Making Babies by Laurie Penny

‘Making Babies’ is a piece of original fiction by the writer, journalist, and all around good egg Laurie Penny. It is available for free here. It is quite a short read, so I recommend giving it a look before I spoil it horribly for you. It concerns the relationship of Annie and Simon, a (presumably)* affluent couple raising a child together & confronting (or being confronted by) the anguishes of new parenthood. Except it is a science fictional story, so it also deals with what makes a human, what constitutes humanity & our consideration of acceptable human-ness through the lens of an android child.

Penny’s style superbly alights on familiar ideas to locate us in the grief and anguish of the characters, in few words expressing a compelling depth of emotion:

“He flashed her a smile, that wide corn-fed American smile with the two dimples, one on his cheek and one on his chin, that she always loved. Had loved. Stillloved.”

There is a wonderful sense of mourning and loss that the brief, italicized sentences express there. This excellent metaphor that locates the sensibility of the story in the science fictional:

“All the light and joy and energy draining out of life like a plug had been pulled somewhere deep inside, leaving you scrabbling to find the stopper before every last drop of you poured away.”

That people are more like machines, or machines more like people than are readily apparent. This blurred line is the crux of the story as embodied in the synthetic baby Tommy. Tommy was constructed by Annie as she does not (for the above quoted section) want to go through a biological pregnancy.

On my first read-through of this short story, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That’s not true; it left me flat. I thought it was excellently written but bereft, or at least avoidant of any conflict.  The surface issue is that Simon has been inattentive and allowed Tommy to be damaged. Simon and Annie are perhaps not precisely happy. In Simon’s case, this might be because he is feeling redundant. Annie is a perfectionist “Nothing was ever quite good enough” and Simon cannot get the coffee right, he is a “disappointment.” If a reader has familiarity with Penny’s political writings, this might seem to be the angle to the story: Penny has written (with exceptional compassion) about the difficulty and estrangement of young men in the late-capitalist world undergoing a crisis of masculinity. In Simon’s case, he is not an adequate provider (his gifts are improved), he is not the practically proficient one (Annie is a robotics engineer), and even their child has “nothing of [him]” in it. Annie rebuts this by demanding Simon look at Tommy, see the things she made in Tommy to resemble Simon, yet this is undermined in the text as Tommy is Annie’s “greatest project.” This could be the crux of the conflict, exploring familiar ground for Penny, and at first I took it to be, and was a little disappointed. After all, their differences are resolved (or glossed over?) rather rapidly when Tommy says ‘Dada.’ My initial response wasn’t negative – Penny’s prose is really rather good and her exploration of the characters well realised – just that I read it as a fictional exploration of her politics. I happened to agree, but it didn’t grab me.

Then I considered the final moments with Tommy, where Annie pushes a “small, hidden switch” to deactivate Tommy and prevent him from crying and distracting her and Simon from the urgent business of fucking, and looked at the whole piece as a synchronous character study of Tommy and Annie, rather than expecting a conventional narrative arc (rising tension and all that). Much as with Simon just ‘forgetting’ Tommy on top of the car, in cutting off the power, Annie transforms Tommy from surrogate child in to appliance. Even if she does love Tommy, it is difficult to tell if it not just the love of an engineer for her work – but is that then grounds for saying it is not love? It evoked in me that almost Sevinian sensation of cognitive estrangement, that feeling of almost looking at the back of my own head. The moment when Annie deactivates Tommy reminded me of the very end of Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sleep?” where a tired Deckard thinks he may have found a genuine, living frog, only for it to be revealed to be a very convincing synthetic, in exactly the same manner as Tommy is – a cleverly concealed switch. Tommy takes on an uncomfortable position from this point: He is like a real child in that he personifies the commitment between Annie and Simon, and at the same time remains a disposable prop** to them.

This intertextual connectivity enriched my appreciation of Making Babies; the story is aware that it exists in a continuum of science fiction, and embraces that. Most obviously, any story about the creation of artificial life evokes the core narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Making Babies takes this head on: just as Frankenstein creates his monster to overcome death, so does Annie. Whereas Frankenstein nominally believes his work to be selfless but is ultimately selfish, Annie creates Tommy from motivations that are rooted in her own history and fears, her mother’s sickness*** and fears of the same, the synthetic baby becomes something ultimately more selfless and shared than the monster.

Through this science fictional prism, Penny has allowed us to consider how our relationship to abstracted things manifests as our relationship to one another, and how potentially disposable one or the other is. Making Babies is a whip-smart short piece of fiction that continues the dialogue that good science fiction has about how technology and our relationship to it alters and reflects our relationships with one another.

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* I assume this purely on the basis of the gift given to Annie by Simon (a custom coffee maker) and that they have the time and resources to construct an android child, and no mention is given of particularly financial difficulties. It’s a blank slate, in that sense, of the kind I primarily associate with fiction located in a middle-class idiom. I could be wrong.

** I’m relatively confident in this position. The story switches between the perspective of Simon and Annie with some fluidity, but we never experience anything from within Tommy’s awareness, which implies he is not aware. There could be some deeper comment on when a child becomes a human here, but I’m going to take it as not – though that does make both parent’s disregard (even more) horrible!

*** There is also an element of whip-smart and wicked humour in this. In Annie’s memory of a good year with “trips to the park and jam sandwiches” I was automatically reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s lament of “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” There’s a very bitter humour here that enriches Annie’s position beyond just a fearful martyr.

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