NONE OF WOMAN BORN | Timston Johnson.
⇒This piece is frickin’ cool.
We live in a very synthetic era, an era in which nature is frequently redesigned, augmented, “improved.” Our food is genetically modified, our relationships are digitally mediated, and our connection to nature is increasingly vague. The story we’re talking about today, Timston Johnson’s brilliant and disturbing “none of woman born” isn’t necessarily concerned about the pros and cons of technological interference in natural processes–at least not directly. Rather, the story seems most concerned with the question of authenticity in light of this synthetic culture we’ve developed over the years.
This story asks some big questions, such as what is life? what is a person? what is a mother? The answers are not easy, nor easily achieved, and the big philosophical inquiry of what makes human existence authentic–and what erodes this authenticity, and how–propels a decidedly weird narrative.
The premise is simple: Science has developed a synthetic womb, a device to foster a fetus’s development free of dependence on humans, on mothers. So when we begin the story, we are confronted with a pregnancy-machine, nothing more. But things go wrong: the babies come out mutilated, disturbed. This incubator, this mechanical surrogate, is clearly insufficient when it comes to the incredibly complex task of creating and sustaining life.
It’s an artificial womb, after all, and not, you know, a mother. The story progresses from here, with more and more effort put into creating an incubator/womb-thing that will develop a healthy baby. In a weirdly ironic and totally dark set of developments, the machine becomes more and more human. I’ll let you read the story to see just how far this synthetic-mother endeavor goes.
This piece has a fascinating structure: it has two arcs, two narrative sections. The first paragraph, which is a very successful story in its own right–in my opinion–follows the genesis and life of the very first human conceived and incubated through the prototype womb-bot (or whatever you want to call it). As I said, this paragraph would make a really great micro-fiction without a single change. But once that arc is resolved at the end of the paragraph, we move from the first man-made person’s narrative to the story of the baby-making machine, following it through its beta testing, working out the kinks, the various fucked-up fetuses that result from scientific progress, and so on. The first and second part are drawn together nicely (poor choice of words) at the end, with a particularly upsetting concluding sentence.
So the subject of authenticity becomes awfully murky in this story, and even more troubling as we approach the end. Some questions I thought of include, At what point does artificial humanity become, simply, humanity? (Certainly a common question in SF, but it’s given a different spin in this story.) Or, a rather paradoxical question: as scientific advancement leads to better and better emulations of natural things, does this bring us closer to our authentic, natural state–or farther away?
Something to ponder while you read this totally rad, totally messed-up piece.