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  • Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain by Angus McLaren
  • Fran Bigman
Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain. By Angus McLaren (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. viii plus 235 pp.).

In this engaging study, Angus McLaren illuminates a discourse in interwar Britain both fearful of and hopeful for a greater level of intervention into that most “natural” of processes: human reproduction. To make the case that “‘modern sexuality’ was not so much the brainchild of sensualists as the product of a line of eugenically inspired rationalists,” McLaren draws on both lesser and better-known fiction as well as work by biologists, sexologists, psychiatrists, and medical scientists to detail how wide-ranging discussions on robots, cars, hormones, test-tube babies, and even trees were underpinned by anxieties about the future of the British population on the part of pro-science optimists as well as conservative technophobes. Interwar Britain is often considered socially conservative, but this account convincingly argues that Britain had a rather modern discussion of sex in the 1920s and 1930s and illustrates how writers used the genre of futurology to license discussion on previously unspeakable issues of gender and sexuality.

McLaren invokes Brave New World (1932) throughout as a novel that raises many zeitgeisty questions: Should births be controlled, and if so, by whom? [End Page 812] Would women reject motherhood in the age of contraception, which rapidly went from condemned to somewhat acceptable over the 1920s? WWI and suffrage led to fears of promiscuous and overly powerful women; writers imaged scenarios in which men were superfluous, natural procreation was outlawed, and women were made bald by over-thinking. More optimistic writers such as geneticist JBS Haldane imagined a freer future in which sex had largely been separated from reproduction.

Cars also symbolized a new freedom—Huxley declared that speed “provides the one genuinely modern pleasure”—and provided proof of masculinity as well as semi-private space for couples. Men are likened to motorcars in Howard’s End (1910), The Waste Land (1922), and sex manuals that analogized contraception and steering. The British feared cars would blur gender and class boundaries, worrying chauffeurs would run off with their female charges (see Downton Abbey) and typing women drivers as lesbian. Eugenicists suggested that if one needed a license to drive, one should need a license to marry, while others fretted couples were choosing cars over children; physicist Charles Galton Darwin quipped, “the prospect of owning a motor-car is a sufficient bribe to sterilize most people.”

McLaren argues that eugenic anxiety also shaped the discourse around robots, which symbolized both docile workers and reckless reproducers. Devotees of Taylorism thought unthinking workers were best, while detractors of eugenics warned that controlled breeding would lead to robot-like, standardized men. This chapter is not as strong as others; the links between robot representation and eugenics seem weaker, and robot sexuality doesn’t appear to have been as British a concern.

Reproduction by Design picks up in the subsequent chapter on hormones, envisaged as a way to boost the reproduction of the deserving but less fertile and check that of the overbreeding poor. It gets even more interesting in a chapter on artificial insemination. McLaren entertainingly describes the history of AI, including a 1920 Canadian divorce trial in which an Englishwoman claimed to have been artificially inseminated in London with sperm not her husband’s to cure her gynecological problems. He details AI’s parallels with contraception; they shared supporters and divided medical opinion, with many specialists disdaining involvement until hightech means (the pill, IVF) replaced “lowly” methods (e.g. sponges and syringes). Male infertility was associated with VD and masturbation, making it an unpopular specialty, and AI stoked fears of emasculated men. Opponents worried that donors were perverts (one 1930s doctor secretly substituted his own sperm) and no normal woman would choose to have a child without knowing its father, while supporters cited eugenics, claiming AI could help war widows reproduce, seeing it not as a radical technology but one for shoring up the family.

McLaren closes with an account of eugenicists’ interest in environmentalism...


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pp. 812-814
Launched on MUSE
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