the relationship between men and violence, and the attraction of both to women, in a similar, but I felt more successful, manner to the 2002 Tiptree winner, M. John Harrison’s Light.

The message, in the end, is that violence is not endemic to men – it’s endemic to humanity.

You can find my first post on Maul here.

Woman’s Hour: Women and SF

The following is a transcript of the recent (25/05/11) Woman’s Hour segment on women and sf, for those who can’t listen and in case it vanishes from the BBC website. Of related interest, given recent discussion elsewhere, is the most recent Guardian Books Podcast in which Nicola Griffiths is, as she points out, identified as a “sharp-eyed blogger in Seattle”, rather than as a novelist.

Jenni Murray: Now, the British Library has just opened an exhibition, called “Out of This World: Science Fiction, but Not as You Know It”. It’s a genre that’s generally perceived to be of interest to young children — think Doctor Who — or to men — think HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. But the exhibition includes Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones, so is the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated form a complete misrepresentation? Well, Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling writer, Farah Mendlesohn is reader in science fiction and fantasy literature at Middlesex University, and Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke Awards for her science fiction. Gwyneth, what was it about sci-fi that appealed to you?

Gwyneth Jones: The science. I’m a thwarted scientist and when I was a little girl it was — I can’t remember the name of the writer because writers’ names mean very little to children, or they did mean … it was either Asimov or Heinlein who told me that the universe was like unto a rubber sheet and that planets and other bodies deform this rubber sheet, and that’s the way spacetime functions; I was hooked. I just love stuff like that.

Jenni Murray: And Karen, what was its appeal for you when you began writing?

Karen Traviss: Well, I actually set it up as a business, it was something … I’m not a reader, it’s a terrible thing to say and people will probably come and stone my house, but I absolutely hate reading, but I like writing. I was far more influenced by TV, and by films, I absolutely loved science fiction series, I like science fiction movies. But my reason for writing science fiction was a sort of business decision because I actually specialise in military science fiction and also mainstream military fiction, and I set out to have a business, I had a five year business plan, I stuck to it. There was no sort of motivation from love of the art, I’m afraid, and the sort of picture that I see of science fiction being painted here doesn’t bear any resemblance to my working world. I mean, let me just put a caveat on that — I might live in the UK, I pay my taxes here, but I work in the USA. I work solely for US publishers, US game studios, that sort of thing. It’s a very different world.

Jenni Murray: Let me just bring Farah in for the moment, Karen. What about the audience, Farah? Who is interested in reading sci-fi?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well, the entry age I found was somewhere between about 10 and 12, which is younger than we used to think. Slightly younger for boys, they seem to come in around 9, girls around 11. After that, these days it’s about 45% female and 55% male, and people stick with the genre once they’re there. The audiences for gaming, for tie-ins, for films — they’re slightly different, they lean towards male, but I’ll be honest, I think it’s just a matter of time, I think it’s changing very rapidly. The idea of science fiction being for men has never been true, if you look at the early magazines there are always letters from women. Now I know it’s biased, because the editors are choosing the letters, but it’s actually quite interesting that someone like Hugo Gernsback, one of the earliest of the editors, wanted to represent women in the magazines by choosing those letters. About 1 in every 10 letters in the thirties, by the sixties we’re up to 1 in 3; it keeps spiralling.

Jenni Murray: And yet, Gwyneth, I know you have said, because you said it to our producer, that you wish you’d used a male pseudonym as a writer. Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Ah. That’s because I started writing science fiction in 1984 and I wrote feminist science fiction and I wrote science fiction for at least a decade, and I wish now that I had used a male pseudonym for my feminist books.

Jenni Murray: Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.

Jenni Murray: You’d have sold better.

Gwyneth Jones: Well, not only that. My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.

Jenni Murray: There was, Farah —

Gwyneth Jones: Sorry, I was —

Jenni Murray: No, it’s all right, I just wanted to continue the point with Farah, because there was a famous science fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr, who came out in the seventies as Alice Sheldon, so he actually was a she. What was the reaction when that happened?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well actually, Gwyneth’s summary is perfect, because first of all what had happened was that Tiptree had withdrawn a story that was nominated I think for the Nebulas, on the grounds it had been nominated because it was a feminist story by a man. And he withdrew it. Robert Silverberg had actually written an introduction to one of the books which he’s lived to regret, in which he described Tiptree as “ineluctably male”, So there was actually quite some controversy. Joanna Russ, one of our most famous authors is the person who outed Tiptree [Note: actually Jeffrey Smith; see comments and Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon for details], and it rippled. But I think that Gwyneth is absolutely right, both because Tiptree’s work was then received very differently, but because what I see in critical accounts of the genre from male academics is they forget women when they’re writing about space opera, and then have a token chapter about feminist writers. And I see that over and over again. There’s a book by Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr that has a whole chapter on linguistics. The most famous science fiction writer of linguistics, who’s a professor of linguistics, is Suzette Haden Elgin. She’s not in that chapter. She is in the chapter on feminism. So often it’s that inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer — and this is where you might want to bring Karen back in, because she’s often seen that way by critics and herself would find that, I think I’m right in saying, would find that a problematic label.

Jenni Murray: You anticipated my next move. Karen?

Karen Traviss: Well, I’m sort of struggling to recognise this landscape, because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the world I work in. I think it’s very easy to try and see science fiction, one, as a sort of separate walled garden, but also as something defined by critics. I like to deal direct with my customer, basically, and if I go round a huge bookstore in the States and I stop someone who’s browsing in the isles and say, “why have you picked up that book?”, none of them have heard of the Hugo awards, none of them read book reviews, none of them care what critics think; they pick up books because they like the cover, or because they like the blurb on the back, or they like the author, or their friends said, “you really should try that book” — and I mean perhaps I’ve lead a charmed life, but given the very macho nature of what I like and the fact that most of my characters are male, I have never been pigeonholed as a female writer. You know, the sort of novelty for the States is that I’m English, that always comes as a shock to them.

Jenni Murray: Karen, you’ve very deliberately published in the States, why? Is it because it’s different here?

Karen Traviss: Much much bigger market and much more money. Sorry, it’s really that crude. But that was my first port of call, because that was where I saw the industry as being. This is the entertainment industry, you know, I am there to entertain people primarily, but also to make them think; I’m a former journalist, I’m not there to set an agenda for feminism or anything else, I’m there to say, these are people, male and female, in a very challenging situation; and one thing that science fiction offers you, speculative fiction generally, is that you can push the boundaries and say, what if this happened? What would happen? And all I do is sort of shine that light and say, how would you react in this situation? I’m not going to send some feminist message.

Jenni Murray: Farah?

Farah Mendlesohn: I want to agree with Karen, but with a caveat. I started looking at what was on the shelves in Britain and in british libraries, both in bookshops and libraries, and couldn’t find any women writers, including a really big selling writer like Lois McMaster Bujold. So I’d say Karen has made the right decision, the market in the States is far better, but the market here is problematic. Forbidden Planet has just produced a list of its 50 favourite writers with three female writers. there’s something odd going on at the marketing level here.

Jenni Murray: Gwyneth, how much are you conscious of the fact that there may be something odd going on at the marketing level?

Gwyneth Jones: I think, for one thing I think the US market is a far broader church; it’s far easier, it’s much easier for an outsider to survive. But I am conscious that I have always been regarded as an outsider by my publishers of science fiction. it’s an assumption which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if there is a list of books that are going to be promoted, well, probably a woman writer is an outside choice so we won’t have a woman writer. That does happen.

Jenni Murray: But you’ve won the big awards — you’ve won the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke award. what difference does that make to you? Do they not say, this woman is a great writer?

Gwyneth Jones: I find it very strange. There’s no heavy lifting, I don’t have to be six foot six, and in fact even to write action fantasy you don’t have to be a large muscular man to do that, but I think it starts with the publishers and I think it also it ripples through to the fans.

Jenni Murray: Women fantasy writers seem to do very well, Farah, JK Rowling I suppose being the best known. Why? What’s the difference between the sci-fi and the fantasy?

Farah Mendlesohn: That’s a very difficult one to put your fingers on. I think there is a sense that it’s more appropriate for women to write about dragons than to write about guns — and I do wonder, to come briefly back to Karen if the more mixed army in the united States makes a difference, they have a fully integrated military — but otherwise it’s not that straightforward. the biggest names in fantasy, the ones who receive the most publicity, are still the men. And I think there is a bias there. but I would agree with Karen, in that I don’t think the bias is necessarily among the fans.

Jenni Murray: Farah Mendlesohn, Karen Traviss and Gwyneth Jones, thank you all very much.