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babies in world-building

One world building error that I find as often in SF as in fantasy:  many, many, many writers neglect to figure out Where Babies Come From and Why It Matters.

Now, in fantasy you can with suitable application of magic get yourself out of the situation where sky-high infant mortality and short life-expectancy.  This, however, merely gets you into the situation you often find in SF.  You still need the 2.1 children per couple to keep up with replacement rate.

Some writers weasel out of it with immortality.  And I do mean weasel out of it.  Though there are other reasons for immortality in fiction -- some aesthetically sound, others not -- I have read works in which it was blatantly obvious that the reason people were immortal was to justify draconian population control measures.  SF writers boasted of having foreseen the population crisis decades before it was taken seriously outside SF; SF writers not only did not foresee demographic collapse, they are not writing about it even now that it is not only taken seriously outside SF but actually occurring.

Indeed, some of them have population control measures in societies that would be suffering demographic collapse even without such measures.  Beta Colony, for instance, tracks most closely to a Western Europe welfare state minus the lumpenproletariat, which means it would, logically, have a sub-replacement birthrate.  Yet it forces people to attend classes to be licensed to have a child, and then you have to pay to have a second, and still more to have a third -- all of which, naturally, would depress the rate still farther.  This would only work if people have an obsessive desire to have babies.  Yet no one evinces such obsessive desire.  Cordelia's reflections on the possibility of having a child are not very certain about it, and she doesn't reflect that she's odd, that most other people structure their lives about the possibility.

And most people would structure their lives about it if desperately wanting to have babies was the condition of reproduction, and within very few generations.  Philoprogentiveness would be selected for, whether it was a genetic or cultural factor.  And selected for rather in the manner that hunger is selected for. When children can be accidents, sex drive will cope with a lack of desire for them, but when they have to be planned, it can't do it alone.  (Which will not be all good for children.  Battered children are more likely to be planned than non-battered children.  They have the kid to fulfill their desires, and if the kid doesn't fulfill them -- whap.)

This is why contraception does not completely change women's relationship to childbearing.  The children still have to be born, or society will collapse within -- well, within a lifetime.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.

To completely change it, you would have to have artificial conception and incubation and mandatory sterilization of everyone -- probably with mandatory abortions for the accidents.  And then there is the little question of how the children get raised. . . .

Update: I am now screening comments to this to prevent its going off on tangents.  Even non-tangential things will get unscreened as I have time to deal with them.


( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
By society? Whenever have new mothers and children been supported by "society"? Even in a welfare state, they get supported by the state, and that gets Very Ugly Indeed -- the children of widowed mothers do better, statistically, than those of never-married mothers.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)
Nah, that's support by their extended families.
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:54 am (UTC)
The problem with not making that distinction is that some writers talk as if Society could do all the drudge work of supporting and raising children safely in the background without real people doing real work.

This tends to lead to faulty world-building.
Jul. 12th, 2010 06:46 am (UTC)
Beta Quibble:
Beta Colony relies on select and draconian immigration laws that allow it to cull the cream of what appear to be an unending supply of people who want to be Betan citizens.

Add that to the uterine replicator, effective psychological control ala Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality and an active lifespan double that which modern Westerners enjoy now and nearly all Beta's children are, effectively, raised by their doting grandparents - the bare minimum needed to fill the gaps left by the immigration policy.

Beta Colony works because the tech is there and the ruthless techno-socialist despotism is there. What interests me is not so much any serious gap in world building (it's not) but that very few people consider Beta Colony a dystopia...
Jul. 12th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
I don't think that actually contradicts anything in the books but it's not sufficiently supported by them.
Jul. 15th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
Well, no: Cordelia's scenes w/Mehta in the first book, Bel's commentary (as a herm!) that Beta Colony is not terribly friendly to people who won't fit into the tidy little boxes, Mark's demonstrations throughout the books of Beta's without-peer psycho-wossname abilities.. if you take any one book, no, you won't get: hey! here's a socialalist/SoCal Instrumentality. But taken as a whole, it's there. The immigration policy is specifically addressed by (if I'm remembering the name right) Enrique (the fellow who ends up with Marta Koudelka). He doesn't put it in so many words: Beta Colony doesn't need kids! It can get all the fresh blood it wants because the Enrique's of the Nexus are all panting for the opportunity to emigrate there. But he does impart the info.

Sorry my friend--I've probably re-read the series too often--I'll grant you your point on any individual title. But Ms. Bujold has stated that the Nexus books are meant to work on two levels: to contain enough "fun" and info to enjoy each individual story on it's own, but to also exist as a self-contained whole which will be greater than the sum of its parts.
Jul. 15th, 2010 02:37 am (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
Except that Cordelia's thoughts about having a kid at Beta Colony are not compatible with that scenario.
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
"Except that Cordelia's thoughts about having a kid at Beta Colony are not compatible with that scenario"

Sorry - I don't follow: which thoughts?
Jul. 23rd, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
In Shards of Honor when she's contemplating her possible maternity and the children of her friends and family.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 03:14 am (UTC)
Re: Beta Quibble:
While I think you're right about the immigration, what I remember from Enrique is that no/hard any non-Betans would qualify for the Betan Astronomical Survey if it weren't for affirmative action programs. This in the context of his being really impressed by Cordelia. Beta doesn't need to import any smart people, it produces plenty of its own, but they apparently cultivate foreign diversity anyway -- in the thing that's their closest to a military.

Uterine replicators are only 200 years old in the universe, and it's about 3000 AD, so we've got 600-800 years of colonization to explain without it. OTOH France and the Nordic countries are having upticks in birthrates, and among the highest in Europe, so enough social democracy may in fact be what you need. But yeah, to get colonial-high birth rates we need somewhat different culture or circumstances than simple extrapolation makes likely.

Bujold's also said that she does worldbuilding on an as-needed-for-story basis, and that she reserves the right to Have A Better Idea. I haven't seen her say what you attribute to her, that sounds more like Babylon-5.
Aug. 2nd, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
the children of widowed mothers do better, statistically, than those of never-married mothers.

I've read that that difference is entirely explained, statistically, by the economic difference. Widows tend to be better off than single or divorced mothers.

But your general point is a good one. Clarke's _Imperial Earth_ did have a peaceful demographic decline, though. Of course, it had various colonies at the same time. o_O
Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
I have not read that.

And I seriously doubt that even if it is, the economic status is a coincidence.
Jul. 8th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
A few SF writers did have demographic collapse in their fiction, though usually for outside reasons, rather than the ones we're really seeing -- Philip K. Dick in The Gameplayers of Titan, for example, where there's been a precipitous drop in human fertility.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids -- okay, it's a post-holocaust setting, but population is still dropping because of anti-mutant hysteria.

World Without Women, by Day Keene and Leonard Pruyn -- a plague wipes out virtually all women and sterilizes most of the survivors.

I'm sure there have been others. Possibly including Five to Twelve, by Edmund Cooper, but the world-building and genetics and other science in that are so vague and so screamingly nonsensical that it's hard to be sure.

I acknowledge, though, that they all required some outside agency, not just wealth and readily-available contraception.

Jul. 8th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
Well, if it's an outside agency, you can just remove it and go on. Without that, you have to consider how a society would ensure replacement rate fertility. Given some of the tactics SF has proposed to deal with overpopulation -- I suspect they may just not like babies.
Aug. 10th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
There's a Tanith Lee short story where people forget how to have sex.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 9th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
Actually there were two reliable forms of contraception:

1. Don't have sexual intercourse.
2. Have the woman be already pregnant.

The second one was, in various times, cited as a way a woman could be unfaithful and still ensure that her children were all her husband's. But not exactly preventing children as such.
Aug. 2nd, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
SF writers boasted of having foreseen the population crisis decades before it was taken seriously outside SF; SF writers not only did not foresee demographic collapse, they are not writing about it even now that it is not only taken seriously outside SF but actually occurring.

Well, the SF writers who use Eurabia as part of their settings have some inkling of this issue, although mostly to facilitate being scared of Muslims. and immigrants. And brown people.

Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
Which writers are these? I haven't read much near future SF.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
This knowledge will make your life worse but I can proceed if you want me to.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 04:00 am (UTC)
I don't have to read their books.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 04:47 am (UTC)
John Ringo has demographic decline in general as a background detail in his Council Wars series (a high tech fantasy land MilSF series).

Tom Kratman has Eurabia as part of the background to Caliphate

As I recall, Eurabia also turns up in Dan Simmons' Olympos pair, in which we learn that in the past, the cowardly French paid off the scary scary numerous Muslims with weapons of global destruction (That series also has humans or near-humans reduced to about 300,000 people).

Also from Simmons, there's this.

Edited at 2010-08-03 05:04 am (UTC)
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
So some are.

But consider Japan, also facing serious demographic collapse.

and, of course, writers can always do with it what they did with overpopulation to make it more dramatic: exaggerate, exaggerate.
Aug. 2nd, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
Battered children are more likely to be planned than non-battered children.


The thing that gets to me is cyberpunk-- there doesn't seem to be enough safety to take care of infants or small children, and no one seems to notice it as a problem.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Professor Edward Lenoski (at the University of Southern California) studied abused children compared to a control group.

The percentages that were planned: 91% vs. compared to 63%.

Also, the battered children's mothers went into maternity clothes months earlier than the control group's.

Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:30 am (UTC)
On cyberpunk -- people have raised children in horrific dangerous situations throughout history. Is it worse than a city where the Black Death might strike again at any time? Or Vikings sail up the bay?
Aug. 3rd, 2010 07:38 am (UTC)
Re: Safety
In bad historical periods, the worst danger is intermittent. In cyberpunk, it seems as though the danger never lets up. Can you think of anything about raising babies or toddlers in cyberpunk?
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:13 am (UTC)
Re: Safety
It's certainly no more dangerous than a world where your child can come down with a fatal disease at any time, or any scratch can be lethal.
Aug. 10th, 2010 02:48 am (UTC)
Re: Safety
The Diamond Age
Aug. 3rd, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
The human population in Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō is declining and although there are hints of a disaster in the past, there doesn't seem to be any reason in the story's present that the humans could not maintain or increase their numbers.
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:13 am (UTC)
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
Yes, it is a wonderful example of an author who has freed themselves from the pernicious desire to have anything much happen in their story. There's a shopping trip and lots and lots of beautiful scenery.

Edited at 2010-08-05 03:58 am (UTC)
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
As long as it's beautiful enough.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
SF writers not only did not foresee demographic collapse, they are not writing about it even now that it is not only taken seriously outside SF but actually occurring

I partly disagree -- quite a few SF writers take "people want to have few to no children" for granted, but societies described invariably also have very long lifespans, so little or no demographic collapse occurs. Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and of course Larry Niven come to mind. I am not aware of any book besides "Saturn's Children" where demographic collapse is taken to its ultimate conclusion.
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
Like I said, "Some writers weasel out of it with immortality"
Aug. 4th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
Hi! I found this post via james_nicoll.

About Beta Colony's demographics, it's worth noting that the technology available to the Betans allows for significantly altered reproductive patterns. As Cordelia mentions after the soltoxin assassination attempt, the Betans would need only a acraping of cells to create perfectly viable sex cells, the uterine replicators providing after that better-than-natural environments for the young. These innovations, along with the vastly extended active lifespans of Betans--Kareen Koudelka thinks her 50-something parents look like Betans in their 70s--and you've got a vastly extended time period for biological parenthood, perhaps almost twice as long as the 15-45 window common in most developed countries with early 21st century reproductive technologies.

Too, Betans' gender equality will work to the society's favour. As mindstalk noted, the European societies with the highest fertility rates are France and the Nordics, places that have engineered their economies so as to let women be economically active and mothers at once. Combine this with the extended window for biological reproduction, and you've got ample space for a growing population.
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
"Highest" != "replacement."

And those techniques will also ensure that people put off having children because they think they can always do it, until they realize it's Too Late.
Aug. 5th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
If you look at the current Quaddie numbers given in Diplomatic Immunity, it seems implied to me that the Quaddies have somehow managed a pretty impressive population growth rate. There were a thousand or so Quaddies in Falling Free but 240 years later there are a million or more of them. That's 3% growth a year ever year for a quarter of a millennium, all while making habitats out of dead rock.
Aug. 5th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
Possible. They seemed, in Falling Free to have been genetically engineered with a high degree of philoprogentiveness.
( 40 comments — Leave a comment )


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