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Monday, 18 February 2013

Angus McLaren, Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-tube Babies in Interwar Britain (2012)

I am woefully behindhand in writing up this book, which is very much the kind of fascinating and very accessible read we have come to anticipate from McLaren. It pulls together a number of concerns of the interwar era, predominantly in the UK, demonstrating the influence of underlying issues around reproduction, and the allied areas of sex and gender, in a range of fields not normally seen as connected.

McLaren plausibly suggests that alongside clearly speculative science fiction texts, social theorists and commentators and those producing programmes for action that should also be considered as creating 'science fictions' based in ideas about the possibilities of science and anxieties around modernity.

While eugenics in the interwar era has been the subject of much heated debate, McLaren presents us with a compelling case that broader and less focused anxieties around reproduction, population, its quantity and quality were pervasive and popping up in places where perhaps they would not be expected. It also provides a new take on the responses to 'modernity' more generally during the same period. He makes the important point that even proponents of apparently conservative agendas were not so much restoring an ancient order as creating a new one along the lines which appealed to them, however rhetorically based in notions of tradition and conservation.

As well as speaking to existing historiographical debates around science, reproduction and breeding, it also constitutes a work which scholars of science fiction, particularly British science fiction, could usefully study. I think it was Brian Aldiss who suggested that post-World War II British sf was haunted by images of senility and sterility in the era of the end of Empire. McLaren's work suggests that this theme already pervaded the British imaginary well before then.

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