In his paper, presented at the Representing Women’s Health conference’s “Speculative Fiction” panel, Jonathan Thornton explores the interconnected anxieties of pregnancy and climate change.
In a report in Global Health Action in 2013, ‘Climate change and the potential effects on maternal and pregnancy outcomes’, Charlotta Rylander et al look at the possible disease outcomes effecting pregnant women and newborns, and conclude that “global efforts to reduce the negative health effects of climate change should focus on maternal health.” (7) These findings, that project the greatest burden of climate change on health onto mothers and newborns, is particularly interesting in the context of Sherilyn MacGregor’s 2010 call for more feminist social research on climate change. MacGregor argues that, although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change largely omits any analysis on gender, anxieties about climate change and the onus to change household behaviours to ameliorate climate change fall disproportionately on women of the Global South. She convincingly argues that “climate change is not gender-neutral (as per popular belief) but has gender-differentiated causes and effects.” (130) I will explore how feminist speculative fiction can present a corrective to this inherent bias by conceptually linking anxieties about pregnancy with climate change, and providing an exploration of pregnant embodiment in the novel Sealed by Naomi Booth, and the short stories by Marian Womack collected in Lost Objects, ‘Orange Dogs’ and ‘Kingfisher’, which open the two sections of the book.
Fran Bigman argues that the “duality of power and vulnerability makes pregnancy a rich site for rethinking intersections between SF and the medical humanities” (265). Speculative fiction has a long history of exploring ideas around pregnancy and reproductive rights, from the misogynistic dystopia of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) to the utopia of Mattapoisett made possible by artificial wombs removing the burden of reproduction from women in Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time (1976). In these stories, pregnancy is a source of power that can either be co-opted by the patriarchal top-down medical intervention or a site for feminist resistance to this intervention. Bigman explains, “In these narratives, pregnancy emerges as both an embodied, subjective experience and a screen for the projection of fears about the survival of humanity.” (266) This can be seen in the work of Booth and Womack, where anxieties about pregnancy and the survival of the mother and baby merge with anxieties about climate change and the survival of the human race.
In Naomi Booth’s Sealed, Alice’s pregnancy takes place in a climate change ravaged Australian outback, during an outbreak of a malignant skin condition called cutis, which seals victims within their skin. Ann Johnson (2000), in her work on embodiment in pregnancy, describes how,
“an accent is placed not on a mapping of body boundaries (where do I begin and end?) but on an awareness of permeability which places in question the very possibility of beginning and ending. … An awareness of her unextractable participation in the environment is increased as attention is called to the way substances, both visible and invisible, travel through her body and out. The skin is suddenly not a protection or boundary at all, and it loses its power to fence in the self.” (171)
Booth uses the fictional skin condition “cutis” to explore what happens when the skin’s “power to fence in the self” goes awry. Speaking of the pathological growth of skin in cutis, Alice says, “I can’t depend on the old magic of skin, the old secrets of healing. Our skin is a hex on us now: it turns our bodies to puffs of smoke, choking out their own fires.” (17) Cutis, by causing the skin to grow uncontrollably, achieves what pregnancy does in terms of destabilising the boundaries of the self, as the formerly solid and discrete body becomes indefinable and permeable “puffs of smoke”. Booth explicitly connects cutis to climate change, by linking it to the anthropogenic destruction of the environment she describes throughout the book. The causative agent of cutis is never revealed, but theories abound: “No one knew exactly what was causing it, of course. Studies were investigating all sorts of possibilities: BPA ingestion from plastics (‘Is your baby’s bottle poisoning her?’); triclosan absorption from cosmetics and detergents (‘Is keeping clean poisoning our bodies?’); inhalation of PM2.5 in smog-saturated and polluted cities (‘Are greener cars choking us?’).” (48) Here attempts to protect the human body from the destruction of the environment – from nurturing babies with their bottles to washing to green cars – ironically may be the source of further “poisoning” or “choking”. Action by the individual is insufficient to protect one from the cocktail of frightening sounding chemicals.
As Alice’s pregnancy advances, she becomes more and more concerned with the contaminants in the environment passing through her skin and giving her cutis. This echoes the increased anxiety about the environment Johnson describes in some pregnant women:
“Subsequently, there is a shift for many women in their relation to the physical environment: the fear of a magical loss of boundaries can be managed by various strong or weak forms of ecological activism. Now, concerns about pesticides and electromagnetic fields signal our changed relation to the invisible environment, and it is not surprising that women are most vocal in claiming our collective vulnerability. The tenuousness of the self’s boundaries is felt in our current obsession with new, invisible forms of pollution and infection; perhaps the belief in bounded, protected individuality is no longer pragmatic.” (171)
Alice’s pregnancy gives her a greater awareness of the permeability of the human body, and so allows her to pick up on signs that the spread of cutis is more serious than the authorities would like to admit. It also gives her a greater awareness of the worsening state of the environment around her, in contrast to her oblivious, self-obsessed partner Pete. From rumours and exaggerated reports in the news, to the lack of information about health from the Internal Displacement Camps where climate refugees are detained, to the illnesses affecting animals and birds, Alice’s sensitivity allows her to build up a picture of what is happening to the world around her that is ignored by Pete: “That’s the thing about Pete: he doesn’t notice details like this. He doesn’t care about the little things and he doesn’t realise that they matter, that they can add up to bigger things.” (29)
Marian Womack’s Lost Objects is a collection of stories linked by concerns around climate change. Across the ten stories there are recurring images of environmental destruction, dying and disappearing animals, and encounters with the transcendent. The stories ‘Orange Dogs’ and ‘Kingfisher’ open the two sections of the book, and both draw parallels between anxieties around pregnancy, infertility and miscarriages and anxieties about the destruction of the environment. Both are set in the near future, in a world transfigured by climate change, but ‘Orange Dogs’ is told from a male point of view of the husband concerned about his wife’s pregnancy, whilst ‘Kingfisher’ is told from the point of view of the woman who becomes pregnant.
”Orange Dogs”, the first story in the collection, opens with the image of a pregnant woman, in which her body is compared to a natural landscape in trouble:
“Looking through the threshold of the front room, his wife’s bedroom now, he caught a glimpse of her gigantic silhouette. The swollen pregnant belly seemed about to explode. The mountain of flesh, hidden under a knitted bedspread, lifted and sank, lifted and sank, to the faltering rhythm of her breathing.” (3)
The woman’s body is a “mountain”, “faltering” and on the verge of “explode[ing]”. We soon find out that this is her second pregnancy; her pregnancy last year miscarried. This is immediately contrasted with a description of the river outside the couple’s house, which is likened to menstrual flow:
“What came down the river was a vague brown stain of liquid mud, which brought to mind the thick blood of an enormous animal. The opaque water led to only one conclusion: the river was rising. He took a deep breath, considering the dark current that pushed the river onwards.” (6)
Here Womack explicitly connects the body of a pregnant wife, a source of anxiety and concern for the husband who is afraid of another miscarriage, to the landscape of a polluted, flooding river. Thus, from the beginning of the book, these two anxieties are made to stand for each other and merge.
We learn that the husband blames himself for the loss of the baby, which coincided with the last time the river flooded: “It had been his fault as well. He knew that much. He had not paid attention to the signs.” (13) The wife’s pregnant body and the environment are again equated by the way the “signs” the husband fails to interpret refers to them both. Although the husband is a scientist working at the museum, studying the invasive species of butterfly that give the story its name, both the landscape of his home after climate change and the body of his wife in pregnancy are unreadable by him and his science.
“Kingfisher” opens the second part of the collection and shows us the perspective of a woman who becomes pregnant. The protagonist lives in a world where unspecified climate disaster has led to mass extinction among animals and infertility among humans: “But there was more: a great number of animals had disappeared with speedy finality from the face of the earth; everyone seems to have difficult pregnancies and problems conceiving, and so every year fewer children were born.” (100) The narrator’s desire to see a kingfisher, a rare occurrence after all the mass extinctions, is placed alongside her difficulties in conceiving. Both change the way she perceives the world and her place in it:
“I had also wanted to have a child at some point. We had been younger and not aware of the general difficulties, and Jonas and I had managed to at least conceive on a few occasions. By the time we had stopped trying to become parents, a year and a half after my first miscarriage, I had stopped counting how many pregnancies I had lost. Now I wasn’t so ambitious, not really. Air travel? Bees? A child? Not anymore. All I wanted was to see a bird, only once.” (101)
The narrator’s desire to have a child, along with her desire to experience the communion with nature from seeing a wild bird, is something she has to let go as an expectation for her life. When both do manifest in her life, they do so first via dreams, slowly encroaching on the real world in a fantastical manner.
Both Sealed by Naomi Booth and Lost Objects by Marian Womack explore anxieties around climate change and pregnancy. Together, these works demonstrate how feminist speculative fiction can contribute towards feminist sociological research on climate change and so make a space for those whose perspectives are excluded by the majority of projections of climate impact.
Booth, Naomi. Sealed. Liverpool: Dead Ink, 2020.
Bigman, Fran. “Pregnancy as protest in interwar British women’s writing: an antecedent alternative to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” Medical humanities 42, no. 4 (2016): 265-270.
Johnson, Ann. “Selfhood and embodiment: reflecting on pregnancy and its implications.” The Humanistic Psychologist 28, no. 1-3 (2000): 167-180.
MacGregor, Sherilyn. “A stranger silence still: The need for feminist social research on climate change.” The Sociological Review 57, no. 2_suppl (2009): 124-140.
Rylander, Charlotta, Jon Øyvind Odland, and Torkjel Manning Sandanger. “Climate change and the potential effects on maternal and pregnancy outcomes: an assessment of the most vulnerable–the mother, fetus, and newborn child.” Global health action 6, no. 1 (2013): 19538.
Womack, Marian. Lost Objects. Edinburgh: Luna Press, 2018.
About the Author
Jonathan Thornton is studying for a Masters in Science Fiction literature at the University of Liverpool. He is interested in the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction and fantastika. He has a Masters in Medical Entomology, and works as an insectary technician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He also writes criticism and reviews and conducts interviews for internet publications Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Hive and Gingernuts of Horror.