Sunday, October 11, 2009
Reproduction in other species
Reproduction is something fundamental to a species – even viruses, which don’t do much else, use other cells to make copies of themselves. So it’s fun to play around with this in speculative fiction, and here are a few ideas.
How would a society which consistently produced fewer males than females – or vice versa – handle the issue of reproduction? Polygamy still takes place on Earth, but in such a society there would at least be less marginalization of men who are not allowed to breed for whatever reason – e.g. the Lost Boys.
And what about polyandry? I’d love to see more of that in speculative fiction – especially with attention paid to how the husbands form a pecking order and how children’s paternity is established. Or if it’s simply not an issue.
Make reproduction mandatory
Between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, a woman is required to have two or more children. It’s a bit like National Service, and the woman is free to do whatever she likes from then on.
The children might be raised by someone else, if that’s what she wants. Or they could be preserved at birth age for her until she’s ready to raise them. I prefer the first, because it’s a way to divorce reproduction (no pun intended) from marriage and love. The vast majority of humanoid SF races have that in common with humans: love and marriage are intrinsically linked with children. But what if they weren’t?
Confine reproduction to one class of the population
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale did this for a group of women who were simultaneously controlled and envied, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. If only a small subpopulation of women were capable of reproducing – but could do it with consistent success and without forming strong ties to their children – they might occupy a prominent place in society. They could travel from place to place offering their services and being paid very well for it. Or they might become the third person in a legally and socially sanctioned menage.
Or reproduction might be restricted to just one person, like the humanoid version of a beehive. A similar situation operates in Karne, one of the lands in my manuscript Dracolytes, where very few women breed – but those who do give birth to over a hundred children, which kills the mother.
And what if reproduction couldn’t occur unless the offspring – while conceived by humanoid parents – had to be incubated in someone else? It would be the cuckoo’s strategy raised to a whole different level.
Don’t be too unrealistic
I don’t expect rigorous science from Star Trek, but on the other hand, there are some things which can’t withstand a suspension of disbelief. One of them was the reproductive capacity of the Ocampa from Voyager. An episode established that Ocampa women have only one fertile period, called the Elogium, in their lives.
This means that each woman has to give birth to twins to at least keep the Ocampa population stable. Producing only one child – which happened in the show – would cut the population in two with each generation. That was one reason I stopped watching Voyager (by the way, there was also an episode where a race of aliens became children as they grew older, which makes one speculate about what they’re like when they’re born).
But there are better methods of producing offspring that could be used – borrowing from science, prionic reproduction or parthogenesis a la David Brin’s Glory Season. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would say.