“Bedside Conversations”

And I return to one of my favorite authors, Brian Stableford.

There’s a lot of Stableford to review – and that’s just his fiction.

Stableford and Nancy Kress are the authors who have most prolifically and rigorously dealt with the implications of genetic enginnering, and Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution is his most extended treatment of the theme.

Since I had Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Sexual Chemistry on the shelf, I thought I’d start there. Several months later, the project hasn’t gotten any further since I haven’t gotten all the many books in that series.

Still, I’m starting. As usual, Stableford will get one post per story.

While the stories in Sexual Chemistry all deal with genetic engineering, only one is in the Tales of the Biotech Revolution series. It’s “And He Busy Not Being Born”, and I’ve already briefly posted about it, so I won’t be covering it again. Actually, it’s “The Growth of the House of Usher”, and I will be covering it.

Review: “Bedside Conversations“, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

In the collection’s “Introduction”, Stableford starts out by noting the two great revolutions in human history: agriculture and industrialization. The “biological machines” that genetic engineering uses promise any even greater transformation. The possibilities of such a technology could be “hazardous and disquieting”. Used well, Stableford contends it can bring “paradise on earth”. Used badly, it could be apocalyptic. 

Stableford acknowledges some of the stories in this collection are, indeed, apocalyptic. More are ambivalent about genetic engineering and don’t represent its potential without “unqualified enthusiasm”. That, says Stableford, is not personal pessimism on his part. All except one story in the collection were written in the wake of the futurology work he co-wrote with David Langford, The Third Millennium. But, to dramatize the more bizarre possibilities of genetic engineering, fiction must be used. 

Science fiction can more effectively and imaginatively dramatize than futurology the implications of genetic engineering. It can ask question its implications “in a particularly cunning and pointed fashion”. The genre can help us imagine the future of humanity and the lives of our children though it can’t predict the future. Prediction is beyond the genre.

Stableford says he didn’t deal with the most likely applications of genetic engineering in these stories. Rather most of the stories deal with the themes of sex and death since they are at the heart of so many of our desires and anxeties. The stories are caricatures because caricatures more readily carry “meaning and implication” than realistic portraits. Absurdity and “entertaining nonsense” can help us more clearly see real possibilities. Utopias are boring fiction. It is the dystopia and apocalyptic that inspire the imagination if only to steer clear of an imagined future. 

Stableford says he is an optimist about genetic engineering and that the final work in the book, “Mankind in the Third Millennium”, is a more balanced look at genetic engineering and a piece of futurology, not fiction.

And now on to the story, “Bedside Conversations”.

On one level, being a reactionary sort, I don’t much like this story because it seems, despite its publication date, so contemporary. But I’m not here to review the story’s politics, implied or otherwise. I want to look at its literary and scientific elements.

It’s 2003. Our hero is Mark Duncan, a homosexual man married to Gerald.

Mark has a very unusual problem. He’s sort of pregnant. No, this is not a tale of a “man”, by linguistic legerdemain, asserting “he”’s pregnant. Mark has a fetus in fetu. In his mother’s womb, identical twins were conceived, but his identical twin was engulfed by his embryo and absorbed into his body. Now, at age 31, he doesn’t have the cancer he suspected. His twin has started to grow again.

While I was unable to confirm on the Web of a Million Lies the specific details Stableford gives on the medical history of fetus in fetu (sometimes called a “parasitic twin” and, if calcified inside a body, a “stone twin”), I confirmed that the phenomena has been recognized since the early 19th centuries. I also trust Stableford when he gives me these sorts of factual claims.

After hearing Dr. McClelland give him the rundown on what’s inside him, Marks asks when the operation will occur.

Not so fast, says the doctor. The fetus inside Mark is the equivalent in development to a 24-week embryo. (Of course, literally, it’s much older.) Abortion is illegal past the 20-week mark.

The embryo can be removed and transplanted into a surrogate. Of course, with modern “tissue reconstruction”, Mark’s body could be modified, via “tissue reconstruction”, to carry his brother to term for an eventual caesarian delivery. The hospital’s Ethics Committee will have to get involved too since this is a precedent setting case. If Mark decides to carry his twin himself, he will be treated as a pregnant woman. Mark quips that he’s a pregnant woman who can’t get an abortion. You’re not the first, says McClelland.

The rest of the story is mostly Mark talking to various people to help him to decide what to do.

Gerald (they’ve been legally married two years, a couple for five) is not sympathetic to the idea of Mark carrying the embryo to term. To be fair, though Gerald is a jerk, how could he have reasonably foreseen a homosexual marriage with a newborn infant? Stableford sardonically notes that homosexual marriage for the couple has not been the “mortal and political victory” they hoped. “Like most marriages made on earth, theirs had fared no better than those supposedly made in Heaven.” 

Mark’s mother Leonie, whom he suspects has never forgiven her only son for being gay, wants, as expected, to carry the child. After all, she correctly argues, it’s her child. He argues that, at 57, she’s hardly in shape to carry a child. She retorts that she can get tissue reconstruction and that she already has all the necessary anatomy to carry a baby to term. She does make an emotional argument, but this seems a good retort to Mark stating that the matter is complicated medically. Her preferred option seems the least complicated.

Mark then talks to his co-worker and boss Mary mere hours before he has to inform McClelland of his decision. He’s found that his place among co-workers and with Gerald is a lot more complicated since he’s become freakishly pregnant instead of being a cancer victim.­ Mary retorts that this is 2003, “Everything’s curable these days.” Mark concedes that, on “strictly medical terms”, it would be easier to have the embryo transplanted. But he thinks that would be throwing the ”poor little proto-person into a bear pit”. Does he mean the dispute between the artificial womb and surrogate implantation lobbies, each looking to establish a legal precedent? No, replies Mark, he means his mother. 

Mary wishes Mark luck whatever he decides. Mark says it’s just a matter of “moral and medical reasoning”. And, with that, Mary wishes him luck again. 

(Spoilers ahead)

Stableford constructs his story to keep the climactic suspense until the last moment by having Mark insist on meeting McClelland first, then his mother, and then Gerald. 

We don’t explicitly hear what Mark has decided, but it’s hinted at when the doctor said he didn’t expect that decision which is more medically complicated. It will also displease his mother who may contest it in court. Mark is probably not going to avoid publicity. 

Leonie objects to Mark’s decision. She’s says it’s unnatural. He agrees it is, but it is doable. And then we get Stableford’s anti-romantic defense of technology. In the words of Mark:

. . . everything that enables us to be human and uncivilized is unnatural. [That seems an extreme statement unless you insist on the importance of “and” as a logical operator.] Wearing clothes is unnatural; speaking languages is unnatural; building houses and roads is unnatural; medicine is unnatural; in fact, every goddamned thing that makes life worth living is unnatural. 

It is only his condition and the fetus in fetu that are natural in this situation. 

Gerald is aghast, especially when Mark says he will be breast-feeding the child. Gerald says they’re finished. 

The story ends with Mark contemplating his impending labor and delivery. 

Stableford provides a hint that Mark’s reasoning, despite his claim, isn’t entirely rational: “It wasn’t simply that he had to become a mother in order to compete with his own mother.” 

He thinks he owes his twin brother every opportunity. The story ends on a wry note that rather undercuts the contention in the collection’s introduction that we can find our way through the perils of genetic engineering through reasoning: “The trouble with informed decisions . . . is that there’s too much bloody information by half.” 

The story ends sardonically by evoking cliches: he-ain’t-heavy, he’s-my-brother and a-man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do.”  Here, of course, they are ironical and paradoxical respectively.

The actual bioengineering here is summed up by the handwaving phrase “tissue reconstruction”. Other stories in the collection will be more specific on the scientific and technological details.

5 thoughts on ““Bedside Conversations”

  1. Bookstooge August 26, 2022 / 4:19 am

    Thanks for the review of this. Now I know to not touch Stableford with a 10ft pole. 🙂

  2. Carl Rosenberg August 26, 2022 / 4:08 pm

    Many thanks for this feature. I haven’t yet read much of Stableford’s fiction, although I like his book on scientific romance in Britain, and also his anthology of scientific romance published a few years ago.

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